Tag Archives: George R. R. Martin

A Dance with Dragons: Weaselly Meditations on Slavery

Cover of A Dance with Dragons

Title: A Dance with Dragons
Author: George R. R. Martin
Publication Date: 2011
LC Call Number: PS3563 .A7239

Okay, so here’s my attempt at an actual serious post about A Dance with Dragons. I don’t feel like I have a lot to say about it, so, we’ll see.

The book is mostly not about what is going on in Westeros; it’s about the effect that Daenerys has had upon the countries in the east. Most significantly, it’s Daenerys vs. slavery. The ideology here is really difficult to pin down; the book appears to contain a deep ambivalence, if not toward slavery itself, toward the possibility of abolishing it politically.

There will always be problems in these chapters caused by the fact that they are narrated and perceived exclusively by characters from Westeros. Daenerys believes, at least for a while, that she is able to solve the problems of all these cities she knows nothing about just with her own power. This is a narrative we find all the time; privileged people with a Eurocentric (perhaps not the right word here?) viewpoint figure they can fix things for people who have darker skin, live elsewhere, have customs they consider barbaric, etc, and it’s been pointed out by much better writers than I am how a subtle racism can underlie benevolence of this sort. Now, because Martin has so many different viewpoint characters and is so willing to live in their heads that it’s never really clear what is the bias of the characters and what is the tendency of the book. This, by the way, is one of the things that really gets lost in the HBO series, and an important reason that the tv show makes me feel more uneasy about the story as a whole. So you have characters who position themselves like this and it’s sometimes left ambiguous whether this is endorsed. However, the weakness here is that you never have an point of view character who provides a perspective that would help us understand, for instance, what life is like for a freedman in Meereen.

However, we do get a first hand view of slavery. First, Daenerys explicitly reminds us that her crusade against slavery is a product of personal experience, refuting invalid analogies with the simple statement, “I have been sold.” One might think her longing for Drogo at the end of the book (and I’ll admit, I find this bizarre) would weaken this argument a little, but I do think it’s important that she recognizes her suffering as such, remembers that Viserys was not her friend, and knows that what happened to her was wrong. I wrote before about the lack of any solidarity, anywhere in these books–Daenerys is as close as it gets, but notice that this is not real solidarity because she still believes that she is a queen and holds herself above those she has freed. This is what leads her to make compromises with slavers, and it’s basically the Mirri Maz Duur problem all over again. She shares none of the specific circumstances of any of the people she is trying to help, and although some of them end up fairly close to her–Missandei and to a lesser extent, Grey Worm–there’s never a sense of what she can learn from them.

We do get a more–typical?–view of it from Tyrion and Penny. Penny, by the way, is a great character and was sorely needed in this book. She is a second dwarf, so that we can have a different perspective on dwarf-ness than the one that Tyrion provides. She’s a commoner, which alleviates the problem I discussed in my earlier post about the series’s increased focus on the major players, and she is a survivor who does not concern herself with maintaining her dignity. With Penny, we get a sense of the relationship between the common people and the aristocrats in this world. She views the “big folks” as rather dangerous natural forces which she must appease in order to be allowed to continue to live her own life and tend to the things she cares about–her (now deceased) brother, her pets, her own continued existence. She has learned their ways and believes that she mostly understands how to conduct herself around them. She will follow these rules in order to ensure her safety; her plan is to survive rather than to rebel. It is not a particularly heroic nor philosophical worldview, and Tyrion’s thinly-veiled contempt for her is a constant reminder of that. In a way, it leads me to wonder whether we are supposed to look down on her as well, and I worry about how she will be portrayed in the TV series. Still, given her social position, gender, and size, it’s been a pretty smart strategy, it’s led to her surviving this long, it harms no one, and it’s hard to blame her for it. Frankly, if you dislike Penny, I think you are kind of a jerk.

In any case, she and Tyrion are captured and sold as slaves, in the midst of the camp in which everyone is dying of the flux. This gives us a first-hand view of the lives of slaves, although a view that is acknowledged as atypical, and the book really needed that. Tyrion and Penny do almost an Ariel/Caliban thing; Tyrion is resistant and insulting and Penny is compliant and sweet and even a little bit loyal, but curiously, it is Tyrion who tries to find some justification for their situation. He observes at one point that the lot of most slaves, in his opinion, is no worse than the lot of servants in Westeros, and later reflects that being a slave is a choice because those enslaved have not forced their captors to kill them. Both of these thoughts tend to absolve the powerful from responsibility–maybe, instead of expecting slaves to rebel, people shouldn’t go around making others into slaves in the first place? Maybe servants in Westeros shouldn’t be treated like slaves? Maybe the existence of an analogous situation elsewhere doesn’t actually mean slavery is okay? And what does Tyrion know about the lives of servants, anyway? But of course, Tyrion is a displaced aristocrat, if a rebellious one, and while he often appears to take the part of people of lower classes (in this book, he is careful to take the blame for vomiting on the floor so that the slave in the brothel won’t be blamed for it–a jarring gesture when, as far as I can tell, he has just raped her, but that is this book all over) , he still sees all this from a distance and doesn’t really identify with it. He is disgusted with Penny because she does, and she tries to roll with the punches, but although she is naive and has less overall awareness of the situation than he does, she understands that part of it better. But Tyrion is a dangerous character to make these observations, because he is the smartest character in the series, and the most entertaining. When he says this sort of thing, the reader is tempted to agree with him automatically, and I’m not sure that it is really explicitly presented as being part of Tyrion’s development rather than an exposition on What This Book Thinks About Slavery. And yet, at the same time, it gives me the opportunity to read generously and attribute it to Tyrion. I am not sure whether I am being too generous or not, nor how this my affect other readers.

In any case, a lot of page time is given to those who argue that slavery is an economic necessity, and while I am not convinced that we are supposed to buy this, it is enough to make us uneasy about Daenerys and her project. Of course, there are flashes of insight from elsewhere, too. I enjoyed the moment at which it is revealed that the slaves of Volantis are waiting for her to come. In this moment you see that slavery is not sustainable, that getting rid of it isn’t just a whim of Dany’s, and that maybe it isn’t all about her anyway–that slaves have agency. But they are waiting, which is perhaps disappointing. Maybe in Book Six, if it ever comes out, we’ll see independent revolts happening all over the place. That would be fun.


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A Dance with Dragons: Back Again

Cover of A Dance with Dragons


Title: A Dance with Dragons (Book 5 of A Song of Ice and Fire)

Author: George R. R. Martin

Publication Date: 2011

LC Call Number: PS3563 .A7239

It probably wasn’t the best possible time to read this book–it put me way behind when I should have been reading Little Women, and then that stressed me out a little, and I think it diminished my enjoyment of the book, do if its assessment suffers here, well, it’s not really fair. But I was behind,so I plowed ahead.

So. A Dance With Dragons is the fifth (fifth!) installment of George. R. R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Two more to go. It’s a long series of long books, so by now we’ve had the opportunity to become fairly immersed in the world, we can recognize a political configuration that bears almost no resemblance to the one that we first encountered, we are pretty sure about which characters we like and dislike, and we have had plenty of time to pick up on Martin’s irritating habits–both linguistic (say, his use of contemporary colloquialisms and his conviction that “wroth” is a noun)–and plot-based (abandoning interesting plot lines, constantly threatening all female characters with rape–though admittedly there is less of that last in this installment). It’s risky to try to write something so big, and even riskier the way that Martin does it. This series attempts to deromanticize the fantasy genre, so aside from the periodic deaths of characters,* there are plot twists that are meant to be twists because they are realistic and in general an aim for grittiness–sometimes more successfully and sometimes less so. The end result is that it’s rather hostile to the reader, who is assumed to be a fantasy fan, and therefore both able to recognize the things he turns on their heads and sensitive to these criticisms. In that sense, it’s a little surprising that it’s been so popular. In any case, it doesn’t feel as if Martin is negotiating with readers to get them to keep reading–but of course he is. Sometimes I wonder if he remembers that, but this may be intentional.**

This particular volume is the other half of A Feast for Crows; the story is that Martin eventually realized that the prior book was getting too long and decided to split it in half, with some characters appearing in one book and some in the other. Ultimately, this split was a mistake that harmed both books. Here, the first third of the book is distributed among an uncharacteristically small number of characters, so that even if you missed Jon in the prior volume, there’s a feeling of “oh, Jon again?” that I think could have been avoided if the book had been split the other way. The other effect of this decision, of course, is that the plot can’t progress that far beyond where it was at the end of the fourth book because it needs to spend most of its time catching up. The good news is that by the end of this book, the plot finally begins to pick up again, but if there’s one thing that Martin is good at, it’s making it seem as if the next book will be better. A useful skill.

I’ve written before about Martin’s use of more and less powerful characters. In my earlier posts, I noted that I’m not a huge fan of the character type I described as the badass warrior, and that I’d been relieved to find that the book focused mostly on important but less powerful characters, though I was amused that he relied so heavily on making them prisoners. The complexion of the work has changed quite a bit over the course of the last several thousand pages, and it’s gravitated much more toward the major players than earlier, partly because of the introduction of new, more politically significant characters, partly because the original characters have come to cast larger shadows, and partly because the political events are beginning to have more direct effects on people. So, while the Arya plot is still largely about the adventures of one girl, everything else is about the fight over the North or the fight over Daenerys, except for the few glimpses of the infighting at King’s Landing. Somehow, imperceptibly, the series has shifted from one about how extreme political maneuvering affects the people involved in or located near it to one about how the politics themselves work. So you’ve got Jon mostly showing us the relationship between Stannis and the wildlings, rather than asking how Stannis’s army will affect Jon. Even Tyrion seems to be there to set up the Jon Connington plot (which, by the way… How did we decide we need morecontenders for king of Westeros?) and to provide a better view of the camps outside the walls and, of course, the dragon attack. We’ve lost the sense that these are things that happento Tyrion. This may explain the absence of Sansa, even though she was left at a dramatic reveal at the end of the last book.

I’ve sometimes said that it seems as if this series will end when all the characters are dead and zombies lurch freely around the kingdom. I don’t really think that is true, but what seems more likely is this: many characters will die,and the characters who survive will become less and less sympathetic, and by the end we will hate most or all of the survivors, and this will be true almost by definition because characters will only survive by becoming worse. I already kind of hope that nobody will win at the end because seriously, this monarchy thing does not seem to be working out. But there is also the fact that there is really no character I would be happy to see in charge, with the possible exception of Mance Rayder, who may be dead again.

Of course, it’s also possible that I’m simply annoyed that Martin didn’t give me what I wanted, which was Beric Dondarrion, or Sansa learning to scheme, or Sandor Clegane and how he is surviving, or more of that stuff with Davos and Manderly that was set up early in this book, in one of the scenes that keeps me reading. Even Tyrion is less fun when I’m mad at him for murdering Shae (I didn’t like Shae, but I’m not going to forgive him for her murder just because he feels bad about it) and for patronizing a slave brothel (so much for understanding consent!). I did enjoy his chapters, though–maybe it was just the cyvasse. More about that later. Arya is still good. Martin needs to use her chapters as chasers to the stuff he knows we don’t want to read, like the Theon chapters, to a much greater extent than he does.

I’m also a little troubled by the introduction of new challenges that appear much like the old ones. A Clash of Kings had many pretenders showing up, raising armies, and contending for the throne and eventually killing each other off. Now Aegon appears and we’re going to start that all over again? Similarly, the series so far has been haunted by the sense that these factions are spending too much time fighting each other and ignoring the real threat, that is, the zombies. Now, we have the disease grayscale as another, very similar, threat. It feels as if we’ve been here before, and it makes me wonder if this will really get resolved in another two books. After all, it’s taken us five to get here.

Anyway, that’s the fluffy opinion stuff. My real post to come.

*This is the first thing that fans will tell you they like about the series, which strikes me as a little weird. Yes, sometimes it’s necessary and useful to kill characters off, but there is no need to make a virtue of it.

**One interesting deal that he makes is this: he has developed quite a long list of people who had been falsely reported dead. In this book, he brings back Theon and lets him hang out with the thoroughly repulsive Ramsays. Maybe some fan somewhere was happy to see this, but it’s hard to imagine. In return, Martin also gives us back Davos and then Mance. This makes the deal look a little more fair, but ultimately, I’m not sure it was. Close enough, I suppose, to get at least some of the readers to keep going.

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A Feast for Crows: Odds & Ends & Leftovers

Cover of A Feast for Crows

Title: A Feast for Crows

Author: George R. R. Martin

Publication Date: 2005

Call Number: PS3563  A7239 F39

WARNING: This one is both full of spoilery spoilery spoilers and also kind of ranty.

Well, I don’t have as much to say about this one.  If you’d asked me at the end of A Storm of Swords what I expected to read more about in the next book, I’d have predicted a focus on Beric Dondarrion, since there was so much setup for him to be important.  I thought that Sansa vs. Littlefinger would be important, and kind of hoped she would find some clever way to show him up and end up calling the shots on her own life a little. And of course, there was the plot with Brienne, which I hoped would find her doing something important and possibly counter some of the biased views of her we were getting from other sources.  This didn’t quite seem like enough material for a book, but since I knew ahead of time that Jon and Daenerys and Tyrion weren’t in the book, I didn’t see what else there was for it to cover.

Well, a lot of pages were devoted to Brienne, but I was wrong about the rest. Instead, the book is about Jaime Lannister. From his point of view, we learn about how he is dealing with the loss of his hand, about his internal conflict over the evils committed by his family, his pragmatic philosophy and what he thinks about all the other characters.  Cersei and Brienne are narrators now; there’s a lot from Cersei’s point of view about how she feels about him and how she’s angry with him and misses him and how in general a great deal of her life is based around him. Brienne, at least, doesn’t spend too much time thinking about Jaime, but has somehow acquired an irritating habit of bringing him up at completely irrelevant times (and really, it’s his fault she gets into trouble at the end).  I suspect we’re supposed to somehow construct a love triangle out of this. There are so many problems with that—I think it’s supposed to be redemptive for Jaime because we are supposed to like Brienne so much better than Cersei* but there’s a failure to account for why we would think that the idealistic, determined and capable Brienne would have any interest in Jaime, king of cynicism and skilled evader of kingship (or heck, vice versa), aside from the fact that they had some (platonic) adventures together in the woods and he helped her out. Due to many lazy writers out there who assume that male and female characters who spend time together are then obligated to fall in love, I think we’re supposed to draw these inferences. Maybe this is a red herring which Martin will turn on its head, as he sometimes does, or maybe he’s one of those writers. Who knows. The larger problem is that Jaime is incredibly boring. Will he redeem himself? How will he cope with the loss of his hand? Whose side is he really on? I know these are questions, but they’re not very interesting ones to me. In an earlier post on Game of Thrones, I wrote about my initial fears that the series would be about a bunch of badass warlords beating each other up. Jaime is the kind of character that a series like that would focus on, and he’d be doing things like the things he does here.  I don’t know. Jaime fans, tell me why I should care about him.

(And I am supposed to be a little disturbed by his abandonment of Cersei at the end of the book, right? I mean, sure, she’s been behaving pretty reprehensibly, what with the torture and all, but Jaime doesn’t know that.)

There’s some other stuff in the book about Sam, who sails around on the ocean a lot, the Iron Islands, which are irrelevant (apparently they want to go attack Daenerys, so, uh, have fun with that, guys), and a plot in Dorne, which may eventually be interesting but was really just set up in this book (and is there some reason Martin couldn’t just make Arianne the narrator for those chapters?). There were a couple of Arya chapters, which were fun, but sadly, there weren’t very many of them.  And there was a little bit of Sansa, but not nearly as much as I expected, and by the end she’s still being used as a pawn, now by Littlefinger. I hope she runs off with Mya Stone and shows up again in a book and a half to cause Littlefinger’s clever and unexpected downfall, because I’m actually coming to like her more and more as her intelligence and resilience become evident, and she definitely deserves better than to be shuttled around the world as the perpetual damsel in distress.

Also. I’ve written about it before, but I’ll note that all the women in this book still hate each other.  Even the problematic-but-at-least-somewhat-positive relationship between Catelyn and Brienne doesn’t seem to carry over to Zombie Catelyn, who now wants Brienne killed. Arya, while not hanging out with any actual women, engages in some casual misogyny by throwing around the word “cunt.” Lollys (remember her? The woman who is notable only for having a cognitive disability and surviving a gang rape?) is still an object of scorn.  And then there’s Cersei. Sigh.

Okay, so here is what is interesting about Cersei: it is made clear that sexism is a major factor in preventing her from being a good ruler. Because of her gender, she cannot get good advisors and she has to spend a lot of her energy just trying to establish her legitimacy. She realizes that she is operating in a system that gives men more power and she works hard to try to be recognized in such a milieu. But, she is not feminist. She is not feminist because she hates women.  She hates the old woman who told her fortune. She hates her teenage daughter in law. She hates the aforementioned Lollys. She hates Olenna. She has a little affair with Taena Merryweather, one member of Margaery’s entourage, but of course it’s purely an opportunity to manipulate her and get information on Margaery. Secretly, of course, she hates her.  Somewhere in her scheming incompetent self-centeredness there is an antifeminist stereotype to which I am somewhat more sensitive because I am reading Feminism is for Everybody (post forthcoming!), which criticizes exactly the sorts of behavior in which Cersei engages, specifically, egotistical social climbing while oppressing everyone else around her without regard for their struggles. I don’t know what effect she has on other readers. For me, I wince a little, and my view of her as a psychologically realistic character (which I think was the intention) is obstructed.

And about that affair with Lady Merryweather—okay, look. Readers of this blog are probably familiar with the Bechdel test. These books haven’t passed it very often, largely because, as I pointed about above, all the women hate each other.  But this book takes it to a new level by not passing it in a sex scene between women! Their pillow talk is all about Tommen, Cersei’s ten year old son, and occasionally about Lady Merryweather’s son too. Now, I’m straight and don’t have children, so I could be way off here, but when two women get together sexually, I doubt they spend all their time talking about their children from other relationships. I mean, it just isn’t very sexy.

Anyway, I’m not saying I hated the book. I really liked Rodrik the Reader, for instance. Also, the plot started up again near the end, so I’ll certainly be looking forward to reading the next one (this will happen in June).  But this one really felt like scraps and leftovers, and I think a lot of it could have been thrown out without causing too much trouble.

*Which I actually do, although, really, it seems a bit heavy-handed of Martin to drive that home with Cersei’s graphic and disturbing torture scene involving the Blue Bard.


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A Storm of Swords: Femininity, Betrayal, and Olenna Tyrell

Cover of A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords (Book 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire)

George R. R. Martin


PS3563. A7239 S7

Once againspoilers aplenty are ahead, but only up to book three (please keep the comments that way too).

Yes, I’m still thinking about A Storm of Swords.  I’ve finished The Second Sex and will be getting to it in a post or two, really! But I have more to say here.

I’d really wanted to write about Olenna Tyrell, Margaery’s grandmother, the Queen of Thorns.  I’m beginning to suspect that my posts on this book do even more than my other posts to show the peculiarities of my attention; I have a strong tendency to focus on things that are very small and maybe don’t even matter to anyone else.  I’ll admit I had to look up her name myself.  But there are a couple interesting things about her.  When she first appeared, she reminded me strongly of Walder Frey—old, grouchy, socially uninhibited and mostly important because she is the head of a significant family.   She’s humorous for reasons similar to those that Lord Frey was humorous when he first appeared (you know, before he was presiding over horrific murders).  And ultimately, she’s behind a fairly significant murder herself, and for arguably similar reasons—although in her case, she is protecting her granddaughter rather than setting an example and revenging wounded pride, as Frey was.

That’s a sidenote, though.  The first place my attention really rested was in her assertion that none of these lords listened to their mothers, but they should, and if they did, things would be much better.   But, in fact, they do.  Robb listens to Catelyn (mostly); Joffrey listens to Cersei (until he doesn’t).

Catelyn seems to give Robb a lot of good advice, actually. She helps him to manage the lords he’s recruited and seems to mastermind a lot of his strategy behind the scenes.  She is the one who initially arranges his marriage to an unspecified daughter of Lord Frey.  As for the eventual disaster of the Red Wedding… Well, he doesn’t listen to Catelyn when he decides to marry Jayne Westerling, but he does listen when she urges him to respond to Lord Frey’s treacherous invitation. So did this happen because he listened to her, or because he didn’t?  Both?

It’s much more ambiguous with Cersei and Joffrey, because neither of them has been a narrator thus far.  It does seem that Joffrey has gotten a little out of control; the execution of Ned was pretty clearly against Cersei’s wishes.  But it’s also pretty clearly implied that Cersei has had a lot to do with making Joffrey who he was, and this is more explicit in the TV series.  So: when he listens to her, he acts like a horrible abusive amoral jerk, and when he doesn’t listen to her, he also acts like a horrible abusive amoral jerk.  Since Joffrey is basically an evil character from beginning to end, he acts like one whether he listens to his mother or not.  It will be interesting to see how this works with Tommen.

So Olenna is wrong about that, and it’s actually a little reassuring that the mothers in the series are human beings who try to do stuff and have their own agendas and sometimes screw up and sometimes do make things better and sometimes make them worse, and are generally allowed to be human beings.  And of course, it is also very clear that her critique is also attacking the problem from the wrong angle—she is wishing that women had more control over powerful men, rather than wishing that women had some legitimate institutional power of their own.

But that was just the first thing about the conversation that struck me. The second thing is this: while expressing a sort of solidarity for the mothers of kings (which is, I suppose, a very specific part of the population), she demonstrates very little compassion for other women in practice. Specifically, this conversation is about her quizzing Sansa for information about Joffrey and the danger that he poses to her granddaughter.  Although she hesitates out of self-preservation, Sansa responds to her questions in good faith. She’s survived Joffrey’s abuse and she genuinely doesn’t want another woman to be subjected to it.

Olenna, having received this information, acts on it and has Joffrey assassinated in order to protect Margaery, and it’s pretty difficult to condemn her for doing so. But… she uses Sansa to do it, and allows suspicion to fall on her (and, of course, she knows that this suspicion will be more credible because of the information that Sansa has provided).  This betrayal is a lot more troubling than the assassination.

Because, really, when you come to consider the relationships among women in this series, well, there aren’t any.  Or at least, none that are positive.  Most of the interactions among women are incidental, like the untrustworthy abuse counseling I’ve just been describing, or Shae’s disturbing antipathy for rape survivors, which I’ve discussed in a previous post.  There are a few more important relationships, but they’re all bad. I’ve always been bothered by the competition between Sansa and Arya and the way it seems to be based in Sansa’s femininity.  Daenerys and Mirri Maz Duur (whom I loved, if only because she maintained her own point of view and refused to comply with the Nice White Lady Rescues Everyone narrative).  Catelyn and Lysa? Um.  Meanwhile, the men love each other—we have Ned and Robert (with whom there are all sorts of obvious problems, but they do have a genuine close friendship), Samwell and Jon, Bran and Jojen Reed, who is a sort of spiritual guide to him, etc, etc.  Obviously there are enmities and rivalries too, but there’s much more scope in the book for men to have positive relationships.

The relationship between Catelyn and Brienne is the one that’s closest to mirroring some of the male relationships, but it’s also the most frustrating to me.  We initially saw Brienne only through Catelyn’s eyes, and Catelyn was all snotty and condescending about it.  So we get a lot of stuff about oh noes Brienne is so ugly (sure, why wouldn’t that be Brienne’s leading concern?) and also a lot of stuff about she must obviously be in love with Renly because seriously why else would she want to be a knight? Clearly there are no other possible reasons and that would definitely constitute sufficient motivation to train and train and become one of the best knights in the country and go so far as to fight in an actual freaking war and stuff. So I read all this stuff as revealing a lot more about Catelyn than about Brienne, and I don’t really buy either of these things (sure, Renly is important to her. He’s also important to the rest of his entire army, which seems to be based primarily on his charisma and good looks).  But that side of their relationship is based on Catelyn’s misguided attempt to identify with Brienne. The other side is Brienne’s loyalty to Catelyn, which I’m assuming is at least partly based on her inability to read Catelyn’s mind.  Other than that, it’s hard to say why she is so loyal. Perhaps it’s because she likes the idea of working for a woman—which makes Catelyn’s condescension another betrayal of sorts.  I don’t know. I really want Book Four to be about how everyone’s perceptions of Brienne are totally based on nothing but their own prejudices and she does what she does just because she’s good at it and she likes being able to do stuff and be in charge of her own life.  Oh, and also Sansa kicking Littlefinger’s ass.  Please let these two things be what Book Four is about, because there doesn’t seem to be much else of interest left here now that everyone is dead.

Oh, while I was thinking about this post, but before I could write it, these two posts happened: Sady Doyle’s (…but I only read the part about the first three books) and a response to it (and probably a lot of other posts, but I don’t want to read the entire internet).  They’re both worth a read, and there are things I agree with in both of them (and other things I don’t agree with), but this is a conversation that I’m not going to engage it at this time, except for three things I want to say.

1)      A lot depends on whether the rape scenes are being used for legitimate narrative reasons or just shock value. At this point… I have to admit I’m not sure.  Is that a cop out? Maybe.

2)      I’m not actually convinced that the Daenerys-as-savior thing is really meant to be taken at face value. It seems to me to be mostly doomed to failure precisely because Dany is fairly clueless about the respective cultures in which she moves (see: Mirri Maz Duur). But I agree they are excessively exoticized.

3)      Interestingly, Sady’s critique of sexist portrayals of female characters avoided the most obvious misogynistic characters in the series: Melisandre (so, this woman wields mysterious magic powers and secretly controls men from behind the throne with her religious beliefs and also gives birth to evil spells… yes, this is not new) and Lysa.  Instead, she focuses on what isn’t quite as obvious, and this is valuable.


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A Storm of Swords: Many Marriages

Cover of A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords (Book 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire)

George R. R. Martin


PS3563. A7239 S7

Once again: SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS.  It’s kind of impossible to talk about these books without giving away the plot.

Since I haven’t been reading the books back to back, I have a reasonable sense of the parameters of each of the ones I’ve read so far, and I remember where they begin and end. However, ASoS is the first one to have a recurrent motif of this sort; this is the one that is easy to describe: “Oh, it’s all about songs and weddings.”  Of course, it also follows in the tradition of having each book a little bloodier than the one before. (I’m not sure this series can have a happy ending; sometimes I wonder if by the end, all the human characters will be dead and the zombies will rule the land.)

So here are the weddings, in no particular order:

Tyrion & Sansa

Joffrey & Margaery

Robb & Jeyne Westerling

Edmure & Roslin (The Red Wedding)

KINDA Jon & Ygritte—they don’t get married, but they do receive some social recognition as a couple, and it is largely a way for Jon to be accepted by the wildlings, just as marriage is seen in the other cases.

You also have Tywin insisting that he’s gong to set Cersei up with someone (plus her reunion with Jaime, who is seen to be cleverly avoiding marriage through his membership in the Kingsguard) and Jorah putting the moves on Daenerys (UGH).

…And some of these weddings don’t even involve murder!

So, okay.  Let’s see.  Skipping out on a political marriage in favor of an emotional one, as Robb does, is clearly A Bad Thing.  This was really the pivotal event that led to his death and a lot of other things.  (It hasn’t yet been revealed, by the end of Book 3, whether Jeyne is pregnant or not.  If she’s less of a mouse than she appears, then this could be interesting…) On the other hand, there do seem to be more or less spectacular ways of successfully escaping a bad political marriage; Margaery’s wedding seems to have turned out well for her insofar as she doesn’t actually have to spend any time married to Joffrey, but this was accomplished through assassination.  I guess it’s good to have relatives who are willing to help out?

But the political marriages don’t do what they’re supposed to do, either.  The relationship between Jon and Ygritte is both political and emotional—and false.   There’s no real alliance there and he didn’t really switch sides, though for a while I wished he would, because, frankly, I wanted them to win. If the point of the book is that monarchy is stupid and primogeniture is a joke, then the wildlings are really the heroes—and I liked them very much, with their hero-bard and their spearwives and their general values of liberty and egalitarianism.

The better example of the pure political marriage is Tyrion’s and Sansa’s.  I have to admit, after I got over the initial shock (and once it became clear that Tyrion would not rape her), I had some hopes for that one.  Tyrion seemed likely to stand between Sansa and the abuse of his family, and Sansa seemed likely to lend him some social legitimacy.  Each of them had access to types of important information that were hidden from the other.  They’re both pretty clever (and yes, I do think Sansa is smart) and they both understand that they are in the midst of a very corrupt situation to which they are both outsiders, to one degree or another.  For them to function as allies, to plot together and make things a work a little better for themselves, could have been very powerful.  There is no sex involved, of course, but since they know that, they could both take lovers—hey, Tyrion already had one!—and focus on the important stuff.  But there wasn’t time for Sansa to adjust to this before Joffrey’s wedding and all its attendant chaos happened.  I was disappointed; I wanted to see them work together and scheme and end up running the whole place. And I do think that she’d begun to adjust to the realpolitik thing; her choice of Tyrion over Lancel shows that she had at least learned something.

I’ve always liked Tyrion, and when the wedding came up, I was afraid I wouldn’t like him anymore, so when he refused the bedding, and declined to press himself on Sansa afterward, I really wanted to cheer.  But then, it’s really depressing to want to cheer for that.  I mean, you know, “Go Tyrion! Way to not rape that thirteen year old girl!” Greeeat.

All the jokes about Tyrion’s sexuality and his reliance on women he pays are kind of sad.  He’s the only male character in the entire series who actually seems to understand the concept of sexual consent.  Jon comes close, and his belief that he has invented cunnilingus is amusing, but there are moments when it becomes clear that he believes that rape=sex outside of marriage.  Sigh. So while Shae’s effusions about Tyrion’s sexual prowess should be taken with a grain of salt, I suspect that they’re not totally groundless.  He’s dismissed as ugly, but he’s undoubtedly a better husband or lover than most of the characters in the book.

(A sidenote on Shae: I haven’t liked her since she was all snotty about Lollys, and her betrayal didn’t surprise me at all.  It’s possible, I suppose, that a person who demonstrates sneering contempt for the victim of a horrific gang rape and mocks her mental disability could also be a person who cares about Tyrion for himself and remains loyal to him once his social status has been stripped away—but it didn’t strike me as likely. I am nevertheless disturbed and upset that he killed her. And didn’t he know?)

Oh, and the Red Wedding.  It all comes down to Lannisters, doesn’t it? Maybe as long as they are not involved, things at least have the theoretical potential turn out okay.  Wasn’t  it Tywin’s idea that Arya is now supposed to marry the Bastard of Bolton? Shudder.

In any case.  I’m starting to think that Daenerys has the right idea here—consolidating her power by refusing to remarry and punishing anyone who suggests otherwise.

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A Storm of Swords: Narration and Clout

Cover of A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords (Book 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire)

George R. R. Martin


PS3563. A7239 S7

I’ve read the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire now and will read the fourth in January.  Spoilers aplenty are ahead, but only up to book three (please keep the comments that way too).

I hesitated for a long time before starting this series, even though it had been highly recommended to me, and even though I love high fantasy in general, and even though it was sitting on a shelf in my house.  There were opportunity cost issues, and the fact that it’s an unfinished series, and the overblown rhetoric of the recommendations.

These weren’t the most important things, though. Fans of the books always talk about the author’s willingness to kill off anyone and everyone, which, you know, is important when the story demands it, but shouldn’t be done for its own sake, and it isn’t exactly a draw to the book. After all, I don’t think most of us sit down and say, “You know, I’d really like to read a book where everyone dies!” At least, I haven’t so far.  I’d also heard it was based on the Wars of the Roses (and I have nothing against historical fantasy, but let’s look at this in context) and the cover art (different from what is pictured here) seemed to feature a lot of stern, pensive white men with swords in vaguely historic settings.  I have no problems with any of these things per se—my love of eurogames should acquit me of a prejudice against pictures of stern white men in vague historical settings—but when you put them together, it creates a certain idea of what the books are like.  I feared it would be an endless parade of badass warlords beating each other up on the field of battle and then going home and bragging about it and plotting their next move, and occasionally getting killed. What I imagined was basically similar to Hal’s description of Hotspur in Henry IV:

I am not yet of Percy’s mind, the Hotspur of the North; he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life! I want work.’ ‘O my sweet Harry,’ says she, ‘how many hast thou kill’d to-day?’  ‘Give my roan horse a drench,’ says he, and answers ‘Some fourteen,’ an hour after, ‘a trifle, a trifle.’

(Henry IV, Act 2, Scene 4)

I mean, let’s face it, those guys are boring.  (Well, Hotspur is pretty fun, but imagine if there were four or five of him running around?) There’s a reason Lord of the Rings was about Frodo and not Aragorn.

So, I was pretty happy to find out that the books are mostly narrated by people like Tyrion and Arya and Davos, and I suspect this is at least part of the reason that Eddard died in the first book.  So I wasn’t all that excited to see Jaime become a narrator in this book.  I’m still not that excited about it; the best thing about Jaime is that you get to spend some time with Brienne, who I am hoping will be a narrator in Book 4.  But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he becomes a narrator just in time to lose his hand.

As far as I can tell, Martin chooses narrators based on a few criteria. Some of them are technical.  There are often parts of the world we need to keep track of, and there needs to be a narrator there.  A Clash of Kings let Theon narrate so that we could get a first-hand look at what was going on in the Iron Isles, and, more importantly, what happened in Winterfell  after Bran left.  Davos was brought in, not only for his personal charms, but also in order to expose us to Stannis, who would make little sense otherwise (okay, true, Stannis continues to be fairly incomprehensible.  But at least we know exactly what it is we don’t understand.)

But the narrators also seem to be people who are not in control of what is going on.  Tyrion gets the upper hand at times, but it’s always a struggle, and by the end of the book he’s been imprisoned and sentenced to death.  As for the rest… Arya temporarily becomes the leader of her little group, between stints as a prisoner, but they are travelers who are desperately trying to dodge the larger forces around them.  Sansa, too, is a prisoner.  Davos is a minor lord in service of a king who is doing things that make no sense to him (though at least he lets him out of prison).  Jaime, after spending some time as a prisoner and being tortured and so on, does indeed reclaim his place as the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, but he’s a rather impotent one.  Bran’s primary goal is to control his own abilities; in the meantime, having escaped from his ancestral home, he listens to his cousins. Jon’s star is rising, but first he has to spend time going along with the wildlings under close surveillance and then being imprisoned by the Night’s Watch.  Catelyn is perhaps the most active of those that I’ve listed; she occasionally attempts to take control, but it always ends disastrously.  Of course, she is also imprisoned at Riverrun for sending Jaime off with Brienne.  I’m not sure what all this means, aside from indicating that George R. R. Martin really likes the view from prison.

And Daenerys.  She seems to be the exception.  There’s a lot of focus on the things she cannot fix, but she is, by the third book, very clearly the leader of her group and she has a lot of power (and, while she’s sort of non-free in A Game of Thrones, she isn’t imprisoned in this book at least).  The list above makes me wonder why she is the narrator, and not, say, Jorah (though at this point I dislike Jorah so much that I’m certainly not complaining) or possibly one of her maids.  But I’m glad she is; nobody else really understands where she is coming from, and it’s really important to understand her motivations.  She is perhaps the most earnestly well-meaning person in the entire series.  She’s invading and she wants to become queen, but her distance from the action in Westeros allows her a certain idealism wherein she can think about the kind of country she’d like to inhabit and govern.  She doesn’t just want power; she wants peace and prosperity and to end rape and slavery. (Compare to Stannis, who throws out a lot of rhetoric to absolve himself of responsibility but never seems to worry about the well-being of people who aren’t named Stannis Baratheon.)  Of course, we can spend a few seconds looking at her invading force and feel grave misgivings about the relationship between her goals and her methods. It’s extremely unlikely that things will turn out the way she wants them to, even if she wins, and by the end of ASoS she’s noticed that all her good intentions seem to go terribly wrong somewhere.  Still, she’s very different from the rest of the narrators.

This is rather far afield from the observation I wanted to make, though, which had to do with the vulnerability of the narrative characters, which functions to increase the reader’s sympathy with them but also to make the world seem bigger—it’s by far a larger and more unmanageable landscape to Arya than it is to, say, Tywin (who would certainly have been a narrator if it had been based on political importance, and who would very likely have bored all the readers to tears).

Either that, or it’s all just a reference to “Hotel California.”  We are all prisoners here, of our own device. (Sometimes that’s a fish, sometimes it’s a black field, sometimes it’s…)

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