Tuesday, February 23, 2016

[Re-read] Mercantile Action and Adventure in the Seething Ports of Essos!

Out of sheer decency I'll warn you that this post contains spoilers for a by now pretty old book known as A Dance with Dragons. Some speculation about a potential sixth book in here, too. But not much. 

Oh, boy, time to crack open to Quentyn Martell’s chapter. As you may have gathered, I am pretty apprehensive about reading this chapter again, because I remember it as the possibly most boring chapter in the entirety of the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ saga so far. So soul-crushingly ponderous that it’s hard to believe this was written to slot into the same sequence as…well, any chapter from AGoT, ACoK, or ASoS. Will it end up being better than I remember? Maybe…but the chapters I’ve read so far haven’t exactly been able to keep me riveted, and these chapters include the POVs of some of my favorite characters.

Of course, some of my dislike might also stem from the fact that, 3000+ pages in, I’m suddenly given a whole new character, and this may have thrown me for a loop, simply because Martin suddenly broke up the structure he had given us. In both Feast and Dance there are some crucial changes to how the narrative is presented, resulting in a set of books that don’t quite gel with the previous three. Martin is allowed to do whatever he wants with his story, obviously, but maybe these structural changes (such as suddenly having chapters with titles, rather than POV names - like this one, “The Merchant’s Man”) only served to highlight the differences and make it harder to accept as part of the already established story. I don’t know. It took me a loong while to get used to chapter titles (just as it took me a while to get comfortable with POV names in A Game of Thrones, sixteen years ago) but now I kind of like them. I can see what Martin is doing - each title also being a de facto title, a different way of describing a character; so instead of “Quentyn” (in this case), we get “The Merchant’s Man”, which cunningly both describes Quentyn’s role in this chapter, and tells us something about the chapter itself. But these titled chapters do stand out, and since I got used to the structure presented in the first three books, it felt strange/unusual to suddenly have this shift in Feast. But, as I said, I’ve grown used to this particular change and don’t mind it too much. Although I admit that when I see a chapter with a title rather than a POV name, I lose a little interest because I frankly don’t care about these characters (Arya and Sansa excepted).

Which brings me to a second problem, and one I know I share with a lot of fellow fans/readers of the series: the sudden influx of new POVs, fragmenting the story even further and leading to the dreaded “bloat”. To be more precise, I do not have a problem with new POVs per se, but I feel that a) by breaking the “tradition” (if you will) books four and five are further differentiated, b) more POVs = less screentime for the characters we already love/love to hate/hate to love, and in which we have become invested, and perhaps most importantly, c) the new POVs just don’t have the “magic” of the “classic” Ice & Fire characters (including old characters but new POVs like Melisandre and Ser Barristan Selmy). What do I mean by that? Well, the short story is that I feel the “original cast” (for lack of a better word - I’m speaking of the characters having a POV in the “original trilogy”) all are very distinct voices, each with their own vices and virtues, making them somewhat unique and easy to keep from each other; when you read a chapter in, say, A Storm of Swords, there is no doubt when you’re inside Tyrion’s head, or Jaime’s, or Arya’s. With the “bloat”, the massive expansion of characters, Martin has to juggle more personalities, with less screentime, and as such the lines get a little blurred and the personalities become less interesting/less unique. Case in point: Quentyn Martell. Out of nowhere, this character turns up with his own chapters, and though I admit Martin probably made Quentyn a little bit boring on purpose (it’s the nature of his character that he’s a bit mediocre), Quentyn just doesn’t have any of the deeply interesting quirks that all other characters have before him. Ned with his firm principles and stoic honor; Arya, who through the horrors of her experience is turning into a psychotic assassin; Sansa, who saw her childish dreams shattered by cold cynicism; Bran, whose journey begins with the loss of innocence and seems set to go all the way to the other side of that scale; Catelyn, with her fierce love for her children, yet fatally flawed when it comes to Jon Snow; Daenerys, going from chattel to warrior queen; heck, even Jon Snow, arguably the most archetypical character in the story, has depth.
In A Feast with Dragons we do get a few characters that can stand alongside the originals in terms of depth and quirkiness; Asha Greyjoy is drawn pretty well, if a bit one-dimensional; Jon Connington, he’s got a backstory that adds some umph to his character - yet when we finally get inside the heads of Melisandre or Ser Barristan they feel rather bland. With bloat comes blandness, they say, and A Feast with Dragons is the proverbial proof in the pudding. All according to my POV of course :)

I am not sure I made my thoughts clear here, because, you know, it’s complicated. I’ll probably revisit these thoughts and perhaps find a better way to articulate them. One argument I’ve seen in defense of A Feast with Dragons is that it’s harder to enjoy new characters precisely because they are new, they kind of “interrupt” the flow you’ve been grooving in, and that you need to give these characters time to develop. Well, I am trying to keep that perspective in mind. Maybe on this re-read, the new POVs will feel less intrusive. Maybe I’ll notice some devious character development going on with the Greyjoys. But to do that, I have to actually stop procrastinating like I’m doing now, and begin reading “The Merchant’s Man” - but there’s this part of me that just doesn’t want to do it - that’s how badly this chapter went over in my case. Right…deep breath. No, don’t start a new paragraph on how The Thousand Names is coming along…no, don’t write about how great it was to finally crack that goddamned puzzle in Dungeon Kingdoms: Sign of the Moon which enabled me to unlock that pesky door with four locks so that I could enter a new chamber where I was promptly devoured by a creepy Alien-like worm….no, no, no. The only geekery right now is “The Merchant’s Man”. Here we goooooooooooo….!!!

Speaking of geekeNOOOO. The Merchant’s Man. Even the title makes my eyelids droop. What does it even mean, a merchant’s man? Just straightforward, some guy who in some capacity assists a merchant? Tense doesn’t even begin to describe it. (And maybe I’ve forgotten any cleverness related to the chapter’s title which, if that is the case, hopefully will be discovered as now finally, and without remorse (okay a little remorse), without looking back, return to the world so brilliantly introduced in A Game of Thrones and so woefully reduced to history book text by A Dance with Dragons. Seriously, no matter how much you like A Dance with Dragons for what it is, at least agree it reads like an entirely different story than the one we got in the three first books.

And now, without further ado and with much pageantry, THE GODDAMNED MERCHANT’S MAN. Took me just 1286 words to get there. I have a suspicion Martin’s blog posts work the same way - they are basically evidence of procrastination. He would be proud of me. Oh, right.


Adventure stank. Right, two words in and I’m already in snark mode. Because, you know, stinky stinky. Adventure stank. Definitely not Martin’s brightest opening line of a chapter. As I’ve pointed out a gazebollion times, he really is/was the master of hook, line and sinker…but this one? I’m not sure if he’s trying to pull a pun (”adventuring stinks”) or if stink alone is meant to draw us in. He often employs macabre/morbid imagery to draw readers in, like those rotting corpses in the beginning of The Sworn Sword (I know, I stole it for one of my own stories), but there is no context here. Also, I can’t write an entire paragraph for every two words of this chapter or I’ll be writing well into next year. This chapter is horrendously long isn’t it? Hard to see when your book is a .mobi-file. Maybe it just felt overly long. Whatever. Adventure stank.

We’re immediately told that Adventure, of course, is a ship’s name, hence the italics. A stinky boat, then. And then Martin launches into a full paragraph of fleshing out the stink. Say one thing about Martin, at least he doesn’t focus just on the glitter. Yeah, he’s kinda gross instead. Piss, rotting meat, nightsoil, corpse flesh and weeping sores and wounds gone bad. I’m not criticizing Martin for spending a paragraph on this stuff, by the way; it’s not like we haven’t been subjected to this before. Why can’t I “enjoy” Martin’s grossness here when I loved how he dared to push the envelope in the first three? Could it be because by now we’ve had so many corpses thrown at us that…it’s become tiresome? I really don’t know. For some reason, Adventure stinking rubs me the wrong way, even as I found the almost nihilistic cynicism in the first books both exhilarating, exciting, and volatile. It could be, of course, that I’m “witnessing” the Adventure through the eyes of a character I do not feel connected to, a character that just seems to pop out of nowhere, the aforementioned intrusion into a storyline I was already invested in. I JUST DON’T KNOW. MOVING ON.

All right, we get our first line of dialogue. “I want to retch”, a ‘he’ tells a character named Gerris Drinkwater (cool nick/surnames are fewer and farther between, though). I remember reading this the first time, oh four-and-a-half years ago and not having a clue who ‘he’ was, or Gerris for that matter. *brain creaking* Yeah, maybe it’s just that these characters feel intrusive, not part of the “real” storyline, kind of how Jar Jar Binks isn’t part of “my” Star Wars galaxy. Anyway. That first line does immediately tell us something about the ‘he’ character (Quentyn), and that’s that he complains and finds the stink unbearable. Pretty human, then. I’m glad I noticed characterization from the get-go; maybe this won’t be the torture I have been envisioning.

Gerris replies with what I guess is meant to be a joke-kind-of, but the sentence goes on for so long that it loses its potential punch - Gerris certainly doesn’t seem to have the wit of a Tyrion Lannister. And maybe that’s intentional too, what do I know? At any rate we learn that there’s a captain somewhere aboard this stinking ship and that Quentyn and Gerris are waiting to talk to this guy. Oh, and they’re in a harbor, not actually aboard the ship which I was seeing in my mind’s eye. Of course. They are looking for passage to the Alderaan system. If it’s a fast ship. Sorry..

Quentyn is about to suggest finding another ship (preferably one that doesn’t stink quite as much…though I wonder, who in their right mind would want to board a ship smelling of corpses?! Guess that tells us something about Quentyn being desperate?). We learn that the two characters are playing a ruse, a ruse in which Gerris Drinkwater plays a merchant, and Quentyn his servant. Ah, The Merchant’s Man. You know so far this isn’t as bad as I remembered. He said, after three paragraphs. We learn there was a third fellow in the party - Cletus Yronwood - but he’s dead. They have played roles before, which suggests they are trying to travel incognito (I’m kind of pretending I don’t know the whole backstory of the Martells and the Targaryens because I’ve forgotten so much anyway). ANYWAY, the captain of the Adventure arrives just in time for Quentyn not to leave.

Oh, but first a description of Gerris as seen through the eyes of Quentyn Martell: Tall and fair, with blue-green eyes, sandy hair streaked by the sun, and a lean and comely body (…) What kind of man thinks about another man like that? It sounds like something straight out of a bad romance novel. Am I supposed to infer from this that Quentyn is gay? NO OFFENSE INTENDED. It just strikes me as very flowery language, kind of. It doesn’t matter one inch (PUN NOT INTENDED) of course what Quentyn is - I’m firmly of the opinion that whether you are gay, straight, bisexual, transsexual, WHATEVER, you are first and foremost basically a human being. It’s not even an opinion, really. It’s just fact. Unless you're a goat. Then you're not human. But a goat.
Reading on, Quentyn compares himself to Gerris, and in that sense, my suspicions kind of drop away as he seems rather more jealous of Gerris’ good looks and swagger and ways with people: In his own eyes, Quentyn is “short-legged and stocky, thickly built, with hair the brown of new-turned earth” (lol is that a foreshadowing of his death?), so yeah, he feels inferior to Gerris, and that is kinda cool considering Quentyn is, you know, a Martell, and Martells so far are pretty awesome people (at least until they get their heads crushed in by barely-opposable thumbs) and he’s like so much higher ranking than a guy called Drinkwater, yet it is Quentyn who is envious of Gerris. Dammit, am I starting to ENJOY this? WHAT IS GOING ON There’s more description, giving us a good “look” at Quentyn, but the point is that this, too, adds a layer: Now we also know he’s got a pretty low self-esteem. Which doesn’t befit a prince of Dorne, I suppose. Considering everyone else in Dorne is a hot model. Also, Quentyn finds it difficult to smile. Braces? Hold your horses as we delve deeper.

Oh, back to the actual plot, which really hasn’t progressed at all. The two guys are still waiting for the captHERE HE COMES (I’ve got a thing for capital letters today SORRY). Gerris, acting the merchant, asks (in High Valyrian, no less) how fast the ship is (hey, that’s just like Obi-Wan Kenobi asking Han Solo about the Millenium Falcon! Which I was semi-quoting somewhere above). Gerris, however, isn’t fooling this captain, who responds in Westerosi (here called “Common Tongue of Westeros” but somewhere down the line it changes to Westerosi, IIRC). Again I admit I am finding interest in depth here; without explicitly stating it, Martin tells us that Gerris isn’t good enough to play the role as the merchant. The captain’s reply leaves me a bit puzzled, though - “There is none swifter, honored lord. Adventure can run down the wind itself. Tell me where you wish to sail, and swiftly I shall bring you there.” Something about this whole weird structuring tells me the captain is mocking Gerris. Martin doesn’t offer us any hints at this, though - no “feigned an exaggerated bow” to help underline the captain’s (assumed) disdain… sloppy writing? Cleverly written? I DON’T KNOW but I do like it I believe. What is happening to me? Of all the chapters I’ve re-read so far THIS is the one where I begin to see the light?! Am I more positive because the dark winter is finally coming to an end? Maybe - I’m known to be sensitive to darkness. In many ways MUHAAHO. HEHAHAooo.

Anyway! “I seek passage to Meereen for myself and two servants.” (Wait isn’t Cletus dead?!) It so reminds me of the classic scene in Star Wars I can’t help but “hear” the dialogue in Obi-Wan’s voice. “…and no questions asked.” The captain isn’t particularly keen on traveling to Meereen, though (there’s a knot there..) ‘cause there’s no profit there because: Daenerys. So why would and / or should the captain go there? Even the fighting pits are closed (though no link to trade is provided, making me twirl my (imagined) mustache as I ponder - what does it matter to a trader of the seas if the fighting pits are closed? Is the captain a slaver, perchance? If so, TOO CLEVER, George. Quentyn thinks that there is a good reason to go to Meereen, and this is where I once again feel compelled to draw parallels to bad romance fiction: “The most beautiful woman in the world.” Is he telling this to himself to justify his long journey or does he really believe that women can be quantified in such a convenient way? The more important bit of course is that we learn that he thinks of her as his “bride-to-be”, thus explaining what the heck his project is. Also, he thinks of himself as “Dorne”, in the sense that he represents a golden opportunity for Dany - he can bring her the might of his homeland (a barren desert with a few towns here and there, consistently described as being a low population kingdom). So we get this discussion between Gerris (posing as a merchant) and this unnamed captain where Martin fills us in on the political climate around Meereen, and even the Golden Company’s movement (wow, they are being telegraphed pretty heavily after all). Martin loses the thread for a while as he launches into a paragraph about Braavos for some reason (though the chapter has not stated where in the world we actually are - which is odd in itself - it isn’t Braavos, because we’re explicitly told Quentyn’s never seen that particular city before). Oh wait, the wall of text was too massive - Braavos is just mentioned in passing, the paragraph is really about Volantis, where, TA TA TAAAA, we are. With Quentyn and Gerris. And the nameless captain. We get one of Martin’s laundry lists detailing the ships present in the harbor of Volantis, and this is where I, after a burst of interest in the characterization, feel that Martin is about to lose me. Come on: “Ships were everywhere, coming down the river or headed out to sea, crowding the wharves and piers” - see, this gives me a great mental image of a city where the harbor is very active; I’m still logged on - but Martin continues, “taking on cargo or off-loading it: warships and whalers and trading galleys, caracks and skiffs, cogs, great cogs, even greater cogs (okay I made that one up), longships, swan ships, ships from Lys and Tyrosh and Pentos, Qartheen spicers big as palaces, ships from Tolos (where?) and Yunkai and the Basilisks…” I might be nitpicking but to me these lists become tedious. Out of context, not so bad, when stuck in the middle of a narrative, more like meeting a wall. Of text. Swan ships, though, that’s Summer Islanders right? But where the heck is Tolos? Can’t say I remember that name. George does like his ‘-os’ endings, though.

Turns out Quentyn has been stranded in Volantis for twenty days, and I can’t help but think of the now famous “Meereenese knot” that so troubled Martin as he was writing A Dance with Dragons. While I don’t think I’ve seen any definite statements as to what exactly the knot entailed, I suspect (like most people I assume) that the “knot” in question was part how to get all the characters to Meereen (Tyrion, Quentyn, Victarion) within a believable time frame, but also wrestling with how to portray certain events (as suggested by Martin choosing to make Ser Barristan a POV, a character I would consider “off limits” as a POV due to all the knowledge the character has, having been central in practically every bit of backstory around King’s Landing). What I don’t get is why Martin felt he had to portray all these long, arduous journeys. I mean, he probably wanted to show Quentyn’s journey so that we get to know the character a bit and can empathize with his plight, but it’s not like characters haven’t popped up out of nowhere before without lessening the story - so in a sense I feel that the Meereenese knot never was about Meereen and its characters, but rather how the rest of the story had to kind of be on hold until all the characters destined for Meereen had converged upon that city - this explains why so many of the chapters feel like filler material to pad out the book, rather than exciting, twisting narratives the way we were used to in the first three books. But what if Martin just skipped ahead to the characters arriving in Meereen? It’s an interesting thought experiment, and once you start thinking about it there are obvious dilemmas, like the need to build up Jon Snow’s arc, which needs time to foment the seeds of mutiny, and of course keeping all of the story in roughly the same time interval is desirable; the chronology began to ran askew already in A Storm of Swords and I’m sure this affected Martin’s motivation as well, as he seems like a man who needs and likes structure. Another thing that gets me about the knot is how Martin spent so many pages on Quentyn only to have him die in his last chapter. Yes, Martin has killed characters before, but it seems wasteful in a different way than, say, Ned Stark’s death, because Quentyn is introduced so late into the game, and yet his story is over quickly, and the build-up Martin has in Feast (with Doran Martell speaking the fan-favorite line, “Fire…and blood”) is unraveled when Quentyn meets his fate; all this trouble just to show that Dorne and Daenerys will not be united after all, or is Martin playing a longer game? Could Quentyn still be alive? There are theories, of course (is there anything ambiguous in A Song of Ice and Fire that doesn’t have a theory?), including a theory suggesting there was a Quentyn and the Tattered Prince switcheroo. It seems that few people subscribe to Quentyn being alive, though - the general argument goes that Quentyn must die as a part of the character arcs of Doran Martell and Arianne, that his death will act as a catalyst for future events, and that the point of showing his journey from Volantis to Meereen is to both help flesh out the setting (of Essos) (but this isn’t a travelogue!!) and to sow seeds for the rest of the story.
I don’t know. I really don’t know what to make of this. Taking the text at face value, there is a possibility that Quentyn lives; however, one could also argue that by pointing out that Quentyn has Targaryen blood, we learn that Targaryen blood is not enough (or that diluted Targaryen blood has too weak a hold of dragons), though that still doesn’t explain why we need so much travelogue. Erm, where was I? Oh, yeah. Twenty days have passed. Great.

Quentyn remembers the words his father spoke before going on the mission: “Dorne will be bleed if your purpose is discovered” is another cool line from everyone’s favorite Doran. What I find suspicious is how Doran puts so much trust in Quentyn - is Qyentyn a ruse, I wonder? But if so, why worry about Varys’ spies? Or did Doran just warn Quentyn knowing the boy wouldn’t be able to keep his mission secret? You know, for a chapter in which nothing much happens, there are an awful lot of questions bugging me. Is Martin a lot more vague than he used to be, or is it just me? The whole plan of sending a less than stellar son across half the world to marry Daenerys whom they’ve never met…either there’s more to it or Martin’s plotting is (a whole lot) weaker. And I just can’t decide. Not now, anyway. Maybe there will be more enlightenment. Or maybe those who are positive to this work are reading too much into it, seeing hidden structure where there is none.
Eventually, appealing to the captain’s greed, Gerris manages to secure passage aboard the Adventure. Yes, people, we’re still haggling with that captain! In case you forgot. This post is going to be so bloated. Wonder why. Unfortunately for anyone wanting some semblance of plot movement, Quentyn immediately decides that the captain accepted their offer too easily; he’ll probably just sail them out to sea and then slit their throats. Dammit. So instead they walk back to their hathay. What the heck’s a hathay, you may ask. It’s like an oxcart, but ornate, and pulled by nothing less than a dwarf elephant. Which the streets are full of. I admit this is a matter of taste, but after three solid books of Medieval European warfare and political intrigue it just comes across as weird and disruptive to suddenly have to deal with dwarf elephants. Yes, it adds color and depth I’m sure, and it’s a kind of creature you don’t encounter too often in fantasy literature, so there’s that, but really…it just takes me out of the fantasy. Yup, it’s taste. I’m 100% behind the warfare and politics and even the supernatural North, but the dwarf elephants of Volantis just don’t do it for me.

At least there’s movement now, as they hitch a dwarf elephant cab to get back to their inn (coincidentally called The Merchant’s House, odd name for an inn). However, Quentyn first has some thought processes that need to be described. This is also called exposition: traveling afoot apparently taints a man (in the sense that you’re looked down upon for walking, it’s a social status-thing), however, Martin remains a lot less clear in his writing, or rather, his use of insinuation continues, and so we can also infer from the text that the innkeep who told Quentyn that it’s low-standard to walk said so only to rent him a dwarf elephant. Phew did that make sense?
It’s another point regarding my feeling that Feast and Dance feel so different from the first three books - the amount of insinuation just spirals out of control here. Reading these feels more like work than pleasure, because I have to continually evaluate the written word, in case there’s some double meaning, or hint, or whatever. Yeah the three first books have a lot of this too, but I’m convinced there’s just so much more in books four and five to the point that I’m 4479 words into this re-read post and all Quentyn’s done so far is listening to Gerris haggle and then walked back to the dwarf elephant. Can I appreciate Martin’s more multi-layered approach? In a sense, yes. But it also takes away from the more direct approach that made the first three books such page-turners.

All right, so we get a description of the dwarf elephant’s driver, and forgive me but do we really need to know all that about this character we’ll never see again? Do we need to know he’s a slave owned by the cousin of the innkeeper at The Merchant’s House? It’s just more exposition isn’t it, in this case how slavery works in Volantis. In particular how they are branded (tattooed). It also feels like Martin is laying some groundwork here, as we know Dany isn’t a big fan of slavery. It kind of telegraphs that Daenerys will stop by Volantis to free the slaves…maybe. Five slaves for every free man. Ok got it. Now for some story plz.

And story we get! Backstory, that is. The party had been even larger, including a Maester Kedry, and a William Wells, who both died along with Cletus Yronwood. Apparently corsairs had boarded the previous ship they had been on. So now we have corsairs, too. Cletus (anyone not thinking of Cletus from The Simpsons?) had been Quentyn’s best friend for half his life, but since this is fed us in backstory, I never feel anything concerning this friendship. Would the story have been stronger if this chapter had been the corsair attack? Maybe. When the action is told in this manner, through Quentyn’s memories, it definitely loses an edge and it becomes just a retelling instead of drawing us into the action here and now. In fact there’s a lot of backstory opening up now as Quentyn ponders what has happened up to this point, before we get back to that here and now part, you know, the story that should matter. I feel strongly that Quentyn’s story could have been amped up a bit by starting off earlier (perhaps even with the scene featuring Doran giving his commands to Quentyn); the corsair attack sounds exciting - Quentyn remembering it as he’s pulled through the streets of Volantis by a dwarf elephant…not so much. And it just goes on and on, the exposition sometimes shamelessly replacing more organic dialogue: “New Ghis is an island, and a much smaller port than this (…) And New Ghis has allied with the Yunkai’i.” Setting description from A World of Ice and Fire, or dialogue from A Dance with Dragons?

The two, still aboard the dwarf elephant cart, discuss politics for the benefit of the reader, then what kind of ship they should seek out. Gerris suggests a Westerosi ship as the safest bet, and you could wonder why they seek out a salty pirate captain when they really want something more trustworthy. They’ve got more than enough money, it seems, as the point of buying a ship comes up. Probably Daenerys’ dowry. More characterization in the form of exposition - to the point that it feels unnatural, intrusive: the way Quentyn thinks, “He knows my nature is as cautious as his is bold” irks me, because it feels like Martin couldn’t be bothered to show us that Quentyn is cautious, as opposed to telling us. Maybe I’m being unfair. I AM CONFOOSED.

Next they discuss traveling overland, allowing Martin to feed us even more setting information that might prove useful in the future (in particular the mention of the Demon Road, which is a dangerous road, functioning much like Chekov’s gun in this instance - we will definitely see someone travel this notorious road, unless Martin truly has lost sight of his story and is just cramming in as much setting material as he can). I do appreciate Gerris’ ominous line, “Let’s hope her dragons will sniff them out and eat them,” which is kind of foreshadowing Quentyn’s fate (if we’re to read his last chapter without pondering the possibilities of his survival) and which is also weirdly amusing as it refers to Tywin Lannister, who, in my reader’s mind, had already been dead for twelve years when A Dance with Dragons finally arrived, yet in the story his death is still recent enough that Gerris thinks of Tywin as alive. Yup, the long waits definitely, definitely, ruin the reading experience. I’m still unhappy with Martin’s decision to kill off Tywin, by the way. He was such a great villain. Of course it fuels Tyrion’s plunge but that plunge isn’t all that interesting; imagine the tension if Tywin survived Tyrion’s point blank shot somehow. Perhaps Tyrion, in the end, didn’t have it in him to kill his own father…the potential for future drama would be amazing. It’s one thing to lose characters you like and care for, another thing entirely to lose characters that feel like they still had untapped potential, characters that would have helped embiggen the drama…and perhaps Martin just killed off too many characters on the villainous side of things by A Storm of Swords, leaving the setting decidedly less potent. Bye Joffrey, bye Tywin, bye Shae. We have Roose and Ramsay, and hopefully Walder Frey, but I guess we can agree that Quentyn is a poor substitute for any of the well developed and interesting characters we lost. Where was I?! This chapter. It makes me go in so many directions. Mind spinning out of control as the sheer tediousness of dwarf elephant travel takes hold.

More setting dressing, painting Volantis in fairly broad strokes. Cyvasse is suddenly the most played game ever. Brothels are now named pillow houses. Aaaanndd….more of Quentyn thinking back to better days. LOTS of stuff about how Quentyn was smitten by Ynys, oldest daughter of Lord Yronwood. So why didn’t Quentyn demand to get married to her? He’s like, the prince of Dorne or something? Or is Martin cleverly giving us more characterization? Telling us Quentyn is meek? It goes on, with several more examples of women Quentyn has been in love with (final nail in the coffin for those gay rumors), and through this backstory exposition we also learn that Quentyn is a very decent man, especially compared to most Westerosi guys (he can think of “several reasons” for not having a paramour in addition to a wife). And back to the meetin with Doran in the Water Gardens we circle, mentioning “the agreement” that Quentyn hopes Daenerys will honor (not knowing that she has no fricking clue about any agreement with Dorne). He wants to do his duty, but marrying “the most beautiful woman in the world” hardly strikes me as duty, but that’s how Quent thinks of it, so there’s another bit of characterization right there and I’m wondering why the guy is so dry. He’s like the antithesis of Oberyn Martell. How can these two even be related? (Or for that matter, how can Doran and Oberyn be related?!) And what the (Mart)hell is SARELLA up to in OLDTOWN?!?!?!?! TELL ME NOW!!

So, after more fulfilling exposition and backstory it’s back to dry descriptions of Volantis for a while. The Black Wall (as a contrast to the icy Wall?) is described in meticulous detail, probably another “ground-setter” for Daenerys, we’re given an indicator as to the traffic situation, we’re given a quick look at the Long Bridge (as featured prominently in Game of Thrones) and then there’s shouting erupting from a cross street, and I’m like Whaaat? ACTION=!=!????
Nope. Sorry. No. No action here. Move along. Exposition barely disguised as dialogue in plenty, though. “The triarchs are considered so elevated that their feet are not allowed to touch the ground during their year of service.” The day this line of dialogue, courtesy of Gerris Drinkwater, becomes a meme like “Winter is Coming” is the day I’ll admit A Dance with Dragons is just as great as A Storm of Swords. Or A Game of Thrones or A Clash of Kings take your pick (this does suggest, however, that the whole “walking” thing as social status is how things actually are in Volantis and thus I was merely reading more depth into the innkeeper (see far far above) than there was).

The much desired action takes the form of a little more dialogue than we’ve had in previous pages of the chapter. Dialogue is a great way to keep a story fresh and direct. It can feel as if Martin has forgotten with these overly long passages of everything but dialogue. The diaogue on display here, however, isn’t exactly mindblowing.

At long fricking last they come to the inn…no wait, that’s just Fishmonger’s Square, hang on, hang on. The dwarf elephant makes a “honking noise like some huge white goose” because it is (the author tells us) reluctant to “plunge into the tangle of wayns (formerly known as wagons), palanquins and foot traffic”. Fishmongers are out in strength, you must know, crying the morning catch. Let me also tell you that, in case you forgot, Quentyn sees a wide variety of things in the square, most easily digested by way of a list: “He saw cod and saltfish and sardines, barrels of mussels and clams. Eels hung along the front of one stall. Another displayed a giant turtle THERE IT IS! THE FIRST OF MANY TURTLE SIGHTINGS TO COME (…) Crabs (…) casks of brine and seaweed (…) frying chunks of fish (…) onions and beets (…) peppery fish (…)


Whoops, must have dozed off. Let’s see. Dwarves putting on a show. From the description there can be no doubt we’re seeing the same company that performed at Joffrey’s wedding twelve years ago (sixteen if you count from today and not publishing date). Gerris thinks they look amusing, but Quentyn has “no need for comic dwarfs”. No, Quentyn, you do, you really do. Take Penny with you and sail off into the sunset ok thanks bye.

Right, I now realize I just do not have the capacity to finish this re-read today. I think I need a nap. Still, 6000 words for a chapter so devoid of plot is kinda amazing in an anally retentive way. I’ll finish up this chapter later, but for now let’s end this first part with the fact that Quentyn is not only prudent and dry as the Dornish desert, he’s also just eighteen years old yet looks “like a man who has not moved his bowels in half a year”. Such a great character for an epic fantasy! Am I sounding snarky? I don’t mean to, not really. Martin deserves credit for daring to put in such a character into this larger-than-life story. Absolutely. Quentyn just doesn’t work as a character to sustain my interest. What if he had been more like his uncle, flamboyant, arrogant, overconfident? I think it would be more fun but then Martin would probably be accused of stealing his own ideas or something.

See you soonish for the wrapup to this…stuff.


  1. Hey Slynt,

    I'm pleasantly surpriced, how relativly well you recieved the second reading of this chapter (or at least of the first part of this chapter). I'v feared a much more negative judgement from you. ;-)

    I can understand, why there are still a lot of things that still annoy you. But first und foremost, at the beginning you seemed to get warm with this chapter (and the point of view charackter) and liked it at least partwise.

    Und IMHO you are right about your observations with Quentyn:
    - he ist timid
    - he is shy
    - he is envy of Gerris Drinkwater and his looks
    - he has a low self esteem
    and so on and on.

    But he is also still a boy in his dreams (despite beeing 18 in Westeros where manhood begins with 16 or earlier) and still believe that he is the hero of the story (like Sansa in A Game of Thrones), who cannot fail despite all the signs that ererything ist against him and against his adventure.

    But reality ist gnawing at him from the beginning. Half of his company dies on the first trip and now the other half ist stucked for 20 days in an place so unfriendly to him, in short: kismet kicks his ass.

    This is leading to a lot of self doubts and this is the tone this chapter is written, so I think GRRM hits the button realy well here. Everythings sound boring and annoying just like Quentyn feels.

    The tragedy in comparison to Sansa is, that she accepts the reality of her dreams fast enough to adapt. When Quentyn is accepting the reality ("Oh" in his last chapter) it's to late, because he is already engulfed in Dragon Fire.

    So Martin deconstracts with Quentyn the all to often too easy Hero-Journey we can find in so many other books (and which we loved as boys but are annoyed with as adults).

    And I garantuee you: When you will read this chapter a third time yo'll enjoy it still a bit more than with your second time.

    One last advice or ask: Don't set yourself so much under pressure while reading. You won't like every Chapter from Feastdance on your second reading nor on your third. So don't ask you every time why but just let it flow and enjoy (or not ;-)).

    I still enjoy every chapter recap from you even when you don't like the chapter at all, that you are analizing.

    Greetings from Germany and keep on the good work, Hardy.

  2. Thank you for your insight and your comments!
    I assure you I'm definitely not going for a negative vibe on purpose. I *want* these books to click with me, if only because the three first were so amazing. Second part is a little late, but it's coming faster than Martin writes, if that's a consolation :p

  3. Hello Slynt,

    I had a long post last week that apparently I didn't publish correctly, so I'm going to try again and take into consideration the above comment by Hardy ,as well as, your Dancer's Lament post.

    1. Adventure Stank is a very fitting opening for Quentyn's character. It is not the hook that Martin usually begins the chapter with, but rather a kind of inside joke about what his character is all about. As Hardy points out about, Quentyn is not on the Hero's Journey and he knows it, but refuses to admit it to himself. He would prefer to be back home with the Yronwood girl that he is too shy to tell he loves. Adventure stank is a perfect opening considering where this story line is heading.

    2. I'm surprised that you say Martin seems to be less clear in his writing, and that you fell like reading A Feast with Dragons is closer to work than pleasure. First, it is possible that he has always written this way, but by the time that you came to the series ASOS had answered a majority of those little mysteries/plot points from the first two books that are now bothering you. I hope they will be answered in TWOW, but I do think that the reason AGOT, ACOK and ASOS are so highly regarded is that as many people didn't have to wait (and wait such a long time) for resolution and they can see the beginning, middle and end to the War of Five Kings. The most surprising thing of all is that you compare reading AFWD to work rather than pleasure and also sing the praises of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. I am currently reading Erikson's second novel (thanks to your recommendation), but I feel like I am working harder to get through those chapters than I have for any other books I have ever read. Martin's writing is great, but not as difficult to get through. I do have to say I am enjoying Malazan, it just takes me forever to get through a chapter.

    3. I was wondering if you ever read anything by Poor Quentyn. I really enjoy reading his analysis and predictions although I don't agree with him on everything. He loves A Feast With Dragons and thinks that it is superior to the first three books (I fall in the middle of you two of AFWD) and Quentyn is his favorite character IN THE SERIES! I strongly disagree, but that does not mean I find his thoughts any less interesting. You should check him out, he may help you enjoy this reread a bit more. You can either Google search him or go back through Stefan Sasse's Nerdstream Era blog. He regularly links to his work in his Flight of Links posts.

    I'm still enjoying your reread, keep up the good work.