Wednesday, November 19, 2014

[Re-read] Samwell IV: Plodding On

Great news, everybody! George R.R. Martin recently announced that he is about halfway through The Winds of Winter. This means, by careful estimates, that we might possibly see the book released in 2016/2017. He might be slow, but it seems he has grown comfortable with his new schedule of one or two books a decade. Of course, there are arguments in the linked thread that suggest taking Martin's comment literally is unwise; maybe he meant that one half of Winds is super-done, totally finished, delivered to the editor..and the other half is in a rough state. Well, that's a big fricking maybe right there. With no updates from the man himself aside from this half-hearted comment, it is impossible to know just how close or how far away Winds is. Some are positive - cheer up, the book is halfway done; others are more pessimistic - the book will never be done. The comment does elicit reaction one way or the other, myself I'm leaning toward pessimistic but not dramatically so; I am confident we will have watched and digested Season 5 and maybe even 6 before we can enjoy another novel in the series. It seems to me that Martin has given up trying to stay ahead, and resigned. Gotta love that one commenter who says that, well, you know, maybe "middle of the book" means 95% finished. If he decides to split it into two volumes. Yes, people are getting desperate. And so many more readers will now know what it means to suffer through one of the Long Nights between books. And so many will read, and re-read, the books in existence as if that magically will enhance Martin's writing speed. Which is kind of what I'm doing right here with this blog, so let's flip open to Samwell's fourth and last chapter in A Storm of Swords and for a moment forget the darkness that surrounds us and penetrates us and binds us together.
Of course, that thread where people could lament Martin's comment has already been given the lock (and the key thrown away), as if silencing the dissenting opinion once again will somehow magically stop people from thinking that maybe Martin is being a bit late again. Oh well, /shrug.

Samwell! With only four chapters within this mammoth book, it might be easy to forget (especially if you have a brain like mine) that he's even in it, but here he suddenly pops up again, still not losing weight despite the rather strenuous activity he's been participating in lately. It's almost as if the author himself cannot imagine that it is possible to lose weight. Right. Now I'm being rude. And it all flows from the constant disappointments. For fourteen years now I've been following Martin's progress (if you can call it that), and I'm still no closer to knowing who Coldhands is, or seeing the Wall go down in a mighty resounding crash. That's a hell of a long time Martin, whether he wanted to or not, has kept devotees like myself hanging. Right. Frustation coming out again.

I'm still in the middle of the section on the Targaryens (in The World of Ice and Fire) - I haven't found time to really stomp through it, mainly because I have become embroiled in the upbringing of a certain Fitz (Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice) and the adventures of the Zapp Branigan-like Captain Sawback of the Willful Child (Steven Erikson; see, I wasn't able to not buy it after all) - but one thing The World of Ice and Fire does is to rekindle my interest in all things Westeros, but at the same time it also makes the wait for the next proper volume even more irritating. And now, for reals, Samwell Tarly the Fourth of His Storm of Swords. Breathe. Calm, now. I don't have Winds blowing in my ears, but I do have a Storm I can relive.

"Me want book. Me want book now! And cookies."
Well, here we go. We get a solid dose of 'What Has Happened Since Last Time', where we are told how Sam and Gilly have walked from the Nightfort to Deep Lake, from Deep Lake to Queensgate, trudging along on callused feet with the Wall always in sight (following its line) and when they are finally almost back at Castle Black, well then someone decides to show up. On the positive side, this long march may have taken off a few pounds. Turns out they met Ser Denys Mallister and a wounded Bowen Marsh, both surviving the fight at the Bridge of Skulls. Sam wept when he saw in their group old friends like Dolorous Edd, Dywen, and Giant. Who the flak was Giant again? I remember the other two - droll wit and wooden teeth - but Giant? Already lost to me. For the tenth time.

By having them meet up, Martin allows Sam to learn of the battle at the Wall and the surprising arrival and support of King Stannis Baratheon. It allows Martin to give us the necessary information on the results of said battle, of which we only saw the beginning in a previous Jon Snow chapter. People who enjoy long battle scenes might feel cheated. I don't care. The important results are that Mance Rayder is now a captive of the Watch and that he's lost a lot of his men, including Harma Dogshead.

I have to admit, and I have probably said it before, I don't really like it when Martin uses this flashback technique where a character thinks about what happened between chapters, at least when it seems to me that it would be interesting to read in 'real time', so to speak. Having a chapter where Sam and Gilly struggle through the snows, then have their encounter with Ser Denys and the rest, and then see Sam's reaction to the burned-down Castle Black upon arrival strikes me as more immediate and gripping than having it recounted like it is done here: "Nothing that his brothers told him prepared him for what he found at Castle Black, however. The common hall had burned to the ground and the great wooden stair was a mound of broken ice (...)"  Sometimes, of course, it is more expedient to cover a stretch of story like this, but here I feel Martin skimped on what could have been an interesting chapter. To see it through Sam's eyes as he witnesses for the first time the banners of House Baratheon fluttering in the icy wind from Castle Black's tower would have more impact. Or so I claim.

Fortunately at this point Martin interjects some dialogue which draws us a little closer to the experience, when Gilly comments on the prettiness of all the colors of the flying banners and flags not only of House Baratheon, but also some of its banner houses - the Florents, the Estermonts, the Bar Emmons, the Wensingtons. The Wensing-who now? Fact-checking this House doesn't yield much, so it's a name basically thrown in there for good measure. Samwell does not recognize the fiery heart, however, but learns soon enough about Melisandre of Asshai, from Grenn of all people. Yay, he's alive! Jon Snow smiles at Sam's return, but Sam notices it is a tired smile - which we, as readers, can understand of course. He's been pretty busy keeping the Night's Watch together in their fight against the wildlings. It's also almost jarring how we have two POV characters meet - it happens so rarely. Sam learns about all that's been going down at Castle Black, and Sam realizes that Jon is mentally broken by the loss of Ygritte and Donal Noye and other brothers of the Wall. We also learn that Mance Rayder is specifically King Stannis' prisoner, not the Watch's. There are rumors that Melisandre is going to burn Mance in sacrifice. Gods, how I hate sacrifice. Among other religious rituals.

Now, the chapter - before launching into all this backstory, or rather, between-story - opened with a real time scene in which Gilly is breastfeeding a baby - but not her own. It turns out, then, that they have done a little good ol' baby swapping, which is a main plot point brought forth through this chapter. I feel it's a bit clunky the way it is presented, but I've read clunkier things. Like the seemingly endless number of term papers I am correcting these days. Black Goat of Qohor have mercy.

Jon Snow has noticed that Samwell has the hots for Gilly, and tells him he has to know he can't keep her, "no more than I could stay with Ygritte". So here we have two inexperienced friends both getting involved with the opposite sex but I don't feel like Martin is trying to do something with it in the sense that they contrast or anything; both struggle with their feelings, their loyalty to their oath. Sam suggests writing a letter home to try and get Gilly sent there, safe and far away from the dangers of the dark cold North. We get some more foreshadowing of Sam's father being, well, Randyll Tarly, but it seems - though the text does not explicitly state it - that Jon agrees that Sam can try and arrange for Gilly - and the baby, most notably - to be shipped south for Horn Hill. The two continue to chat as they move out into the courtyard from wherever they were talking (sorry, I kind of began to glaze over the text at this point, it's all a bit ponderous but obviously there's a lot of setup for the continuation of the story going on, what with them talking about how Ser Alliser and his friends are still doing what they can to undermine Jon Snow's reputation, King Stannis' kind of justice being discussed, and how most Night's Watch men know Jon did a good job defending the Wall. There's an almost casual mention of Jon still dreaming about the crypts at Winterfell, which, now that I've read some of the theories concerning the link between Jon and said crypts, make the mention here stand out like a wailing siren. "Of the stone kings on their thrones" indeed. Stone kings, stone dragons waking...something beneath Winterfell...Yup, Jon Snow will be born into his true heritage below Winterfell, folks.

We also see that Sam decides not to tell Jon he has met Bran, which is one of the most aggravating bits in the series to me. I so want him to tell Jon that, for all that's been going to hell, his little sweet brother is alive and soon kicking some ass too. But then again, as Sam reflects, telling Jon that Bran is riding north on a giant elk to find a three-eyed crow sounds pretty unbelievable. Sam promised Bran, Jojen Reed, and Coldhands all that he wouldn't say a thing to Jon. It feels a bit contrived, I feel, but I suppose they don't want anyone to know about their stealth magical mission of doom. And then Martin throws us another homage/wink to The Lord of the Rings when Jon calls him a sweet fool - and all I hear in my mind' Elijah Wood's voice reading Jon's dialogue. "Sam, you're a sweet fool." This to Sam's suggestion that Lord Janos Slynt will not be chosen the next Lord Commander. And Jon is right, too; it does seem as if Slynt will be voted the next Lord Commander. And if not him, both Ser Denys Mallister and Cotter Pyke are favorites.

Somewhere during the chapter, Martin shifted from having Sam think back on what has happened, to going back to the present, and I never noticed. There's no clear distinction here which I feel kind of muddles the chapter a bit. At any rate, Sam leaves Jon to his courtyard practice, then goes to the rookery to feed the ravens. Up there on his own he makes a new tally of the votes, realizing that Slynt is climbing every day. Apparently Pyp had put in a vote for Dolorous Edd, that's kind of funny. The ravens are quorking - no surprise - "Snow". A hint that we will see Jon Snow rise to the leadership of Castle Black - or Bran Stark in the future telling Sam what to do? We learn that Sam doesn't particularly like the people who came up from the south to help out, but figures that he should be thankful that someone listened to the pleas for help from the Watch.

At night, suppertime, Sam looks for Jon but did not see him anywhere "in the cavernous stone vault" - another, more subtle hint? Sure seems like Jon's fate is tied to vaults. As in crypts; chambers. And I sure as the seven hells want to know this ASAP. As in, in The Winds of Winter. Is it Rhaegar's harp down there? Some writ? Dammit. Instead he finds Pyp and Edd, and Edd as usual comes with some...dolorous...comments, this time it feels a little forced to be honest. I'm kind of done with this guy now. We learn there will be another vote soon. Through Sam's eyes we get glimpses of the men assembled in the hall, listening to their words. What Martin is doing, of course, is gradually building up to a resolution, but whereas other parts of the plot are always interesting to re-read this one reall doesn't hold my attention like it did the first time, because the outcome always seemed so obvious (and perhaps, a tad unbelievable). Bowen Marsh doesn't want to be in the running anymore, instead telling people to vote for Janos Slynt. It is clear then, between the lines, that Marsh has been bought by Slynt. This also gives us a reason for not trusting this Marsh fellow too much come A Dance with Dragons.

Later that night, Sam, maester Aemon and Clydas count the votes in the shape of "a cascade of seashells, stones, and copper pennies (...)" Once again, it seems that there is no clear winner, though Ser Denys Mallister has the most votes. Maester Aemon tells us there once was a choosing that lasted for two years (!) - pretty ineffectual bureaucracy if you ask me. Honestly, I now wish the chapter can just be over. Ponder ponder ponder. But oh no, we'll drag it out some more. Of course, giving us a little insight into the process does give us a better understanding of how Jon Snow eventually ends up Lord Commander. Oh, wait. I thought this chapter wouldn't end until we actually had Jon confirmed as the new leader of the Night's Watch, but the chapter simply peters out with some back-and-forth discussion debating the merits of some of the candidates, and then they tell Sam he could perhaps convince one of them to step down in favor of the other (to get the voting done with), but he says he's too craven to face them - Martin telling us Sam will do what needs to be done in a more clandestine manner...

Well, there you have it, a fairly slow-moving chapter with a lot of exposition and some setup, one bit of speculation-worthy information (Jon still dreaming of the Winterfell crypts). I have to say this is a chapter that begins to show the cracks in the Wall so to speak - it is more monotone, the POV feels more distant (there's an intensity missing that we've become used to, but maybe this is just me), the more interesting bits of plot are relegated to background and what we do get isn't terribly interesting - in other words, a precursor for A Feast for Crows. Again I'm tempted to think that somewhere around the Red Wedding, the qualities of the series began to change, for me personally they dropped, for others they just changed. There is a palpable stylistic change going on here toward the end of A Storm of Swords and it will only become more prominent in the next two books. In a way, it feels as if Martin suddenly started to focus too much on the intricate details of the plot, small things like counting the votes, when he could have breezed it like he used to do and get us faster to the good stuff, with more good stuff in between. Does that make sense?

EDIT: For clarity's sake, yes, when I started re-reading this chapter I believed I had come to Sam's last chapter but there's a fifth one coming up. I guess that is why I somehow thought we would see Jon becoming the Lord Commander in this chapter.


  1. When / where did he make an announcement about "Winds"?

    I have a feeling the book should become a BOOK (print, sold, etc.) in 2015/2016.

    If he doesn't finish writing it December, I' am sure he will deliver it in January. A fully completed first draft.

  2. That "about halfway through" sentence is a link, perhaps it is hard to see. Anyway, the link leads to a discussion where they mention where Martin said this. Thanks for reading!

  3. If I remember right, he was 'halfway through' a Dance with Dragons when Feast came out. I wouldn't trust anything that author says about his progress.

  4. Agreed, David. But - and this is the one difference I suppose between then and now - with "ADWD" in the bag, he was supposed to have cut through the Meereenese knot and "TWOW" should be easier and faster to produce as he was now gaining momentum again toward the series' end. However, it doesn't seem as if getting past "ADWD" did anything for his enthusiasm :-(

  5. It's been about 3 years and 4 months since Dance came out. IF he keeps the same writing pace, Winds should be out in about the same time, meaning at the beginning of 2018...

    Too much success, too much money, or maybe his age, or his enthusiasm...time to go try those Malazan Books of the Fallen!

  6. i dont like the book because its really hard for me to read english... but easier when watching the series.

    1. Then find translation into another language you understand better.

  7. There's no baby swapping and no mention of that here - just Gilly breastfeading Mance's son.