In the Lost Lands – George R.R. Martin

A more fantasy-oriented tale than In the Morning Comes Mistfall, though I must admit – having read a good deal of Martin’s works – that he enjoys mixing different elements in his stories to obtain unexpected results.

I own the audio version for this one as well, again read by Claudia Black, who lends further depth and life to both characters and background.

Grey Alys is a witch – or better, an enabler: she always grants your wishes, no matter how outlandish. The problem is, you never get exactly what you hoped for…  When the powerful Lady Melange asks Grey Alys for the secret of skin-changing, the woman brings her back a white wolf pelt that will turn the fulfillment of the Lady’s desire into an endless nightmare.

The ending of this story is suitably horrifying, even though much is left to imagination rather than detail, and yet that’s not what matters here: the main body of the story concerns Alys’ voyage into the titular Lost Lands, in the company of the mysterious Boyce.  The Lands are desolate, the mute testimony of a possible past cataclysm, and yet they possess a sort of savage beauty that can be appreciated only by people able to look beyond surface appearances. Re-reading this shortly after “Mistfall” I became aware of the thematic similarity about beauty being found in the most unlikely places, and it was a happy discovery.

Alys and Boyce share that same deceptive appearance: both of them holding secrets, both of them presenting ax exterior look that belies their true nature, they seem two of a kind, destined to a fruitful allegiance. As if often happens with GRR Martin’s tales, what ultimately happens turns readers’ expectations upside down, then tramples them in the mud… He does so in a masterful, spellbinding way, though, capturing the reader’s attention through striking descriptions and a cunning build-up of tension.

Grey Alys shines throughout the story: her quiet, almost unassuming ways speak of untapped depths and dark secrets, and her calm detachment is far more chilling than outright malice. There is no open cruelty in her actions: she hastens other people’s demise, or observes their unavoidable misfortune, with the same aloof calm she would display in accepting her own. Alys seems to know there is an unavoidable fate awaiting us all and she neither embraces or runs from it, allowing fate to play its cards: there is only one moment, near the end of her journey in the Lost Lands, when she – in the form of a magnificent bird of prey soaring in the air – utters a shrill cry in the silence of the Lands. Given the turn of events that transpired in the story before this moment, I wondered if it was a cry of victory or one of despair. It would work either way, and that’s so typical of Martin, who often leaves us in the cold, wondering…

That poise, that confidence, is what makes Grey Alys different from run-of-the-mill “witch” figures, and singles her out from the narrative norm: her best, most telling image, is the one at the beginning of the story, where she sits languidly caressing a grey rat as if it were a common pet – alarming and at the same time unforgettable.

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Posted on May 7, 2014, in Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. This is a short story, right? It looks interesting… seems like you liked it anyway!! I've only ever read the ASOIAF books by Martin (which I don't think I'll continue because the HBO show is tainting the whole series for me) but I'm vaguely curious about his other work. This might be a good place to start.

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  2. Yes, this is a short story: the two volumes of “Dreamsongs” are a collection of GRRM's writing history, from his very early days. These short stories give you a good idea of the great writing range of this author, and I can also recommend his first novel “The Dying of the Light”: even though it's not “vintage” Martin, it's a fascinating tale of love and loyalty.

    I'm curious about your reaction to the HBO screen translation of ASOIAF: what is it that tainted the pleasure of reading for you? Granted, there were some totally gratuitous scenes that could have been avoided, but I think the writers did a good job with synthesizing the huge amount of material they had to work with, and of course some of the performers are nothing short of awesome – like Peter Dinklage, just to name one. So… what went wrong for you?

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  3. I mostly agree with what you've said. The actors and writers have been doing an excellent job overall (and I'm not too bothered by most of the gratuitous scenes, or at least I wasn't in earlier seasons). But I feel like Season 4 has been episode after episode of gore/ sexual violence against women and I'm just reaching a place of NOPE. DO NOT WANT. CANNOT HANDLE. And as bad as it sounds, I don't know if I'll be able to unlink the books with the show now, because the adaptation has got so many other things right.

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  4. I understand your reaction about the violence – even trying to remember that in the real Middle Ages that are Martin's inspiration for his Westeros that kind of violence was an everyday occurrence, it's hard to bear for our modern sensibilities. And being a woman makes it worse.

    But that violence is in the books as well… I'll grant you that seeing it on screen is WAY different than reading it in a book (where you can skip forward, by the way…). And there's another angle to consider, something a friend was telling me just a few days ago: that no matter how terrible the images on screen can be, what our imagination can supply while reading is much worse. And that's a terrifying thought…

    Anyway, Martin is not an easy author to read because of his adherence to stark reality, and that must be taken into account when approaching his works.

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  5. This is exactly why I have never (and will never) watch that series.

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  6. GRRM requires a lot of strength, granted, but somehow you build it along the way: I started reading his books some 12 years ago and now… well, I have to make it to the end of the “tunnel”. It's become a matter of pride! 🙂

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  7. Oh I've read all the books (so far) it is the show that I refuse to watch. Everybody is different and with books we imagine things according to our personalities. TV/Movies takes that away from us.

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  8. It's usually true that the transition from book to screen is not an easy one, and sometimes it angers you – I've still not forgiven Peter Jackson for that scene where Frodo banishes Sam on the stairs of Cirith Ungol, because he badly mistreated (betrayed?) both characters. This is what's important in the translation from book to visual medium, that the screenwriters remain respectful of characters.

    In the GoT tv series there have been story changes, yes: after all it was next to impossible to follow the books too faithfully, not with the constraints imposed by 10-episode seasons. But I think that Benioff and Weiss have done an admirable job of keeping as faithful as possible to the original structure of GRRM's characters. And I'll add something else: some of the actors have given their characters levels of hidden depths that I would not have believed possible outside of book form. I could even go as far as saying that this might very well be the first novel-to-screen rendition that did NOT disappoint me…

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