Thursday, January 21, 2016

[Re-read] Bran I, or "Return of the Cannibal Slaver"

With 28 books in my currently-reading pile, stories to write and games to play, it's become more and more difficult to muster the energy to read A Feast with Dragons. I ask myself, why am I doing this? Then I remind myself, that the goal of this project is to see if I can find a new appreciation for the fourth and fifth volumes of Martin's saga; could I have overlooked something when I read these books upon release, something elusive that, if I'm able to just see it, will make me go "Wait a minute! This stuff is actually brilliant!" So far, no luck. 

Still, I'm in the early chapters, with a lot of reminders of what has happened earlier in the story, a lot of slow building, and I did enjoy a few chapters more than I did the first time around. To read my thoughts on the chapters I've read so far, check out the links available somewhere on this page.

I am still planning to renovate this blog, but it's on the backburner; everything seems to be on the backburner these days, and I blame it on two video games that have eaten a lot of my time over the last months: Star Wars Battlefront, which is indeed not a very good game unless you love pretending to be a Stormtrooper (and of course, I love that), and The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, which is just amazeballs and most definitely a game that dips its toes in George RR Martin's style of fantasy. At times, you'd be forgiven to think you're actually in the Riverlands. Except that it for some reason must needs have dwarves and elves. After a solid opening (the whole introduction to the story is so good I've watched it a few times over) you go about business in a Westeros-like world, and then suddenly you meet a dwarf. Who is a smith. And who has a Scottish dialect. Completely took me out the experience, so I've learned to avoid dwarves. Anyway, if you like grimdark, you'll like The Witcher III, despite the occasional dwarf. Well, more on Geralt of Rivia later. It's time to dive back into the re-read of books four and five - A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons - combined into A Feast with Dragons, using the All Leather Must Be Boiled proposed reading order. 

Here are links to the chapters I've already read (I'm going to read them myself to get back into the "zone"):

Wow, it took me a year to post about nine chapters. Admittedly I've been busier than ever, but says something about the appeal of these two last books right there. It also means that today's chapter, X, is the first Bran chapter from A Dance with Dragons. If I recall correctly he has only three chapters total in this insanely long list of chapters, so they better be filled with plot-propelling action and drama and whoa! moments. Let's check it out. I do realize I have to do something about this re-read, though. Unless I want to finish this project in 2026 (would dovetail nicely with A Dream of Spring though). 

I don't really remember what I felt about Bran's storyline before Dance was finally, eventually, published. I had an inkling of where the plot was going ("Bran's going to become a wizard"), and I always felt (and probably commented) that his story was, perhaps, the one most closely resembling the classic "hero's journey" myth, in tone and style closer to Tolkien's Middle-earth, yet at the same time still having one foot in Martin's more cynical style, what with the protagonist being crippled. It is also the storyline that feels more vague than the others, perhaps because its structure isn't as complex and satisfying. What I mean by this is that Bran's whole story is basically "a three eyed crow wants him to come north, so off he goes", with a few helpers along the way, who mostly are forced to be a bit vague and mysterious about things, whereas the political stories are full of consequences that can be traced back to earlier events, and which include shocks and twists to keep it all fresh and interesting. Also, Bran's story was decidedly slower, to the point that even a rollercoaster ride like A Storm of Swords came to a screeching halt when you flipped the page and saw "Bran" heading the next chapter. With only three chapters out of 110 here, it becomes all the more important that these chapters are potent - that they drive Bran's story forward, that there is no time to stop and ponder the hues of leaves along the way....

...yet in the first paragraph we encounter groves of ancient oaks, towering grey-green sentinels, gloomy soldier pines, and brown chestnut trees. Well, I can live with that - they are mentioned in passing - literally - and of course description of trees keeps to the Tolkienesque vibe of Bran's story. There's a certain ambience to the description that immediately puts my mind back to Bran's perspective, and of course, as we'll see, trees play an increasingly important role in his narrative. So yeah, Martin is being clever again here, isn't he? Clever in the way he used to do symbolism and foreshadowing in the first three. I'm taking the trees as a good sign, in this case. 

While traveling through this uncivilized region of trees, Bran can't help but think the one thought every fan of the series has had at least once - and as such it feels highly ironical that the chapter begins with it - Are we there yet? You said it, George. I actually chuckled when I opened to this opening line because it so neatly summarizes the last fifteen or so years of waiting for this story to reach its end.

Bran is seated in a wicker basket, strapped to Hodor, who by now is almost like a wight: "One eye frozen shut, his beard a tangle of hoarfrost, icicles drooping from the ends of his bushy mustache" (wait is that even possible?) Poor Hodor, teeth chattering as he carries Bran around in the cold and the dark. He deserves a better fate. 

With so many years between Storm and Dance (twelve), it's no wonder Martin almost has to start over again by recapping what's been going on with his characters - and so we get another description of Coldhands and his elk. Now, it might just be because I did wait twelve years for the continuation, and that I have developed the wrong perspective on this - like, to me it feels like Bran and Coldhands have been riding for years, and so it feels kind of weird that Bran hasn't asked the mysterious stranger any pointed questions (and thereby enlighten us readers). We waited so long to learn more, and yet once we're back in this storyline, we get a repeat description. We are reminded that Bran is a warg, and that he's wearing Summer's body more than his own, and that he continues to warg into Hodor (and not seeing anything reprehensible about it).

Many ravens follow them, scout ahead, or fly to Coldhands "and mutter at him", and Bran realizes that the ravens are Coldhands' eyes and ears. Summer doesn't like the way Coldhands smells, of dead meat. And instead of learning more about Coldhands, all we can do is to continue to speculate..oh wait a minute, Dance has already been out for five years? Anyway, Martin cuts surprisingly quick to the action as the ravens come to warn Coldhands of a danger behind them. Coldhands explains that it is "men" and not wolves that are following them. Coldhands, whose description certainly suggests he is a former member of the Night's Watch - tells Meera that these men are foes. Coldhands tells the group (Bran, Hodor, Meera, Jojen) that he'll take care of these men, and that they should go on, and that he'll meet them in a fishing village. Aw, no action, then.

Meera wonders who these men could be and why Coldhands won't tell them who these men are. While Martin certainly annoys me with all this evasiveness, it seems quite obvious to me that Martin wants to keep the identity of these men a mystery, and that can only mean the men in question are members of the Night's Watch. Why they are his enemies, remains to be seen - but it would kind of screw up Martin's story if Bran learned this too soon, right? At least, that's what I'm taking from this.

Meera also points out that they have been going in circles, another mystery - why is Coldhands doing this? To shake off said enemies so that they can't figure out where his master, Bloodraven, is holed up? I guess so. But, until Martin deigns it important enough to actually finish this tale, it remains just that. A guess.

When they discuss how Coldhands never eats or drinks, and isn't affected by the cold, we learn that they did in fact spend some time with the mysterious ranger between books III and IV. So why didn't they ask him any questions? Like, "Who are you?" They come to the conclusion, as they discuss him, that he must be dead. Kind of like those two dead Night's Watch members who rose and tried to kill the Lord Commander. Jafer Flowers? All right, I always thought Coldhands was some kind of undead, but if he's like the other wights we've encountered - if he was animated back to life by the Others - then it must mean that he was saved from that particular form of undeadliness by Bloodraven. He's more like ... man I can't even remember his name anymore. Ser... purple lightning bolts. Leader of the brotherhood without banners. Yeah him. I'm recovering from a bout of illness, that's my excuse. That, and the fact I haven't given the series much thought since season five of Game of Thrones ended. Lousy season.

We are reminded that Jojen is in bad shape, growing weaker by the day, but he remains a character I'm not very fond of. His Gandalf-y "wisdom" comes across as a tad unbelievable when he's supposed to be this little kid. But I'm not here to bash Jojen (into paste), not today!

They move on without Coldhands, having succesfully avoided a potentially exciting encounter. Phew. Their journey is well described in terms of conveying a certain atmosphere of wintery desolation,  and they begin to wonder if they could have missed the village. If Meera is right and they have walked in circles, it should be no problem, though. Something's off here... Bran decides to slip into Summer to scout ahead and find the village. He smells ashes - suggesting the village has burned down - returns to his own body, and tells the group to follow Summer. Why did he have to slip inside Summer for this? 

Buried under drifts of snow, the village is almost impossible to see - man, poor Hodor, slogging through so much snow with Bran on his back. Oh, but the village hasn't burned. Summer smelled the ashes of an old fire, inside a longhall "beneath the snow". That's an excellent sense of smell Summer has. I've said it before, and I'm saying it again, but when reading about the far North I can't help but think that the author hasn't had much experience with, well, snow for starters. 

Inside the longhall they feed on acorns and icicles. Jojen is weak, but promises Meera this is not the day he dies. After the meal, Bran slips back into Summer, without even noticing (which is important, I assume, and understated, which is nice). Will Bran become a prisoner of Summer, in the end? Who knows. As Summer, he encounters a pack of wolves. The leader of the pack is an old male "with a grizzled white muzzle and a blind eye..." Is this someone I should remember? The pack has apparently attacked humans, as Summer sees body parts spread liberally around. "Cloaked and hooded once". Mm. The same men Coldhands went after? Oooh, they are Night's Watch men. The way the text is presented, it is hard to make out whether Bran thinks "Warg!" when he comes eye to eye with the pack leader, or if it is the pack leader "saying" Warg! to Bran. That said, I am generally confused by Martin's prose whenever he writes from the POV of someone warging (Bran, then). 

It is kind of disturbing to think of Bran as a young boy on a Tolkien-esque quest and then read him rip open throats, drink blood, and eat "sweet meat". In essence, Bran is now, among many other things, a cannibal. A cannibalistic slave-driver, according to Hodor. 

When he comes back to his broken body, Coldhands has returned. Bran now realizes that the foes Coldhands went after, were indeed the men of the Night's Watch as I initially suspected (it's been so long since I read Dance that it practically feels like the first time, so bear with me if I sound like I've never read this stuff before). At least Meera and Bran now have the guts to actually question Coldhands. About time. Not that he gives them any meaningful answers, of course. They ask him who he is, and why his hands are black; Coldhands replies, in effect, that yes, he is dead. They ask him who the three-eyed crow is, and he responds, "A friend. A dreamer, wizard, call him what you will. The last greenseer." Bran calls him a monster, and Coldhands says he is Bran's monster. Well, that's very nice thank you, mr. Dead. Now I feel comfortable and everything is a-okay. So why can Coldhands give them a whole sentence worth of describing Bloodraven, but not say anything about himself? Why does Martin feel the need to keep his identity secret? When Coldhands calls Bran "Brandon Stark", is that a hint we should be taking, that it is a character who knows well who Bran is (in other words, have we been told enough to believe he is Benjen Stark)? Meera is clearly distressed, and wonders whether Jojen dreamed about Coldhands. He says that they have come too far to turn back, and that they will follow Coldhands to the three-eyed crow. 

And there you have it, a fairly short chapter, but actually it has some drive to it, unlike the other Feast/Dance chapters so far. Though I find all the vagueness more an annoyance by now than thrilling. Coldhands remains a mystery and we're given a few crumbs, yet it never feels like his identity is vitally important to the story**, but of course I could be mistaken. How the kids survive in this harsh enviroment is also a question that bugs me a bit, perhaps because so much of the story so far felt so very grounded in a sense of realism. 

** And, of course, the distinct lack of Coldhands in the TV series


  1. Hey Remy. An answer to one of your questions: The three wolfs had been Varamyrs and he has warged into the one eyed one in the prologue of "Dance" so I think he is the one who says "warg" to Bran and tries to subdue him, but now Bran has him and his pack in control. And in reverse of this both chapters: In the prologue Varamyr has glimpsed Bran and his group at the end of the chapter when he was floating in the air and has seen an elk with childrens (Meera and Jojen) on its back. ;-) Keep on the good work!

  2. Hello,

    I'm glad you're back on the Feastdance Re-read. You should take a look back at the Prologue of Dance for more information on the pack of wolves.


  3. The leader of the pack is an old male "with a grizzled white muzzle and a blind eye..." Is this someone I should remember?

    This wolf contains the remains of Varamyr's soul

  4. Hi again Slynt. Another tidbid: The Nightswatch men that are killed by Coldhands and his ravens are a surviving group of the mutineers from Craster's Keep. The one-handed corpse is Ollo Lophand.

  5. Thanks for enlightening me! It really is hard to keep track of it all, especially when Martin writes deliberately vague, English isn't my native language, and I'm taking so long between chapters. I will try to re-read sections and do my research better from here on out.
    Thanks for reading!