(Index to previoues A Dance with Dragons posts, here.)
Gosh, I’ve done twelve of these things and we’re not even half-way through the book! In many ways this is a rather peculiar way to read a novel. I’m enjoying it, but at the same time I almost always have half a mind on what I’m going to say in my post afterwards. Or sometimes I will get really caught up in it, and I’ll think, better stop soon or I’ll have forgotten what I thought about the first few chapters of this read when I come to write the review. In general, though, A Dance with Dragons has been such a mixed bag that it’s usually OK. Part of the deal with the many characters POV thing is that you’re constantly changing about between characters that you really like and ones that you care less about, meaning that there are natural stopping point from time to time.
Anyway, enough of my blather about me. On to the main show!
Chapter 23: Daenerys
Oh Daenerys, Daenerys, whatever shall I do with you? You make me love you, and then you frustrate me so.
For the most part I liked this chapter. Further interesting politics. I like that Martin does interesting politics without making everyone flawlessly good like they were born knowing what they were doing. This is not The West Wing, with everyone spouting off snappy one-liners and miraculously untangling politics that the audience is running to keep up with (I say this with love), these are intelligent people in difficult situations. They do make brilliant moves, but they also get confused, overwhelmed, make mistakes, make decisions that are good from one point of view and bad from another, decisions that seemed wise at the time – even insightful – but that another perspective, or time, casts a different light on.
People are often pretty harsh about Catelyn for kidnapping Tyrion when she did, but what was she supposed to do? Sure, the evidence was circumstantial, but she had good reason to think that the Lannisters are devious buggers, there was an evident threat to her family, with good reason to think that Lannisters had killed the last Hand. She’d had warnings from her sister, who had walled herself away to keep her own son safe. And now this man pitches up at the same Inn as her, she tries to hide, but he recognises her. She can’t sit and pretend to be at ease with him, and he’ll probably never be in such a vulnerable position again, isolated from his family and its wealth. She has an opportunity to turn the tables on the man she believes tried to kill her son, and she seizes it. With hindsight it’s an incredibly stupid and fateful move, but it really wasn’t that dumb at that time in that place under those pressures.
I discussed in the last post that I think we’ve seen Jon make some understandable but ill-advised decisions recently, and I have a feeling we’re seeing Daenerys do the same. She’s in a difficult position. A position of both strength and weakness. She has risen from a place of begging and abandonment to being a queen in charge of an army, freeing slaves and terrorising regimes. She’s made a mistake in abandoning Astapor in terms of protecting the people she frees. She’s realised her mistake and wants to avoid doing the same in Meereen. But Meereen is not the same city, and she seems to have forgotten that she left Astapor not because she sought expansion and further conquest, but because she is building an army with an ultimate aim of going north to Westeros. She cannot hope to be queen of both Slaver’s Bay and Westeros. Empires are built on complex stable infrastructures, and she doesn’t have that. She’s not queen of a long-established, well-organised nation setting out for expansion. She’s one woman who with her dragons, her sharp mind, her birth-right, and her force of personality has called some people to her because they smell power, some because she offers freedom, and some because she threatens destruction. This is a power for either seizing one territory and making it her own, or marching through a bunch of territories, gathering people into her army, and taking with her to her eventual goal: Westeros.
She has to decide which is her true goal, and she hasn’t yet. And that’s the problem. In this chapter the Green Grace, an old woman of great power, goes to Dany to try and persuade her to marry a man of good standing from Meereen, to try and bring peace, Hizdahr zo Loraq. If she means to stay in Meereen and forge a new nation, it is the right choice. If she means to go on to Westeros, it is disastrous. In speaking to the man himself, she agrees to marry him if he can bring peace for ninety days and nights. In this time and place it is a good deal. She’s under immense pressure, and her power base is sorely threatened by her inability to maintain stability in the city. If he can do the task it will be exactly what she wants, but, equally, it seems a near impossible task, so she should have a great deal of time to think about a way out of her deal even if he does succeed. Taking the long view, though, whether she stays wants to stay in Meereen or go on to Westeros, marriage to this man is utterly the wrong choice. She will lose her independence and the power of the promise of her hand. Much of the book so far has been concerned with men who are desperately trying to reach her and win her because marrying her would mean so much. What’s more, marriage to her is simply worth so much more to a Westerosi man. What is her Targaryen blood to a man from Slaver’s Bay? Even her dragons are merely part novelty, part terror in these Southern lands. But in Westeros they mark her out as true royalty, and they have a specific significance with the threat of winter approaching.
Speaking of the dragons, this has been very badly handled. It’s understandable that she was shocked at the thought that one might have killed a child, especially as a mother whose own child was stillborn. But the dragons are a substantial portion of her power. She has lost one and her neglect of the others will be turning them against her and loosening her control of them. She needs to embrace their destructive power and use them as a threat. I’m not saying I want her to be a tyrant, but she is only weakening her own position by chaining up the source of a significant proportion of her power like this. It’s a powerful symbolic message that I doubt is lost on the people of Meereen. I’m surprised we havent already seen people commenting on the fact that she’s lost one. Frankly, I think we need to see her on the road with those dragons again, but that’s not going to happen if she’s waiting around for 90+ days seeing if Hizdahr zo Loraq can bring peace.
So, anyway, I think this is going to end badly, even though it seems surface wise of her to be taking responsibility for the carnage in Meereen. But I actually like that Martin is adding this complexity and depth to her character. I enjoyed this. What I did not enjoy were the scenes with Daario. In particular, the nature of her fantasies about him: ‘His kisses would be hard and cruel, she told herself, and he would not care if I cried out or commanded him to stop‘. I want to be very clear what my objection is, here. I completely understand that this is a fantasy, many men and women fantasise about sexual acts they do not wish to perform. Many men and women engage in consensual BDSM. There is nothing wrong with any of that, and given the unusual life Danerys has led it’s not implausible that she might like her sex a little rough. The problem is with the context. The context of fiction presenting a woman’s ‘No’ as meaning ‘Yes’. I find things like this deeply uncomfortable as they are presented as the norm when they are not the norm. We fight so hard to make it clear that ‘No means no’, and I know that BDSM people also fight hard to make it clear that they support safe play with clear boundaries and safe-words. Daenerys is fantasising directly about having her lover ignore her when she commands him to stop. By itself, it’s just a fantasy, but it fits in with the other problematic elements of Daenerys’s presentation, with the fact that she falls in love with her first rapist, with a history of fiction and real life that takes a woman’s words about whether she wants to engage in sex or not as not really serious, or probably part of a game. What’s more disturbing is that in a few chapters time another strong woman is taken by her lover after repeated and firm refusals, but ultimately gives in and decides she likes it. So close together it made for really disturbing and uncomfortable reading, for me. Just a little indication to clarify that this was part of a pre-established consensual pattern, or something in the narrative tone to at least acknowledge the problematic nature of the issue, could have made this OK. But there’s nothing, and that makes me deeply uncomfortable.
OK, let’s move on. It’s not all bad. Dany finally comes to see that Daario is an amoral sleazeball when he proposes slaughtering the great families of Meereen at her proposed wedding. That’s a step too far and too great a stain against her honour, and she sends him from her presence, ordering that he be taken to see someone else in future when he calls so that she isn’t tempted by her desires. Yet she still ends the chapter by thinking ‘What have I done?!’ Oh, Dany, you frustrate me so.
Chapter 24: The Lost Lord
The ‘Lost Lord’ is apparently Griff. I have to admit, I’m not a fan of all these titles as opposed to names in the chapter headings, especially as they don’t necessarily reflect anything the character is actually known by, but whatever. I enjoyed this chapter, and that is a good thing.
Following the loss of Tyrion, Griff decides to take Young Griff straight to his army and reveal him as the lost Prince Aegon. His army being the Golden Company. So named because their fallen apparently have their skulls gold-plated and displayed outside their HQ. Nice. It turns out that the current leader, who’s a bit of a money-grabbing cowardly twat, has already revealed the big secret to his Trusted Lieutenants. Because he’s awesome that way. Anyway, there’s then some debate about whether they should really go south to join Daenerys. It was all well and good when she seemed to be coming north, but she’s not anymore, and these guys are, at the end of the day, sellswords. Their roots in Westeros may be a point of pride, but what really binds them together is gold. The leader, Harry Strickland, seems keen to abandon the plan all together.
Fortunately, at this point, the prince steps up and proposes a new plan – Tyrion’s plan. They go back to Westeros and try to do the job without Daenerys. There’s some wisdom here, in that he definitely sells it to them the right way. They like a fight, they want to take the fight to Westeros, and doing it without Dany makes them all feel more manly. But I can’t help but feel some concern that no one worries about the point Tyrion mentioned: namely that they do not have the numbers to succeed without Dany’s help. Aegon/Young Griff carefully leaves that part out.
Here’s another thought on that. Tyrion reasoned that Dany is a rescuer, and will come to Aegon’s aid when she hears that the last of her line is gallantly losing a battle in Westeros. I’m not so sure. Dany identifies with slaves – she was effectively sold herself. I’m not sure that she identifies that hard with other Targaryens. Her brother was a twat, and I’m not sure she’s shed that many tears about his loss. We also saw in the previous chapter that she says ‘His forebears are as dead as mine’ when Hizdhar’s lineage is raised. She thinks she has a right to the Westerosi throne, and she has a vague general feeling that she wants to go ‘home’, but she’s not the lost little girl who wanted to go home, anymore. She’s a queen, and I’m not sure how well she’ll take to some upstart saying he has a better claim to her throne who decides to attack a country that already has too many kings when he clearly doesn’t have the forces to succeed. She’s spent her whole life working to raise a proper army, and she’s supposed to give over to him now? It’s a long way between Slaver’s Bay and Westeros – I’m not that sure that she’ll speed to his rescue. Especially if she already has a husband…
But hey, it’s still a smarter move than trying to persuade sellswords to go against their gold.
The chapter ends with another little twist. It turns out Griff senior has been hiding something. Despite the dire warning to Tyrion to cut off anything that’s going black, it seems that Griff himself is developing greyscale. But he’s decided to ignore this in favour of keeping going as long as the prince needs him. This could mean bad business down the line, though, after all, this is an illness that ends in madness…