(Index to previous A Dance with Dragons posts, here.)
This is starting to feel like a captain’s log – the numbers are losing all meaning. Or at least, such is the sort of thought that strikes me on a Saturday morning.
Let’s do this thing!
Chapter 31: Melisandre
So, this was an interesting chapter. We finally get to see inside the head of Lady Melodrama. Turns out she’s intentionally all show, her clothes filled with the fantasy showman’s staple of powders and other things designed to make her look impressive. Not that she doesn’t do real magic. The chapter opens with Melisandre as she seeks visions in her fire. She prays to R’hllor to see Stannis, or the girl she believes is Jon Snow’s sister, but these are not the things she is shown. Instead she sees ‘A wooden face, corpse white‘, which sees her back, next to a boy with a wolf’s face. She hears voices ‘Melony’ cries one, ‘Lot Seven’ says another. A great grey cliff, full of caves, where fires go out one by one as a white mist rises, leaving only skulls, which mean death. She sees Jon Snow with skulls all around him. In other words, plenty of fodder to keep the reader flipping back and forth going ‘Ooo, is this the bit that was what was meant by the cliff and those skulls?’ etc and so on.
Some of it we can interpret for ourselves already. The wooden-faced corpse next to the boy with the wolf’s head who sees her back must be the greenseer and Bran. She assumed this is ‘the enemy’ – is she right? Surely they are both on roughly the same side… but we don’t really know what the greenseer’s gameplan is. As for Jon Snow surrounded by death, well, that’s hardly news. Interesting, though, that she asks R’hllor to show her a glimpse of ‘Azor Ahai’ ‘your king, your instrument‘, and she is shown Jon, and not Stannis.
There’s also another bit of magic revealed in this chapter. Melisandre calls ‘Rattleshirt’ to her and tells him off for not wearing his armour of bones. They talk about a spell, a glamour… and I don’t now about you, but it was starting to fall in place by this point. You remember how suss it was when ‘Mance Rayder’ denied his own identity as they killed him? How Rattleshirt moved much too quickly for a man his size when Jon fought him? Well, it turns out that (quelle suprise) that wasn’t Mance Rayder at all, but the Lord of Bones, Rattleshirt. Burning him alive helped to seal the illusion cast on Mance himself to make him appear to be Rattleshirt, thus allowing Lady M to spare him despite the need to kill him as a traitor. This is nice from the magic point as well – seemed like an awful waste of king’s blood to produce Stannis’s light-show with the sword, didn’t it? It also seemed a bit weird to find out that Lady M was capable of mind-control. But, of course, if R’hllor is a god of light, then the magic his servants work will be the play of light – seeing and illusions. The ring ‘Rattleshirt’ wears is not to keep him under Lady M’s control, it is to maintain an illusion, which makes a lot more sense.
Anyway, Lady M wants to win Jon’s trust by saving his sister, but she knows that he won’t send men after the girl himself, so she proposes to send Rattleshirt to save her instead. Jon, of course, laughs at this – the Rattleshirt he knows is as likely to kill and rape his sister as save her. So Lady M must reveal her hand, and they let Jon in on the secret.
It’s a nice chapter. Lady M still isn’t exactly my favourite character, but I was crying out for her to have a bit more depth, and now she has it, along with some explanation as to why she seemed to be all show before. It’s fitting and it works. I’m also much more at ease with the spell concealing Mance Rayder’s identity as opposed to controlling Rattleshirt. It makes much more sense, and is actually pretty cool. Also: yay! Mance Rayder isn’t dead!
Chapter 32: Reek
Poor Reek, he is a broken man. In this chapter, Lord Roose comes in to give Ramsay a bit of a telling off about being so publicly vile, then takes Reek away with him… although not before Ramsay commands him to spy on his father for him, and promised to take another finger off Reek when he returns. Dick.
Roose may be cruel and stern and heartless in his own way, but he proves somewhat less so than Ramsay. On their ride, he talks to Reek like a human being. Roose tells him about the ‘first’ Reek, who was sent to Ramsay as a servant and companion to keep him in line when he was a boy. Instead, they seem to have encouraged each other in depravity. He also confesses that he’s fairly sure that Ramsay killed his true-born heir, and that he expects the bastard to kill any new sons he makes with his new wife, also. Roose also reveals his plan to clean Reek up and make him presentable, but Reek begs him not to do so. Finally, they arrive at their destination and Roose introduces Reek to Lady Barbrey, who is shocked by what Ramsay has done to Theon Greyjoy. She says: ‘What did your bastard do to him… Is he mad?’ to which Roose replies: ‘He may be. Does it matter?’ Being introduced as Theon is too much for Reek, though, he falls to his knees, denies his identity, and says: ‘My name is Reek… It rhymes with freak.’
That’s a horrible last line. I haven’t been entirely sold on Reek’s habit of recalling his name by saying afterwards ‘it rhymes with x’. I mean, I do buy it that he would invent such a device for remembering his new name by, but as a literary device, punctuating his chapters, I was somewhat uncomfortable with it, especially as some of the words used for ‘x’ seemed jarring and out of place. I was worried we were building up to something like this, and, for me, it really didn’t work. It felt cheesy and forced, not helped by the fact that ‘freak’ is the worst possible choice of word for the ‘climax’. It’s a bit too knowing a choice for someone as mad as Reek clearly is, and too modern-sounding a word for the setting.
I should be clear: I am whole-heartedly of the view that all fantasy works are set in translation, and thus a certain amount of modern slang and phrasing is not entirely out of place. ‘Freak’ is not in and of itself a specifically modern turn of phrase, but it feels out of sync with the tone. Used in an earlier iteration it might have worked, but left dangling at the end of the chapter, as the climax… it didn’t have the strength of authenticity to carry it. The whole set-up felt a bit forced to begin with, and the choice of word just let the moment fall flat.
That said, this was an otherwise well-constructed chapter. Reek’s story required some relief, it was getting just too unremittingly awful. This isn’t a point about unbearable horror, but about the maintenance of dramatic tension and keeping the audience on side. If we’d had yet more unpleasantness for Reek with no end in sight it would have lapsed from stomach-churning horror into dullness. The reader would have thrown up his or her hands and said: ‘We get it! Ramsay is evil and he’s driven Reek mad. Yawn.’ So Roose needed to come in to ‘save the day’, but he strikes just the right note of ‘I don’t wish you any ill, but I’m not exactly a good man myself, and I’m only doing this because you’re useful.’ It’s nicely handled. I just wish the final line hadn’t been so forced.
And that’s it, for now. Tune in next time for more A Dance with Dragons