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 4 of A Feast for Crows, in which we cover Chapter 5 (“Samwell”).
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!
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Chapter 5: Samwell
Deep beneath Castle Black, Sam realizes he has been holed up reading and researching for over a day, and comes back up to the surface, where he sees the work progressing on rebuilding the stair up the Wall. Dolorous Edd finds him and tells him the Lord Commander wants to see him. Pyp and Grenn appear, and Pyp teases Sam for his crush on the “wildling princess” Val. Both he and Grenn are disgruntled that Jon Snow is apparently too good to spend time with them now that he is Lord Commander. Sam protests that Jon is busy, but Grenn points out he’s not too busy to be constantly practicing the sword. Sam recalls how Jon had shown him his spell-forged sword Longclaw, and his sentiment that “Longclaw is Valyrian steel, but I’m not.”
He meets Gilly leaving Jon’s quarters as he is arriving; she seems upset, and says something about Dalla’s boy crying when he wants to nurse, but her own son being quiet, before rushing off. Sam curses himself for how flustered he feels in her presence, and goes in to see Jon. Jon shows him a parchment he calls “a paper shield”: a letter to King Tommen, which he hasn’t signed. He says that the Lannisters will not be happy to hear the Watch has been helping Stannis Baratheon. Sam points out that Tywin will not want Stannis to take all the credit for defending the realm. Jon says they are not to take sides, but the more he gives Stannis, the more he wants: “Pleasing one king is difficult enough. Pleasing two is hardly possible.”
Sam says that if the Lannisters prevail, and Tywin decides the Night Watch betrayed him by aiding Stannis, it could mean the end of the brotherhood. He knows that Jon is trying to convince himself that Stannis will succeed in raising support from the north, but Sam knows Stannis’s messages to the northmen have gone unanswered, save by the Karstarks. He advises Jon that even a paper shield is better than none, and Jon sighs and agrees. He signs the letter and gives it to Sam to send out.
Sam asks why Gilly had been crying, and Jon tells him Val had sent her to plead for Mance Rayder’s life again, but Stannis is unlikely to yield on that count. Sam says the rumor is that Lady Melisandre means to use Mance’s body for some sorcery: “king’s blood, to wake a dragon.” Jon thinks it nonsense, saying Mance is no more royal than he is. He says he is sending Gilly away, and Sam swallows and agrees it would be best.
He tells Jon that he has found records of at least four Lord Commanders who ascended to their post younger than Jon did, but Jon wants to hear about the Others. Sam explains to him that the records he’s found so far are sketchy and apocryphal at best, but he found mention that the children of the forest used to give the Night’s Watch a hundred dragonglass daggers every year during the Age of Heroes. The Others either only come when it is cold and dark, or it becomes cold and dark when they come. They ride dead animals, and there is something about “ice spiders.” Men they kill must be burned lest they rise again as their thralls. They are apparently only vulnerable to fire and obsidian, though Sam found one account that said the “last hero” slew Others with “dragonsteel.” Jon asks if this means Valryian steel; Sam isn’t sure, but thinks so.
Jon asks if any records says who the Others are, where they come from, or what they want, but Sam hasn’t found anything like that so far. He promises to keep looking, but Jon tells him he is going with Gilly to Oldtown, as is Aemon. Sam is terrified at the notion of going somewhere so close to Horn Hill and his father, and protests that Jon needs a maester, and Aemon is too frail for a journey. Jon points out that Aemon is of royal blood, and it is too dangerous for him to stay here with Melisandre. He says that he needs a new maester, and Jon wants Sam. Sam remembers his father’s wrath, and continues to protest that he cannot wear a chain, but Jon says there is no one else.
Jon is puzzled that Sam is not excited about this opportunity. Sam says feebly that blood makes him faint. Jon points out that he stood at the Fist and slew an Other. He grows impatient with Sam’s recalcitrance, and Sam finally stutters that his father said no son of House Tarly would ever wear a chain of servitude. Lord Snow tells him curtly that he has no father, only brothers, and he will go to Oldtown at first light. He further orders that Sam is forbidden to call himself a coward from now on.
“You’ve faced more things this past year than most men face in a lifetime. You can face the Citadel, but you’ll face it as a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch. I can’t command you to be brave, but I can command you to hide your fears. You said the words, Sam. Remember?”
I am the sword in the darkness. But he was wretched with a sword, and the darkness scared him. “I… I’ll try.”
“You won’t try. You will obey.”
Sam leaves in a daze. He contemplates hiding, but knows that is pointless. He goes to Aemon and confesses his fears, but Aemon tells him his own father said the same thing before his grandfather sent him off, and that Lord Snow has the right of it. Sam despairs, and the next day they and their escort make ready to set out. Jon and Dolorous Edd show up to see them off, and Aemon tells Jon he left a book for him, the Jade Compendium, with an “interesting” passage marked.
Jon orders Black Jack Bulwer to travel quickly but carefully, and Gilly implores Jon to find another wet nurse for Dalla’s boy, and not name him until two years, which he promises to do. Jon reminisces to Sam of the first time he’d seen Gilly, and Sam says she has courage. Jon tells Sam he does too, and with a “strange, sad smile,” wishes Sam a safe voyage.
So, whatever else this chapter was, it was also a massive infodump, which made it very annoying to summarize.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t interesting to read, of course. “Infodump” is frequently code for “bad writing,” but that is actually pretty heavily dependent on context, in my opinion. Unloading a giant pile of worldbuilding minutiae on top of a reader’s head right at the beginning of a narrative is a giant no-no, and is often one of the most guaranteed ways to get me to NOPE right the hell out of a story, but if you wait until your reader has been firmly drawn into and invested with your story and characters and world, then a good solid infodump is often very welcome indeed. Because by that point your readers generally want to know more about just how the hell this crazy world of yours works and what the hell is going on; if they didn’t, after all, they probably wouldn’t have read that far in the first place.
Still annoying to summarize, though.
Anyway. First off, naturally, we have Our Daily Political Clusterfuck, in which Jon has the delightfully impossible task (as he himself notes) of trying to please two masters at once, and keep the Watch from getting crushed between a more or less literal rock and a hard place. So that should be super fun.
Galling as it must have been, though, I tend to agree with Sam that attempting neutrality and maintaining communication with the Lannisters was the right move. It might not work, but at least now Jon can say he did the right thing and made the effort. Because we all know what safety the moral high ground yields in this series, right?
Moving on, next we have the news that Melisandre wants to sacrifice people, which I am definitely going to file under Shocking and Astounding Revelations of 2014 as soon as I get a minute. Oh, but right, she only wants to sacrifice royal people. Well, that’s okay then!
And you know, I’m really not sure why Jon is so worried for Aemon’s welfare and not his own re: Our Melly’s thirst for regal hemoglobin. Because he may be a bastard, but Jon’s father was still a Stark, and I seem to recall that the Starks were also kings back in the day. So if Melly is getting desperate enough to play the semantics card on Mance being a “king” (of a people who don’t recognize any form of government, no less), then surely it has to have occurred to her that Jon is a far better bet?
I’m just saying, Jon had better watch his back. For even more reasons than all the ones he already has. Lord.
Third in our parade of infodumpery, of course, is the stuff about the Others. Which was, in fact, amazing in its nearly complete lack of info—that we didn’t already know, anyway—and confirms that the Night Watch are totally fired from the Librarian’s Hall of Fame, forever.
Because seriously, how is it possible that we (and the Watch) still know precisely fuck-all about the Others’ origins and purpose? Why does no one have this information? How is it no one thought to be all Yo, forest kids, how about you give us some backstory along with your groovy volcanic glassware, and then, oh, I dunno, WRITE IT THE FUCK DOWN. And then keep writing it down, and make up songs and shit about it so no one will forget it ever, because I don’t have to be a military genius to know that if you want to win a war, it is just as important to know what your enemy wants as it is to know what makes them die.
(I mean, assuming “what they want” includes something besides “kill everyone.” Which I guess could be the Others’ sole purpose, but I’m really hoping it’s a little more complex than that.)
And yet we seem to have lost that rather vital intel entirely, and that is kind of blowing my mind considering that unless I missed a memo, defending against the Others is entirely what the Night Watch is supposed to be FOR.
Epic fail, y’all. EPIC.
Pretty much the only new piece of information there, in fact, at least as far as I can tell, is the possibly erroneous information that Valryian steel will also kill Others. Which I suppose is nice for Jon, if true, but otherwise seems fairly useless to know, since I am under the impression Valryian steel is not exactly the kind of thing you can just pick up at the local 7-Eleven. But I’m sure this will all come to be Important at some point.
(Who is “the last hero”? I didn’t know they were in limited supply!)
Also, I left it out of the summary but there was a reminder in this chapter that Sam knows Bran is alive and Jon doesn’t, and I had kind of forgotten about that. I don’t really have a point here, except that it just really sucks that he can’t tell Jon, and I think he should have told Jon anyway, because I’m almost positive that not telling Jon is eventually going to backfire on them all horribly, because that is how we roll up here in Westeros, yo.
As for Sam himself: oh honey. I get the problem, really I do, but seriously, fuck your dad and what he wants with a rusty chainsaw. I think the best thing Sam could possibly do at this point is go be his heart’s desire, i.e. a maester, and flip his tool-tastic father the biggest bird in the history of the world doing it.Torturing your own son because he wants to be a—GASP!—scholar; are you kidding me? Get bent, you knuckle-dragging horse’s ass.
So yay Jon for kicking Sam in the metaphorical pants on that one, and even more for finally ordering him to shut up about being a scaredy-cat, because EXACTLY. I have only been saying this for like four books, hello. Plus, there’s no denying that Jon is going to need a new maester Real Soon Now, and that there is simply not a single other person Jon (or I) would want in the job. So it is with all possible sympathy for your asshole-dad-related trauma that I say: suck it up, Sam. We gots shit to do, son!
Dolorous Edd Tollett gave a sigh. “When I was a lad, we only ate mice on special feast days. I was the youngest, so I always got the tail. There’s no meat on the tail.”
Oh, Dolorous Edd. You make my day paradoxically brighter every time you talk. I heart you.
[Jon:] “As you command, my lady.”
A spasm of anger flashed across Gilly’s face. “Don’t you call me that. I’m a mother, not a lady. I’m Craster’s wife and Craster’s daughter, and a mother.”
Interesting, that she is so sure there is a distinction between the two. But I guess in her worldview, being accused of being a member of an elite governing peerage would be kind of insulting, wouldn’t it?
…Not sure I would claim the incest bit as a point of pride, though. I mean, even the wildlings thought that whole thing was fucked up, dear.
And we out! Have a week—IF YOU DARE—and I’ll see you next Thursday!