Welcome back to A Read of Ice and Fire! Please join me as I read and react, for the very first time, to George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.
Today’s entry is Part 1 of A Feast for Crows, in which we cover the Prologue.
Previous entries are located in the Index. The only spoilers in the post itself will be for the actual chapters covered and for the chapters previous to them. As for the comments, please note that the Powers That Be have provided you a lovely spoiler thread here on Tor.com. Any spoileriffic discussion should go there, where I won’t see it. Non-spoiler comments go below, in the comments to the post itself.
And now, the post!
Outside the Quill and Tankard, a tavern in Oldtown, a maester novice named Pate drinks with several other novices and acolytes while he daydreams about running away with Rosey, the daughter of one of the tavern wenches, whose maidenhead price is a golden dragon. He had wanted to be a maester, but he’s been studying at the Citadel for five years now without earning a single link for his chain. Rosey had introduced him to a stranger claiming to be an alchemist who could turn iron into gold, and who’d said he would come back that night. Pate was here to meet him, but had been unable to avoid socializing with the others.
Mollander is arguing with Armen, Roone, and Alleras the Sphinx over whether dragons exist. He insists that they might be extinct in Westeros, but there are tales of a dragon overseas, accompanied by a “beautiful young queen.” Alleras announces that the dragon has three heads, and the queen Mollander refers to is Daenerys Stormborn, the last of the Targaryens. Mollander drunkenly proposes a toast to “their rightful queen,” and Armen hisses at him to shut up. They are joined by Lazy Leo, who invites them to buy him a round to keep him quiet about their treasonous talk, and manages to insult all of them in turn.
The others react with contempt, but Leo doesn’t care, and tells them Daenerys is indeed alive, and has three dragons, not one, a fact confirmed by Maester Marwyn, “the Mage.” Pate thinks of Marwyn’s long history abroad, consorting with all types, including warlocks and shadowbinders. Armen declares that Marwyn is “unsound,” and has no proof.
“You’re wrong,” said Leo. “There is a glass candle burning in the Mage’s chambers.”
Armen says that is not possible, as glass candles (made from dragonglass) are meant to be unlightable, but Leo says he saw it himself. Alleras muses on dragons being back in the world again, and Leo says there are “darker things” as well.
“Old powers waken. Shadows stir. An age of wonder and terror will soon be upon us, an age for gods and heroes.”
The others decide to leave, but Pate says he will stay. Leo taunts him about Rosey. Pate wants to kill him, but Leo is the son of Ser Moryn Tyrell, commander of Oldtown’s City Watch, and cousin to Lord Mace Tyrell, and Pate doesn’t dare. He realizes dawn has arrived with no sign of the alchemist, and wonders if he, Pate, is still a thief if he just puts back what he has stolen. He goes to leave, very drunk, and contemplates taking off on his own, but ends up heading back to the Citadel.
Then the alchemist finds him on the street, and asks him what he is. Pate replies that he supposes he is a thief, for stealing the key he had taken which opens every door in the Citadel. The alchemist takes him to a back alley and gives him a golden dragon, but Pate demands to see his face before giving him the key. The alchemist is young, with black hair and a faint scar on his right cheek; Pate does not recognize him. He gives the alchemist the key.
He was halfway down the alley when the cobblestones began to move beneath his feet. The stones are slick and wet, he thought, but that was not it. He could feel his heart hammering in his chest. “What’s happening?” he said. His legs had turned to water. “I don’t understand.”
“And never will,” a voice said sadly.
The cobblestones rushed up to kiss him. Pate tried to cry for help, but his voice was failing too.
His last thought was of Rosey.
Well, that was both totally unsurprising and very cryptic.
This is kind of random, perhaps, but I’ve been watching the TV show Justified a lot lately, and the parallels I’ve been finding between it and ASOIAF are rather startling. On the surface the two things have just about nothing in common, considering that ASOIAF is an epic fantasy book series about (basically) pseudo-medieval European war and politics amid an impending wintry apocalypse, and Justified is (basically) an modern-day American cops and robbers show set in the backwoods of Kentucky, but once you go beyond the surface, the underlying perspective on human nature in each story is eerily similar, and it’s a perspective that’s given me much food for thought lately.
Both ASOIAF and Justified have a view of humanity that is both profoundly cynical and yet oddly lyrical at the same time. Along with a refreshingly clear-eyed (if often depressing, therefore) acknowledgement of their respective societies’ biases with regard to class, race, gender, etc., they both observe, with brutal honesty, how cruelly their worlds prey on the weak and stupid (like, for instance, our POV character Pate here), and yet they simultaneously manage to convey a certain wry compassion for those who fall victim to that cruelty. They make us shake our heads at how dumb these poor saps are, and also to feel sorry for them at the same time, even when their actions are less than pure themselves, because we are made to recognize just how deep and treacherous are the waters in which they swim, often through no choice or fault of their own, and how woefully unprepared most of these characters could ever be to navigate the currents and undertows in which they are caught.
(The concurrent “less-than-pure poor sap” character on Justified, if you’re curious, is Dewey Crowe, and let me take a moment to assure you that if you like ASOIAF or anything similar to it you should absolutely be watching Justified, because it is amazing, and tragically underrated as a TV show, mostly because Hollywood is prejudiced against the South, so fuck them.)
Anyway, back to ASOIAF, and my long-enough familiarity with the way things go in this series that I was able to predict with confidence that Pate was doomed nearly from the moment we met him. This prediction was helped, of course, by the dismal track record thus far of once-off POV characters in ASOIAF surviving their moment in the spotlight, particularly when they occur in Prologues, but even without the precedent I’m pretty sure I would have assumed Pate was going to bite it the moment I read that he had been duped into stealing something for some stranger claiming to be an “alchemist,” which might as well have been a synonym for “I’M GOING TO FLEECE YOU BLIND AND PROBABLY ALSO MURDER YOU” as far as I am concerned.
And look, I was right. SHOCKING.
Because, Jesus, dude, you think there’s no significance to a guy asking you to steal a skeleton key to the entire Citadel? That doesn’t scream “imminent military invasion” or “coup d’état” to you in letters of fire?? Ugh. It’s terrible of me to say, perhaps, but dude, you kind of deserved to get whacked in an alley for being that blitheringly idiotic. Sheesh.
Probably the most interesting part, really, is that Rosey, Tavern Wench Jr., was in on it. Huh. Or, maybe she was just a patsy. It’s more fun to think she wasn’t, though, especially since I can’t imagine she could be all that eager to have someone like Pate earn his way into her pants. Although it’s perfectly possible I’m giving her too much credit—or too little, depending on how you look at it.
So, obviously I have no idea who the alchemist is—although if his name turns out to be Edward Elric I’m going to laugh a lot. (I kind of doubt it, though.) His (fairly vague) physical description didn’t ring any bells for me, even if it was supposed to. I’m perfectly positive, however, that whoever he is, he’s going to show up again later at some point.
Interesting, though, that someone is apparently planning an invasion and/or infiltration of the maesters’ university. That speaks of a lot more subtlety than most of the much more overt conquests we’ve been seeing previously. I’m not entirely sure of what the purpose would be of such a thing yet, but I’m sure that there is one. Though I will note that the maesters, by and large, seem to be in control of most or all of the long-distance communication of Westeros (i.e. ravens), not to mention the history, lore, and medical knowledge, so having control of that institution would by no means be a small consideration. Knowledge being power, and alla that.
I mostly left it out of the summary, but I was also amused at Pate’s description of (and frustration with) his maester “professors” and the manner in which they (inadvertently or otherwise) screwed him over, which read to me like someone (whose initials may or may not be GRRM) has some fairly scathing opinions of the concept of tenure in higher education and the grievous abuses it can sometimes engender. Let’s just say, I know a few people who can vociferously sympathize. Heh.
“The glass candle is meant to represent truth and learning, rare and beautiful and fragile things. It is made in the shape of a candle to remind us that a maester must cast light wherever he serves, and it is sharp to remind us that knowledge can be dangerous. Wise men may grow arrogant in their wisdom, but a maester must always remain humble. The glass candle reminds us of that as well. Even after he has said his vow and donned his chain and gone forth to serve, a maester will think back on the darkness of his vigil and remember how nothing that he did could make the candle burn… for even with knowledge, some things are not possible.”
A very nice sentiment, and well worth quoting, but I wonder how many maesters ever bothered to take that lesson to heart. Especially since it seems that at least one of them can cheat the test. So does this make Marwyn the Mage the ASOIAF equivalent of the Reboot Kirk with the Kobayashi Maru?
Eh, probably not. However, given that obsidian (i.e. dragonglass) is volcanic glass and therefore has a kind of obscenely high melting point, I would speculate that there’s no way Marwyn the Mage could make a candle of it burn without employing—you guessed it—MAGIC!! *jazz hands*
Or, as the dialogue here suggests, it could also be a contagion kind of thing—dragons are back in the world, thanks to our Dany, and therefore dragonglass is… burnable again? Er, or something. It’s probably all Symbolic And Shit.
Either way, I suspect that, given the prominence with which he was mentioned, we have also not seen the last of Marwyn the Mage (whose name I keep mentally rendering as “Mervyn”, and which keeps cracking me up because “Mervyn the Mage” is hilarious, I’m sorry).
One other thing that jumped out at me here was Pate’s thought about the stories of
Mervyn Marwyn hanging out with “shadowbinders,” which… okay, is that a reference to what Melisandre does with her Magical Assassin Shadow Babies™? Because, if so, I’m a little boggled, because if that kind of thing is even a little bit commonplace, even if only overseas, then why hasn’t anyone brought it up as a thing before now in reference to various assassinations? Especially Renly’s, given how very wonky his death scene was?
I dunno, I’d assumed that Melisandre’s little trick was unique to her, but this passage possibly implies that it isn’t, and that rather threw me. That is way freaky, if so. Imagine a whole group of people able to squeeze out murder shadows on command for a price! And how would male warlocks do it?
On second thought, let’s not, shall we?
And… er. I hadn’t quite meant to leave this commentary on that note, but, um.
(That’s because I got CLASS, y’all. CLASS, coming out of my—right, shutting up now.)
And here’s where we stop! A little short, I know, but I’m gearing up here, never fear! New book, whoo! See you next Thursday!