Saturday, August 22, 2015

[Re-read] Brienne I, "Of Mad Mice and Cardboard Men"

Why haven't I been hired to do Martin's covers yet??
It's been a really long time since I last dipped my nose into the combined re-read of A Feast of Crows and A Dance with Dragons, which I have elected to call A Feast with Dragons, for simplicity's sake. Partially due to other commitments, partially due to me losing a little interest - an interest that I suspect won't flare up again until the actual imminent release of The Winds of Winter. I also believe the lackluster fifth season of Game of Thrones somewhat diminished my otherwise passionate obsession over Martin's work. And yet, at least for the first three books, it remains my favorite work of fiction. I've also decided to stop following news on the sixth season of Game of Thrones, to try and keep the experience of reading book six as pure as possible. I felt that season five already spoiled more than enough for me.

I do admit, however, that re-reading books four and five (so far) is proving to be a better experience than I expected. I was confused about Feast during the first read, at times feeling that I was reading someone else's work (and I still have my suspicions), and Dance I disliked outright. But years of reading fan theories and analyses of the text has shown me that there's more to these books than what I caught at first read, thus the enhanced experience now. Martin sure slips a lot of detail and between-the-lines stuff in his last two books, and he's still a master at juggling a cast of thousands and all just seems that the editor has less of a say in the matter now that Martin is a superstar (kind of).

ANYway, it's time for A Feast with Dragons, the eighth chapter in the re-read, which is Brienne I, from A Feast for Crows. Join me in a trip ten years back in time, when the world eagerly accepted the fourth book, finally getting to read the continuing adventures of...Brienne?!

My favorite depiction of Brienne of Tarth.
I guess there's no point reiterating the controversy around Brienne of Tarth's story in A Feast for Crows. For ten years we've had arguments from both sides of the fence. Brienne's story is going nowhere, Brienne's story is boring, what's the point when she's looking for Sansa in all the wrong places are some of the comments uttered by Brienne's detractors. Rushing to her defense, other fans said (and still say) This is a setup for the rest of the story, you just wait and see and it will all come together, Brienne's story is a commentary on the effects of war, it's not about the destination but the journey. 
To be honest I didn't find Brienne's chapters the most offending thing about A Feast for Crows. Yeah, I agree her chapters are a little boring and yes I agree Martin gets across his themes of war and detriment, so I'm kind of on both sides of the fence. I can't say her chapters are particularly memorable or that I feel they are necessary. If the whole point of her plot was to meet up with Lady Stoneheart, I don't see why Martin needed so many chapters. I do like her journey in the sense that we get to see new places and meet new faces - I've always liked the journeys and quests of the genre - but there is no sense of urgency, and as she encounters more and more characters we've met before, it all becomes a little contrived and the world of Westeros feels as if it is shrinking as opposed to expanding (so the 'bloat' of books four and five isn't present in the Brienne chapters as much). Anyway, let's crack this imaginary combined book open with a crowbar and get to it. "Get to it," incidentally, is what I suspect I'll be shouting at Brienne a few times during this re-read.

So this chapter opens with the line, "I am looking for a maid of three-and-ten," which Brienne tells a goodwife beside a village well. After three books were nearly each chapter opens with a line that is intriguing, mysterious, macabre, or otherwise catches the reader's attention, Martin opts to go for this totally dry opening - one of the many details that make this fourth book in the series different from what came before - and not in a good way. Instead of the dark drama so often portrayed early in a chapter's opening to give it an immediate tension, this chapter feels as if Martin wrote it half-asleep. It's just packing the punch of the first three. "You have to slow down and pick up the pieces that are left after the War of the Five Kings," is an argument I've heard in one form or another to defend the lack of dynamics in Brienne's chapters (exemplified by this chapter's opening line). I'm not so sure. Martin could have written a better draw here, if only it was that the goodwife was stooped over a grave she was digging for her husband - that would a) immediately set the theme of Brienne's chapters (if the theme is indeed the aftermath of war) and b) it would better fit with the overall tone of the series. Oh, and it would also subtly foreshadow meeting a gravedigger much later in the story. What happened that Martin didn't conceive of something along these lines?
Brienne goes on to describe Sansa Stark, but the woman hasn't seen her. And that's it. The encounter is over, and we skip right to the next one, a blacksmith, then a septon, a swineherd, a girl pulling onions...can't say I'm feeling it. It's lean, because the real point of course is to explain that Brienne is searching for Sansa. She's in Rosby, by the way. She tells herself that it is the shortest way to Duskendale, which is rather clunky exposition. Again, a Martin in his prime (see: A Storm of Swords) wouldn't put this detail in her thoughts, she would ask the goodwife or the smith where she was so that we came to the knowledge ("this is the shortest way to Duskendale") more naturally. Seriously, I don't understand how people don't see this massive change in Martin's writing. From mastering the art in A Storm of Swords (with a few warts here and there but really for the most just sublime) to the clunky, tell-not-show stuff in A Feast for Crows.

She glimpses a skinny boy at the far end of the village. She decides to meet up with him in case he knows where Sansa is, but he disappears. This is setup for her encounter with the boy later, who of course turns out to be Podrick Payne (that's one character I think Game of Thrones improved from the books). Rosby yielding no information, Brienne heads north and east "past apple orchards and fields of barley" (again, it sounds like a place of peace and plenty, and not a region suffering the aftermath of war). Then we get a paragraph where we return to Brienne promising Jaime to find her. I understand the need to repeat some of the information, as five full years had passed since the previous book was published.

A long sequence follows in which Brienne mulls over the possibilities as to where Sansa could have gone. She is actually travelling on a hunch - believing that Sansa has fled King's Landing, but not actually knowing if this is true. Kind of a weak setup. We learn that her mare is sweet to look upon, what kind of travelers walk the roads she's on (interestingly, perhaps, Martin makes mention of several kinds of religious people - begging brothers, silent sisters, a septon - setting up the rise of the Faith in this book). It feels as if Martin is really struggling with the text. This chapter feels like "filler" material, where he adds a lot of stuff about nothing to pad out the chapter to a decent length: Yes, it gives us a more in-depth look at the setting ("A train of oxcarts lumbered south with grains of sack and wool") but none of it matters to Brienne's story. It feels like I'm reading a world book or an RPG setting book more than a narrative that is meant to keep me entranced. And again, so far, it really doesn't feel like an "aftermath"; galloping palfreys as fine as any lord's, wagons full of goods, yadayadayada. Everything seems as fine as it was before summer's end.

However, there's a hint of autumn when Martin spends a paragraph describing, well, the trees changing their color ("...the broadleaf trees had donned mantels of russet and gold, or else uncloaked themselves to scratch against the sky...yadayadyadyada") Evocative? Yes. Serving the plot? I guess so. It is imperative that we sense the changing of the seasons, of course. I'd keep this part in. And then we get more thinking. Brienne wondering if Jaime had set her up. Brienne reminding herself of her vow to Lady Catelyn Stark. I have to admit for all my negative feelings about this chapter right now, that Martin puts in one superb bit of foreshadowing which doubles as dramatic irony as well - Brienne telling herself that no vow is "as solemn as one sworn to the dead." This will come back to bite her in the ass when 'the dead' and the person she swore her vow to turns out to be, well, the same thing. In a roundabout way.

I could not resist...the Dark Side...mad props to the photoshopper

Near dusk she notices a campfire by a brook. Two men are grilling trout (despite the horrors of war, then, there's still food). One is old, one is younger. One looks like this, the other like that. She joins the two fellows. We are reminded that Brienne is huge for a woman. A freak. She's also ugly because freckles. She repeats her questions (here we go with the repeats). They don't know anything. That isn't exciting, not the first time, not the second time. She is suspicious. They are suspicious. They introduce themselves - Ser Creighton Longbough and Ser Illifer the Penniless. Possibly because we'll meet them again. She decides not to fear these guys - they are mere hedge knights, and she is probably stronger and more skilled at arms. They eat. They tell her they are going to Duskendale. Ah, there is a point to this meeting! Maybe they'll join up and the two hedge knights turn out to be great new and interesting characters. She declines. Some awkwardness about them having to protect her because she's a woman. The knights point out that her shield shows the device of the black bat of House Lothston which she shouldn't be showing in public because the Lothstons were bad people. This, of course, is for Martin to have a reason for Brienne to wish to repaint the shield and thus link the story with his The Hedge Knight prequels. The two knights realize who she is, blaming her for assassinating Renly Baratheon. Oooh are we getting a fight? Some memories of Renly surface. Mostly to serve readers who had forgotten the story years ago.

She swears by the Seven that she did not kill Renly. She swears so well they decide to believe her. Oy, no fight, then. Aw. She takes the watch, but is relieved but doesn't want to sleep. However, she falls asleep. I believe I'm reading a foreshadowing of Brienne's death here, which I don't think I've noticed before. Close your eyes and, uhm, pretend you're not reading the next revealing line (speculation of course):
The cold in the earth seeped through Brienne's blankets to soak her bones.
Of course, this being George, nothing is set in stone. He might have added it just in case. It can just as well foreshadow her eventual trek to the North (cold) and perhaps she'll even go to the Iron Islands for all I know (soak) - if season five of Game of Thrones is actually spoiling Brienne's journey in the books. Maybe she'll die in the North, maybe she'll drown...anything is possible when mysterious could-be-foreshadowings show up but we don't know how it all will end. It's a typical Martin foreshadowing, though, that sentence, eh?

Oh no, more thoughts. Brienne thinks about Sansa (in case you've zoned out, this is while Brienne is trying not to sleep). In one thought she effectively summarizes the character of Sansa - it's all about lemoncakes, silken gowns, and songs of chivalry, with a dash of loneliness and fear. Nothing new here, move on.

The next morning, Brienne and her belongings are fortunately unmolested, because for some reason the world is a nice place to be whereas in the previous book she encountered something vile and wicked around every corner. Let's see, she had to jump off a cliff, she had to fend off some guys who wanted the ransom of Ser Jaime Lannister (or was that just in the show, dammit brain work), she was thrown in a bear pit, there was attempted rape, forced to watch her companion get his hand cut off, and forced to live in the stink of said hand dangling from her companion's neck, she was scorned and ridiculed all the time. And now she just saunters through the countryside meeting friendly knights and not a description of famine, burned down buildings, or you know, whatever. Darkness and doom. Where's the feast for crows?

Ser Illifer is cutting up a squirrel for breakfast (always a vivid image), and Ser Creighton is taking a piss. As much as I think there's something wrong with this chapter in the sense that everything seems too rosy, it is nice to see Brienne happy that there are some decent men about who would let her sleep by their side without expecting any..compensation. Cheered, she tears into wait-for-it acorn paste? Is that even a thing? With pickles? Yawgods. Brienne wonders if a maid of three-and-ten passed by during the night, but alas. Alas! Not only is this not very riveting, I haven't even bothered to mention that the reader already knows where Sansa is holed up. Cue hair-tearing. Still, despite my negativity - make no mistake, I do not mind seeing the sights of Westeros. It's just that I like sight-seeing better when it is accompanied by something resembling a plot.

The tale told here does remind me quite a bit of Ser Duncan the Tall, which of course might be intentional (she's related to him, as we'll find out), not the story line but the kind of characters she encounters (well, duh, hedge knights) and it kind of shares a similar mood, what with Ser Creighton being a bit of a boaster, more of a caricature than the usually more complex characters (I almost wrote NPCs).

A group of begging brothers appear, followed by men, women and children (collectively known as people). 'Poor fellows', a guy bearing an axe identifies the group as. It's like Martin suddenly decided that, "Hey, I've been emulating the Middle Ages but now I have read some books on religion in medieval history and I have to put that in because it's cool". It's the nature of the beast, I guess, that as the canvas gets larger, he wants to put in more and more. I like the realistic feel, but narrative-wise I feel it comes a bit out of left field. They are bringing a wagon, containing holy bones, to the city. Straight outta Catholicism with the holy bones and all that. "Join us, friends," urged a spare small man in a threadbare septon's robe, who wore a crystal on a thong about his neck. Clumsy description showing that something went awry between books, or not? I can't decide. I do think it's funny this group is bringing a spare small man, though. In case the other small man breaks.

Ah, and here the reason they call themselves Sparrows (that's three names for a group introduced 3000 pages into the story - begging brothers, Poor Fellows, Sparrows) - the sparrow is "the humblest and most common of birds", and so are these people. Apparently. Wait, is this the guy who becomes the new septon in King's Landing? I've forgotten. I guess he is. Unlike the TV show, this version (if it's the same character) has a beard and thin hair in a knot though. I do admit that it makes sense to introduce the Sparrows here - it is a reaction to the actions we've witnessed in the previous books, a twist that is realistic. The high lords have ruined the lands, now the faithful gather to strike back and make the world right. And it gives Martin another theme to explore - the effects of religion for good and mostly for ill.

Brienne asks for a maid of you-know-the-drill, and this time she also learns nothing new of Sansa's whereabouts! A stunning turn of events. More flashbacks to remind the reader of what happened in A Storm of Swords. Brienne leaves, and the two knights follow her. Right now would be the perfect time for some drama.

Three hours later they come upon another party. The roads are pretty crowded, for a land so in turmoil and full of danger. A merchant and his servants, with a wagon. Bet it's full of stuff people would kill for. He has a bodyguard, Ser Shadrich. He's mentioned by name immediately, so it is kind of obvious this is a character whose name we should remember for later. Ser Creighton seems to think the whole world knows who he is (and no one knows) but for some reason it doesn't come off as funny. Perhaps because we don't know the character well enough? He's just...there. You can guess what Brienne asks the merchant, and bonus points if you can guess the answer. We get a description of Ser Shadrich (that's another hint) and then Martin flat out tells us he is fox-faced. This is a sneaky guy, y'all. Beware. Brienne, the two hedge knights, the merchant, and Ser Shadrich (oh, and the servants) decide to band together for mutual protection and travel together toward Duskendale. Ser Shadrich looks Brienne up and down. She gets the wrong impression, thinking that he's looking at her as a piece of meat. He's of course studying her because he is looking for someone that matches her description. That's how I read it, anyway.

Can we get something cool now? Man, I was pretty spoiled with those three first books by Martin. It never crossed my mind, not a second, that A Feast for Crows could turn out to be a disappointment. Seriously, I was so psyched for this book. After the childhood-destroying folly of the Star Wars prequels I had found a George that was so awesome, he couldn't go wrong. Ser Shadrich is a pretty rude fellow, and comes from a place called Shady Glen (is that on any map?), and some men call him the Mad Mouse. Even the nicknames are diminished. And then he reveals that he is looking for Sansa as well. While I'm not stunned at the revelation, at least it provides something to ponder. At first I thought this was the clincher line that ends the chapter - Martin often has a clincher line saved for the last line, revealing something, or giving us a mean cliffhanger, but here, the story just plods on.

Brienne pretends not to know Sansa's name and asks why Ser Shadrich seeks her. He says "for love of gold". He sounds like a bounty hunter more than a knight, a mercenary probably. Like many other characters and places in this book, he just comes in a bit from the left side of the field, no? If there had been a scene in Storm where we saw Varys promise him a bag of gold for Sansa, it would be more interesting perhaps. There's no buildup to this, it's just a random encounter that turns out to not be so random after all. It feels so...dictated. It's not as organically developed; when characters came onscreen in the previous three books, Martin had planted a seed long before. While it's perfectly valid that more people are out and about looking for Sansa...I don't know, it doesn't come off as true, it's not as believable in a way. Feel free to disagree of course!

Yadayadayada, Ser Shadrich (is the "rich" intentional?) reveals that he knows about Ser Dontos, too. Please, end this chapter. Gods, there's more (I flipped the page).

Night gathers, and they come to the inn of the Old Stone Bridge. Ser Creighton claims to know the innkeeper, but Ser Illifer says they don't have the coin to pay for food or shelter, and so Brienne offers to pay for all three of them. She's loaded with money, thanks to Ser Jaime. Yadayada. A stable boy calls her "Ser" and she reminds him she's no knight (Martin is pounding us over the head with this one - the only true knight in the realm is no knight we get it thank you). We learn many interesting things: sawdust covers the floor of the common room, the air smells of hops and and smoke and mead, and it's all very nice but nothing is happening really. It's like a scene from a bad tabletop roleplaying game, "So you all arrive in the tavern, and there's sawdust on the floor. What do you do?" "Uhm, I buy an ale?" "Cool. It's not very tasty because I'm the Gamemaster and I like to make your lives as miserable as possible. By the way, did you remember to make sure to tether your horses (cackle)?" "Yes, you just told us about the stable boy dammit." "Oh, that's right. Anyway, the tavern is a dingy place, but there's a fire in the hearth and...."
I half expected a wizard to show up with a quest. That would be...awesome? At least more interesting than a quest with no purpose.

Gods old and new, I'm critical now, am I right? Sorry. Kind of in a bad mood. But also: Honestly, this chapter is quite boring. And predictable. When the innkeep says Ser Whatshisname Pissesonatree owes him money, did your eyes go wide with super-amazement?

It goes on. Prolonging a tavern encounter is bad form in RPGs, and its bad form in a story, when said encounter doesn't add anything to the plot. That's my opinion, anyway. Do we really need to know what food and drink they order? It really really feels like an RPG scene. There's even the mandatory "listen-to-rumors" bit, topped with the "hearing-rumors-of-something-the-characters-know-about-which-have-been-exaggerated-oh-look-at-me-I'm-a-clever-Gamemaster" routine. Brienne can't resist answering the rumor that Jaime got his hand torn off by a direwolf, and by possessing this knowledge, Ser Shadrich knows he's on to the right woman. PRE-dictable. Ser Shadrich toasting to the reveal is the icing on the cake. People, I am sorry if you enjoy Feast but this is shoddy writing from the man who gave us A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Mamajumping Swords.

I just want this chapter to end. Come on, come on. I know you are going to steal away in the hour of the wolf (or whenever!). Get on with it!

Oh, more remembering. Gah. Gaaah! Have mercy.

There is. So much. Paaadding. Bla bla bla. Thoughts of this and thoughts of that. Why bother describing where Brienne keeps her swords while sleeping when she doesn't have to use them? And then the clincher of all clinchers to finally, finally, relieve me of the suffering. Really, this is how the chapter ends: She gets out of the inn and rides off into the darkness, thinking that she's coming for Sansa.

Now I'm sitting here with that feeling again, that feeling that I first had when I read A Feast for Crows ten fricking years ago - the feeling that this wasn't written, or not entirely written, by George R.R. Martin; or, they rushed the book to completion, and/or the editor had little say. The splendor, the drama, the everything from the previous three books just vaporized before my eyes (again). I can't help it, but this just isn't quality material. The chapter should have been at least half as long as it actually is, for one. All this plodding could have been condensed into a single sentence: "Brienne had traveled the road to Duskendale for longer than she cared to admit. On her way, she had encountered a fricking HUGE variety of people and they all said "Sorry, no." Just before the Old Stone Bridge inn she met this guy Mickey Mouse and he was sly and stuff. She rode off into the night, her will to find Sansa strengthened by all the no's she had gotten. Next: Blood, guts, swords, intrigue, steel, doom, panic, valor, deception." 

And that's it for me tonight. I'm glad I know there are better chapters to come. I admit the book is a bit harder to read when I'm actively writing a post alongside reading it, and that it probably flows better if I read it uninterrupted, but then I lose the thoughts that might occur while reading. Maybe I'll try "read then write" next time.

Anyhoo, have a brilliant weekend. Winter is coming.
depends on
and stuff like that of course. Seasons all out of balance.
Time for a cold one.

1 comment:

  1. I remember my first time through the books - around 2008. I hadn't discovered the rich trove of form material that was out there at the time, and incredibly more so now. About 1/2 (or less) way through AFFC, it was clear that the level of storytelling had fallen drastically from the first three. But at the time me it was (and remains) head and shoulders above nearly all other Epic fantasy with just a few notable exceptions. I made a decision just to enjoy the ride through Westeros, and Cersei's mind, and Arya's arc which remained compelling to me in AFFC and through ADWD - and at the level of the previous books (perhaps he had written or at least mentally developed her arc early in the process.) The success of the first 3 books probably relaxed the editorial oversight that the publisher required, and hence the flabby story telling in many instances, mixed in with the odd stellar POV.

    And to the present... GRRM continues to expend real creative energy on bullshit (puppy gate?), and seemingly increasing as we get further from ADWD. It's as if he reacts to the increasing pressure by distracting himself in some "justifiable way". Recalling in particular the volumes of well thought out drivel on "fan fiction", the NFL, and of course Wildcards as the release of ADWD drifted out. The substantive difference in this long wait is we get fewer updates on what is really happening, but all the same clues that WOW will be of mixed quality, and not coming out any time soon.

    But I'm so thankful he's given us the great world to experience.