Monday, April 11, 2016

[Re-read] The Return of Mercantile Action and ADVENTURE

Well, wow. It's been the busiest few months since forever, and Quentyn had to take a backseat to, well, everything. I can't even begin to summarize what life's been like, and I won't, because that's fricking boring. It's been...complicated. Difficult. I haven't had the time to read anything, in fact, so I'm still stuck with Wexler's The Thousand Names, and I will have to start Dancer's Lament anew as I had to completely drop that read, too. Oh well. 

It's April 11th already, and Game of Thrones season six is looming closer, and I suppose the world is waiting with baited breath, asking questions like, WILL Quentyn Martell appear? but I really ain't feeling it. Not just because I am frustrated by getting the story's continuation through the television medium as opposed to the real thing - which is the book - but also because the world outside Martin's towers is moving on: Not one, but two new Malazan books, one penned by the inimitable, amazing Erikson. Abercrombie is throwing us a collection of short stories and is writing the next trilogy in that black comedy fantasy world of his. Star Wars is making me excited again, begging me to forgive the prequel trilogy and join back in on the fun with not only a sequel trilogy but standalone "A Star Wars Story" (the trailer for Rogue One is blowing my mind) and then there have been some new stars on the fantasy horizon that beg to be checked out, as always. Exploring Quentyn's story becomes more a chore compared to all this mind-bending fantasy entertainment available, but a man must persevere, and so here I at long last return with the second half of my re-read of Quentyn's first chapter, "The Merchant's Man". The time it has taken just to get through this one chapter is oddly how I feel time flows when reading "The Merchant's Man": Excruciatingly slow. Now, before you accuse me of being a dumbass who only wants action11!!!!1 and that I can't appreciate the finer arts of a more relaxed story-telling....I'm fine with experimental approaches, but this is A Song of Icy Cold Deathly Ice and Flaming Smoldering Burning Roaring Fire and I came aboard for the excellent, dare I say unique, combination of action, intrigue, medieval fantasy, well-written characters and the sense that anything could happen, not dwarf elephant cabs. Why, oh why, couldn't Martin rein in the exposition and give us the neatly trimmed excellence of the first books? (I know the answer. The story got away from him. He is more interested in worldbuilding than story writing now. Etc etc.) What I'm trying to say is that perhaps Martin should've taken more care of making books 4 and 5 stylistically similar to I-III. Or at least tried to smooth the transition. And now I'm going to shut up and actually get this over and done with. See you after the break.
Okay, that was weird. I opened Kindle and began to read and it took me like half a page to realize I was reading Ian C. Esslemont's Assail. The funny thing was that the first line was about "the ports are seething", so I forgive myself. Right. Back to A Dance with Dragons. The latest Ice and Fire novel. Hot off the presses, the damned thing is soon celebrating its fifth anniversary. 

Right. So they arrive at the four-story tall Merchant's House. A not so subtle cameo by the dwarves who performed at Joffrey's wedding outside. Gerris says they should watch the performance (feat. pig) but Quentyn has no need for comic dwarfs. While I agree that comic dwarfs isn't the best kind of entertainment, the inclusion of them here is both blunt setup for Penny later, and to further paint Quentyn as the most boring Martell (or indeed, any character) of the saga. I get that Martin wants some contrast and not every character can be ass-kicking fun to read about, but how much more entertaining could "The Merchant's Man" have been if Quentyn was more like his uncle? Or, just for the sake of variation, a character with some disturbing or evil traits? Anything but what we get would be fine with me. Because, I want to be entertained, especially by the continuation of the best story ever put down to paper. 

We're given a paragraph's worth of description of the Merchant's House through Quent's POV; it tells us that this is a place where people from all over Essos meet; a place of color and many languages, I assume (the text doesn't show me what Merchant's House is like; it just tells me that the place is full of traders from here and there, with the last addition, "masked shadow-binders from Asshai by the Shadow" perhaps the most intriguing. Martin, whom I heralded as the greatest fantasy writer of all times, eskews showing for telling. I can hardly believe it is the same author here. Seriously. A perfect example to illustrate why I feel Dance is technically inferior to books I-III. YES Martin does show some flawed writing in the first three books as well, but to my senses it becomes more prominent, more often, in books four and five. At times I do wonder whether there's a ghost writer involved, helping Martin get his stuff done. Because Mr. Martin, you are better than this. Next, because, you know, you can't just simply walk into the Merchant's House before observing everything on the outside, Quentyn spots "a trestle table set up in the shade and decorated with blue-and-white pennons that flutter" (who said Martin is getting overly detailed?) featuring a few sellswords that so obviously are put into the painting as a first introduction (these sellswords are the Wind-blown). I can almost feel Quentyn stopping as he exits the cab, waiting for the author to paint the scene for him before he can walk into it, know what I mean? "Wait, wait," George whispers to Qyentyn. "Not so fast. Let me just paint this table over here, and ooooh, look how the pennants flutter, and here we have these guys..." (Quentyn whispers to George: "Am I supposed to know these guys?" George: "Uhm, yes yes, you know them as the Windblown. Now you can think, these guys are going to fight against Daenerys." Is it the obviousness of Martin's plotting here that drags it down for me? Were new elements woven into Martin's foreshadowing in a better way in the first books, or am I being overly critical and this is the way it always was done in I&F: with a sledgehammer. BAM! To the face. THESE ARE THE WINDBLOWN. BAM. CRUSH TEETH. 

Sigh. Sorry.

At least there's some interaction with the Wind-blown mercenaries around the table, to give them more life and not just be scenery. Not that the dialogue amounts to much in terms of importance to the plot; the dialogue is merely in place to expand upon the Wind-blown as a faction; in essence, we're told that their leader is a character known as The Tattered Prince, and that these fellows are rather care-free assholes. In the Kindle copy I have, one of them says, "We're the Windblown, and we fuck the goddess slaughter up her arse." I have no idea what this sentence is supposed to mean. A goddess of slaughter? It's such a clunky (and uncouth!) line, the inclusion of "slaughter" kind of clunks up the whole thing. Oh well. Maybe it's one of the MAAAAAAAAAAANY editorial mistakes.

Oh finally they open the door to the Merchant's House. Who would've thought we'd reach this point (of entry, hohoho)? What a blistering narrative we have on our hands here! No but seriously. This chapter encapsulates so much of what went wrong with the story (in my opinion); and I hope that by pointing out elements here and also there, I can at least make others aware of why people like yours truly have a hard time buying into Martin's "recent" work. The narrative here is so ponderous I want to tear my hair out. And then they came to the door...

Inside, the "big man" awaits them. Because before you can learn more you have to learn that he is called "big man". Because he is big. You don't have to give all characters a nickname Mr. Martin. Leave a little for the rest of us trying to write medieval fantasy, geez. Big Man is Ser Archibald Yronwood, perhaps not the most smoothly-rolling-off-the-tongue character name but still, good to read about someone sounding like they're from Westeros, the continent I have been deeply invested in for the last three books; the continent that the story, arguably, is about. Fuck dwarf elephants! 

I admit I laughed when Archibald says, "I was about to go out looking for you." After the never-ending sight-seeing trip it feels hilariously misplaced; Archibald should've been out looking for them back in January. Archibald had a childhood malady, by the way, that made his hair fell out. Uhm, George, wouldn't that be a more interesting source for a nickname? I thought we had a pattern here in this saga; maladies are almost by default a nickname source - not always but oh well. I guess Hairless Man was too weird. Big Man it is!

Archibald, then, has been staying back to guard the party's belongings which shows that Quentyn is at least somewhat smart. Or he's been playing Dungeons & Dragons in the Water Gardens with Doran. Doran could have been a great gamemaster. He's always got the time to sit down and run a game, and he's a (hopefully) cunning plotter. Back to business!

Quentyn tells Archibald they've got a ship, and delivers the chapter's finest line of dialogue, "but only as far as the nearest hell." That's a spicy sentence right there. Archibald says it would be wiser to take the demon road (sounds smart, Ser); oh my god, I'm on the last page of the chapter. A tear springs unbidden to the eye. Two tears. One for seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, one for the utterly dispensable, plodding, boring, un-spirited drivel that this chapter is, so sharply, so accutely unimpressive compared to anything from the first three books. You could say I'm quite happy we don't have too many Quentyn chapters (and I'll eat my recently acquired Han Solo costume if Quentyn ends up in the TV show). Anyway. The last paragraph is looming like a final obstacle.

So this whole chapter is basically about Quentyn and Gerris procuring passage on a ship to take them to Alderaan Slaver's Bay and then in the final paragraph ... Gerris is like, "No way am I going to travel with that ship"? And I'm like WTF DUDE YOU LITERALLY SPENT THE LONGEST CHAPTER IN THE HISTORY OF CHAPTERS NOT TELLING QUENTYN YOUR OPINION ABOUT SAILING WITH THE ADVENTURE!?! It's like George suddenly decided, "Naw fuck it I'm going to become a terrible writer now." It's so confusing borntolosing and maybe, (I hope), maybe I'm just too dense and I should've understood that Gerris wasn't keen on the plan? If you do think I'm too dense, feel free to enlighten me. Valar Mustlearnis. 

"You've got a better way?" Quentyn asks Gerris, quickly before the chapter's over. And Gerris is like yeah man, "It's not honorable but it will get you to Daenerys quick as fuck, man. Quicker than the demon road even."

Okay let me try to think back on this chapter. Gerris must have thought Adventure was their best option for a while. Then at the end he's like NO WAY BALLS AM I GOING TO SHIP SHIPPING so something must have given him the idea between the chapter's beginning and the chapter's end. Ah, I'm onto something. He realizes that they can use dwarf elephants to race across Essos. It would make for an interesting sight. But I kid, I kid.
There's one particular sequence that Martin throws at us with his plot-hammer and that is the Wind-blown. Gerris of course realizes that by joining the Windblown they can reach Daenerys.


I'm going to call Martin out on it, sorry if you're a fan of this chapter. This is a terribly plotted, hamfisted, boring slug of a chapter that does so little compared to the amount of space it wastes that it is laughable. I can think of a hundred (okay, twelve) plots for this chapter that would kick anyone's ass. I mean, the chapter has two clear goals (IMO): 1) Introduce us to, and characterize, Quentyn "Zzz" Martell and 2) Have Quentyn join the Windblown in an attempt to get his ass to Daenerys ASAP.  The rest of it is window dressing, blunt exposition and facepalm-foreshadowing. 

What is one of Martin's greatest strengths? Daring to make characters rude, uncouth, ruthless and fun. And some are quite clever, or gallant, or whathaveyou.

First priority: Make Quentyn either a relatable character (maybe people relate to him; I'm talking from my own personal view) or a thoroughly love-to-hate-character. I'd probably go with some interesting mix just to make the reader unsure (and thus, curious). 
Second: I'd make Quentyn a character with more agency; he might be driving the group in this storyline but his agency is muddled (for perfectly understandable reasons, plot-wise) - I'd at least give him a scene with Gerris where Quentyn reminds the other who's the fucking boss. You know, characters with agency read better than ... Quentyn Martell.
Third: Instead of spending an entire chapter on dwarf elephants and whatnot, have the focus be on the Windblown from the getgo; personally I'd be more interested in a chapter where Quentyn and Gerris are trying to convince the Windblown to have them join; there could even be tension as Quent has to work to keep his identity under wraps while at the same time convincing the Windblown they're good in a battle (and maybe, even, Quentyn could show some combat prowess to convince the Windblown of his prowess (and the reader).

I mean, before 2004, Martin could do no wrong. I could not imagine the story to be anything else. With books four and five I find myself dreaming up stories or choices because I feel it could've been done better. Presumptous? Yes, of course. I have not done such a massive undertaking as Martin has, and can only begin to imagine what it must be like to try and uphold momentum in such an epic, sprawling saga. I can't pretend to know why Martin makes his choices. All I'm saying is that "The Merchant's Man" could have been more interesting, more to the point, more in line with the story that preceeds it, than what we get here; it could easily have avoided some of the more glaring authorial mistakes; in short, it needs an editor who isn't afraid to call it crap. 

This chapter is one of the biggest dissapointments in the series for me, a chapter that illustrates in many ways why I am able to accept it with the kind of reverence I hold for books I-III.

All right! Let's hope I've got good things to say about the next chapter in the line. Until then - and I dearly hope I can get back on a semi-schedule with my blog - may the Seven be with you....always.

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