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.
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.
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.
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.
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.