Wednesday, October 19, 2016

[Re-read] A Feast with Dragons, Chapter 18: Brienne II

All leather must be boiled! I'm back with another re-read post, this time we'll be delving into Brienne's second chapter in A Feast for Crows, the tenth chapter of that book and the eighteenth of the combined re-read. So many numbers. Head spinning. As I've noted over the past couple of re-reads I'm beginning to find an appreciation for Martin's two last books, an appreciation that I went in wanting to find, 'cause I was pretty negative toward both Feast and Dance upon their releases, and you know, maybe some of that is because I had to wait so goddamn long for these books that they couldn't possibly live up to the hype. Now, older and wiser, I can sit back and try and see what Martin did with Feast and Dance with a calmer perspective, the perspective of someone who's no longer on the barricades shouting "Finish the book, George!" but who still eagerly anticipates The Winds of Winter, but without the fury. 

Would still like to remind you, though, George, valar dohaeris! (That goes to you, too, Neil Gaiman with your silly sandman-books.) (I kid, Sandman is awesome. But Neil calling out ASOIAF-fans is something that still irks me. But as I said, they should realize that valar dohaeris.) D'oh!aeris

Click below to read the actual post on Brienne II (AFFC).. "Brienne" is, by the way, quite an unusual name, in the sense that it's not like most names in Westeros, amIrite? Can't think of, admittedly from the top of my head, any other name with -ienne but I'm prolly wrong. At any rate, there are more Jons and Pates than Briennes so I guess I'm right either way. And now! The post.

As we are often reminded, Brienne is looking for Sansa Stark. Many have complained that it feels pointless to read about Brienne's quest because we already know where Sansa Stark is holed up (at the Eyrie), but of course that is kind of missing the point. I assume, as other more vocal defenders of A Feast for Crows do, that the point isn't the destination (Sansa), but the journey, which allows Martin to delve deeper into the character of Brienne of Tarth (and she's most likely a very interesting and fun type of character to explore for a writer), and allows Martin to show us the state of southern Westeros in the aftermath of the War of the Five Kings; and, this is speculation on my part, there always was an endgame, but it wasn't Sansa - it was Lady Stoneheart. More on that when we get there. It's a long and arduous road, like Brienne's, but as of right now we have but begun that journey.

Martin sets the stage immediately - we are at the gates of Duskendale, and they are closed and barred, as they should be in these troubled times (also, Martin needs to present many obstacles for Brienne to overcome in order to get a proper story out of this). As always Martin paints a few broad loving strokes to make Duskendale come alive: "the town walls shimmered palely" (though I'm not sure that's a very good sentence, what with the adverb 'palely' in there), "wisps of fog", wagons drawn up outside the gates waiting for them to open. It feels properly medieval, and as you might have gathered from earlier posts I'm really a big fan of the 'medieval' part of Martin's medieval fantasy story. It gives A Song of Ice and Fire much of its identity.

Nobody talks to Brienne but they give her "curious glances", probably because she's an oversized woman in armor. It is revealed that Brienne has always found it hard to speak to strangers - a nice little character detail right there, and once I can relate to (ahem). Still, she clears her throat and speaks to a woman with a turnip cart in front of her in the long line of wagons, and guess what she asks? Yup, she asks for "a young maid, three-and-ten and fair of face, with blue eyes and auburn hair", at once reminding us of her quest and reminding us of Brienne's tenacity. The woman and her husband, probably two farmers come to town to sell their turnips in proper medieval fashion, are kind of funny in a Dolorous Edd-like way: When Brienne says Sansa may be accompanied by a drunken knight, the husband replies "Then she's no maid, I'll wager" (disturbing but droll, I suppose), and when he says the roads "are full of nameless girls", his wife adds, "The lichyard's even fuller" (again, classic Macabre R.R. Martin). I believe this is the first and maybe even only instance where Martin employs the word 'lichyard', by the way.

Eventually the gates open and guards wave the wagons through, but they tell Brienne to halt, and ask her purpose in Duskendale. She tells them she seeks the Lord of Duskendale (or his maester), the captain's eyes linger on her shield, complaining that the black bat of House Lothston is a bad omen. She tells him she'll have the shield repainted, after all, it was just one she grabbed somewhere. Surprisingly, instead of giving her more trouble (as you might expect from Martin), the captain tells her he has a sister in town who can repaint her shield, and lets her through. A male background character showing almost no misogynistic tendencies! Well, he does say, "It's a wench" as if he couldn't imagine Brienne being anything but a harmless dolt, but still. Not bad, captain of Duskendale. All right, so she enters a market square and you know what that means - time for a list. Turnips, yellow onions, barleycorn, arms, armor, mail shirts (caked with brown blood - battlefield loot - cool detail), leather boots, dinted helms, notched longswords, fur cloaks, surcoats with suspicious rents, many of these items displaying the sigils of Northern noble families, as well as Stormlands families and, mentioned specifically, House Tarly (which is clever, since Brienne will have a close encounter with someone from that particular house - once again, admirable writing). Sometimes Martin's lists work just fine, this is one of those instances because the "list" also tells a story, a story of fallen soldiers and where they came from, it's not just an inventory count or an endless list of food available on the table. The "story" behind all this stuff being sold in the marketplace is nicely summed up by Brienne herself: Friend or foe, the crows care not. Martin also weaves in a little lesson on the advantages of pine shields and for a moment my immersion is broken as it feels more like, well as I said, a lesson (but it's kinda cute that Brienne doesn't care that much for the shields on display because she means "to keep the heavy oaken shield Jaime had given her").

Next up, more world building! Duskendale is built around its harbor, chalk cliffs to the north, rocky headland to the south, castle overlooks port, square keep, drum towers, crowded cobbled streets, and the Seven Swords is the largest inn in town. Guys, girls, I know I'm repeating myself here but I'm really enjoying this stuff much more now. The short description of Duskendale is just enough to make me see it in my mind's eye and it gives off a warm, cozy, fuzzy feeling, one I usually feel when I play roleplaying games. If I ever run a Westeros-based RPG, I'll start out in Duskendale, it sounds like such an archetypical fantasy game location, a magical place without the magic.

The Seven Swords Inn is easy to find, but before entering Brienne entertains herself by studying its double doors, because they are painted "gorgeously". Adverbs, George! Too many now. Anyway, I suspect he isn't just wanting to add detail here, but that he's trying to tell me something with the painting on the doors. Let's "see" - castle in autumn wood, trees in shades of gold and russet, ivy crawling up ancient oaks, acorns painted with loving care; creatures in the foliage, a sly red fox, two sparrows on a branch, the shadow of a boar.
Not much to go on, and I'm not the best interpreter of metaphor or visual clues, but well, it tells us/reminds us we're in autumn now (and winter is coming), the sly red fox could be Ser Shadrich, the sparrows perhaps obviously Sparrows, you know, foreshadowing her meeting with religious characters, and the shadow of a boar could simply mean "the death of King Robert Baratheon" or the results of that sad demise, I don't know. Still, nice paintings adorning doors is another element that gives Duskendale its medievally feeling, so I approve (also the description doesn't go on and on so I didn't lose interest while reading). The captain's sister is cheerful until she sees the bat on Brienne's shield, at which point she deals out some folklore (where Martin again has the opportunity to play with foreshadowing or dealing out history in metaphor): "(...) giant bats flew out from Harrenhal on moonless nights, to carry bad children to Mad Danelle for her cookpots" . Honestly, though, I have no idea what it's supposed to mean if anything. Maybe it just is Martin sprinkling some folklore into his setting, and why not.

I'm not sure the novels ever gave us a good description of House Tarth's arms (I also wonder if Brienne's full name is simply Brienne Tarth, and I wonder why she's always "...of Tarth" when, for example, Jaime Lannister is never Jaime of Lannister). Anyway, the Tarth sigil is quartered rose and azure, with a yellow sun and crescent moon. However, Brienne opts for a different design for her shield and asks the captain's sister (she remains nameless) to paint her shield in the likeness of "an old shield I once saw in my father's armory". Martin doesn't reveal right away what design it is, opting to save it for later. I feel it's kind of a weird thing to postpone, it's not like it's an earth-shattering revelation that'll leave you gasping for breath when you learn her shield is based on Ser Duncan the Tall's shield (the guy better known as The Hedge Knight). It's like, no biggie (pun not intended; it seems Brienne is related to Dunk somehow, because they are both big, and of course, the link through the shield design here). Anyway that was a spoiler!

The woman promises to have the shield repainted by the morning, so Brienne is forced to stay in Duskendale for the night, which she hadn't meant to. That's another obstacle in her way, another prolonging of the quest. I like it in Duskendale, it sounds almost as if the war hasn't touched this place, as Martin uses very few negative adjectives to describe the place and/or atmosphere, as he usually does. And so she enters the Seven Sword Inn (no wonder I get the RPG vibes, huh). Seven wooden swords swing from an iron spike above the door, symbolizing the "seven sons of Darklyn who had worn the white cloaks of the Kingsguard". As it turns out, this is the most Kingsguard members a single House of Westeros has ever had, an honor and a glory for House Darklyn (and I'm like, who the fuck are the Darklyns?! - Martin just keeps expanding doesn't he); it's a first sign that things used to be better in Duskendale than they are now (but Duskendale is still a lot better than virtually any other place in Westeros at the moment).

As a serving woman prepares a bath for Brienne, the Maiden of Tarth asks for more lore about the Darklyns (you can practically hear Martin whispering in Brienne's ear, "Ask about the Darklyns!" because he wants to stuff some lore in, heh). The woman explains that there are no true Darklyns left, but a whole lot of Darkes, Darkwoods and Dargoods; the last true Darklyn was Lord Denys, whom she calls a "sweet young fool". She also explains that the Darklyns were kings in Duskendale before the Andals came and thus she has royal blood; here, Martin is once more playing with the notion of noble blood, perhaps to prepare us for the clash that will eventually come with Daenerys Targaryen, whose claims to the Iron Throne are rooted in the same notion. The bath tub reminds Brienne of Harrenhal, where she bathed with Ser Jaime Lannister, and she remembers him as "half a corpse" but also "half a god". The memory makes her blush, so without explicitly stating it, we begin to realize (and have perhaps already realized) that Brienne may just be infatuated with the Kingslayer, after all. It's an interesting - very interesting, I'd argue - dynamic between these two characters. It's like, I can't fucking wait for The Winds of Winter. Or any kind of closure, really. No, to the real story, not Game of Thrones skipping so much important characterization. The Brienne of the books is like 100 times more interesting than show!Brienne. Dammit now I'm using those exclamation marks, too.

So she takes a lukewarm bath, then gets dressed, then walks up to the castle of Duskendale, where she learns that Lord Rykker (the Lord of Duskendale) isn't at home - he rode off with none other than Randyll Tarly, to Maidenpool. That's the second mention of Tarly in this chapter. Something's going on. So, instead, Brienne is escorted to a guy called Leek (it rhymes, indeed, with Reek), a knight and now castellan in Lord Rykker's absence. Leek has only one leg. That's a sign of war, all right. She offers him 'her letter', but the knight is illiterate (another obstacle, minor as it is - still, nice medievally detail again; don't assume everyone can read); so Leek must send for the maester to read the letter. Oh, I admit I have forgotten the exact contents of the letter, but Martin deftly reminds me through the interaction of these characters; the maester becomes irritated by the mention of Ser Dontos Hollard, because a lot of people have already been here asking after that missing drunkard knight, including the gold cloaks of King's Landing. Brienne's letter has the seal of the king of everything, though, so the maester is forced to tell her everything he knows. It seems that the maester has a somewhat different understanding of the history of House Darklyn, which is nice to see; as to Ser Dontos and his lineage, the important bit is that the Hollards served the Darklyns, but were involved in the Defiance of Duskendale. It's another backstory in the tapestry of backstories, and it's hard to know how important it really is in the grand scheme of things; in what way, for example, does the Defiance matter to the endgame? To Jon Snow? Daenerys? Is this backstory another foreshadowing, telling a tale that will come true for other characters later? This Lord Denys Darklyn, he had a wife who was Myrish, and whom the people called a serpent, filling her husband's ear with poison - are we supposed to read Lady Taena Merryweather into this, Myrish swamp and all? Is Martin suggesting here, that Taena is indeed feeding Cersei poisonous lies? If yes, the story would also suggest that Cersei will capture a king - or, put her son Tommen into house arrest...'s kinda interesting, innit. Another interesting detail is that the Mad King, Aerys himself, actually spent six months inside this very castle Brienne is visiting, held captive by Denys Darklyn, with Lord Tywin Lannister, then the King's Hand, besieging Duskendale but unable to do anything because Denys threatened to kill the king. Cue Rainbow's classic Kill the King. Go on, it's a great rockin' tune.

Well, anyway, Ser Barristan Selmy manages to rescue Aerys, and Aerys then executes each and every Darklyn for the sins of their lord, and the Myrish wife/Lace Serpent is burned alive like a witch, and yeah, Martin basically gives the Darklyn a medieval ending (as opposed to a happy ending). And, for we are actually trying to talk about House Hollard here, since the Hollards were Darklyn bannermen, they were attainted and partially destroyed. The maester, now on a roll, adds more lore for us to digest with the aftermath of the Defiance and how it affected the Hollards, long story (that frankly bores me a bit) short, Ser Dontos is the last remaining Hollard. It was actually Ser Barristan that saved Dontos' life back then, by asking the king to spare him since he had not taken any part in the Defiance. Someone else feeling that some of these characters are a bit too much all over the place? I mean, Ser Barristan is like involved in so much backstory, did he ever have the time to visit the privy? It makes it seem a bit coincidental, but all right, I can live with this. Finally the maester tells Brienne to look for Sansa (and Dontos) elsewhere, which is true enough although his suggestions are all wrong.

Brienne walks back to the inn, knowing now that she won't find Sansa in Duskendale. She would not have gone to strangers, Brienne thinks and yeah, I can kind of understand why some readers want to pull their hair out because here Brienne is actually on to something but just as she thinks this thought (that could lead her to Sansa's aunt in the Eyrie) she begins to think about a meeting with one of Sansa's handmaidens back in King's Landing leading her kind of mentally astray. Oh wait, there you go, the thoughts actually lead her to Lysa Arryn (and Jon Snow, and Edmure Tully, Sansa's relatives), but Brienne has several to choose from without knowing which one to pick. She seems to decide on the Eyrie because it's closest, but suddenly she realizes she's come to a dead end, a muddy yard with pigs and an old woman. Point is she was so lost in thought, I suppose. When she turns back to find the Seven Swords Inn she bumps into a scrawny lad with straight, thin hair and a sty beneath one eye; he ends up on his ass in the mud. The way the boy searches for his words makes it clear that Brienne encounters Podrick Payne, Tyrion's former squire. Brienne realizes she has seen the boy before (indeed, he has been mentioned, casual-like, as being in the vicinity).

Finally returning to the inn, the common room is crowded. Many are eating hot crab stew. Eeeeeeew. She meets a dwarf who offers her his seat; not quite five feet tall, with red teeth and dressed in a monk's robes, this character surprises me now because I didn't remember he was a dwarf, as in an actual dwarf like Tyrion Lannister.  At this point, I'm ready for some more action, or something disturbing or thought-provoking (perhaps because I read so slowly when I want to catch the details and nuances when posting about it). There's another "straight from the Middle Ages" element when Martin describes the short fellow's tonsure, we learn that Brienne thinks of herself as slow (because her septa said so when she was a child). The dwarf tells her he belonged to some place near Maidenpool (a monastery?) but 'the wolves' (northmen) burned them out; I like how Martin kind of paints the Starks as the enemy here, after all, it's all in the eye of the beholder. They tried to rebuild, but then sellswords came and killed everyone (except the dwarf, who was able to hide). I notice a theme here in this chapter - the last Darklyn lord, the last of House Hollard, and now the last of the Maidenpool monks (and maybe, Brienne, the last true knight). The dwarf buried his fellow monks and fled. We learn that there are 'hundreds' of brothers, and septons, and smallfolk on the roads, and he calls them all Sparrows.

Brienne once more repeats her question (three-and-ten, yadayada), but he hasn't seen Sansa, but he did see a fool at Maidenpool, "clad in rags and dirt, but under the dirt was motley". The brother goes on to describe in more detail this fool; he saw him by the docks of Maidenpool, had a furtive air to him, and took care to avoid (here he comes again) Lord Tarly's soldiers. Well, at the moment, I am lost as to who this particular fool is supposed to be, but maybe I'll figure it out as I delve deeper into the feast. The dwarf also encountered the fool later, at the Stinking Goose (did George roll on a random tavern name generator or what?) where the fool tried to book passage for three across the narrow sea (here it's with lower letters again dammit isn't it supposed to be the Narrow Sea?). Anyway, three is not two (Sansa/Dontos), but it doesn't make it much clearer for me at the moment. But some of Lord Tarly's soldiers came looking for the fool at the Stinking Goose, and apparently the fool had paid someone (the soldiers?) for passage but he was duped out of his coin. Oh wait, it's the Brave Companions, wasn't there a motley-clad fool among them? Oh wait, and here the dwarf monk reveals that the one who 'fooled a fool' was a guy called Nimble yeah, I remember that name and some incident toward the end of Brienne's tale involving Brave Companions. Brienne buys the man a bowl of hot crab stew, bread, and wine for the tale. She wonders if the Imp could have joined Sansa and Dontos (to make it three as in the brother's story) but wouldn't the monk immediately say the 'fool' was a dwarf in that case? Brienne, thick as a castle wall, eh.

We are reminded that Brienne has been on the road to Maidenpool before, when Ser Cleos Frey died and she had been captured by the Bloody Mummers...aka the Brave Companions, interesting they should be mentioned so close to the brother's tale about the fool. I never had the impression during A Storm of Swords that Brienne, Jaime, and Cleos were on this side of the map during their misadventures, but there you go. Once again she loses herself in thoughts of Jaime, and the dwarf has to speak to break the spell. The brother tells her he is off to King's Landing (a tiny foreshadowing of the Faith converging on the capital city) and leaves.

Alone at the table, Brienne ponders her options. She remembers Maidenpool as a hellhole, and Randyll Tarly rules that town, so she doesn't want to go there. She could take a ship to Gulltown or White Harbor. Then she reconsiders Maidenpool, because she might pick up the trail of this Nimble Dick there, and it's possible to take ship there to get herself farther north.

The common room begins to empty. People are talking about the death of Lord Tywin; listening to tavern gossip. The RPG vibe remains strong. Seriously, if you're into fantasy and haven't played RPGs, try it. I mean, do or do not. There is no try. It's like being inside a novel kind of. It's also kind of like a drug, though. It was for me, at least. So many hours lost to these types of games when I was young-ish. Ahem. Someone in the tavern of course mentions Jaime.

That night she dreams that she is back in Renly's tent, and it's nice to get this scene from A Clash of Kings from Brienne's perspective (although warped by dream-dust), however, it very soon turns into something different because it is Jaime who is killed by the shadow sword. It seems logical that Brienne dreams Jaime into this memory, since she is thinking so much of him, but, knowing Martin, he might just be telling us something more - could Brienne be Jaime's killer, you know, in the very end? Right now I'm leaning toward Martin just showing us where Brienne is mentally. Not every character's dream can be prophetic. Besides, the last line kind of tells us that the dream represents Brienne's fear of failing her mission: "(...) was not Renly after all but Jaime Lannister, and she had failed him."

The next morning, the captain's sister (why didn't Martin give her a name when every other character has one?) presents the old shield with the new painting, "more a picture than a proper coat of arms", and for a moment Brienne remembers that moment when she first found said device of defense. She pays the woman some extra for the effort, buys some bread, cheese, and flour, then leaves the inn. Oh, and we learn that the shield displays a green tree and a falling star, linking up to The Hedge Knight.

Riding through fields ravaged by war, we are treated to a short description of what happened in the area, and again it's about Lord Randyll Tarly, who led Joffrey's forces here in battle against the northmen. Brienne finds a cairn marking the northerners' resting place. A wooden marker says Here lie the wolves. Brienne stops and says a prayer for them, for Catelyn and Robb as well. It brings back memories of the night Catelyn learned that her sons were dead (Bran and Rickon, said to have been murdered by Theon Greyjoy). Brienne remembers Catelyn talking about Sansa - the memory strengthens Brienne's resolve to find the girl.

Continuing, she passes fishing villages along the limestone hill coastal lands, passing fisherfolk. Guess what Brienne asks them, and guess how people react to her presence. Some offer her clams, some crabs, one boy offers her his sister (otherwise this wouldn't be Westeros). It begins to rain and the wind is rising; bad weather. She comes to a crossroads, one road leading to Crackclaw Point, the other to Maidenpool. A choice must be made, which road to take? There are some ruins here so she goes there to find shelter. Love the description of the ruins that once was a castle, really atmospheric. She realizes it used to be a Hollard castle. She leads her mare through the rubble and finds the main keep intact enough to shelter her from the rain. But really, in just a few sentences Martin just summons this place into being, the overgrown walls, the broken stones, the rain...and then she hears a horse coming closer. She retreats into the shadows, sees a small rider. At first she believes it's this shady fellow, Ser Shadrich the Mad Mouse...but just as it gets exciting Martin wanders off on a tangent and suddenly the text is about Humfrey Wagstaff (who?!), once betrothed to Brienne when she was sixteen. Now, I don't mind more backstory to flesh out Brienne's character but this is right in the middle of the most exciting thing the chapter has to offer - she's in a ruin, it's dark, it's raining, and someone's approaching. Her taking the time to reminisce about Mr. Wagstaff (did he wag his staff?) drains the tension out of the scene dammit. Martin saves himself somewhat with the outcome of Brienne and Humfrey's betrothal: "She broke Ser Humfrey's collarbone, two ribs, and their betrothal." Efficient writing right there. Right, back to the actually happening now stuffamagog!

No, wait. First we must remember that Brienne is as strong as most knights, how Ser Goodwin had taught her to fight cautiously...well, Ser Goodwin did have some very good points, I'll grant him that. The best one being, simply, "Men will always underestimate you." We already know it's true, but we are witnessing one man who is beginning to realize her capabilities (Jaime, of course).

Since the tension is gone anyway, Brienne kind of immediately recognizes the boy she had bumped into earlier - Podrick (though she doesn't know this as of yet). She now realizes at last that she is being stalked by this boy. She comes up behind him and once more Pod lands in the mud and now she demands to know who he is. It is revealed that he is indeed Podrick Payne, or Pod, and you know, why not go back in time and have another Brienne memory (sigh - I prefer to stay more in the present, get some plot moving, you know). Something about red-haired Ser Ronnet, yadayada, I'm not even sure why Pod triggered this particularly memory and by now I don't care because this chapter, while for the most beautifully written, doesn't have the same drive that made me fall in love with the series in the first place (and not because I can't appreciate "slowness" or "world-building" or whatever). Pod reveals he was the Imp's squire, and that he too is looking for Sansa, and, endearingly, he seeks her because if he can present her back to Tyrion, Tyrion might accept Pod back as his squire. That is all kinds of naive and cute, eh.

And that ends the chapter, for once a chapter ends not on a depressing note, or on a cliffhanger, or a combination of the two, but with naive cuteness. Say one thing about Martin, say he varies his stuff. Teehee Varys.

All right, a fairly nice chapter I must say, dragging a bit toward the end there, never spectacular, but I love the kind of "rustic" feel, as well as the adventure style of a player character (Brienne) on a quest, visiting towns and taverns alike. Lord Randyll Tarly has been heavily telegraphed, we've learned some local history of Darklyns and Hollards, and there's the mystery of the fool and his two companions who tried to get across the sea. The Red Wedding this is assuredly not, but I feel more inclined to go along with the argument that after A Storm of Swords Martin needed to take the tempo down and begin building up toward the rest of the story. I am so lenient today.

Speaking of today, have a nice day and next time we'll be catching up with none other than a maid of three and ten with auburn hair and possibly accompanied by a fool. Or a mastermind, we'll have to wait and see.

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