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.