Oh my god, you guys, there’s a new Song of Ice and Fire scene out! Which means that I have to work out my sick obsession for midgrade fantasy writing all over it. This time it’s a Alayne viewpoint scene, which is… oh man. I like the Sansa/Alayne character. Maybe I’m the only one, but I do I like that she’s not overpowered (Arya) or a dimbulb (Arianne) or a once-interesting character turned into a boring evil-queen stereotype (Cersei–why did the Cersei viewpoint have to happen at all? Why?) There are still some cool things that can happen with Sansa/Alayne, as long as the character is allowed to grow. Which… well, it’s George R.R. Martin. So yeah.
Warning: There are a lot of Petyr Baelish-related digressions up ahead. If you can’t handle the Baelish and his smoove moves, you might want to skip this one.
It’s been a while since I read Feast for Crows, so some of the details leading up to this plot bog are a bit hazy. As far as I remember, Petyr has cooked up some sort of plan that involves getting Sansa to marry the heir to the Vale (conveniently known as Harry the Heir) and crowning her as Queen of the North. This is an incredibly ramshackle plan for a number of reasons, but whatever, Petyr.
We begin with Alayne reading to whiny little lord Sweetrobin. Someone comes into the room to speak with Alayne, while Sweetrobin predictably freaks out over someone interrupting his Alayne time.
Relief plain on her face, Mya fled without another word.
Oh man, we got some extra words. Let’s try this: “Mya fled without another word.” Look, the emotional meaning is the same! Can we remove this padding? It’s not about food, after all.
Robin is upset that Alayne won’t marry him. Alayne tries to placate Robin by telling him that she’s a bastard and that he must marry a noblewoman. (Why would Harry marry her, then?) Robin retorts that he can just make Alayne his mistress. He’s also upset because Harry the Heir is just waiting for him to die. Robin is pretty observant for a character whose main characteristics are epilepsy and inappropriate breastfeeding.
Robin’s complaints get Alayne thinking about her past marriage as Sansa.
No man can wed me so long as my dwarf husband still lives somewhere in this world.
Petyr-Related Digression #1: This seems like a pretty serious snag in Petyr’s plan to reveal Alayne as Sansa. What’s to keep the groom from claiming bigamy and disowning the marriage if he doesn’t want to go along with Petyr’s plans? Hell, “Sansa” has been gone a pretty long time. What’s to keep Harry from claiming that Alayne is real and that Petyr is trying to pass off Alayne as Sansa? She’s a human girl, not an authentic Hummel figurine; she doesn’t come with an authentication stamp. Petyr could have coached Alayne on how to act like Sansa, for all Harry the Heir knows… oof, now I’m confused. All I’m saying is that Petyr better have let the groom and his family in on this plan to make sure that they’re cool with it. If this is actually his plan, of course. Which it probably isn’t. Because we’re talking about Petyr, a shitty human being.
Anyway, Harry and his fellow knights are coming to the Vale to compete to be part of Robin’s guard. Alayne needs to meet them at the castle gate. This leads to paragraphs and paragraphs of tourney preparations, tapestries, and heraldry. Fucking tedious-ass heraldry, this is probably why people overthrew the feudal system in the real world. Well, that and the oppression of serfdom.
Alayne sees her friend Myranda, which leads to paragraphs and paragraphs of ugly men leering over breasts. Some dudes from the previous books show up. Do they know that Alayne is really Sansa? We’re… not going to find out!
Alayne could not help but shutter.
Ugh, Martin, edit this a bit before you release it into the wild.
Finally some of the important guests show up. Look, we’re finally meeting the famous Harry the Heir! And all his cousins, all of whom get their own paragraphs of description. I really hope one of these guys has something to do with the plot a good 200 pages down the road, because otherwise this all could have been solved with one sentence. Something along the lines of “There were others with Ser Harry, but Alayne could only focus on the man before her.” Again, it’s not even food padding. Cut it out.
Anyway, after all his cousins are described in living color, Harry finally gets to speak.
Ser Harrold looked down at her coldly. “Why should it please me to be escorted anywhere by Littlefinger’s bastard?”
Oooh, he’s mean. Alayne runs off and finally finds Petyr in the granaries, where he’s figuring out how to gouge the soon-to-be starving people of Westeros. She complains that Harry is a grade-A d-bag.
Petyr put his arm around her. “So he is, but he is Robert’s heir as well. Bringing Harry here was the first step in our plan, but now we need to keep him, and only you can do that. He has a weakness for a pretty face, and whose face is prettier than yours? Charm him. Entrance him. Bewitch him.”
“I don’t know how,” she said miserably.
“Oh, I think you do,” said Littlefinger, with one of those smiles that did not reach his eyes. “You will be the most beautiful woman in the hall tonight, as lovely as your lady mother at your age […]”
“Who would ask to wear a bastard’s favor?”
“Harry, if he has the wits the gods gave a goose… but do not give it to him. Choose some other gallant, and favor him instead. You do not want to seem too eager.”
“No,” Alayne said.
“Lady Waynwood will insist that Harry dance with you, I can promise you that much. That will be your chance. Smile at the boy. Touch him when you speak. Tease him, to pique his pride. If he seems to be responding, tell him that you are feeling faint, and ask him to take you outside for a breath of fresh air. No knight could refuse such a request from a fair maiden.”
“Yes,” she said, “but he thinks that I’m a bastard.”
“A beautiful bastard, and the Lord Protector’s daughter.” Petyr drew her close and kissed her on both cheeks. “The night belongs to you, sweetling, Remember that, always.”
“I’ll try, father,” she said.
Ah, Petyr. You master creeper, you.
Finally, we get to go to the ball! Guess what, there’s lots of descriptions of food, including a twelve-foot lemon cake, and gifts. Somebody is wearing a niallo brooch. What the fuck is niallo? Is it a plotting retardant?
Alayne flirts with Harry, just like Petyr told her to do.
Say something, she urged herself. You will never make Ser Harry love you if you don’t have the courage to talk him. Should she tell him what a good dancer he was? No, he’s probably heard that a dozen times tonight. Besides, Petyr said that I should not seem eager. Instead she said, “I have heard that you are about to be a father.” It was not something most girls would say to their almost-betrothed, but she wanted to see if Ser Harrold would lie.
“For the second time. My daughter Alys is two years old.”
Your bastard daughter Alys, Alayne thought, but what she said was, “That one had a different mother, though.”
“Yes. Cissy was a pretty thing when I tumbled her, but childbirth left her as fat as a cow, so Lady Anya arranged for her to marry one of her men-at-arms. It is different with Saffron.”
“Saffron?” Alayne tried not to laugh. “Truly?”
Ser Harrold had the grace to blush. “Her father says she is more precious to him than gold. He’s rich, the richest man in Gulltown. A fortune in spices.”
“What will you name the babe?” she asked. “Cinnamon if she’s a girl? Cloves if he’s a boy?”
That almost made him stumble. “My lady japes.”
“Oh, no.” Petyr will howl when I tell him what I said.
“Saffron is very beautiful, I’ll have you know. Tall and slim, with big brown eyes and hair like honey.”
Alayne raised her head. “More beautiful than me?”
Ser Harrold studied her face. “You are comely enough, I grant you. When Lady Anya first told me of this match, I was afraid that you might look like your father.”
“Little pointy beard and all?” Alayne laughed.
“I never meant… “
“I hope you joust better than you talk.”
For a moment he looked shocked. But as the song was ending, he burst into a laugh. “No one told me you were clever.”
He has good teeth, she thought, straight and white. And when he smiles, he has the nicest dimples. She ran one finger down his cheek. “Should we ever wed, you’ll have to send Saffron back to her father. I’ll be all the spice you’ll want.”
Ooh, Alayne has game! Well, game for a George R. R. Martin novel. She’s doing well for herself. Except…
Petyr-Related Digression #2: Why doesn’t Harry marry Saffron? She’s hot, demonstrably fertile, and rich as hell. Yes, she’s a merchant’s daughter, but Westerosi noblemen do marry common women, if the common women have enough cash. And why does Alayne have to flirt with Harry to keep him, anyway? If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Westerosi culture, it’s that nobles marry for dynastic purposes. Personal liking has nothing to do with it. Alayne can be smoking hot, but if her dowry isn’t big enough or Harry’s family distrusts the shifty, rather low-born Petyr, then she’s not going to make a match. If Petyr hasn’t already told Harry that he’s “getting” Sansa, he’s basically setting up “Alayne” to get knocked up. He’s a shitty fake father and a shitty human being.
And… that’s it. We’re not even up to the tourney yet. I bet Harry bites it, poor guy.
OK, here’s the problem: Sansa/Alayne is supposedly turning into a player, yet she still comes across as rather petulant and stupid. This is partially a result of limited perspective narration—the reader knows more than the character. But I think that Martin has actually forgotten what his characters have been through. Sansa saw her father’s execution. She was betrothed to crazy, abusive Joffrey and married off against her will to ugly Tyrion. She was kidnapped by Petyr and almost murdered by Lysa. Right now she’s pretending to be a completely different person with a completely different background, and apparently she’s pulling it off. Yet at the same time she’s horribly outraged that Harry called her a bastard, and she gets inordinately excited by a giant lemon cake. More importantly, she’s entirely reliant on Petyr for her instructions (even though she had started to question his motives in Feast). She’s still very much a puppet. Sure, we learn about events going on around Alayne through her viewpoint, but she’s not doing anything for herself.
There are some super easy ways to write the character with some self-awareness and at least a bit of gumption. For example, after Harry insults Alayne, she could think something along the lines of “Why am I so silly? I heard worse from Joffrey. Yet Harry’s words still hurt.” Or tweak the Petyr/Alayne scene–Alayne is able to figure what Petyr wants her to do without so much prompting, or she mentally reacts to his words in some fashion. (Even “I’d rather flirt with Petyr” would work here, if you want to go down the Petyr/Alayne route in a non-utterly rapey fashion.) Or Alayne could realize on her own that she has to catch Harry’s attention even if she doesn’t like him, so she decides to flirt with him just like her lusty friend Myranda would (thus justifying the long, long time we readers spent with Myranda). She’ll be the prettiest girl at the ball, even if she’s a bastard, and win his heart! This would demonstrate that Sansa/Alayne is realizing her own power as a player, even if she’s not yet the Queen of Thorns.
Petyr-Related Digression #3: Another snag in Petyr’s plan–what if Alayne doesn’t want to turn back into Sansa? In King’s Landing, Sansa wanted to start a nice, quiet family with a decent man, and she almost had that chance with the Tyrells before she was forced to marry Tyrion. As Alayne, she has the chance for a stable marriage with Harry and she probably can be chatelaine of the peaceful Vale–but only if she keeps on being Petyr’s rich bastard. Harry may not be a gem, but he’s not an obvious psychopath, he’s not deformed, and he hasn’t killed any of Sansa’s/Alayne’s family yet. In Westerosi terms, he’s Prince Charming. What’s to keep Alayne from double-crossing Petyr? What with Petyr being a shitty human being and all?
Then again, I’m probably overthinking this way too much. Perhaps Sansa/Alayne is not developing into an ice-cold Marquise de Merteuil-type but instead is on the way to yet another unfortunate marriage or some other nasty surprise (the show is apparently going in a “guess what, Sansa gets victimized some more!” direction, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Martin followed suit). Which means that this entire chapter was a clumsy, extremely descriptive lead-up to an elaborate punking. Damn, how many times can we go over the “Sansa thinks she’s being a clever princess, but she gets sickly used and abused” plot? Especially as told from poor Sansa’s point of view? It’s so gross. I really hope I’m wrong. If I’m not… well, can Arya just kill her now? Valar morghulis, please?