Friday, September 19, 2014

[Re-read] Jon IX: Along Came a Fricking Big Turtle (and later, a Fricking Annoying Toad)

Time to dig out A Storm of Swords, we're deep in the endgame now as we open up to the seventieth (!) chapter, and, as I've said a gazillion times before, this book is just astounding, riveting, deep yet light, and so full of twists and turns I still feel it in my gut when I think of, say, the Red Wedding, or Oberyn Martell's failure, or Sansa Stark being whisked away in the night, or Joffrey clawing at his throat as he drops to the ground during his own many iconic scenes and images in the series come from A Storm of Swords. And there are so many of them, the list goes on and on. How about Jaime being unhanded? The maiden in the bear pit? The epilogue? There's only one other series that can dish up equally powerful imagery/scenery (in my personal opinion!) and that is Steven Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen. In Martin's books, the scenes become powerful because we are so invested in the characters - in Erikson's works, the scenes often resonate because of the vivid descriptions or because the ideas presented are haunting or epic - he's stuck a few images in my head that just don't leave; the whole ending of the second book in his series, Deadhouse Gates, lingers still; the priest of flies in the same book's prologue likewise. There's something grand and majestic yet darkly disturbing about Erikson's prose that makes him stand out in the crowd of fantasy authors. Oh, look, I've wandered off again. My mind is partially tuned in to the Malazan world these days because I'm reading Assail, of course. I've got about 40% left of it, and I am trying to slow down and savor it (even though Ian C. Esslemont's prose is nothing like Erikson's, it's almost like having R.A. Salvatore write in the Westeros setting - well, okay, it's not that terrifyingly bad; it's just that where Erikson really explores and experiments with the genre and with language in general, Esslemont writes what feels more linear, safer stories that, because they are more simplistic, don't ring as true as Malazan works). ENOUGH ALREADY. Jon Snow is waiting for his ninth turn in the spotlight. He actually has twelve chapters in this book, yet when I think of A Storm of Swords, I seldom think of his part. Is that weird?

Day and night the axes rang.
So opens the ninth Jon Snow chapter, and I immediately have an image in my mind of Jon sitting in his office in a frozen tower accepting all those calls from the axes. Of course, Martin wants to tell us that the Night's Watch is fighting and working, like, a lot, further emphasized when Jon can't remember when last he slept. He's been busy - as have the wildlings on the other side of the Wall, who are basically taking down the forest with saws and sledgehammers, in preparation of attack. 

It is dawn after another restless night when Owen comes up to tell Jon it is, well, dawn. He gives Jon a hand getting on his feet, and others around him are waking up too. Love the double meaning you can put into that little bit: "Others were waking as well." Only if you want to. We're told they are all really, really tired, so they are not talking much. Bodes well for an interesting, action-driven chapter.

Owen tells Jon he dreamed that Maester Aemon sent a raven, and the king - the old king, Robert - came with all his strength to help the Watch; actually Owen doesn't really mention the king as being Robert specifically, but saw "the golden banners", thus I read this as a little foreshadowing from Martin (the arrival of Stannis) and one could argue, based on these lines, that Owen is another character in the series who has vaguely prophetic dreams. Jon makes himself smile at that, the "making himself" part indicating that he is really a little bit disillusioned about ze current zituation, yes? 

Jon gets dressed and goes out on the Wall, where the wind is cold and he can see the wildlings getting up for a new day about half a mile north. They keep to the edge of the woods, making it hard to gauge their actual numbers. Martin takes the time to give us a detailed account of what Jon can see though, so that we'll have a proper understanding of the logistics of what begins to feel like an inevitable clash. Jon sees the wildling archers already moving toward the Wall for the day's assault, and Pyp says cheerfully, "Here come our breakfast arrows," which is a lovely little line of dialogue that says a lot about Pyp (in the sense that he's keeping it up in the face of grave danger). Also, Pyp is alive! That's good. Jon reflects that it is good that Pyp is able to jape about it, because in all seriousness, only a few days ago another member of the Watch was shot and fell down the Wall, and can still be seen lying in a broken heap, which won't add any bonuses to anyone's Morale score.

We learn that Mance has begun to cover the mantlets (which the enemy archers hide behind) with raw hides, ending the usefulness of the Watch's tactics of shooting fire arrows. Love how Martin takes care to add these little "back-and-forths" of tactical decisions in either camp, making the conflict seem more real. There's also some betting going on - which scarecrow sentinel will end up with the most arrows jutting from it? Currently, Dolorous Edd of all people is in the lead.

Jon swings down a Myrish eye to get a closer look at the enemy's movements this fine morning. He notices the two women, Val and Dalla, two characters I'm inclined to forget exist - for some reason; maybe the Game of Thrones show has made it harder to remember their roles in the books, maybe the characters haven't been introduced in a memorable enough way, I don't know; but it does seem that the two women are important to Jon's continuing story arc, since Martin spends time here letting Jon watch them through the Myrish eye. And of course, they are important - Dalla about to give birth to a child that one might say has a king's blood. He watches a huge turtle (no, not the natural kind so prevalent in A Dance with Dragons), a massive siege engine now covered in mammoth hide, with a rounded top and eight huge wheels, like a Westerosi tank, really. As Jon reflects, it's almost like a longhall on wheels - and by introducing it here, Martin gives us something to ponder: Will this engine be powerful enough to break through the defenses of the Watch? And by having us wondering, we get more invested in the continued conflict. Which is a-good.

Jon, however, has been paying attention to the construction of the turtle, believes it will be used against them this day, and has something prepared for its attack. He asks if the barrels are filled and frozen, which Pyp confirms. Jon tells Grenn to go get some rest - the young man clearly needs some sleep - because he needs a strong man like Grenn to actually push those heavy frozen barrels off the Wall when the turtle arrives. Grenn leaves, muttering (that is, not quite happy with the order). Martin also makes sure to have Jon note that Varamyr Sixskins is around, which is a nod to events in A Dance with Dragons. Just the tiniest little line drawn between Jon and Varamyr.

Hobb comes up the Wall with breakfast (geez what a slow-moving dawn this turns out to be), but Jon has lost his appetite. Because of the turtle. It makes him anxious (that's Martin reinforcing the severity of the threat of this engine). It's all so very bleak: No sleep, not hungry, the enemy seeming invincible. Arrows flying over their heads (and, for some unlucky members of the Watch, through their heads). Hundreds slain in battles between wildlings and black brothers elsewhere. Zei not returning from a mission to Mole's Town; Mole's Town deserted. And this breakfast might be Jon's last meal. Yes, it is bleak, yes, it is hopeless, and this kind of despondent feeling in Jon Snow carries, unfortunately, over to me as a reader and I feel a little hopeless myself reading through these slow-burning pages. Still, I wouldn't be without them - the bright spots become that much more brighter after such gloom and doom.  And then, Horse shouts: IT'S COMING! And you would be forgiven if you perked up and thought, Wait, what? Is Winter finally coming?! but Horse is, of course, talking about the turtle. Jon commands the sounding of the warhorn. He looks over the sorry assembly at his side (I mean, there's a guy called Spare Boots - how sorry can it get). Horse's shout should rouse some adventure and excitement, but Jon remains despondent, thinking of how they all look half-dead (which can be read as a very subtle foreshadowing of Jon's latest chapter in A Dance with Dragons, no?), and because he's on the Wall, so far from the actual action taking place (the movement of the turtle), there's a sort of distance here that makes me only half-interested in what's going on. Jon keeps thinking how futile it all is (he really begins to sound almost least, very emo-gothic in his sensibilities) but still orders everyone to do what they can to fight the turtle. 
Arrows, scorpions, catapults - they do not hinder the turtle's advancement. Just make the thing look more like a hedgehog. Martin takes his time letting the turtle rumble slowly across the battlefield, with Jon realizing that fire and arrows won't help - they will need to wait until it has reached their Wall and then try to crush it with rocks.

The barrels, then, which Martin introduced early in the chapter without revealing exactly what they contained, are full of gravel in frozen water [also known as ice], making them insanely heavy and thus the perfect weapon against the turtle. Jon has planned this out, another stroke of military leadership/command ability to provide a believable basis for his becoming the next Lord Commander for real. As they prepare the heavy barrels, Jon wishes they had hoardings on the Wall, and of course, you need to know a little bit about medieval architecture to understand what the heck Jon means by this. The interesting bit is that he thinks that Bowen Marsh is the guy who should've thought about building hoardings in the Wall; an early little example of things not being right between Snow and Marsh. Know what I mean? Just some dissonance between the characters.

The counterattack proves successful - the barrels, with 700 feet of gravity to push them on, impact hard on the turtle, scattering the men hiding inside it. Through Pyp and Grenn's grins we can feel a bit of the satisfaction of a strategy working well as the turtle - parts of it, anyhow - gets crushed and abandoned, buying the Watch another day. Jon, of course, is too glum for this, so he's already thinking but tomorrow they'll break us. Geez, Jon, light up will you. He gives the command of the Wall to Pyp and leaves for the King's Tower, thinking that some of Aemon's dreamwine might give him some rest. So tired. Pout pout.

The dreamwine helps and he gets in some solid hours; when he awakes it is dark outside, and four fellows are standing around him, one of them holding a lantern. One of them tells him to pull on his boots and come with them. And both Jon and I are like WTF DUDE, who are these guys and what do they want with Jon now? For a moment Jon wonders whether the Wall has fallen, but he realizes that the fellows are Night's Watch members. They take him to the Old Bear's solar, where Maester Aemon, a half drunk Septon Cellador, a sleeping Ser Wynton Stout, and Ser Alliser Thorne await him - in addition to a jowly fellow Jon does not recognize. But we do, oh oh!

And that fellow is of course none other than Janos Slynt, finally arrived. He immediately charges Jon with oathbreaking, cowardice and desertion, making Jon almost choke. I love this twist in the tale! Here we have Jon all morose all day, but still grimly determined and doing a great job as the Wall's commander and then wham! Martin makes us all go WTF DUDE AGAIN when Slynt arrives to meddle in the most arrogant manner, and it's all so believable because we know Slynt was sent north to the Wall and it makes sense he would team up with Ser Alliser and that Ser Alliser's grudge would sooner or later come up again and now all of a sudden here we are and Jon's even more in a pinch than before and and and... wonderful, isn't it? Aemon talks in Jon's defense, but it doesn't seem to help. And it's so frustrating at the same time to see such an asshole as Slynt just take over the whole thing and accuse Jon of all the things he himself could be accused for; the unfairness of it all certainly rattles. And that unfairness that characters frequently experience is also one of the key ingredients that makes A Song of Ice and Fire so bloody awesome and unique. And the worst part is Slynt and Thorne can take Jon out because he has done a lot of things that weren't by the book - which the conniving pair use to their advantage. And oh, how Thorne rubs it in, making me really hate the guy: "I suppose it was the Halfhand who commanded you to fuck this unwashed whore?" The insolence!

It reminds me a little of ye olde Inquisition, to be honest. And of countless movies and books were a character has done things outside of the law but for the greater good and then gets vilified for it. Martin is playing with the tropes here, apparently enjoying putting Jon to trial. Jon has to admit that he's done's so well written, this encounter really makes up for the somewhat slower first half of the chapter. Slynt tells Ser Glendon (who was the tall knight who went to pick up Jon) to fetch the "other prisoner", who turns out to be the wildling Rattleshirt, beaten almost beyond recognition. And of course with Rattleshirt as a witness, Jon's case gets weaker.

It's a classic scene, really, with Jon constantly forced to retreat verbally, like a fly caught in a web and the spider closing in. And by having Slynt be so abrasively obnoxious, you just got to love to hate the fellow. Here's a man who really thinks highly of himself, and lets others suffer for it. Of course it makes his eventual comeuppance all the more satisfying, too. When Ser Alliser Thorne manages to utter, "Lord Snow is nothing if not arrogant," I just want to jump into the story and strangle the man while shouting WHY YOU LITTLE. It's so unfair! But, hey. In a realistic world such as Westeros (to a certain degree of course), shit does indeed happen. Again, Benjen Stark is given a quick mention, so Martin manages to keep that bit warm as well (quite astounding really, to have a character disappear in the beginning of a four-thousand-page tale and he's still not found). Septon Cellador seems to side with Slynt and Thorne, but Aemon remains firm, telling them of the good deeds Jon has done for which they cannot put some kind of blame on him. He says that Jon shows great promise, but Slynt ends up ordering Jon to a cell (an ice cell to be specific) and that he is going to hang Jon. You would've thought it a perfectly cheap place to end the chapter, the kind of cliffhanger we got more of in Feast and Dance, but the chapter is not over yet, folks. Which is a-good.

Jon is pretty angry by now, as shown when he grabs Thorne by the throat and lifts him off the floor, Vader-style! He is pulled off, however, and Thorne can live to see another day. Sadly. And of course, this sudden outburst, however just it feels, only strengthens the argument for Thorne: "You see for yourselves, brothers. The boy is a wildling."

And THEN the chapter ends. So infuriating! And I love it. I love these moments where Martin has me all riled up over his fictitious world and characters. The mistrust, the betrayal, this whole sudden reversal of fortune (as if Jon was very fortunate before his scene)'s solid drama, perhaps a tad predictable in the way Slynt and Thorne become the gloating corrupt authority figures, but still it has me on the edge of the seat even on the tenth re-read and boy do I wish we had this scene intact in Game of Thrones. So much more impact. It's Jon Snow's point of no return in A Storm of Swords, then, but I do recall that I never thought Jon was really in danger of being hanged - Jon has script immunity - and I feel the same way now, only three years into waiting for The Winds of Winter - even if Jon may be considered dead in the physical sense, his story is in no way done yet. There's still too much of the plot riding on his shoulders. And there are still some comeuppances to be had.

Man. Now I do feel for Jon Snow. Most of the time he's a bit too bland for my tastes, but when he is treated as unfairly as he is here, I can't help but root for him. 

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