SPOILER WARNING: This post contains spoiler after spoiler for A Dance with Dragons and is only safe for people who have read all five books in the series. Read it after the jump.
* I like A Feast for Crows quite a bit precisely because of its wandering, wallowing nature. A Dance with Dragons may take its time getting where it’s going, but in contrast with AFfC, it’s going someplace. Nearly every storyline of import is a quest of some sort, a journey with a concrete, stated destination. Most obviously, Tyrion, Victarion, and Quentyn are all trying to get to Daenerys, while Bran is trying to get to the three-eyed crow. Less directly, both Jon and Dany are trying to get used to ruling their respective territories and preparing for conflict with enemies they know are coming. Eventually, Griff is trying to get Aegon home and on the Iron Throne, while Theon is trying to escape. By contrast, in A Feast for Crows, Brienne wandered around knowing who she was looking for but not knowing where they were; Jamie’s endpoints were Riverrun and Raventree but all the stops along the way needed to be made as well; and we didn’t really know what the real storylines in the Vale, Dorne, and the Iron Islands were until their final chapters. A Feast for Crows meanders, A Dance with Dragons has momentum.
* The twist — Martin’s trademark zig where a zag is expected — is that, well, very few characters actually get where they’re going, or more accurately, their storylines don’t reach the logical, natural endpoint you expect. Some do, to be sure: Jon gets overthrown, Bran reaches the three-eyed crow, Theon escapes, Quentyn dies, and Cersei gets out of jail. But! The expected all-out war with the cities of Slaver’s Bay and their allies doesn’t break out. Dany and Drogon don’t return. Victarion doesn’t reach Meereen. Tyrion doesn’t reach Dany. The allegedly pro- and anti-magic maesters from the Citadel who are supposedly on their way to Meereen don’t show up at all. We don’t see what becomes of Jaime when Brienne either does or doesn’t betray him to Stoneheart. Stannis supposedly reaches Winterfell and attacks the Boltons, but we never actually see it happen, we just hear about it from Ramsay “Mister Unreliable Narrator 2011” Bolton. Lord Jon Connington and Aegon Targaryen reach Westeros and reclaim Griff’s family seat, but the storyline is kind of left hanging, a bit further than a natural cliffhanger point but not far enough for resolution. Davos is still out there trying to win White Harbor for Stannis. Arya’s still in murder school. Cersei’s trial is still to come. The Others don’t attack. In other words it’s all very much the middle of a story, and delayed gratification is the name of the game.
* I see that some readers and reviewers are actually actively upset by the number of cliffhangers, and by two of them in particular. The first is Jon’s “death,” which I can’t help but put in sneer quotes. Now, when I caught wind of where Jon difference of opinion with Bowen Marsh was headed, which was probably the second time they argued, trust me, I was upset. I vividly remember thinking about it as I took out the trash one afternoon and literally saying out loud “Jon! Jon! Jon, no!” But when the moment came…I dunno, it’s pretty tough at this point to believe that Jon is actually dead. Not when all the actions that got him “killed” were performed in order to defend against dead things that came back to life in the first place; not when he’s a few yards away from a high priestess of a religion whose adherents have already brought multiple people back from the grave, including his own stepmother; not when his late Uncle Benjen is most likely guarding the cave of the Children of the Forest; not when Gregor Clegane is shattering the Kingsguard’s glass ceiling for dead people; and in more run-of-the-mill terms, not when Theon, Arya, Brienne, and Tyrion have all had your basic fake-out cliffhanger non-deaths over the course of the series as well. Do I mind this? No, not any more than I mind cliffhangers with superheroes I know will survive for at least three more months thanks to advance solicitations in the Previews catalog. But I think the days of being completely flattened by a character’s apparent death like we were with the red wedding are largely over.
* The other thing I saw people throwing a fit over is finding out the resolution of the Stannis/Bolton battle in Ramsay’s letter. Why on earth would people get so upset over an entertaining literary device like that? Were they upset that we “saw” the Others’ assault on the Fist of the First Men only through flashbacks, after Sam’s present-moment POV established it as a fait accompli? Did they feel ripped off when Gandalf told Frodo the story of what happened at Isengard rather than Tolkien devoting a chapter to it? Did they never see Lost? This is a thing that writers do — they reveal that something happened, and then they fill in the gap of how and when and why when it suits them. Sure, there’s an element of narrative blueballs to not seeing The Great Asshole Smackdown between King Stannis and Papa & Baby Bolton, ideally with as many Freys and Greyjoys caught in the cross(bow)fire as possible. But now, don’t you want to find out what happened even more? Whether Ramsay’s lying about this or that element of his story? The fates of Mance, Asha, Theon, Jeyne, Roose, Wyman Manderly, Stannis et al? Are we so inured to wanting to wonder about things that this is unacceptable?
* Structurally, the biggest surprise to me is that the Others didn’t attack. I assumed that this volume would be the one where we finally crested the hill and started hurtling downwards; an attack by the White Walkers near the end of the book would nicely set up a volume called The Winds of Winter and give Martin two whole books to get all the players in the game of thrones to reorient themselves toward a new opponent. On a similar note, I expected the battle for control of Meereen to be resolved too, so that Dany could start heading to Westeros early in Volume Six. By holding off on these central events — the Ice and the Fire, as it were — Martin has virtually ensured that the final two volumes will be payoff after payoff. He took a risk at alienating some readers who wanted some major payoffs now, I suppose, but the sales and acclaim this thing has gotten probably mean more than some messageboard malcontents.
* We’ve learned quite a bit about Varys and Illyrio now, though in the words of 1984, I understand the how — I do not understand the why. Okay, so Varys really is in cahoots with Illyrio in his attempt to restore the Targaryens (which one doesn’t seem to matter all that much) to the throne of Westeros, despite my doubts as to whether the Spider was playing the Magister the same way he plays everyone else. And I actually think this goal is easy enough to square with his protestation to Ned that he does what he does for the good of the realm and the sake of peace: Given the stress he places on Aegon’s training to be a good king, it appears he feels that a little chaos now in service of enthroning a strong ruler soon will avoid much more chaos in the future. (I think he could stand to think about whether things could really get any worse than a war that has already loosed Amory Lorch, Gregor Clegane, Vargo Hoat, Rorge and Biter, Walder Frey, Lady Stoneheart, the Brothers Greyjoy, and Ramsay and Roose Bolton upon an unsuspecting world, but okay, fine.) But what is his and Illyrio’s real stake in the fortunes of this ruling family above all the others? Couldn’t they have invested their resources in making Robert a better king, and perhaps clamping down on the Lannisters, for a similar effect with much less bloodshed and intrigue and personal risk to themselves?
* I was with Jon and his unorthodox methods of securing the Wall alllllll the way up until the very end. Frankly, I couldn’t figure out why, of all things, it was a nasty letter from the Bastard of Bolton that got Jon — Lord Commander Jon, no less — to finally leave the Wall and take up arms against an enemy of the Starks. I mean, it seems like the answer is “Because Ramsay threatened to attack Jon, which in essence means attacking Castle Black from its indefensible south and most likely murdering thousands of crows and wildlings and queen’s men and king’s men if he succeeds, leaving the Wall open to an attack by the Others and the wights.” But — and I could be wrong here, I was racing through things at that point — it felt more like a stressed-out Jon reading this letter (certainly one of Martin’s most memorably hardcore pieces of writing), flipping out, and making a snap judgement to abandon his post and lead a wildling army against Winterfell to rescue his sister and his ancestral home. How did he think it was gonna go over?
* And while we’re talking about the Lord Commander’s failure to also be Captain Obvious, it was clear from the second or third disagreement with Bowen Marsh where that particular storyline was headed, even without Melisandre’s prophecy of a knife in the back. I kept waiting for Jon to offer Marsh a single concession, give him a single sign that his opinions and advice were valued and useful beyond saying so but not acting accordingly. Words are wind, Jon!
* The Stark kids really, really need to learn to start using their direwolves’ Spidey-sense. When you have a giant killer animal that detects your enemies before you even know they’re your enemies, BRING IT TO THE FUCKING DINING HALL WITH YOU.
* Two Lord Commanders murdered (“murdered”) by their own men in a row. Is Grenn the only guy dopey enough to take the gig next?
* There’s something uniquely loathsome about Victarion Greyjoy, even compared to the likes of Gregor Clegane and Ramsay Bolton — and Euron Greyjoy, for that matter. I think it’s that while most of the other real monsters we’ve met are self-aware enough to delight in their cruelty, Victarion’s approach to abominable conduct is unthinking, unexamined. I don’t think it’s pleasant to him, but in a way that just makes it worse, because therefore he has no pleasure-principle incentive to be cruel that you or I can understand. He merely has no real respect for the lives of others, and no inkling that he might ought to, and behaves accordingly. Thus when he beats his own wife to death, it’s something he’s “forced” to do by the brother who cuckolded him with her, and he feels worse for himself than for her. Thus he sentences the gay prostitutes the Iron Victory seizes at sea to death with less thought than he’s given to the pros and cons of having a concubine who can’t talk. Thus he opposes slavery, but still participates in the trade when he needs the money and still summarily executes slaves for a sacrifice to the gods. Ramsay and Gregor’s torture of their victims is its own twisted acknowledgement of their personhood — the people who’ve fallen into their clutches have agency, and they seek to obliterate that agency with extravagant cruelty. Victarion never gets even that far. You might as well be furniture to him, and the whole time he’s using you he’ll be thinking about how uncomfortable he is sitting on you.
* Violent, politicized religious fundamentalism is becoming more and more of a force as the war drags on. (Gee, we’ve never seen that before!) This leaves me wondering two things. First: Let’s say that some combination of players manages to secure a peace of whatever sort — a truce, a detente, or even someone successfully ruling from the Iron Throne. Do you get the impression that the followers of the High Septon, the Damphair, and the Red Woman would accept that peace at all? I sure don’t. The religious factions have common interests with this or that political faction, but their interests will likely supersede those of the Houses for and against which they fight.
* Second: As best I can tell, of the three religions whose adherents appear willing to kill unbelievers, only the followers of R’hllor have evidence that their god is actually capable of doing stuff for them, supernaturally speaking. When push comes to shove, will this effect which faith is left standing?
* You’ll note I’ve left those who keep the old gods out of the discussion. Whether you’re talking about wildlings or Northmen, they seem rather live-and-let-live about it, unlikely to convert if asked or ordered, but also unlikely to try to convert others. It can also be said that we have some evidence that their faith has a basis in supernatural fact, as we’ve learned courtesy of Bran, Brynden, and the Children, but knowledge of this isn’t nearly as widespread as that of the genuine miracles of which red priests appear to be capable, and has had less of a direct impact on events.
* What about the Sons of the Harpy? Is it a secular insurgency, or is there a religious element there too that will be harder to appease with political concessions or military victory? I know that the Harpy figures into Ghiscari beliefs, but I don’t think the exact contours of that have been made clear.
* So I guess Jaqen H’ghar infiltrated the Citadel and stole that key from Pate in order to get his hands on that forbidden book of dragonlore the sole copy of which they keep in some vault someplace?
* That little tidbit about Aerys having the hots for Joanna Lannister lends credence to the theory that there’s a secret Targaryen Lannister — but which one? The obvious assumption is Tyrion, if it’s anyone at all, since he’s got the mismatched eyes and the extremely blonde hair and the love of dragons. But Ser Barristan says that Tywin was upset with Aerys over the “liberties” he took during Joanna’s bedding. Depending on just how liberal those liberties got, could the timing work out for Jaime and Cersei to be Aerys’s kids instead of Tyrion? I kind of wonder if the repeated references to the right of the first night in this volume are there for a reason.
* I counted two overt Monty Python and the Holy Grail references: Ser Archibald contrasting Dany’s Unsullied with Astapor’s by saying Dany’s won’t run when you fart in their general direction, and Queen Selyse talking about joining the bogus wildling king’s daughter and Ser Axell Florent in holy wedlock. That one made me laugh out loud.
* I also find it entertaining that there’s an Ironborn named Dagon Codd who is described as looking “as if his father had sired him on a fish.” Drowned God indeed!
* I enjoy the whole “hour of the owl/hour of the wolf/etc.” temporal taxonomy quite a bit — very evocative — but as always when GRRM introduces something that would be a natural part of everyday conversation and thought processes several volumes into the story, it’s a little hinky that we’re just now learning that these are terms people use. Ah well, it’s a small price to pay for “the hour of the eel.”
* Man, I don’t even care, I’m totally going to start using idiomatic phrases from these books in everyday conversation. Much and more, little and less, gods be good, words are wind, all men must die, all men must serve, in the sight of gods and men — these are all mellifluous and useful expressions! It’s like when I went to college and was around Southern people for the first time and discovered how useful “y’all” was thanks to proper English’s lack of a second person plural.
* Poor Kevan Lannister. He did his best with a shitty hand. As with Tyrion, you have to wonder what kind of man he’d have been capable of being if he’d grown up out of the shadow of Tywin Lannister.
* Which also makes me wonder about missing Uncle Gerion. What kind of man is he, now, if indeed he still is?
* Lady Lemore the Naked Septa — that’s Tyene the Sand Snake’s septa mom, isn’t it? Or is it not? Because at this point you could thrown out almost any name and I’d half-believe it. Ashara Dayne! Lyanna Stark! Vera Peterson from Cheers!
* So, when do you think that greyscale epidemic on the mantel is going to go off? (That was a wonderfully sinister sequence at the Bridge of Dream, by the way.)
* TEAM WUN WUN
* What were your oh-shit moments? Our first glimpse of one of the Children of the Forest was a big one for me. Gregor Clegane’s return. Jon killing Janos Slynt. Jon’s “death.” Realizing who Young Griff was. Realizing who the singer in Winterfell was. Dany riding Drogon.
* But you know what I really love, looking back? I fully expected our next glimpse of Daenerys after she rode off on Drogon to be a chapter full of her communing with the dragon, learning its ways, becoming a force of nature on wings of flame, the whole nine yards. Instead, the next time we see her, she’s a half-naked, half-starved, half-insane person, wandering around lost, trying to walk back to town because she can’t get the dragon to do anything she wants it to, subsisting on burned and raw scraps, getting the green apple splatters from eating the wrong berries, and possibly dying of dysentery. That was Martin’s most thorough subversion of my expectations since the Red Wedding. Amazing he’s still capable of such things five books deep, isn’t it?
* What did I miss?