It's a random day, and y'all know what that means. Another chapter from the combined re-read of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, niftily re-titled A Feast with Dragons, following the order as suggested by All Leather Must Be Boiled (and all smallclothes must be soiled, if the narrative of A Song of Ice and Fire is any indication). This brings me to Tyrion Lannister's second chapter in A Dance with Dragons, and the eleventh chapter in total. My re-read of Tyrion's first chapter, "Wine, Whores and Song" can be found righto here.
And for once I'm going to dive straight in and skip all my usual before-reading drivel about everything else. May the Force be with us all. Oh yeah, one thing (sorry) - I have decided to avoid all spoilers and rumors concerning Game of Thrones season six! Usually I have no willpower for such things, but in this case I'm doing just fine, as I would like to enjoy The Winds of Winter relatively untainted by the TV show.
This chapter begins as Tyrion Lannister and Magister Illyrio have already left Pentos behind. Illyrio made it clear that no one must see Tyrion, which is why he was stuffed in a barrel. Tyrion complains that a lot of people did see him come to the Free Cities: the sailors who stuffed him in that barrel, a cabin boy, a washerwoman, and Ilyrio's guards. We're given a glimpse of the procession - eight "mammoth draft horses" carrying their litter on heavy leather straps, which should tell you something about the horsepower needed to transport Illyrio around - before Illyrio explains that there's nothing to fear: his guards are Unsullied, and as such he doesn't even consider the possibility that any Unsullied in his ownership would turn against him. You know, by now we've heard so much of the loyalty of the Unsullied that there pretty much has to be some Unsullied character betraying the living freckles out of someone sooner rather than later. The most obvious candidate is obviously Grey Worm, who is the Unsullied character with the most screen time - and we also know that the prophecies and visions around Daenerys deal with betrayal; could Martin have a betrayal in store for us that we didn't expect? Would Grey Worm betray the Khaleesi? The galley that delivered Tyrion into Mopatis' hands is going to Asshai and will be gone for two years, so Illyrio is absolutely certain nobody of import knows Tyrion's whereabouts. Tyrion thinks of Mopatis' words, "None would betray me" as something to carve upon the fat man's crypt and, not having noticed before, I think it's pretty hilarious - just imagine a gravestone with "None would betray me" on it, heh. Of course, this only leads me to suspect that Illyrio's scheming will come to bite him in the ass one of these days. Tyrion isn't finished discussing; now he complains that it would be faster to travel by sea; Ilyrio explains that autumn is "a season rife with storms, and pirates still make their dens upon the Stepstones (...)" - I get the feeling here that Martin is so wrapped up in his world that he feels the need to over-explain everything; Martin wants Tyrion to travel by litter because this serves the plot outline, and as such Illyrio's explanations feel a bit like authorial intrusion - especially when Tyrion counters again with "There are pirates on the Rhoyne as well" - back and forth they discuss while I'd be perfectly content with them traveling overland just because. However, their discussion also sets up the so-called stone men, which we haven't heard of before, though, again, any brand-new things introduced in book five gives me that tacked-on feeling, because the first three books are so ingrained into my being. The new stuff still feels like it comes out of nowhere. I blame the endless delays between books; they lose cohesiveness because of this (and maybe stone men have been mentioned before and I have forgotten, always an option). Anyway, once Tyrion mentions the stone men Illyrio shuts down the discussion, which is of course a big warning signal to the reader that these stone men will come into play - there's a hint that the stone men are related to "disease and death" (as Illyrio puts it), and I like how Martin restrains himself from revealing too much at once. Just another tiny piece of the growing puzzle.
Bitterly, Tyrion remembers how he fired the crossbow and killed his own father, and bitterly he thinks that he never had a mother. This wouldn't be a George R.R. Martin chapter without some lavish descriptions of what is arguably the author's favorite thing, food. While swaying from side to side in the litter, Tyrion nibbles on spiced sausages, drinks dark smokeberry brown (a wine I guess? I don't believe we've heard of this one before? A whiskey perhaps?), eats jellied eels (eew!!) and drinks Dornish reds (that's a more familiar fare). But hold your horses right there, we're not done yet! There's also sliced ham, of course, and boiled eggs, roasted larks stuffed with garlic and onions, pale ales and Myrish fire wines. Both Tyrion and I are itching with impatience. Yes, a paragraph on food is well within the style of A Song of Ice and Fire, though I kind of wish that it didn't feature quite so often in quite so list-like...lists...especially when the world has basically gone to hell; HOWEVER, I hope and trust in Martin to have focused so much on food precisely to take it all away from the characters once winter really hits. Once all those lavish descriptions are but memories from a better time...well, he's got a great shot at playing with contrast between the bountiful summer that was and the famine sure to follow with the coming of winter, know what I mean? And it is one more thing that makes me doubt he can finish the story in just two more books. Shrug.
Tyrion basically begins bothering Illyrio with the age-old question "Are we there yet?" and worries that by the time he reaches Daenerys, her dragons will have grown larger "than Aegon's three". Illyrio's reply is suitably vague, which makes me wonder just how detailed his plans truly are; could Martin be making it up as he goes and not have a solid, secret plan that Illyrio follows? With so many years between books, I'm kind of growing tired of wondering about all the small and big secrets in the series and I kinda wish Martin could be a little bit more upfront through his characters, if only to get closure on at least a few things. Tyrion does prod the Hutt, though, trying to figure out what exactly is motivating this man - and why he would care who wears the crown in Westeros. Illyrio at first attempts to play all innocent, but comes off as coy; Tyrion reads him like a book (on dragons): "Next you will be offering me a suit of magic armor and a palace in Valyria" he thinks, which is a roundabout way of saying he doesn't believe Illyrio's explanation for one second.
Illyrio then tells Tyrion about Daenerys: How she was "half a child" when she came to him, and how she was so lovely he was tempted to claim her; he reveals that he didn't believe Daenerys would survive among the horselords (the Dothraki) which begs the question, if he didn't believe that, why marry her off to Khal Drogo? Because she was a "fearful and furtive thing", a Targaryen he believed would not live up to that dynasty's name (as opposed to a certain Young Griff we'll meet later?) This comment suggests to me that Illyrio married her off when he learned about the existence of Young Griff, then gambled on the wrong horse - it was Dany who turned out to have the "blood of the dragon", after all. It makes sense - plans were made, and plans were changed to accomodate the new situation, and now he supports Daenerys Targaryen's claim, at least until further notice.
Oh, all right, Illyrio says that it was Viserys who gave Daenerys away to Khal Drogo, and I suppose that is technically correct, but I don't believe Illyrio would have let Viserys do this without his consent; it is also revealed that Viserys tried to rape Daenerys the night before her wedding, which doesn't exactly give the character more points. Not that he had any to begin with. Viseryes truly must be the most patethic character in the whole saga. Illyrio goes on to confirm that Daenerys indeed is a true Targaryen, and that he has tried to pick her up, but has been hindered; and while he has been unable to assist her, she has shown the world she doesn't really require assistance; she's conquered several cities and is poised to take more.
Tyrion learns that he's on his way to Volantis, where he will meet this Griff. Tyrion goes into ponder mode, trying to dig up any info on that city from the hard drive behind his eyes. Cue exposition, which fortunately is spiced with dialogue to break it up a bit. Tyrion continues to prod the magister who finally submits that his motivation is to become the master of coin of Westeros...which strikes me as bullshit. I mean, he basically lives a richer (in terms of wealth) life than a master of coin would, so it doesn't make sense at all. Does Tyrion think this as well? I have to flip the page to find out. One moment.
Mmm. Not sure how I should read Tyrion's reaction: He snorts wine back up the "scarred stump that had been his nose" and says his father would have loved to hear that (that IIlyrio could win Casterly Rock); Illyrio says he doesn't care about a rock, and that he has all he needs already, which is kind of answering my point above, but then he goes on to kind of exalt the position of master of coin as if it is some grand, lofty achievement...and it just doesn't ring true to me at all. This grand conspiracy just for the title and position as master of coin? It strikes me as particularly weak, and I hope Martin isn't actually thinking this is enough to establish character motivation. Illyrio also mentions something about having "debts of affection to repay", and that certainly sounds like there's more to his scheming than just another boring power grab. And yes, Tyrion thinks, "Liar," and I'm glad for it. I wonder how well Tyrion reads the magister here, and vice versa...it certainly makes a rather tedious chapter - we're still in the litter - a little bit more interesting once you see that they are gauging each other, trying to figure out the riddle that is the other person...and it feels as if Tyrion isn't quite sure how to tackle this fellow of voluminous stature.
Next up is the story of how Illyrio and Varys became best friends forever <3. Seeing as we're being told not to trust anything Illyrio says ("Liar") I'm not sure how much I should invest in this particular tale - who knows how true it really is? Anyway, Varys was a "prince of thieves" (boy, do I love the overture of the movie, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves feat. Kevin Costner - that particular heroic music has been the backdrop of many a heroic roleplaying game campaign) and learned to spy on other thieves and they began working together, both growing rich; the story explains how Varys became a user of "little birds" - or "mice", back then - and it all sounds plausible; they began to steal secrets instead of riches, and then King Robert Baratheon heard of this prince of thieves and hired him into his council. Well, whatever. It works for me, whether it is true or not. But I would like to know if this is the actual backstory or if Mopatis is hiding something, or distorting something...
Seems Varys has been telling Mopatis about Tyrion, how he's got a quick wit; which I guess Varys experienced first-hand during A Clash of Kings where Tyrion and Varys routinely were close to each other. So they want Tyrion to assist them, because he's so clever - because he plays the game of thrones well. The magister drifts off to sleep, barely ahead of my good self, because nipples on a breastplate, people, nothing has actually happened in this chapter. Tyrion drinks some more, and yawns, he's getting tired of this too, and he tells himself if he drinks enough, he'll dream of dragons. Which is another hint in a long line of hints that there's something about Tyrion and, well, dragons. Martin hammers the point home by going back in time to Tyrion's childhood when he "often rode dragons through the nights". Tyrion is so going to get his own dragon. And I kind of wish that for him, after all he's been through. If Martin keeps subverting and playing with the tropes, though, he may be setting us up with false expectations and hope.
Right. Tyrion is so stuffed with stuff he's got to undo his belt. Illyrio snores, leather straps can be heard, the slow clop of the hooves on the hard road blablabla, and so he falls asleep.
Yeah lots of talk and exposition and backstory, and I'm sure it will come in handy in time, but right now I'm hankering for some actual stuff to happen - some exterior action, please. He wakes up. Next day. The horses plod on. He looks out to watch a Valyrian road, because he's never seen one before. Or because the author wants to show off some world building. This book feels more and more like a setting sourcebook for a roleplaying game and less like a fast-paced, tense story of war and strife and magic. At least in this chapter. He wonders why the Targaryens stopped at Dragonstone (and didn't conquer the rest of Westeros) and that is a great question. Suffering from a hangover, he refuses to complain about it; and first thing in the morning Illyrio tells him they're going to drink more. Blackberry wine it is. Tyrion tells him he dreamed of "the queen" (interestingly he doesn't mention which queen, though the context suggests it is Daenerys), because in the dream he swears his allegiance (which he will do), however in the dream she mistakes him for Jaime and feeds him to the dragons. Now, this could of course be Martin describing Tyrion's frame of mind (brother-envy), but it could also mean something for the future of his story; we'll just have to wait and see.
Illyrio repeats that Tyrion is clever as Varys had said, as if Martin wants to make sure we understand that, hammering us over the head with this plot point: Daenerys needs a clever man to aid her, not just stoic knights. So Illyrio is sending Tyrion in his stead, and he says Dany will make good use of him, whatever that could mean. Words are wasted on describing a break so Illyrio can relieve himself, and Tyrion using that time to inspect the road a little closer...and boy do we get a good look at this particular road. It is an excellent road compared to the muddy trails of Westeros, and maybe it will have some impact on the future story; it would help explain the speed of a moving army, for example. He sees a pile of warm dung by one of the horses, reminding him of his father. I guess that one counts as somewhat funny, too. But so far, much of the wit that came with a Tyrion chapter is drained away, partially because Tyrion is in a different place now, both physically and mentally. But I do miss the good ol' Tyrion. I know the story kind of has to go to a mentally darker place for Tyrion but that doesn't mean I have to like it. It's subjective, of course. But a little more of his dry wit and sense of irony wouldn't hurt, no?
In a shocking turn of events, Illyrio produces a bag of roasted chestnuts and gives Tyrion another lecture about Daenerys, and there's some meta-irony to be found here ("By now she will have left Meereen, we must assume") but generally it's just a summary to give Tyrion the bare-bones knowledge he otherwise wouldn't have regarding Dany. It gets a little more interesting when Tyrion asks about this "Griff" who is supposed to be this great fellow who will "know what to do". Again, Tyrion notices how Illyrio seemingly places a lot of trust in people; either he's shrewd enough to realize Illyrio is playing the game badly, or he's too dim to realize Illyrio is playing him. At any rate, I just can't stand the name "Griff", it completely takes me out of a story that so far has piled awesome name after awesome name and cool monikers and nicknames after another from a seemingly endless supply, but "Griff"? If it had been "Griffin", or "Griffon", I'd be more partial to it. Perhaps even with an adjective for a dash of badassery - the "Mad Griffin", or the "Maimed Griffin", or the "Griffinblade", or whatever. Minor nitpick, though.
Here we see, by the way, how Illyrio does bend the truth as he says that Griff is "a sellsword, you would call him, but Westerosi born". Griff turns out to be quite more than a sellsword, but technically he is a sellsword, too. On a first read, you won't know of course, and to be honest when Griff's real name came up I still didn't know whether I should be awed by the genius of having this character's identity revealed (when Jon Connington is barely mentioned - he is mentioned, but in a story so long it becomes hard to remember such a minor background character)...anyway, Illyrio assures Tyrion that he would trust Griff "as a brother", so to me it now becomes obvious that Illyrio is saying it, but probably has other means to ensure loyalty beyond such niceties as brotherhood. What surprises me is how dim Tyrion seems in the face of this giant mass of a wily man. "Another mortal error," Tyrion thinks when Illyrio mentions how he trusts Griff; shouldn't Tyrion see through this deception, as evidenced by him managing to run seven freaking kingdoms rather succesfully two books earlier? It feels out of character that Tyrion now seems unable to gauge Illyro Mopatis' intentions and motivations. I guess you could say that he's so mired in hopelessness after his kinslaying, that he's unable to be at full capacity intrigue-wise. But something about this conversation rings hollow to me, as if the character of Tyrion has regressed rather than being in a state of progression. Also, they fricking talk all day long.
Mopatis reveals kind of out of the blue that the Golden Company marches toward Volantis to await the coming of Daenerys - another element barely mentioned and probably forgotten by 99% of the readers (everyone but the corest of the hardcore) ... if this company has been mentioned at all..maybe in Feast and that's why I am having trouble with it now? At any rate, Martin places some convenient exposition in the two characters' dialogue to bring me up to date. Why Tyrion thinks, "Beneath the gold, the bitter steel" is beyond me, though. I know there was a character Bittersteel (a Targaryen bastard IIRC) who probably founded the company and there's some link between him and uhm Bloodraven. Again, IIRC. I guess that when almost entirely new elements are added to the tapestry, I just wish that they were better telegraphed in advance which of course is near impossible to do when you write like Martin does. And yet, and yet...the first three books were absolutely sublime when it came to foreshadowing. Then wham-pa-poo-pa come books four and five and they feel like a different story where everything is slowed down, with a lot of entirely new elements...Of course, I don't mind expanding the setting to accomodate for more goodness, but to me it feels like Martin takes it too far in the sense that the tale does indeed get bloated...or it may just be my subjective opinion that the story of the war in the Riverlands and the political intrigue in King's Landing was just way more interesting than obese cheesemonger masterminds, knights named Duck, etc. Oh man, Quentyn is up next. How am I going to get through that one?
So the Golden Company broke their contract with Myr, possibly the city was paid off by Mopatis, Griff is part of that company, and the company awaits Dany, presumably to join her forces. Mopatis also suggests that someone had to die for the contract to be broken ("Some contracts are writ in ink, and some in blood" - though this could also be subtle foreshadowing of Young Griff, the contract being the blood of the dragon shared between him and Dany, if he's the real thing). Oh here comes the backstory I wondered about - the company was indeed founded by Bittersteel and he was a bastard son of Aegon the Unworthy; so hey, I actually remembered something. But boy does Tyrion know a lot we didn't know he knew about this company.. here they are, still in that damned litter, talking talking talking. Yes, they are moving toward a destination, but there's something about the way it is written that kills all sense of urgency, and there's not much friction or anything between Tyrion and Illyrio. Compare this to the sparks flying between Tyrion and Tywin, Tyrion and Bronn, Tyrion and Cersei, Tyrion and Jon Snow, Tyrion and Sansa, Tyrion and Shae...but seriously - this should be in The World of Ice and Fire rather than A Dance with Dragons:
"When another Aegon's Great Bastards tried to seize the Iron Throne from his trueborn half-brother, Bittersteel joined the revolt. Daemon Blackfyre had perished on the Redgrass Field, however, and his rebellion with him. Those followers of the Black Dragon who survived the battle yet refused to bend the knee fled across the narrow sea, among them Daemon's younger sons, Bittersteel, and hundreds of landless lords and knights who found themselv..."
Oh, why bother. Suffice to say, this bit is twice as long with purely historical information presented in a dry, well, history book-manner. It's one of the flaws of Martin's later works, in my opinion. The story comes to a screeching halt, as we are filled in on backstory that might become important to understand events later but right now feels like so much filler. Read it to someone not intimately familiar with the series and they're bound to ask, "That's from the world book, right?" The sense that Martin has grown in love with his setting, but perhaps lost some passion for his story seems to me quite apparent here, but of course we'll never know all the complications that have lead to A Song of Ice and Fire turning from the greatest fantasy literature known to men to a quagmire.
And then Illyrio falls asleep again, just like that. Fortunately, to up the tension I suppose, it gives Tyrion time to...brood. And through brooding, more exposition; how Ser Barristan Selmy had cut a bloody path through the ranks of the Golden Company...sure, by knowing this we'll hopefully be more invested in a possible confrontation between Selmy and the golden boys, but come on. I want to enjoy Tyrion Lannister's story, now. Golden boys...mmm, is there some dramatic irony coming up; gold has always been associated with the Lannisters, and now we get the Golden Company. Maybe we'll end up with Tyrion leading them into war, the dwarf nestled atop one of Dany's dragons?
When Illyrio wakes up again there's, wait for it, some food going on. Seriously. By now I am not very interested in cold capon and carrots, raisins, lime or even oranges, sweet though they are. I want this chapter to get somewhere. But it feels like it never ends. Stuffing himself, Illyrio
Blah blah now they even begin to recite, from memory, religious stuff. Count me out of it. And all of a sudden Tyrion decided, in his younger days, to become a septon? Where did that come from? Martin obviously needs Tyrion not only to have a great deal of knowledge about dragons, but religion, too. It feels so tacked on I half expect a post-it note in the book with Martin's scribbles on it.
The chapter goes on and on. Illyrio now tells the tale of Serra, a woman with big blue eyes and pale golden hair streaked by silver. A prostitute Illyrio decided to marry. Kind of similar to Tyrion's story with Tysha. So similar, that you may suspect Illyrio of making this up to gain Tyrion's trust...maybe? More exposition follows, on the grey death, a plague that killed this Serra; this is followed by another passage from The Seven-Pointed Star courtesy of Tyrion who up to this point never seemed to have much theological knowledge (and this is really infuriating even if you'd call it a nitpick, it takes me out of the story where I spend more energy wondering why we didn't know earlier that Tyrion knew so much from the holy book; I mean, he had a thousand chances to reflect upon this part of his background in the previous books as he stood groom before a septon, and had other dealings with clergy). It feels like a retcon, and it is a retcon, and hence one of the many reasons I find Dance an inferior piece.
By now, I have lost the will to read on, to be honest. The chapter's just too loaded with exposition and setting description and while it may all come to use later, it doesn't really help me right now. Before, Martin effortlessly wedded exposition and plot development and it was fricking unbelievably enjoyable. Now it's dry and stale and at times kills my suspension of belief in the story (Tyrion's "religious" background). Mopatis drones on about the lands they travel through. Who lives there, what they do. Martin having to explain why the Dothraki haven't attacked because, yeah, why wouldn't they have decimated all civilization around them anyway?
Young Griff is introduced. Tyrion is sleepy. I WONDER WHY!!!!
Tyrion dreams of a battle that "turned the hills of Westeros as red as blood." Well I guess that's the action I'm going to get. Yeah no I don't need violence to keep me entertained, but I do require some sense of movement, of plot development. The dream doesn't come off as very prophetic the way they can be, because Martin doesn't write it with any immediacy; it is referred to after Tyrion wakes up again. Anyway, the dream could be foreshadowing Tyrion killing Jaime. As any good valonquar would do. Waking up, Tyrion asks where they are and they are still in the goddamned Flatlands. And more setting background is provided, this time about a place I have never heard of before called Ghoyan Drohe which was reduced to ashes by dragons.
More sleeping. More waking. The Velvet Hills prove a disappointment. Well then don't mention them. They "joke" about calling the hills tits. It doesn't have one percent of the zing I'm used to from this series. It just sounds...tired. They pass a circle of stones. A huge sphinx. An omen that the queen lacks a king.
Drinking himself stupid (out of boredom) Tyrion begins to sing. The good ol' classic about hands of gold always being cold. You know, the lines that foreshadow Jaime crushing Cersei's windpipe. Then, memories of killing Shae to remind the patient reader what went on in Storm twelve years earlier. Then, memories of Tysha who we never met and thus, for my part anyway, don't care that much about. And then, to really make the chapter fly, it closes with the amazing cliffhanger of Tyrion falling asleep. Again.
I am literally happy to have finished this chapter. Probably for the very last time. No desire to reread this again. So ponderous, so unbalanced, with nothing to drive it forward but the eight mammoth draft horses. A definitive low in Tyrion's long line of excellent chapters, I can't help but get annoyed at the endless exposition. I don't really mind thorough immersion in a setting; heck, I even read setting sourcebooks for fun. It just doesn't work here, in this capacity, for me - I loved the first three books because of their pace, their unrelenting plot developments where each chapter brings you further into trouble. I'm not sure Dance would suffer if this chapter was cut as much as it would be better off without it. What in this chapter is absolutely necessary? It feels like a chapter where Martin had one or two things he absolutely had to include for the sake of the narrative; for example, the introduction or foreshadowing of Griff and the Golden Company, and then he wrote all this filler material around it just to make it a chapter. Sigh. Had I been his editor at this point I'd at the very least ask him to combine the two Tyrion chapters into one, by trimming away all the fat: Tyrion arrives in Pentos; talks with Illyrio; Illyrio tells him they must leave immediately, it is urgent; they leave in secrecy. Within this framework Martin could add the most necessary details through dialogue - but he could have created a little tension by showing us how they leave the city in absolute secrecy and perhaps Tyrion would glimpse someone watching him, you know, for that sense of urgency and danger.
All that being said, wow. Next is Quentyn's debut chapter, and one I remember as being the worst offender when it comes to plodding in the entire book that is A Dance with Dragons. I must needs brew a large supply of coffee for that one.
Until then! For my geekery pleasures this week I'll be trying to beat that unbeatable werewolf in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, gain a rank or two in Star Wars Battlefront, continue my roleplaying game campaign (celebrating it's twelfth year this year), read The Thousand Names and a host of RPG products I love flipping through whenever I can, and continue with my latest project, which is writing an adventure module for Dungeons & Dragons, to be published at Dungeon Master's Guild once I have ironed out the wrinkles and made sure it is legal to publish. It's a fun story, I believe, set in the world of the Forgotten Realms. I'm facing one particular challenge, though. The way I have run the Realms is a whole lot grittier and a lot less gimmicky than the way the setting is presented in official material; and as such I may not be hitting the target audience. Ah well, it costs nothing but blood, sweat and tears to publish it, so we'll see how that goes.