Saturday, April 6, 2013

Read-Along: A Song of Ice and Fire

Hello, bookworms and moths! Hope everyone is enjoying the weekend. We have been working hard to bring you our latest project--a read-along! We've seen them on other blogs, and it looked kind of fun, so we thought we'd give it a try. Susan just started reading George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, and as Alyssa was looking for a good excuse to re-read the series, it was decided that this would be a fun option for a read-along, especially since it is so zeitgeist-y at the moment. We plan to post chapter-by-chapter summaries, followed by our individual takes on the chapters, aiming for at least 3 chapters per week, posted on Saturdays. We thought it might be interesting to see the perspective of a book newbie (Susan) *and* the retrospective perspective of someone who has already finished out the current 5 books (Alyssa). There will be spoilers for the chapters we are summarizing and commenting on (duh), but any spoilers for later books will spoiler-tagged so you won't see them unless you want to.

Full Disclosure: Alyssa got hooked on the TV show first, and then gobbled down the books. She really enjoys the show, but she really enjoys the books, too. If you put a gun to her head she would pick the books over the show, but does not consider herself to be a crazy book purist when it comes to the TV show adaptation.
Susan read the first two chapters of Song of Ice and Fire in February during a bitter cold spell, and was put off by its length. A few weeks later she watched two episodes of season 2 with a friend, and became hooked. She's made it up to episode 107 (and the 6% mark on the book) rapidly after that.

So without further ado...


We open on a scene of three men of the Night’s Watch, ranging beyond the Wall. Ser Waymar Royce, a young lord from the South, commands the ranging, although he has had the least experience of the three—Gared is an old man by Westerosi standards and has spent most of his life at the Wall, and our POV character Will has been there for 4 years.

They seem to be tracking a band of what they call “wildlings,” who appear to be the savage people who live beyond the Wall. Will has scouted their camp and reports that they are all dead. Their orders had been to track them and now that the wildlings have been found dead, Gared wants to return to the wall post haste. He’s got a bad feeling, and Will agrees with him. He doesn’t understand why, but he’s more frightened than he’s ever been during a trip beyond the wall before.

Ser Waymar, however, is having none of it. It is his first ranging, and his sense of social superiority (and dare we say hubris?) and maybe a desire to do the job well causes him to poke and prod and finally pull rank and demand to see the dead wildlings for himself. Gared especially wants to challenge Ser Waymar, and it’s hard to blame him—he may not be a lord, but he has years of experience beyond this young guy, and most likely a whole lot more wisdom, too. But Ser Waymar gets his way, and off they go to find the camp full of dead wildlings.

Gared is left with the horses while Waymar and Will proceed on foot to the ridge overlooking the wildling camp. But when they arrive—gasp! The dead wildlings have all disappeared! The camp is still there, the lean-to, even the glorious battle axe Will described is still there…but no people. This just proves to Will that there is indeed something strange and terrible going on in the forest that night, but Waymar will not be dissuaded. He commands Will to climb a tree and search for a fire, as the wildlings (who to his mind must not be dead) have moved. So Will climbs the tree and looks down as an awful scene unfolds. From the trees emerge some strange, white, vaguely humanoid beings, though they are clearly not human—color changing camouflage armor, ice blades, inhumanly blue eyes, and voices speaking in a tongue that sounds like ice cracking prove that. From up in the tree Will can see that Waymar is clearly afraid, but fights the so-called Other valiantly even as more of them silently close in. He holds his own until his opponent gets in a slice and then shatters his blade. That must be the cue they were waiting for, because the other Others close in and systematically butcher the young lord.

Will doesn’t cry out for fear of alerting the Others to his presence, and after they have gone he climbs down. He makes the quick decision to bring Waymar’s shattered blade back to the Wall, where he will be able to show it to his commanders and they will know what it means. He’s just thinking he must hurry back and find Gared with the horses when he turns and sees the recently deceased Waymar standing over him. One of his eyes still contains a shard of his broken sword, but the other glows a burning blue, and fear justifiably overcomes Will. Waymar’s hands close around Will’s throat, and the last thing he notices is that they are icy cold.

Alyssa's Take!
I still think that this is a great cold open to the series, and really showcases GRRM’s skill as a writer. He introduces the reader to all kinds of things they know nothing about and provides very little background. What are wildlings?, a new reader may wonder. What is this “Wall?” Why is the knight a ser and not a sir? And while in a less-skilled writer’s hands I think the word-dropping of different elements of his fantasy world with no explanatory information might serve to push the reader away, in his hands it only serves to draw the reader in more fully. Sure, you may not know what the Wall is (beyond it being, well, a wall), and you may not know who old bear Mormont is or even what a Maester Aemon is, but you want to. Or at least that was my experience when I first read this, and I can see it again in this re-read, too. There were also some things my brain had just scanned over in my initial reading as they just seemed like surplus information that were fun to recognize now in a later reading because I know more about them. Waymar is a Royce—he must be from the Vale! And the Mallisters, they’ve been dropped in, too! I think those sorts of connections that I’m now able to make will continue to be fun for me in the re-read.

In a scant 11 pages (I guess 11 pages only counts as scant in a book that’s over 800!) he makes the reader care about these three men of the Night’s Watch, and feel sadness for them when things turn out the way they do. He even managed to turn around my feelings about Waymar in that number of pages. At first he seems like a prideful, arrogant young nobleman, which he is, but his fear and then bravery when facing the Other (and his not alerting the Others to Will’s presence) caused me to feel sympathy for him when I hadn’t really expected to, which made his death have all the more impact.

Let’s talk some more about Waymar. The more I thought about the prologue, the more I found him to be a really interesting character. Everything about him shows how unprepared he is for this business of ranging for the Night’s Watch, although he clearly thinks that those very things make him well prepared. His beautiful, warm sable cloak that gets caught up in tree branches, his decision to ride a warhorse in the snowy forest rather than a smaller, more sure-footed garron, his insistence on taking his cumbersome sword rather than a more easily maneuverable knife…this all speaks to a sort of vanity, but also to just how poorly his life as a lord has prepared him for the completely different game of living and working beyond the Wall.

Susan's Take!
I started reading Song of Ice and Fire only a few days after reading Sabriel, so I spent the prologue waiting for the Abhorsen to come and save them from the should-be-dead. I think it’s a reasonable source of confusion since both books feature a wall and patrols keeping a civilization from the scary untamable magic and undead in the snowy North. In any case, the world of Westeros doesn’t seem particularly unusual in its prologue. Maybe it’s just if you’ve already recently read Sabriel, but it almost feels homey to see this guard in an Old Kingdom setting.

George R.R. Martin (whose initials I am pronouncing as "grim" based on his story's death toll) has a particularly painful style to my taste. I know it’s lame that I say this when I couldn’t sell a 50-page novel to my own family let alone millions of copies of an epic series, but how do things like this make it into a final printing?

“The right eye was open. The pupil burned blue. It saw.”

I feel as though I’m reading a story outsourced to an elementary school class. Yes, Grim, it’s great that you are using descriptive words, and it’s very dramatic that a dead man’s eye can see. But is it really necessary to pain me with a two word sentence to clarify that it’s seeing? Wouldn’t a reader have figured it out from the fact that the dead character is standing over Will, and the eye is animated? Writer friends, what would be wrong with keeping it to, “The right eye was open, its pupil burning blue”?

Alyssa is absolutely right, however, to point out the skill with which Grim starts to introduce the world of Westeros. Grim’s style may make me reach for a red pen and the distraction of my Easter Peeps, but I cannot fault the pacing of the world revelations. It’s easy to picture men in their furs in the woods, and it’s just as easy to start to incorporate legends of the White Walkers into the world that’s developing.

Bran 1

And so we move on to our first real chapter of the book, with a 7-year-old boy named Bran as our POV character. He is the son of a lord, and he, along with his brothers (and by all accounts a veritable parade of other people) are on their way to see the king’s justice done. Apparently, “the king’s justice” is just a fancy way of saying “execution.” While Bran’s older brother Robb thinks that the perpetrator is a wildling, from the description of the man being held at the nearby holdfast we readers know that he is, in fact, Gared, lately of the Night’s Watch. It is interesting for the reader to imagine what might have been said between Gared and Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell (sigil: direwolf! Colors: grey and white! So much information being tossed around here…) before the execution, but unfortunately our cute little POV was too nervous/excited to recall it. Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough to change Lord Stark’s mind. Bran’s bastard brother Jon Snow creepily tells him not to look away from the execution because their father will know, and so Bran watches as Papa Stark slices off Gared’s head with the big family sword, Ice. Whatever Valyrian steel is, it is sharp, because it takes his head off in one blow.

That business concluded, the party begins the ride back to their home of Winterfell. Robb, Lord Stark’s eldest son, has a disagreement with bastard son Jon Snow about whether or not the Night’s Watch deserter died bravely—Robb says he had courage, while Jon says he had fear in his eyes. At any rate, they don’t hold a grudge about their difference of opinion, and race their horses to a bridge, sending snow flying as they do. Remember, Bran told us earlier that it is the ninth year of summer. And there is snow! Hate to be in the North when it’s actually winter… Bran’s pony is too little to keep up, and so Lord Eddard takes the opportunity to talk with Bran about what just happened, and we get to learn a bit about the culture of the world of the book, and of the north in particular. Eddard asks Bran if he knows why he (Eddard) had to kill him (the Night’s Watchman). Bran thinks it was because he was a wildling, and Eddard corrects him that it was rather because he was a deserter from the Night’s Watch. Deserting seems to be one of the very worst things a person can do, and since the deserters know they’ll be executed if they’re caught, they feel no compunctions about committing any sort of crime. Hunh.

But no, this is not what Eddard meant when he asked the question! What he meant was why did he personally have to do it, and he explains to Bran that as northerners, they come from a different stock than most of the great families of Westeros. Their way is the old way, and the old way is doin’ the right thing and doin’ the dirty work yourself.

After this little heart to heart, Jon and Robb alert the rest of the party to a discovery—they have found a direwolf (that’s real creature, albeit extinct, I might add) dead in the snow, apparently killed by a stag. The surprise is twofold because not only has a direwolf not been seen south of the Wall in hundreds of years, but this one also left a litter of puppies behind. Robb has already cuddled up to one, and Jon plops one in Bran’s arms, and pretty soon he’s a goner, too. Hard to resist a fluffy little wolf puppy! All the adults in the group are concerned about, y’know, kids wanting wolves for pets, and think it would be better off to kill the pups right there and then, but Jon Snow pipes up to save the day. Five trueborn children have you, he tells his father. (Very sad that he so stoically does not include himself.) And five direwolf pups there are! And as the direwolf is the sigil of your house, they must be meant to have them, he concludes triumphantly. The northerners all eye one another warily. Dead direwolf…direwolf puppies that equal the number of Stark children…there must be some significance here. Lord Eddard relents and says that the children can have the puppies, but they must take complete care and responsibility of them. They have just restarted the journey to Winterfell when Jon hears a sound and turns back. He has found one last direwolf puppy. It is an albino, and Jon is glad to claim it for his own.

Alyssa's Take!
I heart Bran. He is so cute and tries so hard to be tough! And there is just so much background information woven into the writing here. All kinds of info about the north, the Stark family, how harsh a world it is that bastards are so psychologically separated from their blood family and that deserters are summarily executed regardless of the tales they tell… (I say that because I imagine that Gared was probably trying to tell Eddard about the encounter with the Others before he got the chop.)

I remember the first time I read this I thought Jon was kind of creepy initially, like he was bullying Bran a bit when he told him he couldn’t look away from the execution. Now I know that that just ties into the whole “our way is the old way” northern thing. I also have to agree with Jon in his assessment of Theon Greyjoy being an ass for kicking around the dead guy’s head, and of course I loved him as much as Bran did when he convinced Lord Stark to let the children keep the wolf pups. I mean, when I take a mental step back from it, I can see how the adults are right and it’s probably a bad idea to let children raise baby wolves, but in my heart I am right there with those kids wanting those puppies. Sooo cute!

I’ve heard some call GRRM’s foreshadowing a bit heavy-handed, but I rather like it. Stark direwolves and real direwolves, the outcast albino puppy being rescued by the outcast not albino pseudo-Stark…it all creates a certain sense of foreboding, or at least a sense of Something About to Happen.

I find myself enjoying the slight differences from the TV show as well. Or maybe they were just places where more detail was provided--for example, the slight brotherly rivalry between Jon and Robb. I also appreciate more fully now the sort of distance between Jon Snow and his family, especially his father, as a result of him being an illegitimate child. It’s sad and kind of painful to read about, such as when he calls his brother by the family name Stark (even though for all intents and purposes he is pretty much a Stark too) and talks to his father about the Stark house sigil and the wolf puppies in a way that shows how he doesn’t consider himself one of them at all (and I guess in the world of Westeros he really isn’t). This ties in with Jon’s direwolf being the only puppy with his eyes open, in my opinion—he is the only Starkish child to have had his eyes opened to the harsh reality of the world, due to his being a bastard, and the albino wolf reflects his own outcast status. I think they did a good job of portraying this sort of pained psychological or emotional distance between him and the rest of his family on TV, too.

Catelyn 1

Lady Stark, nee Catelyn Tully, finds her husband Ned in their special worship grove. They are obviously a loving couple, and adoring parents. Ned asks Catelyn where the children are, because apparently there aren’t enough servants around their castle to keep track of the five legitimate children, one bastard, and one “foster” teenager the family has around. On second thought, there are seven kids in varying stages of infancy and surliness, so maybe Catelyn is needed elsewhere.

Anyway, Catelyn can report that the kids (except the foster hostage) love their direwolves, even if little Rickon is nervous around his. Ned thinks that three-year-olds should buck up and deal with their fierce wolf pets because WINTER IS COMING and Rickon needs to be strong. Either that or Rickon needs to use the direwolf as a living blanket because winter up north is so cold. Lord Stark is proud of Bran for watching him behead the deserter, but he’s worried by the continued desertions from the Night’s Watch (especially because WINTER IS COMING) and thinks he may have to journey north to see what’s going on. Catelyn tells him that the bad stuff isn’t limited to the Wall: she’s just found out her brother-in-law and Ned’s former foster-father, Lord Arryn, is dead. Catelyn’s sister has retreated to Lord Jon’s home fortress with their six-year-old son; Ned wants Catelyn to take their children there for a visit to make everything noisy and distract them from their grief, but Ned’s former foster-brother, King Robert, is now on his way to visit so everyone will have to stay home for the royal visit.

Shorter version:

Lady Catelyn Tully Stark seeks out her husband to report that her brother-in-law and Ned’s former foster-father, Lord Jon Arryn, has died. Catelyn’s sister has retreated to Lord Jon’s home fortress with their six-year-old son, but the Starks can’t visit them because they have to stay home to host the sudden visit from Ned’s former foster-brother, King Robert.

Susan's Take!
The Starks seem like very nice people even if we just saw Lord Stark chop a guy’s head off without listening to any mitigating circumstances. And their marriage seems very successful even though we know Lord Stark fathered a bastard.

Alyssa's Take!
I think my favorite part of this short chapter is the descriptions of Winterfell and Riverrun’s respective godswoods. (Spell check doesn’t like that word. Spell check doesn’t like many words from this book.) Riverrun’s godswood with the redwoods and flower smells and afternoon sunlight sounds like a truly beautiful place. But Winterfell’s godswood sounds just as awesome, just in a different way. A deep and dark primeval place of deep quiet and earthy smells sounds pretty amazing, too. And I would like a weirwood to plant in my yard. Are they real, like the direwolves?

I know Catelyn gets a lot of flak in the fandom (most cite her attitude toward fan favorite Jon Snow and her uncanny ability to continually mess stuff up in pursuit of doing the right thing), but I tend to be a little more tempered in my view of her. But. For some reason in this chapter it was irritating me about how she feels like she doesn’t fit in, the godswood doesn’t like her, etc. etc. She’s been there for 14 years at this point, so don’t you think maybe she would have accepted the North a little or at least made her peace with it?? I dunno. Normally I’m okay with Catelyn, but I guess she just got a wee bit on my nerves in this chapter.

Other thoughts: I love saucy Ned. I don’t want to constantly compare my re-read with the TV show, but I love how in the book you actually see Ned talk more, and say kind of sassy or snide things, whereas in the show I think he’s more reserved and deliberate in his speech. And I love that it’s completely unreasonable that the three-year-old be afraid of his new pet wolf. Can he speak in full sentences? Well no, but that’s not really necessary for raising a baby wolf, is it? XD

Also, I don’t think it’s stated outright in any of the novels (at least not that I remember, which isn’t saying much since collectively they’ve got to be over 4000 pages), but I wonder if Jon Snow was named after Ned’s foster father Jon Arryn. At first it irritated me that there were characters in the book with the same name as each other, but then I realized that was a little silly because out here in the real world there are plenty of people with the same names as each other! Why shouldn’t Westeros be subject to the same waxings and wanings of name popularity as the real world?

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