Read Along with Rhube 8: A Dance with Dragons, Chapters 15 & 16

(Index to previous ADwD posts is here.)

Chapter 15: Davos

Not a lot really happened in this chapter. Davos wanders around, picks up some rumours about how the people in White Harbor feel about the political situation, and works himself up to entering the castle. That’s it.

I didn’t want to find myself agreeing with the rumours – that A Dance with Dragons adds a whole bunch of new characters that don’t really add anything and just clutter up the book – but I have to admit I can see where some fat could be trimmed. On the other hand, I still like Davos well enough, and nothing about this chapter pissed me off, which meant that it was a nice little bit of peace before being hit by the next chapter.

I could see that it was Daenerys, and after the last Daenerys chapter I put off reading this one for a few days. Then I thought: ‘Come on, Daenerys chapters aren’t all bad – you quite liked the first one, it might be OK.’ Well.

Chapter 16: Daenerys

The opening paragraph hit me like a punch to the gut. I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or hit something:

“The dancers shimmered, their sleek shaved bodies covered with a fine sheen of oil. Blazing torches whirled from hand to hand to the beat of drums and the trilling of a flute. Whenever two torches crossed the air a naked girl leapt between them, spinning. The torchlight shone off oiled limbs and breasts and buttocks.”

No, there’s nothing in Daenerys chapters aimed towards the male gaze at all. After this paragraph, we learn that there are some male dancers – barely sketched in with anonymous faces – responding to their female companions with erections that Daenerys finds arousing as well as comical. Because, as we saw in the previous chapter, nothing turns Daenerys on more than men getting turned on by naked women. ‘Are they meant to inflame me?‘ Daenerys briefly wonders. No, honey, they’re meant to inflame the (assumed heterosexual male) reader, as indicated as the paragraph that’s introduced by this ponderance goes on to consider the reactions of the men watching the scene, rather than examining Daenerys’ own reaction, as you might have thought.

And just to make things extra fun, the reason for this spectacle is that Xaro Xhoan Daxos of Qarth is in town, which means that Daenerys has switched from her formal Meereen attire into that wonderful bit of exotic clothing that’s designed to reveal her left breast. Described in exquisite detail: ‘In his honor Daenerys had donned a Qartheen gown, a sheer confection of violet samite cut so as to leave her left breast bare. Her silver-gold hair brushed lightly over her shoulder, falling almost to her nipple.’ And despite the fact that both her and Xaro are supposedly more interested in the male dancers, Daenerys’ breast, the oiled female dancers, and the reactions of the other males in the room are what dominate the first page of this chapter.

What I’m describing here is what I felt in responding to this. I don’t want to cast aspersions on George R R Martin’s character – I’ve mentioned before how much I admire him and how much I appreciate the strong female characters he’s put in this violent, bloody, and sexually charged world. Nor am I against a little voyeurism. My problem is that chapter openings like this just utterly alienate me and make me feel really uncomfortable – not least because the things we’re being told about don’t seem to flow naturally from the viewpoint we’re supposed to be taking in the scene from. We see a snippet of Daenerys’ thought, but what we then go on to discuss is how the men in the room are feeling. Xaro observes later that she was more interested in the men, and we’re not told that she’s aroused by the women, but she sure seems to spend more time looking at the latter. It jars. It makes me feel that the scene was not written from Daenerys’ point of view, or mine, but for a heterosexual male perspective. I accept that Daenerys’ wearing the Qartheen dress is in keeping with her general habits and adaptability, but I struggle to see how this fashion arose. Yes, there are cultures that have clothing that exposes breasts, but these are often ones where nakedness in general is not so much a thing of note or eroticism, or the revealing garments are strictly for private moments with one’s husband, not for public functions for all to see. None of this seems to fit with Xaro’s culture, and to me it feels as though the reason for that is that the custom has not arisen naturally from within that culture, it has been imposed upon it by an impulse to titilate the reader.

And again, all of this is a shame because, when I could finally force myself to pick up the book again and read past this, some really interesting things actually happened. Significant things actually happened, and I’ve been crying out for a bit of those. Xaro gifts Daenerys with 13 boats from each of the ‘Thirteen’ – powerful factions within his people – on the condition that she leave and take her war to Westeros. Daenerys is sorely tempted, but she decides not to accept, showing a maturity and wisdom in finally recognising that she has a responsibility to these cities she has invaded that goes beyond waltzing in and trying to impose an ideal. This is a really, really interesting angle. It’s very pertinent today, when you consider so many of our modern wars, supposedly fought on idealistic grounds, but apparently not thinking through the consequences of trying to impose our values on another culture.

For what it’s worth, I think Daenerys’ values are right, and I think that’s what we’re meant to think. I think the way her war started even had some merit. She forged her position in the dothraki society by refusing to back down from her values, and when the dothraki abandoned her, her people were formed of the freed slaves whose loyalty she had won by her actions. But then she starts marching across a land and telling it to give up its customs or face the wrath of her dragons… and that becomes much more problematic. The balance of power has shifted, and it changes her moral responsibilities, as well as the different political systems she must work with and the threats she must face.

All of this is deeply interesting, and the conclusion – a declaration of war – marks probably the most significant event of the book so far (at around the 200 page mark). I just wish I hadn’t been distracted by that jarring confrontation with all those ‘oiled limbs and breasts and buttocks’ in the opening scene.