Review: Game of Thrones, Season Five (contains spoilers)

Game of Thrones, Season Five, promo image[Trigger warning for extended discussion of rape and sexual violence.]

So, I’m in the unusual position of reviewing season five of Game of Thrones before my review of season four is finished. I had a lot to say about season four, but because I was ill and still trying to finish my PhD, it’s sat half-done for months. I will get back to it, but I feel like you’d be more interested in reading what I think about the season that’s just finished at this moment.

And, boy, are there things to talk about, most of it having caused outrage on the Internet.

In terms of plotting and scripting, this was the weakest season so far. Some of it is due to the books. A Feast for Crows, and especially A Dance with Dragons, is a sprawling mess. These two books were originally one, which grew so out of control that George R R Martin decided to split his cast of characters in half and have one book dealing with one set, and the other with the others. After which A Dance with Dragons is still the second largest book I own, beaten only by my complete works of Shakespeare. I think we have to acknowledge the challenge this presented to the television show’s producers.

As you’ll know if you’ve read my Read Along with Rhube on A Dance with Dragons, much of it consists of Daenerys sitting in a holding pattern in Meereen whilst half a dozen different people who have suddenly realised she’s important journey from one continent to the far end of another to reach her. This presents a problem in a TV show where Daenerys is not only one of the most popular characters, but also portrayed by probably the most powerful actor in the show. Emilia Clarke has reportedly negotiated a no-more-nude-scenes contract; in a show now notorious for gratuitous female nudity, this is quite a feat. Whilst many characters and plotlines simply haven’t even been mentioned this season, this just wasn’t something that was going to happen with Daenerys. Given that Daenerys isn’t even in a Feast for Crows, and spends most of A Dance with Dragons treading water in filler chapters, it’s not entirely surprising that great swathes of other plot needed to be dropped in order to keep her plot relevant and pacey.

Nevertheless, given these constraints, it’s puzzling what David Benioff and D. B. Weiss decided to add to the season, as well as what they decided to cut from Daenerys’s plot.

Let’s tackle the most controversial change first.

What Happens to Sansa

In the books, Sansa Stark’s childhood friend, Jeyne Poole, poses as Arya Stark at Littlefinger’s behest as part of a ruse to hide the fact that the Lannisters lost Arya. Littlefinger sends Jeyne off to marry Ramsay Snow, Roose Bolton’s bastard, who has captured Winterfell, the Stark’s home. The Boltons do not know that Jeyne is not Arya Stark, but Theon immediately recognises her as Jeyne. In the show, Jeyne Poole plausibly existed as an unnamed girl hanging around with Sansa in season one, but we haven’t seen her since. Introducing her as Sansa’s friend now would have been weird. They might have had A. N. Girl posing as Arya, but it makes sense for Sansa to take this role. Sansa, and the actor who plays her (Sophie Turner), are too popular in and central to the show to simply banish her for a season, and in the books we haven’t seen hide nor hair of Sansa Stark for quite a while. Jeyne Poole was a ward of Littlefinger, and Sansa is currently posing as a ward of Littlefinger; it makes sense to condense the roles.

What’s problematic is that what happens to Jeyne Poole is awful. Because Ramsay Snow is awful. I’m not sure they’ve been able to fully convey how awful in the show, just because being inside Theon’s head remembering his torture is not something you can really convey on screen. But in both show and book he is unequivocally the most evil sonofabitch in two continents’ worth of truly awful people. What happens to Jeyne Poole is, in some sense, just part and parcel of that. She is raped on her wedding night. That in itself is not a surprise. It would have been out of character for Ramsay to be a caring and tender lover. But in addition to the rape, he makes Theon watch. More, he makes Theon go down on Jeyne/Fake-Arya first, as a way of humiliating them both. So, the moment book-readers realised they had condensed these roles became the moment at which we realised that without some drastic deviatition, poor Sansa, who had already been subjected to Joffrey’s horrors, would be enduring one of the most horrific rape scenes in the series.

It is not quite as bad as it is in the books. Theon does not go down on Sansa. But he does watch, and Sansa is raped. And we are told that she is raped repeatedly afterwards. And Theon does watch as she is raped. Unlike some rape scenes in the show, the camera does thankfully pan away from watching in gratuitous detail, but many have criticised the fact that it pans away to Theon’s face. Sansa’s rape and humiliation is presented as a part of Theon’s character growth – what brings him to recovering a sense of self and finding the strength to eventually rescue both himself and Sansa.

There are complex things to say about this. For a lot of people it was the last straw. Famously, The Mary Sue declared that they would no longer be promoting the show after this. I think the fact that people are reacting strongly and publicly and drawing attention to how appallingly prevalent rape and the abuse of women’s bodies is in entertainment is important. I have not decided to stop watching Game of Thrones as a result, but I understand why some people have.

For me, if I was going to quit, it would have been at the rape of Cersei in season four. In that scene, the producers took a scene of (extremely kinky) consensual sex and turned it into rape. They did it purely for sensationalism, and it was super gross. In the books, Jaime Lannister comes home and meets Cersei in the sept where their son is laid out, dead, and they have sex on the altar. Cersei initially protests that she is on her period, but Jaime says he doesn’t care, afterwhich Cersei urges him on. In the show, the producers remove the icky-to-men fact that Cersei is doing the perfectly natural thing of menstruating, and have Jaime forcing himself on her as she protests, tries to push him off, and is visibly distressed. This is after Jaime, having been home for weeks (months?), has been shown frequently complaining that Cersei won’t let him have sex with him. It goes from a passionate homecoming that illustrates how twisted their relationship is to one of a frustrated man taking from a woman what she has expressly and repeatedly indicated she does not want. For me, what happens to Sansa is awful, but turning a scene of consensual sex into rape and then treating it as if it was nothing (Jaime goes on like nothing has happened, and Cersei does little more than get a bit more drunk than usual) is worse.

I’m also bothered by the fact that for a lot of people it’s the fact that it’s Sansa getting raped that’s the problem. This was what was said again and again in discussion following that episode – it was the fact that it was Sansa that made it so much worse than the other rapes in the show*. Yes, the character has been through a lot, but so has Cersei. I do feel like there’s an element of people being more willing to forgive a rape if it happens to a woman who is more morally questionable herself. And whilst I don’t think anyone who is more outraged about Sansa’s rape than about Cersei’s literally thinks that Cersei deserved it, I’m disquieted that it seems to reflect a societal tendency to look for narratives around rape when we explain it to ourselves that focus on the victim’s life, and not on those who choose to rape. In this case, that includes the decisions writers make when they choose to portray rape, as well as real life rapists.

That said, I do think including this rape was unnecessary, that how it was portrayed was problematic, that it’s inclusion reflects deeper problems in the show, and that to an extent the outrage for this particular incident reflects a cumulative disquiet which has come to a head.

Firstly, no rape is necessary. Writers choose what they include and what they don’t. Secondly, in a season where so much deviated from the books, deciding to include this specific rape is an active decision, and not a passive attempt to accurately reflect the books. Moreover, Benioff stated explicitly in an interview with EW that they loved this subplot, and it was something they were looking to find a way to keep in the show from as early as season two. He is reported to have said:

If we were going to stay absolutely faithful to the book, it was going to be very hard to do that. There was as subplot we loved from the books, but it used a character that’s not in the show.

David Benioff in Entertainment Weekly

They loved the idea of Ramsay raping a girl. They were actively looking for ways to keep this in. This is a problem. When writers are so disassociated from thought of what rape is actually like, that it’s become this plot device for heightening drama such that this is the lens you see it through, it’s a problem. It’s a problem that goes hand in hand with the ‘fridging‘ phenomenon, in which women characters are routinely killed in horrible ways to further a man’s character development. Sansa Stark isn’t dead, but they wanted this plot because it was horrible for Theon and it illustrated how horrible Ramsay is. As others have pointed out: we already got that Ramsay was horrible.

Which brings us to the issue of presentation. Yes, in the books, we experience this rape through Theon’s eyes and as part of Theon’s character development. This is partly a consequence of GRRM’s writing style. Each chapter has a specific point of view (given by having the point of view character’s name as a chapter title), and only certain, significant characters get a point of view. Ramsay does not get a point of view. Theon does. Moreover, Theon as named for this chapter as ‘The Prince of Winterfell’, which is a way Ramsay mocked Theon for his attitude when he was briefly in charge of the castle. Theon’s presence on the wedding night is specifically framed as that of a ‘lord’ taking his ‘rights’ with a new bride through which Ramsay mocks Theon, because he is no longer lord of the castle, and he no loner has a member with which to ‘take’ the bride. All of this is extremely gross, but it’s also all completely lost in the TV show. They’ve entirely dropped the thing where Ramsay mocks Theon as being his lord, Theon (thank God) does not actively participate in the rape by going down on Sansa. Sansa has a greater claim to ruling Winterfell than either of them (in a way that Jeyne Poole did not) – something that the show makes much of, to the extent that it’s legitimate to question Ramsay risking antagonising her like this when he has other people to torture. And, crucially, the show is not tied to presenting any one specific point of view, and if it were, Sansa is still a more significant character than Theon. Whilst I was grateful that we didn’t have to watch a blow-by-blow of Sansa’s rape, panning away to make the scene all about how the rape made Theon feel was super gross.

Once again, it’s about decentring women in the violence perpetrated against us; and because men’s feelings about rape are thought to matter more, the feelings of those who actually experience sexual violence have lesser impact, perpetuating the culture that leads to rape being seen as ‘no big deal’. And the consequence of this is that men who think they would never rape will regard certain rape-acts as not rape. See the fact that Benioff and Weiss didn’t think they were writing a rape scene when they changed consensual sex into rape last season, and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau didn’t think he was performing the role of a rapist as he played the role of Jaime forcing himself on a weeping woman who says ‘no’ and struggles against him. This stuff is a huge deal.

Yet More Added Sexual Violence

And whilst we’re here, I’d like to talk about how poor Gilly becomes the victim of attempted rape as a part of Sam’s character development. A sex act he is incapable of defending her from, and which did not need to be added, and which the writers then had to get them out of through Deus ex Ghost (i.e. Jon’s wolf showing up out of the blue). The scene was completely unnecessary and is quickly followed with Gilly rewarding Sam with sex after she’s nearly been raped. It’s just… it’s just so inappropriate.

But I guess Sam has been such a nice guy, so he deserved sex. Uuuuuggggggh. Do I even have to go into how the Nice Guys Deserve Sex trope contributes to rape culture?** And then this becomes the motive for Sam to move out of Castle Black and go to the Citedal – because men just can’t control themselves and Sam can’t protect Gilly, instead of the fact that the whole world badly needs for people at the Wall to know more about how to fight White Walkers!

The Plotlines We’ve Lost

S S Abandoned Plotlines

S S Abandoned Plotlines (found on the Reddit of Ice and Fire)

At the same time that these deeply disturbing and unnecessary plots have been added, we’ve also seen a distinct absence of the women who could be legitimately kicking arse.

We last saw Yara, Theon’s kickass sister, pointlessly retreating from a fight that wasn’t in the books, in season four. This season (instead of fighting for her right to rule the Iron Islands, capturing northern castles, and then being captured by Stannis in time to see just what has become of her brother) she is utterly absent.

Catelyn Stark’s avenging zombie persona, Lady Stoneheart, has been completely lost, along with all the wonderful characters from the Brotherhood without Banners.

Val, Mance Rayder’s sister-in-law, is a sore loss to the male-heavy world of the Wall, and whilst we’re talking about Mance, him being Dead-Dave-Really-Dead and not pretend-dead as he was in the books is just a waste of a character. His absence as the leader of the disguised wildlings sent to save Jon’s sister contributes to the general sense of unbalance in the Winterfell plotline, where Ramsay Bolton becomes something of an unstoppable force, against which his brutality is a little hard to bear.

Not to mention the host of bitter northerners who could have relieved the relentless depression of Sansa’s wedding night with their seething hatred and cannibal pie. Whilst I don’t defend the rape of Jeyne Poole, it comes after a tremendous build up of dramatic tension in which the hapless girl is actually surrounded by people who might have rescued her, had their attention been appropriately directed at the time. Given Game of Thrones‘ love of dramatic weddings, this felt like something of a waste. And a really bleak, depressing waste at that. Benioff and Weiss were in ‘love’ with the rape plotline, but they passed up the opportunity for Lord Wyman and his Frey Pies – I don’t know, man, if you say you like shocking and horrible things, but the shocking and horrible things you return to again and again are violently sexual acts against women, when cannibalism is quite literally on the table, I call misogyny.

And then we have one kickass lady introduced to the beyond-the-Wall plot – Karsi, the wildling leader who votes for the wildlings to join Jon at the Wall – only to be killed because zombie children were her fatal weakness… She doesn’t even try to fight them, because they are children and she is a mother. I guess none of the male wildlings had kids? As Chrys from Chrys Watches Game of Thrones wrote:

And to anyone saying it wasn’t a sexist trope we’re so used to seeing that we sort of accept it, try replacing her with the Thenn dude and if the scene still makes sense to you peace be with you.

Chrys, Chris Watches Game of Thrones

I’ve ranted more about this over on my Tumblr, if you’re interested.

I’ll be honest and say that I’m more than happy to have lost the Victarion plotline – in which Theon and Yara’s uncle, Victarion, is one of the many suitors trying and failing to claim Daenerys’s hand. It felt tacked-on to A Dance with Dragons and included Victarion having a mute woman-of-colour sex slave. Which might just be the most racist and misogynist addition to all of Geroge R R Matin’s books. Truly, I can live without that.

By contrast, Quentyn Martell and Aegon Targaryen are rather more interesting suitors who were also cut. If the excuse for cutting so much from the Westerosi plots is that not a lot happens in Meereen, one cannot help but feel that there is still a fair amount that might have been included. Given that Aegon was widely speculated to have been a possible rider for one of Daenerys’s drgons (his Targaryen blood also making him a significant challenge to her claim to the throne), ditching him entirely seems significant. I wonder if they will find a way of working him back in for the next season.

Similarly, I can’t say I am pleased to have lost the plague plotline. I’ve always felt that the complete disaster at Astapor and the plague that follows, along with the vast armies of Yunkai closing on Meereen, were an important part of deconstructing Daenerys’s image as a white saviour. Yes, she frees the slaves, but because she doesn’t understand the culture she overturns and because she fails to put any kind of stable governmental structure in its place, she leaves chaos and disease in her wake – disease that, with a sense of poetic justice, eventually infects her, as well. This season Daenerys struck rather too successful a figure by contrast. Her humiliating the leaders of Meereen and threatening them with dragons that, in the books, she has all but lost control over, is an uncomfortably imperialistic turn.

Meanwhile, instead of adventuring in the Riverlands, Brienne spends the whole season waiting for Sansa to tell her it’s OK to come to her rescue, only to be looking the wrong way when she finally sends the signal. Whilst it was satisfying for Brienne to finally fulfil her promise to avenge Renly, I would have been more satisfied if she had been rescuing Sansa. After all, this is not something Theon is able to do by himself in the books. Given that we have lost Abel/Mance and his spearwives, along with all the entertaining northerners with their burning hatred of the Boltons, it would have been perfectly reasonably to have Brienne step up and kick some arse on Sansa’a behalf!

It is starting to very much feel as though many of the best plotlines were cut.

Of Stannis and Shireen

Meanwhile, as additions go, Stannis burning Shireen in service to the God of Light might have been intended as shocking, but registered as implausible and distasteful.  Whilst the possibility of Melisandre killing Shireen has always been there – the blood of kings is clearly magical and something that the books made as much a thing of as the TV show – Stannis sacrificing his daughter is another matter. After all, in the books, the queen and Shireen are left at Castle Black to keep them out of harm’s way!

It also simply doesn’t fit with the characterisation of Stannis’s love for his daughter in the show, and the indication that (as Chrys of CWGoT has put it) he would go ‘full rambo’ on anyone who harmed a hair on her head. (Incidentally, I am personally headcanoning the events in accordance with Chrys’s retcon of what happened in that episode.)

Basically, I don’t think it’s out of keeping with the show to kill off an adorable child, but it didn’t make sense in this context.

Also I loved Shireen and I just didn’t want her dead and I am OK with simply feeling that it’s wrong on that basis.

Other Things

There is so much else one could talk about, but honestly, the general disappointment of this season has left me exhausted. So, I’ll be brief:

Cersei’s Walk of Shame: yes, it was gross, but it was also completely textually accurate. I struggle to get worked up about it in the face of all the other misogyny this season. Overall I actually thought it was relatively tastefully done and reflected the horror of the scene without being simply another excuse for female nudity. I didn’t feel like it lingered lovingly on her boobs or anything. It made me sigh with exasperation when I read it in the books, and it made sigh with exasperation again, but it wasn’t as bad as I had feared it might be.

The Sand Snakes: a disappointing snooze-fest. The Dornish came off as stereotypes of passionate Latino-ish people. I’ve resisted the equation of Dorne with American stereotypes of Latin-Americans, as the fantasy-Britain setting makes the Dornish more equivalent to Mediterranean, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the makers of Game of Thrones don’t know the difference. Bronn literally stereotypes them as sexy and crazy, and the Sand Snakes are presented as, well, wild and sexual and violent. It was disappointing.

Jaime: is off rescuing his daughter from the Dornish. For some reason. Because I guess no one needs to fight a war in the Riverlands anymore. Not only are neither Brienne nor Jaime where they are meant to be in order to eventually meet up again, but in not storming off, spurning Cersei in favour of Brienne, Jaime’s failing to come to Cersei’s aid after her passionate plea to him (which we are also denied) doesn’t make a lot of sense. Are we to believe that no one in Dorne passed on the message, or even told him his sister had been arrested? Once again, it doesn’t make sense and sacrifices an emotionally powerful plot point.

Daenerys and Tyrion meeting: I actually liked this. The two of them are on my Iron Throne Dream Team, so I wriggled with joy to see them together, and Tyrion did a passably convincing job of giving her good advice.

Daenerys and Daario: I’ve never been a fan of this relationship, but having Daario take such a prominent role in advising her didn’t sit at all well. Daario is a dangerous distraction for book-Daenerys, and that she should listen to him so seriously is worrying and strange. But more weird and uncomfortable is the way Daario takes charge once Daenerys is gone. What he says is actually very good advice, but I’m not sure what orifice he pulled it from. Deus ex Daario.

The White Walkers: the zombie movie finally arrived, and it was AWESOME. Except that the only woman in it was killed. And almost all the women have been removed from Castle Black, so we’ve not much hope of that changing in the future. D&D seem set on following the tradition that zombie films are a boys club, and I’m Just. So. BORED. of being mad at this happening again and again and again. Women LIKE ZOMBIE MOVIES. I know, because I was involved in the, The Girls’ Guide to Surving the Apocalypse, where we talked about zombies all the time. Women LIKE APOCALYPSE MOVIES. You might have noticed from the success of Mad Max: Fury Road this summer. I’m bored and sad and bored. Get your shit together and get the women out there, Game of Thrones. THERE WILL BE WOMEN IN THE APOCALYPSE.

Jon Snow: is almost certainly not dead. Despite the fact that it’s been confirmed in the Independent today that Jon Snow really is dead, I find it hard to believe. The very fact that Melisandre magically appeared at the Wall (where she always had been in the books) strongly supports the popular fan theory that his death at the end of A Dance with Dragons was about as permanent as any of Beric Dondarrion’s deaths. We know fire priests can resurrect people.  We know Melisandre questioned Thoros on the matter. And in the books a lot of prophecies seem very much to indicate that Jon Snow still has a role to play. Not to mention the fact that his mysterious parentage has yet to be revealed. If he really is dead in the show, then I don’t believe he is in the books, and killing him off would signal that the show is more lost than ever.


Overall, this was always going to be a challenging season, but I didn’t expect it to go so spectacularly wrong. Instead of leaving us breathlessly waiting for more, the end of each episode tended to leave myself and my friends in awkward silence, and in need of watching something else immediately afterwards to cleanse our palates.

This season was needlessly misogynist, full of plotholes and implausible character decisions, and overall disappointing. I will be watching next season, but it will mainly be in the hope of it getting better. I find it hard to blame those who have decided to quit.

*I can feel people preparing to tell me that that’s not what they were saying so I’m just gonna say this: there were a lot of people talking about this. If you don’t think you were saying this, then it’s entirely possible that I am not talking specifically about you. It’s not specifically about any one person, and the fact that you might not have said this doesn’t undermine the fact that a lot of people were saying it. I’m exhausted from having this discussion and don’t want to go over it again in the comments, so comments are off. But I wanted to address the way that different rapes often spark different responses depending on who it is being raped – I think it’s important to think about what sparks our outrage and question whether what we choose to be outraged (or less outraged) about does not sometimes reflect problematic aspects of ourselves. But I also know that that’s an incredibly difficult thing to talk about sensitively and I don’t have the mental energy to chair a debate about it. So, it’s turn the comments off or not discuss this at all, and I think it’s an important question to raise.

**If you’re expecting this, it’s not going to happen, but why not check out some of the many, many articles on this. The Geek Feminism wiki has a good primer on Nice Guy culture; you might also check out ‘The Friend Zone Cultivates Rape Culture‘, by Jerica Lowman; or Laurie Penny’s ‘It’s nice to think that only evil men are rapists – that it’s only pantomime villains with knives in alleyways. But the reality is different‘.

Read Along with Rhube #30: Chapters 59 and 60

Hey gang, it’s baaaaaack! With season four of Game of Thrones just a few short weeks away, I’ve dusted off my reading hat and picked up my now-somewhat-battered volume of A Dance with Dragons (it’s heavier than I remembered). We’re at p. 783 – only another 176 to go!

I’ve also created an index page, which you can find in the drop-down ‘Index’ menu above. This is mostly an aesthetic change (I didn’t realise I could make drop-down menus this way before!). At the moment I’m still intending to keep the original index post up to date (apart from anything else, I don’t relish the thought of changing the links across 29 posts), but the new, ever so slightly swankier version is there if you want to just grab if from a drop-down menu.

That little bit of admin over with, let’s see if we can remember where we are, shall we?

Chapter 59: The Discarded Knight (Ser Barristan Selmy)

So, Daenerys has flown off with her dragon and nobody’s really clear on what happened – people are worried that she’s dead. Ser Barristan is now serving Dany’s husband, Hizdahr zo Loraq; although, what with the poisoned locusts that Dany nearly ate, suspicions are ripe. Was this a plot by Hizdahr to assassinate his queen? Could the Prince of Dorne have been trying to assassinate Hizdahr, in his role as a rival suitor for Dany’s (already claimed) hand? The answer to that one is no, btw, Ser Barristan – that boy just isn’t cut out for this level of intrigue. Unfortunately, the King doesn’t know that, and Ser Barristan is now rather worried for the boy’s life.

Whilst Selmy is considering plots within plots, the Yunkish arrive along with their sellsword, Bloodbeard, who chucks the head of Admiral Groleo across the throne room. Groleo had been taken as a hostage to ensure the safety of the Yunkish men who had entered the city to sign a peace accord with Dany. One of these guys died whilst trying to flee the dragon, and this is their vengeance.

Worse than the insult of killing Groleo, though, the Yunkish (who return three Meereenese hostages along with the head) now demand the destruction of the dragons in exchange for the remaining hostages. It’s an outrageous demand, made the more so as the Yunkish flatly declare that Dany is dead, killed by her dragon (‘Weeds grow through her broken skull’) but where the situation demands a decisive response, Hizdahr simply calls the audience to an end and says he must consult with his council.

As the people disperse, Selmy catches up to Quentyn – the Dornish prince – and warns him to stay away from court in Dany’s absence and to seriously consider leaving altogether. Hizdahr is not going to take too kindly to another suitor to his wife’s hand hanging around even without the whole poisoned-locusts business. Quentyn recalls to Selmy that he is known as ‘Barristan the Bold’ and asks him what name he, Quentyn, can expect to be called if he returns to Dorne without Daenerys. To stay is hopeless, but to leave means a dishonour that this prince, in his youthful determination, cannot accept.

This is an interesting chapter – lots of politics afoot. Hizdahr’s rather pathetic lack of decisive response to the Yunkish insult raises some interesting questions. The poisoned locusts having been Hizdahr’s makes him a prime suspect, but one cannot help but ask whether this is really the sort of man who could so calmly offer his queen poisoned food in a plot to claim the throne for himself. I can’t help but wonder if he isn’t a dupe who genuinely wanted peace, whilst the other political powers in Meereen plotted murder. What’s clear is that, whatever mess Daenerys was making of ruling, she was all that was holding this place together, and there is no one her equal to step into the power vacuum she’s left behind.

As for Quentyn… Oh Quentyn. I like you, I like you a lot, but you’re no more cut out for this place than Hizdahr is, and, as Selmy notes, you do not have the kind of fire in you that would attract a woman like Daenerys. This will not end well.

Chapter 60: The Spurned Suitor (Quentyn)

Speaking of the Prince, this chapter is his. His advisers think he should listen to Selmy, but Quentyn thinks he owes it to the men who have already lost their lives getting him here to see it through, so they stay. Quentyn, Quentyn – too nice for this world. As his advisers slur the names of the Meereenese (“‘I call them all Harzoo'”) Quentyn will have none of it, and demonstrates that he remembers every single one (that’s how we know he’s a nice boy).

And he’s smart, too. ‘They do not see. His friends had lost sight of his true purpose. The road leads through her, not to her. Daenerys is the means to the prize, not the prize itself.‘ He knows that Daenerys is not simply an empty symbol of power or a prize to be won and that, in many ways, her hand in marriage is not nearly as important as her command of her dragons. That is smart… but is he smart enough?

Quentyn’s new plan is to ask the Tattered Prince – the man whose contract he and his companions ran out on – to help him steal a dragon. It’s certainly audacious. If Quentyn’s right, it might even be a stroke of genius. If you want help from a mercenary you’ve betrayed, you have to intrigue him as well as pay him, and stealing a dragon certainly has that. Such a gutsy prize also allows the Tattered Prince to ask for something more than money. He asks for Pentos. And given that this is where the chapter rather dramatically ends, I think we can assume that this is the deal that is made.

As for the dragon? Quentyn’s reasoning is that he has the blood of the dragon within him, therefore he will also go unburned, as Daenerys does. He’s certainly shown himself to have grown in bravery and wits, but blood of the dragon… we saw how that line of thinking worked out for Viserys.

Quentyn, I so want things to workout for you. I can’t help but think that you would make a good and kind king. But I’m not sure that this is a world for good and kind kings.


Game of Thrones: Are. We. Ready. Yet?!!

I mean, yeah, I’ve been ready since the moment the last episode finished, but… I’m so excited!

There has never been a fantasy show like this, or of this quality.




As a side note: I know I haven’t updated ‘Read Along With Rhube‘ for umpteen million years. I do intendto finish my chapter-by-chapter review of A Dance With Dragons, I’m just still doing the ill-depression-PhD thing, but it is at the back of my mind for when I have a moment.

In the mean time: SQUEEEEEEE!

The Third Annual Serene Wombles

Sorry this is so late. I had, like, three significant life crises happen all at once, and I only had this half finished by 3rd October, which was my blog’s birthday. I really wanted to get this out on the day itself, but that’s life. Let the post begin!

Wow, we survived a whole ‘nother year, and for some reason you lot are still interested in what I have to say about various forms of speculative media and other awesome shit. Weirdos.

For the n00bs: The Serene Wombles are the awards I give once a year, on my blog’s birthday, for the stuff I liked best of all the things I have reviewed. The skinny:

Eligibility for a Serene Womble is conferred by being the subject of a review on In Search of the Happiness Max in the past year. There may have been better or more worthy things that came out this year, but if I didn’t find them relevant to my interests, or if I simply didn’t have the time to review them, they won’t be eligible for a Serene Womble. I make no pretense that these awards are significant or important in any way, but I enjoy having the opportunity to praise and draw attention to things I have loved.

The Serene Wombles are divided into two categories, those that apply to recent releases, and special Time Travelling Wombles for the most awesome things in my Reviewing Through the Time Machine posts. The division between the former and the latter may at times seem arbitrary – why should a film that came out in 2009 count as a recent release, whilst a TV Show that ended in 2009 requires a time machine? It’ll always be a judgement call, and the call is mine. At the end of the day, these are not the Oscars, they’re the highlights from a blog, and are therefore subject to my whim.

Due to illness and stress and stuff the pickings have been a little thinner this year than I would like. Nevertheless, there have been some really awesome and creative things out there, and I still want to praise them.

The Serene Womble for Best Film

Poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Elligible films: Looper, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Star Trek: Into Darkness.

So… guess who hasn’t been to the cinema a lot this year?  There are a whole bunch of films that I wanted to go see this year  – summer of bloody superheroes indeed! – but illness and lack of funds have prevented me. As a consequence, this was basically no contest. Looper made me angry. Star Trek: Into Darkness was tiresome and disappointing. And I enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a very great deal. I said when I watched it at Christmas that it would be the one to beat, and, alas, nothing rose to the challenge.

This was an exceedingly pretty film that I found well-paced and which realised the story very well. I didn’t mind the extra stuff added in, and actually like that Peter Jackson took this once-in-a-generation-or-two opportunity to explore Tolkien’s world more fully. Bags of fun!

The Serene Womble for Best TV Show: Hemlock Grove

Hemlock Grove PosterEligible TV Shows: Hemlock Grove, Doctor Who, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Hannibal, America’s Next Top Model, Sleepy Hollow.

For the first year, Game of Thrones is not the winner of this category! I still enjoyed it, and it had some of my favourite moments of the whole series, but the pacing was rocky, and for consistently good value there was some significant competition.

Hemlock Grove was original, genre bending, narratatively interesting, conceptually challenging, and thoroughly addictive. It wasn’t quite like anything I had seen before, in a good way.

Hannibal deserves an honourable mention, but although it was addictive, entertaining, and well-acted, I can’t say it was anything especially new or original, just very well done. House of Cards was well-acted and reasonably well-written, but fairly unoriginal and tiresomely another privileged white man plotting petty revenges that it’s hard to care for when he’s not really received any very great slights. Doctor Who is… Doctor Who. This really isn’t going to be a contender until Moffat leaves. If an episode doesn’t leave me wanting to scream, it’s a good sign. I thought there were a couple of somewhat interesting episodes this year, but that’s all. America’s Next Top Model, much as I am in the business of defending it, is not remotely in the same league. Sleepy Hollow snuck in as a last minute entry. I enjoyed the one episode I’d seen at time of review, but it’s basically entertaining fluff.

So, it’s a hearty congrats to Hemlock Grove. You seriously impressed me and I hope I can spread the love to my readers.

The Serene Womble for Best Novel – Null

There was precisely one entrant in this category: A Dance with Dragons. Given that this is just a couple of chapters from the longer Read Along with Rhube chapter by chapter review that I have been doing for the last year (two years?). It feels a bit cheaty to give it a free pass to a Serene Womble by default of multiple entries and the fact that I just haven’t reviewed any other (current) novels. Plus, it just isn’t that good. Entertaining, interesting enough for the time and attention I have devoted to it? Yeah, I guess. But it’s also deeply problematic and I doubt it would win against any competition it might have had in another year. (It did not win last year, for example.)

Fair? Unfair? It’s my blog, I get to choose.

The Serene Womble for Best Blog – Escher Girls

Escher Girls avatarEligible blogs: Myths Retold, Academic Men Explain Things to Me, Escher Girls

Oh man, this was a really hard one. I want to give the award to all of them and actually changed my mind a couple of times. One of the difficulties is that Myths Retold is a very different kind of blog to the other two, which are in turn very similar to each other in both content and impact. I considered making a separate category for ‘Best Fiction Blog’, so that I could honour Myths Retold as well, but then I couldn’t think of any other fiction blogs and it seemed like that would be getting needlessly specific. Basically, I’m saying that all three of these are very good and worth your attention.

I’ve picked Escher Girls for the win for the scope of its impact. Escher Girls is the creation of Ami Angelwings, an awesome Canadian woman who started the blog to ‘archive and showcase the prevalence of certain ways women are depicted in illustrated pop media’, namely: women are contorted into physically impossible poses for the pleasure of the male gaze. The blog functions as a demonstration that the way women are drawn in comics and other illustrated media is dramatically different to the ways that men are drawn, that we are sexualised to extremes and that this sexualisation is commonplace, and in ways that do not compare to the male power fantasies of ripped muscles in skin-tight costumes which are so often held up to minimise women’s claims of unfair treatment. The volume of examples that Ami has collected (both personally and from submissions) is staggering, and the comfort this provides to women (who have long been told that their experience of alienation by sexualisation in mainstream comics is a mere subjective impression) is extensive and powerful.

Academic Men Explain Things to Me serves a similar function, in providing a platform for women to voice their frustrations with the phenomenon of ‘mansplaining’, in which women frequently find that men explain very basic things to them, often in areas for which the woman is herself an expert and the man a novice. Again, this is an area in which women have often been told that they are imagining being treated in an overly patronising manner, that there are ‘know it alls’ of both genders, and that our subjective experiences are not as valid as men’s (who, of course, are privileged by a default supposition of objectivity that does not exist). By creating a venue to archive these experiences in detail and volume, Academic Men Explain Things to Me has provided a powerful vindication of women’s experiences – one which I genuinely believe is helping men to rethink their behaviour, as well as providing women with a sense of justification long denied.

In the end, I chose Escher Girls for its breadth of impact. I feel that there has been a palpable shift in comic and visual culture over the past year, where the misogyny in mainstream comics has come under increasing scrutiny from more mainstream critiques and fans. I don’t think Escher Girls have been the sole cause of this. Blogs such as DC Women Kicking Ass have also provided a sustained critique and made significant contributions, as have prominent critiques from individual women, such as Kelly Turnbull and Kyrax2. But to concede that a leading light is a part of a movement need not minimise the specific contribution. I think the impact of Escher Girls can be seen in the fact that it was able to spin off other projects, such as The Hawkeye Initiative, which highlights the discrepancies in treatment of men and women in comics by showcasing redrawings of sexualised female images with the male character, Hawkeye, in an identical pose.

Moreover, Ami’s blog is impressively organised in a way that facilitates citation and comparison from multiple angles – the tags page not only collates posts by trope, but also by artist, company, character, series, and Genre/Medium. And the blog integrates a Disqus commenting feature, allowing for debate and discussion of issues in a way that usually isn’t possible on Tumblr style blogs, and which Ami manages with great sensitivity.

It’s hard to compare a project like this with an artistic endeavour, like Myths Retold, which is not aiming at the kind of social change Escher Girls enables. Myths Retold demonstrates an artistry and poetic sophistication that simply doesn’t apply in assessing the other two blogs. All I can say is that whilst I recommend all three blogs to you, I felt that in this year, Escher Girls seemed most significant to me.

The Serene Womble for Best Webseries: Welcome to Night Vale

Night Vale logoEligible webseries: TableTop, Vlog Brothers, Welcome to Night Vale

I admit to using the term ‘webseries’ loosely. I reviewed quite a lot of things this year that don’t fit neatly into large categories, and although I might call TableTop a webseries, Vlog Brothers a vlog, and Night Vale a podcast, having each win a category for which it was the only entrant, I don’t think that’s a good use of my time and attention or yours. In any case, there is no question in my mind that Welcome to Night Vale outshines the other two, and I do not have the qualms I had for the previous category, in that I feel these compare fairly well, for regularly web-distributed entertainment.

TableTop is a nice idea, and if I were really into game mechanics I might find more value in it, but ultimately it fell flat for me. It’s basically just like watching other people play fun games. The games look fun, and maybe you like the people, but you can’t help but feeling that the whole thing would be more enjoyable if you were actually playing, too.

Vlog Brothers is entertaining, amusing, thoughtful, and informative. I recommend it. But it can’t hold a candle to Night Vale.

Welcome to Night Vale is one of the best, most enjoyable, most original shows I have had the pleasure to stumble across in a long time. The idea of using the podcast format as though it were a radio station for a fictional town is not one I had come across before, and it has been put to good purpose. Funny, strange, and more than a little bit dark, Night Vale is like a ray of sunlight that never fails to make me smile or to delight me with its unexpected changes in direction. It’s also surprisingly durable in terms of being something I can listen to over and over and still find new things to enjoy. I’ve had a hard year, especially the last few months, and being able to tune in to Night Vale any time I would otherwise have been alone with my thoughts has been remarkably soothing. It comforts me to know that wonderful, joyful, eccentric people are making such wonderful, joyful, eccentric works of art.

Not to mention that it manages to be progressive in terms of representation of gender, race, and sexuality without ever being po-faced. I can’t not give this an award.

The Serene Womble for Best Music: Stephanie Mabey

Album cover for Wake Up Dreaming, by Stephanie MabeyEligible musicians: Garfunkel and Oates and Stephanie Mabey

Garfunkel and Oates are witty and entertaining, but occasionally problematic. By contrast, Stephanie Mabey’s music is pure joy. I’ve listened to her album, Wake Up Dreaming, again and again, often on loop, since downloading it, and I’m not sick of it yet. Her music is delightful, witty, and often beautiful – a real must for the geek music lover. I can’t recommend her work enough.

The Serene Womble for Best Webcomic: City of the Dead

City of the Dead, panel oneEligible webcomics: City of the Dead

OK, this one was the only entry in its category – I haven’t been reading as many webcomics this year, focussing, as I have been, on trying out different new media instead. Nevertheless, this comic is dynamic, atmospheric, and fun, making full use of the online medium to present a fast-paced and cohesively presented story. It’s no Romantically Apocalyptic (the winner from last year), but it’s certainly a cut above the average, and worthy of your time.

The Time Traveling Wombles

The Time Travelling Womble for Best Novel: The Count of Monte Cristo

Cover Art: The Count of Monte CristoEligible novels: The Count of Monte Cristo.

A consequence of the sparse nature of this year is that the categories for the Time Traveling Wombles each has only one entry, but as each are stellar examples of exemplary works, this should not count against them.

I had no idea that The Count of Monte Cristo would be either such a rip-roaring adventure, or that it would be so progressive for its time (I ship Eugenie/Louise forever). Some classics are classics because they are fun as well as intelligent, and I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Non-Fiction Book: Wild Swans

Wild Swans - cover artEligible non-fiction books: Wild Swans.

In my original article on this I wrote that this is one of the books I would say everyone should read before they die, so it should be no surprise that I honour it here, also. Wild Swans is a biographical and autobiographical work of heart-rending and exquisite expression of three women’s lives across turbulent twentieth century China. The tale is worthwhile and breath-taking in itself, but for people living outside of China – people for whom the ‘Cultural Revolution’ is just a term – this intimate, detailed, and thorough history is an absolutely essential piece of reading that will change your perspective in the world.

Time Traveling Womble for Best Blog – Inexplicable Objects

A cupcake with a festive plane-on-a-stick in it.Eligible blogs: Inexplicable Objects.

Dating from a time before there was any such thing as a ‘blogging platform’ (the first was launched in October 1998), one can’t help but feel that Inexplicable Objects, which updated weekly from April 1998 to June 2001, would have made a phenomenally successful Tumblr. The archive is still active, more than ten years since it stopped updating, and it’s still one of my very favourite things in the world. Chocked full of delightfully strange objects, coloured by the witty commentary of Bill Young, this little website is a welcome piece of harmless absurdity to brighten your day. It may be the only entry in this category, but it is assuredly worthy of the Womble.

And finally:

The People’s Choice Award 2013: Hemlock Grove, Season One

Hemlock Grove PosterBy far and away the thing you most wanted my opinions on that I reviewed this year was Hemlock Grove. Netflix’s original fantasy/horror/weird show, released as an entire season, all at once, in April this year has garnered nearly 2,500 hits, with over a thousand more than its next nearest rival, Looper. This should possibly give pause for thought, as my review of Looper garnered attention more because it was negative and controversial than because the film was well-liked, but I hope that those who came to read my review of Hemlock Grove came away with a more positive image and their interest was more than car crash theatre.

Incidentally, last year’s winner, The Guild, Season Five, still has more hits than any other page on my website (including the home page) at over 14,000. What do these figures mean? Who knows, but something captured a lot of people’s interest, and maybe that’s something that’s worthy of your attention, too.

And that’s about it for this year. I hope you’ve enjoyed my reviews (or at least found them interesting) and that those who have won Serene Wombles of one kind or another get something positive out of the experience. It’s amazing the volume of wonderful and engaging things out there to culturally consume  in this crazy internet age; I hope I can continue to provide some kind of useful commentary on the tiny section of it in which I partake.

Read Along with Rhube #29: Chapters 57 and 58

(Index of previous ADwD posts here.)

Just as an FYI, we’re now up to p. 754, and this post will take us up to p. 792. It would have been well-useful if I had started out by recording such helpful locatory information seeing as GRRM doesn’t seem to think we need chapter numbers in a book that has more than 60 of the fuckers, but I didn’t think of it at the time.

Chapter 57: Tyrion

Yezzan zo Qaggaz, the dude who bought Tyrion et al, has caught the plague. This is bad because belonging to Yezzan, and being in his favour, is about as cushy as it gets for a slave. Oh, and because they might also catch the plague. And, being slaves, they might very well be killed if their master dies. If they’re not claimed by someone less savoury. Unless, that is, they can escape.

Tyrion, ever cunning, makes the excuse of fetching water for Yezzan to get himself and Penny out of the tent. He also persuades the guards to let him take Ser Jorah to carry the water (they’re not very bright guards). Jorah is a broken man. Slavery does not suit him, and he seems to have adopted a state of near catatonia in response, refusing to move, absorbing his beatings for disobeying without complaint. But once he sees that they are heading for different tents to Yezzan’s he perks up a bit.

Tyrion’s plan is to throw in with Brown Ben Plumm, who tried to buy them from Yezzan before, recognising Tyrion. And it works, he even persuades (apparently) Plumm to take them on as Second Sons, not merely a gift for Cersei, pointing out that he, Tyrion, can be a very good friend to those who do him a turn.

I like this chapter, for the most part. Tyrion gets to be cunning and they get free of the yoke of slavery, which was a slightly tedious side-bar. Things move one step closer to Tyrion meeting Daenerys and forming an unstoppable alliance (or so I like to dream). But it’s not without its flaws. The ‘freak show’ preference of Yezzan for unusual slaves provides Martin with a reason for Our Heroes to stay together when they are bought, but one can’t help but feel that the audience is expected to enjoy the exoticism of the ‘freaks’ as well. Sweets, the intersex slave, is sympathetically portrayed, but Martin doesn’t miss the excuse to have a character make a quip about him being able to ‘fuck himself’. It’s from a guard with whom we’re not intended to sympathise, but it isn’t exactly challenged. Yezzan’s own morbid obesity is often riffed off by Tyrion, both verbally and in point-of-view description. It isn’t out of character – we’re used to off-colour jokes from Tyrion, and we know his philosophy of speaking plainly about things that others will mock you for – but then one has to ask oneself why the author made the character morbidly obese anyway. After all, an author does have control over these things. I assume it is as a representation and manifestation both of Yezzan’s wealth and self-indulgence. On one level that’s fair enough – obesity would be a sign of unusual wealth – but it also perpetuates a stereotype of fat people as selfishly indulgent and in some way deviant. The combination of the fat man presented as unreasonably self-indulgent and ridiculed for supposedly comedic effect, and the ‘collection of freaks’ he has made of his unusual slaves, together suggests that this is more for our entertainment – presenting the ‘exotic’ and the extreme for our entertainment. For ‘colour’. It’s a bit uncomfortable.

We also see another two uses of the word ‘teats’ to describe breasts. It’s just a really uncomfortable and objectifying term. It says ‘these are not the woman’s breasts, these are things for you to tug on and get something out of’. It equates the woman with a cow – with a not especially intelligent animal bread for complacency and usefulness to others. In other words, it’s pretty gross. I get that it shows the coarse language of those who use the term – I don’t mind coarse language – I just think an unusual number of men seem to be using the same term in this book, and from a wide variety of backgrounds. It doesn’t really represent coarseness of the characters, to me, it represents a rather unpleasant enjoyment of objectifying and dehumanising women via their breasts.

Oh, and did I mention that one of the Second Sons takes the opportunity to have a quick grope of Penny whilst commenting on her ‘teats’ and how exotic it is for a ‘dwarf’ to have ‘teats’? Why? Just because. Just for ‘colour’. Yeah.

Speaking of Penny, she is starting to annoy me, largely because I think she is drifting out of believability. I mean, yeah, I guess she was super naive and had been shat on all her life, but… this was a woman who took a knife to Tyrion to try and avenge her brother. Suddenly all that fight just… isn’t a part of her character anymore? Even Tyrion comments that it’s weird that she’s so passive – even more passive than Sansa! I know we’re just seeing it through Tyrion’s eyes, but it’s not like we’re given a challenging perspective. It’s not like we even get Penny’s perspective. Not that I’m advocating yet more POV characters, and not that you can’t have passive or gentle female characters. I do not, for instance, have the same complaints about Sansa. The problem is more that with Penny… there’s no there, there, anymore. She’s been reduced to this pliant girl who’s happy to moon around after Tyrion. And I know I said I thought it would be off for Tyrion to have a romance with her if it suggested that little people should ‘stick to their own kind’, and I’m glad there is a character motivation for Tyrion not to be interested in her, but his constant, unchallenged dismissiveness of her is making her feel like she’s just a vehicle that allowed Tyrion to move from A to B that Martin doesn’t really feel moved to do anything with for the sake of her character.

So, I guess there were quite a few things wrong with this chapter after all. Huh.

Chapter 58: Jon

This chapter starts with Jon dreaming that he’s fighting wildlings, killing all the people who are now his allies, yelling that he’s the Lord of Winterfell, and even killing Robb, before he is woken up by Mormont’s crow. He notes that for the first time the crow calls him by his full name ‘Jon Snow’. And, more curiously, it also mutters ‘King’ and then ‘Snow’, although Jon does not put these two together.

Jon gets up and rides out to meet Tormund Giantsbane at the head of the wildling horde waiting to pass from one side of the Wall to the other. But first they must let pass their sons – a blood price to ensure the behaviour of the wildlings. Some idiot also sends three daughters he says have king’s blood to present to the queen, although she’s no doubt idiot enough to take that as meaning something to the other wildlings (it doesn’t). They also donate a significant amount of treasure, vital for buying provisions for the dramatically increased population.

Tormund tells Jon that the horn Melisandre burnt was not really the horn of Joramun, but merely a huge horn they found in a giant’s grave. And Jon wonders if Mance Rayder lied to him. He thinks to himself ‘And Joramun blew the Horn of Winter and woke the giants from the earth‘. One assumes this is a line from a historical text, poem, or legend of some sort. One might wonder if such a line would suggest not a giant horn, merely a horn to wake the giants… which one might assume to be human sized, given that all the giants would be asleep.

Tormund also has information about the Others – that they are far more terrible than their armies of dead men alone. That they can raise a white mist of sheer cold – the sort of weapon that cannot be countered with a sword. Perhaps the natural opposite to dragon fire? Jon keeps to himself that he has found Dragonsteel, which might be able to fight the Others where ordinary steel cannot.

The chapter closes with a message from Cotter Pyke concerning the ships Jon sent to rescue the wildlings at Hardhome, and it’s a doozy. Their ships are damaged and some lost. The wildlings have been eating their dead. There are dead things in the woods and dead things in the water. The Braavosi captains are only taking the women (suggesting that they want to take them as slaves, not to rescue them) and a wildling witch has told her people that they are all slavers, so the wildlings are fighting the Crows, not going to them. It is a plea for help (via land) but with what possible resources can help be sent? How can help avoid the Others if not by travelling by sea?

This is a chapter that contains a lot of interesting information, but no interesting action. Whatever’s happening at Hardhome sounds pretty interesting, but some wildlings going through a wall is… pretty dull, really. In terms of dramatic structure, it’s pretty poor. There is no central enigma that is resolved – just some people moving without problem from point A to point B. It’s all set up. Really interesting set-up, but set-up nonetheless, and thus a bit of an odd chapter to have eight hundred pages into a thousand page book.

Oh well, let’s talk about what was interesting. Firstly, Jon’s dream. Clearly a dream belonging to a man with confused identity and warring desires, suggesting that catastrophe lies ahead if he can’t resolve these. He doesn’t know if he wants to side with the wildlings, with the Nightswatch, or claim his birthright (or what should be his birthright if he were not illegitimate). Meanwhile, Mormont’s crow seems to suggest another role for him: king. Whether that’s king of Westeros (going with the fan theories that suggest he’s not Ned’s bastard, but Robert’s), or king of the wildlings, it’s not really the sort of thought that is appropriate for a man who’s taken the black.

And there’s the fact that the bird is calling him Jon Snow, now, which fits with my theory that Mormont was actually a skinwalker, too, and is living on through his bird. My thought is that Mormont is slowly gaining greater control over the animal and desperately trying to communicate advice to Jon, who is walking a tight-rope he’s possibly not experienced enough to be secure on, yet. And there’s the fact that crows are heavily linked with prescience in ASoIaF.

We’re also treated to a few more tantalising hints about the Others, although Martin is still wise enough to know that the less we know about them the scarier they are. Just a drop or two of information to whet our appetites with.

And the thing about the horn, of course, and the question of whether Mance is still playing his own game, keeping information from Jon.

All of that is pretty damn cool.

This is an odd pair of chapters – one is all excitement! Escape! Plot development! But marred but aspects that are ostensibly set down to add colour, but are more uncomfortable than they are engrossing. The other is dull and uneventful, but brimming with really cool information that actually does colour in the world a bit more for us.

Ah, and so it goes. ASoIaF remains as flawed as it is brilliant.

Read Along with Rhube #28: Chapters 55 and 56

(Index of previous ADwD posts here.)

I know, I know, it’s been an age, but I haven’t forgotten you, you mad cap fools who for some reason are interested in what I have to say about every single chapter of A Dance with Dragons. Alas, I’ve had a number of bouts of illness and when I’ve had the critical energy for analysing heavy tomes I’ve been devoting myself to my PhD rather than this. But today I’ve decided I’m well enough to do something, but not well enough to read Crispin Wright on hinge propositions (or whatever the hell this paper I’m looking at is heading towards) so you get my thoughts on the inhabitent’s of George R R Martin’s mind, instead.

Chapter 55: The Queensguard

In this chapter we follow Barristen Selmy as he deals with Daenerys’s court in the absence of Daenerys. Last time we saw her she was flying off on a dragon – a great personal move, no doubt, but she has kind of left things in disarray. Hizdahr, naturally, assumes control, and he wants his people around him in court. He chooses pit fighters, whom Selmy can see are not really appropriate for the role. Factions are splintering in Daenerys’s absence. The Unsullied are loyal only to Daenerys and refuse to fight under a man of Hizdahr’s choosing. Selmy can see the issues, but his own inability to adapt to local customs makes it impossible that he should be able to provide a similar role to Hizdahr as he did for Daenerys. Hizdahr insists on being treated like a Meereenese King, Selmy insists on treating him as a king of Westeros, and without Daenerys’s deft hand and cultural flexibility the court is falling apart.

Added to this, no one is quite sure what has become of Daenerys. Some think her killed by the dragon, others that she was taken away against her will. Selmy saw her riding Drogon and knows she is not dead, but that does not tell him where she has gone, why she has not returned.

And then there is the question of who tried to poison Daenerys with the tainted locusts…

Shakaz of the Brazen Beasts seeks to involve Selmy in schemes, attributing trechery to Hizdahr, but it is anathema to all Selmy believes in. He only wants to do his duty, he has no interest in the game of thrones. Yet it is also his duty to protect Daenerys. She never commanded him to protect Hizdahr, and with the possibility that Hizdahr himself might be behind a plot to kill Daenerys, Selmy finds himself embroilled in intrigue nonetheless. Shakas reports that Volantis is moving against them and he believes that Hizdahr will open the gates to them. Steps must be taken to protect Daenerys’s reign if Hizdahr is a traitor. Reluctantly, Selmy agrees to talk to Grey Worm, to gain the aid of the Unsullied, on condition that he be allowed to question the poisoner, who has been caught.

This is an interesting chapter, showing us just how fragile Daenerys’s peace was, and how much it depended on her for its continuance. But it also underlines her mistakes – that she was too flexible, too benevolent, too eager for peace. Meereen bent to her because she commanded dragons and great armies. But she kept her dragons chained, and when Astapor fell she did not move to save it or calm it for fear of losing the peace she had established in Meereen. It is as though Dany regarded Astapor as a mistake, and cast it aside, determined not to make the same mistakes with Meereen, and therefore stood fast at her new base rather than returning to sort out the old one. The trouble is that the fates of the two cities were not disconnected. Trouble in Astapor and her failure to act upon it made her seem weak, and when Astapor fell to plague, her people followed her to Meereen and brought the plague with them. Similarly, she chained her dragons because it seemed that they might have killed children. She chained them to prevent further deaths, but this robbed her of their power and made it seem that she did not have the strength to wield such power and also control it.

What should we make of this? I’m still not at ease with this mother role Daenerys has been cast in – a role that is again re-emphasised in this chapter. We are told that the Unsullied will only follow their ‘mother’, and that the freedmen call her ‘Mhysa’ which means mother. I mean, yeah, yeah, ‘mother of dragons’ and all that, but the trope of motherhood is one of caring and enabling, not of commanding and dominating – she is not the rider of dragons or the ruler of dragons, she is the one who has nurtured dragons. The thing about mothers is, however loyal their children, they all go off and live their own lives eventually. Which is not to say that mothers cannot be more than this – they absolutely can – but it troubles me that a young girl like Daenerys is being cast in this role which seems to connote something at odds to her role as conqueror.

She also seems to be vulnerable to the stereotypical ‘weaknesses’ of mothers. It is hearing that a child has been killed by her dragons that leads her to restrain them rather than train and utilize their power. She has a soft spot for children. Which is entirely understandable. She lost her own child – I’m not saying this mothering role is out of character – it’s just that having her weaknesses be so stereotypically feminine is… uncomfortable, for me.

That said, it is also clear that the instability in Meereen is the result of a myriad of factors, many of which have had unforeseeable consequences. The book is called ‘A Dance with Dragons‘ and that should be the clue that all of the action is really circling around Daenerys and her ‘children’. She’s a power centre and almost everyone is drawn to her – Tyrion, Quentyn, Selmy, ‘Young Griff’, the Astapori, the Volantenes, the Yunkai’i… she stinks of power and agency. When she was on the move she went to the people and places she wished to encounter and act upon. By sitting still, the possibilities she represents swirl about her, and the more people catch up to her the more possibilities are added to the mix – events start rolling in ways impossible to predict. Her absence shows the instability of her reign, but it also shows the strength of her influence in that she managed to keep it in check.

Chapter 56: The Iron Suitor (Victarion)

I keep reading this guy’s name as ‘Victorian’, it’s a problem. But I confess that it is my problem. What’s more problematic is just where this character has come from. The name rings a bell and tickles distant memories of some kind of plot, but it’s the first time we’ve seen him in this book and it’s a big book that we’re three-quarters of the way through. Adjusting my mind to what he’s doing and why I should care requires a little bit of effort, but hey, I do so.

Victarion has been leading a massive fleet from the Iron Islands to (guess what?) try to get to Daenerys before everyone else, and especially the Volantenes. He’s been caught in the same storm as Tyrion’s boat and lost a hefty chuck of his ships. He’s also got a hand that’s festering from some cut he got in some battle I don’t know if I’m supposed to remember. There’s a Maester on board who’s tending to the hand, but Victarion doesn’t like him, and he really doesn’t like that the man keeps saying he wants to cut the hand off (which pretty much sounds like the sensible thing to do). He’s also got a ‘dusky woman’ with him. Because of reasons. Probably ‘sexy’ ‘exotic’ reasons.

Anyway, the priest, Moqorro, who was washed off of Tyrion’s ship, seems to have wound up on Victarion’s. He offers to help Victarion with his hand to prove his worth and save his life. Victarion has some qualms about this, ’cause, you know, he’s a good Iron Born, and he serves the Drowned God. But the Drowned God doesn’t seem to be being too helpful and/or pleased, if he sent a storm like that, and Victarion figures that if the red priest was washed up near him he might have been washed up by the Drowned God to help him.

Victarion accepts Moqorro’s offer and Moqorro heals his hand. Victarion is pleased and spares his life, taking the Maester’s instead as a sacrifice to the Drowned God.

So, there are a few interesting things about this chapter. It certainly is a striking coincidence that Moqorro should be washed up right by Victarion and be able to heal his hand. (I honestly can’t remember if we were aware of this wound before, or if it’s basically been parachuted in to allow Moqorro to have an in with Victarion.) What’s clear, as has been indicated elsewhere before, is that the gods in this world definitely have physical domains, their strength and ability to act in the world determined by the strength of their worshipers as well as other factors. The Old Gods seems to be tied to the frigid north. The Red God seems to be based in the warm south, although he clearly has eyes on the north. Thus, here, the Drowned God seems to have little to no power (you’d have thought the whole ocean is his domain, but I guess it’s still a long way from most of his worshippers), and R’hllor seems strong. We also get a few more tidbits of history about the destruction of Valyria, but we don’t really learn very much more.

I’m not awesomely happy with the whole ‘dusky woman’ thing, though. She has no voice and no name and she is quite literally a sex slave. That’s a… that’s a hell of a character for a woman of colour to have in your novel. I mean, I get it, the Iron Islanders are down with slavery and salt-wife taking and all that jazz. It’s a culture thing. GRRM depicts a lot of cultural stuff that he doesn’t seem to endorse. But this woman is so anonymous. She is given no character at all. In as much as we have any indication of her feelings, she doesn’t seem to mind being Victarion’s sex slave – he’s not the guy who cut her tongue out, so he’s kind of OK, right? Right?

There’s nothing wrong with having people of colour being slaves in fiction per se, it’s how it’s treated, and sensitively should be the key word. Similarly for women in sexually subservient positions. There are many ways to handle this that are fine. But just thrown in in a way that seems to add nothing to the plot, with no voice and no name, described in exoticised terms like ‘dusky’, with no real examination of how the woman herself feels about her condition… this is pretty clearly playing to the male gaze, and the white male gaze at that. Not classy, not classy at all.

Use the negative aspects of history to colour your fantasy novel by all means, but don’t just throw them in unreflectively because you think they’re ‘cool’. That’s a pretty easy way to be pretty damned offensive.

Womble out.

The Second Annual Serene Wombles

Two years! Woo-woo! Thanks for keeping with me. It’s been another hell of a year, and although Life Events have meant that I wasn’t able to review quite as much as I would have liked, you’ve stuck with me, and that’s awesome. In fact, with 28,000 hits this year, three times as many people have shown at least a vague interest in this little blog as last year. So: thanks! 😀

Those of you who were here last October 3rd will remember that to mark the aniversary of this esteemed blog I decided to hand out some meaningless awards: The Serene Wombles!

What exactly are the Serene Wombles? Well, to quote myself last year:

Eligibility for a Serene Womble i[s] conferred by being the subject of a review [on In Search of the Happiness Max] in the past year. There may have been better or more worthy things that came out this year, but if I didn’t find them relevant to my interests, or if I simply didn’t have the time to review them, they won’t be eligible for a Serene Womble. I make no pretense that these awards are significant or important in any way, but I enjoy having the opportunity to praise and draw attention to things I have loved.

The Serene Wombles are divided into two categories, those that apply to recent releases, and special Time Travelling Wombles for the most awesome things in my Reviewing Through the Time Machine posts. The division between the former and the latter may at times seem arbitrary – why should a film that came out in 2009 count as a recent release, whilst a TV Show that ended in 2009 requires a time machine? It’ll always be a judgement call, and the judgement will [usually] have been made on a case-by-case basis at the time of reviewing. Sometimes I use a time machine for my reviews because I want to review something that came out in 1939, sometimes because I want to review something more recent that’s out of print, or because it’s a TV show that’s been cancelled… At the end of the day, these are not the Oscars, they’re the highlights from a blog, and are therefore subject to my whim.

Exciting stuff, eh? Let’s get started!

The Serene Womble for Best Film: Dredd 3D
Dredd 3D posterEligible Films: Dredd 3D, Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games

The competition was basically between Dredd 3D, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Hunger Games. If this category were about which film I’m most likely to rewatch… well, I’d probably rewatch all of those three, but I’d want to watch The Amazing Spider-Man first and most often. But this isn’t just about which film I found most fun. Each of these was well put together and entertaining, and The Amazing Spider-Man was also visually stunning and thematically well-conceived, but Dredd 3D was just in a league of its own – beautiful and thoughtful in equal amounts. It really felt like Dredd 3D was taking sci-fi back – giving us a real vision of the future, beautiful and provocative as well as dark. Breathtaking, is the word.

I doubt this film will sweep the Real and Proper awards in the way it deserves, but here in Womblevonia I’m doing my bit to recognise originality, inspiration, and artistic genius where I see it. Congratulations, Dredd 3D! Well deserved.

The Serene Womble for Best TV Show Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones Season 2 Promo 'The Clash of Kings has begun'Elligible TV shows: Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Misfits, The Fades, The Hollow Crown: Part I, Richard II

Tough crowd. I mean, we have The Fades, one of the most strikingly original and well-executed British fantasy TV shows in a good many years – a real tragedy that it was not renewed for a second series. Then there’s The Hollow Crown‘s adaptation of Richard II, which contains some of the very best Shakespeare I have ever seen performed, and for one of my least favourite plays, at that, including a truly spectacular performance from Ben Whishaw, as Richard II, and a simply wonderful portrayal of John of Gaunt by Patrick Stewart. And although Doctor Who has been highly questionable over the last year, I can’t deny that ‘A Town Called Mercy’ was excellent. Yet Game of Thrones is still hands down the winner, for me. It feels unfair to some of the competition to give it the Serene Womble for Best TV Show two years in a row, but given that it was even better this year than last year, I don’t feel that I can really deny it. Performances by Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, and Maisie Williams were stand outs, but everybody was bringing their A-game. The special effects were incredible – I now believe that dragons exist and that they are both very cute and very dangerous. Pretty much every element of music, direction, and writing was outstanding, and it stands out in my memory as the best thing I have seen all year.

As they say on these here Internets: All of The Awards.

The Serene Womble for Best Web Series The Guild
The Guild PromoEligible Web Series: The Guild, Dragon Age: Redmption

Well, maybe not all of the awards. This is a new category introduced to include the burgeoning genre of web series. I was tempted to roll it into the TV shows Womble, but, upon reflection, I must concede that web series are their own medium. They are usually shorter and are often much lower budget. It’s neither fair nor practical to try and compare them to much longer, much higher budget shows. Moreover, they are developing their own tropes and styles and on the whole exhibit a different character to their televisual brethrin.

That said, there wasn’t a lot of competition in this category. Both these shows are Felicia Day creations, and whilst I did watch other web series over the course of the year, I can’t deny that Felicia is the mistress of this genre – she has not only talent but the extra experience of being one of the founders of this artform. It means that she’s been at it for longer, but also that she’s better known. Nevertheless, it is notable that The Guild greatly outstripped Dragon Age: Redemption. I suspect this is in part due to the fact that Felicia will have had much less control in the latter, but I also didn’t find her own performance as convincing. In all honesty, The Guild is just in a league of its own. It has the geek-following to bring in stars for the extensive cameos that were a feature of this series, and it’s starting to get the money that allows it to do more things. It’s also excellently and knowingly written for the audience that powers the Internet: geeks. Not to mention the spot on performances of the other cast members: Vincent Caso, Jeff Lewis, Amy Okuda, Sandeep Parikh, and Robin Thorsen.

It’s a deserved win, but with more and more people finding it natural to watch their visual content online, more TV stars using short videos as a way to get a bit more exposure and make a bit more cash on the side (see, for example, David Mitchell’s Soapbox), there’s a blooming new arm of the media that I’m thinking I need to investigate further in the coming year. I’m interested to see how things develop.

The Serene Womble for Best Actor Ben Whishaw
Ben Whishaw as Richard IIElligible Actors: This category is open to any actor in any recent production that I’ve reviewed in the past year – film, TV, radio, podcast, whatever. I do not discriminate by gender. It’s a fight to the melodramatic death and the best actor wins, regardless of what’s between their legs or how they identify.

This was a tough one. I feel bad for stinting Peter Dinklage for the second year running after praising him so highly, but it was a strong field, and he did contribute to the overall Game of Thrones win – keep it up, Peter, there’s always next year. Lena Headey was also giving all the players a run for their money with her outstanding performance as Ma-Ma in Dredd 3D – a real performance of a lifetime. But I can’t deny the just deserts for Ben. He took a role I’d never especially liked or understood and made me see it from a completely different angle – an angle that was utterly compelling and heart-breaking. In all honesty I was far less impressed with Parts II and III of The Hollow Crown (and I somehow missed Part IV), and I’ll not deny that Tom Hiddleston did a good job, but Richard II blew me away, and Ben Whishaw was the lycnhpin of that production. Incandescent. Any actor that can ellucidate not just the character they are portraying but the themes of the play and have that render their performance more compelling rather than less, and to such a level… sheer genius.

Thank you, Ben, for showing me Richard II the way you see him. Have a Womble.

The Serene Womble for Best Novel Rome Burning, by Sophia McDougall
Rome Burning cover art Eligible Novels: A Dance With Dragons, Kraken Romanitas, and Rome Burning

This one was probably the hardest. Kraken is the most imaginative novel I’ve reviewed this year, and it was certainly a gripping as well as intelligent read. However, it did have some minor gender issues, the attempt at rendering London accents was unconvincing, and although I found the exploration of personal identity fun, it was inconsistent.

Rome Burning‘s alternate history setting was imaginative in a different way. For exploration of gender, race, and cultural issues it was outstanding. The characters were interesting and varied. The pace was fast and gripping. The politics, nuanced and intriguing. And, overall, the harder-to-define ‘squee’ quotiant was just higher than for anything (new) I’ve read in a long time.

Romanitas, the first book in the trilogy of which Rome Burning is the second, was also good, gripping, and squee-worthy, but the writing was not quite as strong and the world-building was more developed in the second volume.

A Dance with Dragons is what it is: a novel to which I have mysteriously devoted a surprisingly large chunk of my life in reviewing; part of a long series that has given me both great joy and great frustration. Perhaps it is unfair to put it up for assessment when the review is as yet incomplete, but I’ll give you a sneak preview and say that, for all its good points, A Dance with Dragons was not really competition for any of the above.

The Serene Womble for Best Comic Romatically Apocalyptic
A wallpaper made by Alexius from one panel of Romantically Apocalyptic

Eligible Comics: Real Life Fiction and Romantically Apocalyptic

Another new category, and only two in it, but I couldn’t leave them by the wayside. Both of these are excellent, and I thoroughly recommend them to all of you. Both are surreal, hilariously funny, and gender balanced. Romantically Apocalyptic has an edge for me by being, well, apocalyptic; but then again, Real Life Fiction has Manicorn. The real clincher is the artwork, which, as you can see, is stunning. I have never seen anything like it in a web comic. Or any comic. Or ever. And the creator, Vitaly S Alexius, hands this stuff out for free. There are no two ways about it: this comic wins.

The Time Traveling Wombles

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Film The Glass Slipper
The Glass Slipper promo imageEligible Films: Robocop, Soldier’s Girl, The Glass Slipper

That’s right, I’m giving the award to a film it’s virtually impossible to buy anymore. It’s not available on Amazon (there’s a Korean film called Glass Slipper, but it’s a different movie), it’s never been made into a DVD, the only videos I can find are US vids on eBay, the cheapest was going for about £16 (inc. P&P) at time of posting. I don’t know if it’d even play on a non-US machine. My copy was taped off the telly in the 1980s. But if you can get it, I urge you to make the effort. And this is really what reviewing via time machine is all about: drawing attention to classics and forgotten works of art. How can we get great films like this pressed for DVD if nobody speaks up to say that they are wanted?

The Glass Slipper is beautiful, sweet, and knowing. To me, it is the definitive cinderella story, and that’s not just the nostalgia talking. I feared it would be when I went to rewatch for this review, but it’s not. This was a feminist take on Cinderella in 1955, long before anyone even dreamt of Ever After. And it doesn’t sacrifice the romance for its message; it is a heart-breaking, life-affirming, challenging, witty, and beautiful work of art.

This is not to discredit its competition, however; both of the other films were clear contenders, although each is very different to the others, and it was hard to make the comparison. Robocop is a cleverly written and directed critique of capitalism. Its ultra-violence and gritty realism stand at stark odds to The Glass Slipper’s colourful fairytale punctuated with surrealist dance-interludes. Soldier’s Girl is a moving and powerful adaptation of the true story of a soldier who was beaten to death for loving a transgender woman. It perhaps didn’t have the artistry of the other two movies, but I don’t know that you want a lot of whistles and bells for such a movie – its task is to tell someone else’s tale and command the viewer to witness a crime and recognise an injustice. It would be wrong for a director to grandstand and steal the show. So, what do you do, when confronted with three such different films, ones that resist judgement on equal grounds?

I think you have to go with your gut. The Glass Slipper is the one that had the deepest personal influence on me, playing a pivotal role in shaping my psyche and helping me figure out what sort of a woman I wanted to grow up to be. Children’s or ‘family’ movies are often over-looked as less serious art objects than ‘adult’ films*, but they help to form the worldview a child is exposed to when they are trying to figure out what this existence, this life, is all about. Films like The Glass Slipper, which show a child a multiplicity of roles for women, are incredibly important, especially when they do so in the context of a story that is usually cast to define women as romantic creatures whose ‘happily ever after’ lies in marriage, and not in independant thought. Doing that whilst keeping the romantic centre of Cinderella’s tale intact is a masterful stroke. It deserves this award.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Actor Lee Pace

Eligible actors: anyone who has acted in a film I had to time travel to watch.

It may not have garnered the illustrious Time Traveling Womble for Best film, but I can’t deny the Womble to Lee Pace – head and shoulders above the rest – there really wasn’t any competition. Lee Pace plays Calpernia, the transgendered woman that Barry Winchell fell in love with, and was brutally killed for loving. The gentle, understated approach to this sensitive role is spot on. I imagine a lot of reviews of this film will have said something to the effect of what a ‘convincing woman’ Lee Pace made – I’m not even sure what that means, but it’s the sort of thing people say when they discuss a man playing a transgendered role. I’ve known a number of transgendered women – they’re as varied as any other random woman would be from another; they’re as varied as people. Which is not the same as saying that they have nothing in common or don’t have shared experiences. I don’t want to make any sweeping characterisations of what it is to be a transgendered woman and then proclaim that I think Lee Pace matched that stereotype. What I’m saying is that he portrayed a well-rounded character – a person with loves and passions and heart-ache, with interests both important and trivial; a person whose story moved me and made me think about an important issue.

The point that moved me most – that stood out – was a moment in the above scene. It spoke to me powerfully even though it was speaking about an experience I’ve never had, and am never likely to have. Because it’s a scene in one sense about a man struggling with figuring out his own sexuality in the high-pressure environment of being a soldier in the context of the US Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy – only revoked just over a month before I reviewed this film; still in force when it was made. To a large extent, that’s what the film is about. But it’s also about a woman, struggling to be acknowledged as a woman, finding it almost impossible to date, even though she is beautiful and charismatic, because straight men won’t acknowledge her as a woman. And here she has found a man, a man she is falling in love with, and she must always be asking herself: is this just an experiement, for him? Am I his way of figuring himself out? And all this time she has been loving and supportive and understanding that this is hard, for him, but here she finaly shows her pain and anxiety. Yet, it’s still within the context of that loving, caring, understanding character. Once he has affirmed his love for her she subsumes her own pain to his need for support. It is done with so much subtlety and nuance. Lee Pace isn’t the one bawling his eyes out in this scene, but the emotion is nonetheless powerful.

That’s acting. Acting and sensitivity; just exactly what the role needed.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Novel The Dark Tower, Vol. 2: The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King
Cover art: The Dark Tower, Vol. 2: The Drawing of the ThreeEligible Novels: The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish and The Dark Tower, Vol. 2: The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King.

I did think about including some of the works of Anne McCaffrey in this category, as I did talk about a number of them in her memorial post, but ultimately I decided that what I was really doing was celebrating a woman’s life’s work, rather than giving a review. Besides, I might want to review some of them properly somewhere down the line.

As for the two remaining novels… well, it was an unfair match. The Drawing of the Three is basically my most favourite book. The Blazing World is an important book that more people should read. It’s historically valuable and truly remarkable for its time. But it’s also the offspring of a genre (novel writing) in its infancy – the very first science fiction novel, in 1666. Don’t believe me? Go read the post.

As for The Dark Tower – ah… I suspect I shall spend my whole life trying to tease apart why it affects me so. My post, ‘Meditations on Death‘ explores just one aspect of my its power – the seductive power of the concept of death-as-release, what makes us resist its allure, and how this is expertly explored in The Drawing of the Three.

And, last of all:

The People’s Choice Award The Guild, Season 5
The Guild cast in the costumes of their avatarsPerhaps the most arbitrary of all the awards, this is the one you voted for with your feet. The selection for this award is based solely on the review post with the single largest number of hits. And this year it was a landslide, with 8,431 hits and counting, this post has had more hits than my home page. It’s had several thousand more hits than the total for all hits of my most popular month (July). The closest runners up are The Amazing Spider-man and The Hollow Crown (both around 1,000).

And it’s not even because it’s been on the blog since October last year – the hits suddenly started raining in in July. I don’t know what it was, but it seems like all of a sudden the Internet woke up to The Guild, and all I can say is that it couldn’t be more well deserved. Congrats, Felicia and friends: they like you, they really, really like you!

And that’s it! The awards have been awarded, and it’s time to start all over again, selecting novels and films and TV shows and comics and web series, and kittens only know what else, to review in a brand new Womblevonian year.

Stay serene and max for happiness, yo.

*Not that kind, dirty minds!

Read Along With Rhube #27: Chapters 53 and 54

(Index of previous ADwD posts here.)

I probably won’t manage to get a review done for The Hollow Crown, Part II until tomorrow, as I’m going to a party tonight. But fear not! I have returned to Read Along with Rhube and the quest to finish reviewing every single chapter of A Dance with Dragons continues.

Chapter 53: Jon

Val has returned to the Wall with Tormund Giantsbane, and Tormond and Jon hammer out an agreement: peace in exchange fr a goodly amount of gold and maybe some men to swell the ranks of those defending the Wall, and they can all stand together against the more fearsome force that is coming. Interestingly, Mormont’s old crow follows Jon when he goes to make the agreement. Have I mentioned yet my theory that Mormont was a skinwalker, too, and that maybe his spirit lives on in that bird? Well, I have now. Just a thought…

Val is properly introduced to the queen and the southern nobles make more foolish comments about Val being a princess because she is sister to Mance Rayder’s wife. Val is respected amongst the free folk, but that’s not how it works. The queen is also unpleased by the fact that the wildlings have been permitted to enter without kneeling to Stannis. And understandable concern, actually, but it was never going to happen.

If Queen Selyse is displeased that the wildlings won’t kneel, it is nothing to Val’s reaction to Princess Shireen having greyscale. She wastes no time, once they are alone, in not only telling Jon that she would have killed a child with the ‘grey death’ if she had given birth to one, but in demanding that her sister’s daughter (or the babe impersonating her) be removed from Castle Black ASAP, so as to be away from the princess. She calls Shireen ‘unclean’ and a ‘dead girl’. It’s kind of shocking, but I’m left wondering if this is the knee-jerk reaction of a hard people to illness in an harsh climate, or if Val really does know something we don’t. Greyscale has become more and more prominent as an issue throughout A Dance with Dragons, and I can’t help but feel that we’re building up to something. Recall that Greyscale is a disease associated with old Valyria. Dragons have come back, white walkers have come back – old powers and old things. I can’t help but wonder whether greyscale mightn’t be a part of that.

Beyond these matters, though, is the tensions rising from Jon’s plan to bring more wildlings south of the Wall. There are questions about where to house them and how to feed them and whether they can be trusted. Jon wisely points out that any man who takes the black has his crimes forgiven, and we are uneasily reminded that many of Jon’s men are rapists and murderers themselves. The Night’s Watch is run on a principal of trust and forgiveness, but it is being tested to its edge as Jon asks his men to fight side by side with the wildings they have spent their lives striving to keep on the other side of the Wall. One can’t help but feel, even though this has to be the right move – they cannot man the Wall by themselves – that things are being set up to go badly wrong, somewhere down the line.

Chapter 54: Cersei

Cersei, Cersei, Cersei. What an interesting character you are. I never know quite what to make of you. Are you strong or weak? Powerful or blown by the winds of your desires? Cunning and intelligent, or not nearly half as smart as you think you are? All of the above, I suspect. But you’ve been brought low now. Imprisoned by the priesthood, accused of killing the High Septon, killing Robert, sleeping with half a dozen man, including your cousin and your brother, or incest, of treason – of deicide, even. And where are all your protectors, now? All those men whose loyalty you bought with your body. You don’t know it, but Jaime has been won from you by a woman you think ugly (sexually? perhaps not, but Brienne has won him over nonetheless). The Kettleblacks and Lancel – all have confessed your crimes to save themselves.

Cersei is a woman who always felt cursed by being female. She felt she was strong, mentally, in terms of will and in terms of brains – stronger than Jaime. But she was born female and was barred from hereditory power or physical strength. And she’s bitter about that – oh is she bitter – but not defeated. She felt her sex as a weakness and sought to turn it into a strength. She saw that she was beautiful and could manipulate men with her beauty. And so she threw herself into that. She came to believe that it was the only way a woman could be strong. She cannot fathom a woman like Brienne. ‘Her,’ she thinks, ‘Jaime would never abandon me for such a creature. My raven never reached him, elsewise he would have come.‘ She cannot fathom Sansa’s quiet strength in retaining her morality – tried to school her in the ways of using her body to control men, in an oddly, almost motherly way.

Somehow, in her bitterness, in her attempt to use the sex that had been used against her as a weapon, Cersei missed that she was – for quite a long time, actually – a powerful woman independently of her beauty. She was Robert’s wife even though he never desired her. While he drank himself to an early grave she ruled the kingdom. It took all his wits for Tyrion to wrest power from her. But ultimately, it has been her attempts to preserve her power through sex that have brought her down. Because power won through sex is as fickle as attraction, as volatile as emotion, as fragile as beauty. There is a new beauty in town and Margery is younger. And she has only tried to use her beauty to gain power via marriage. She understands that to rely on sexuality to get your power you must follow the rules of those who see a woman’s power in their sex. Cersei has transgressed and is being punished for using her sexuality outside the bounds of patriarchal control. She has sacrificed her right to continue to wield that power.

Now, to save her life, she must humiliate herself and play to those stereotypes again: become the weeping woman, sinful by nature ‘a woman needs to be loved, she needs a man beside her’ says Cersei, and ‘The wickedness of widows is well-known’ agrees the new High Septon. In this way Cersei is offered forgiveness for her wanton ways as a widow on the condition that she submits to the further humiliation of walking through the streets naked. But as she does not confess to killing Robert, or the High Septon, as she denies incest with Jaime and attests that she never slept with anyone but Robert whilst she was alive, there must still be a trial for these things. Cersei knows she cannot prove her fidelity, for she was not true to Robert. She must request trial by combat, but to do that she must arrange to have a man on the King’s guard whom she can not only trust, but know will win. As the chapter closes she reveals that she has someone in mind – someone who will need a new face – and we are left wondering who this could be…

I feel like I should have something nuanced and clever to say about Cersei’s presentation. Should I approve of Martin’s critique of women who use sexuality for power instead of their brains? Should I be angry that a woman who took command of her sexuality and rebelled against the confines of the patriarchy is presented as morally and intellectually inferior. I’m not sure I can get behind either of those sentiments. I don’t think Martin is that simplistic on either side. The conversation between Cersei and the High Septon is knowing. We are supposed to be repulsed by the High Septon’s casual sexism and assertion of female moral and sexual weakness. We are equally supposed to recognise that the foundations upon which Cersei built her power were fundamentally unstable – were always going to crumble away from her like this, sooner or later. I think, perhaps, I like it because the writing of Cersei – such an archetype of women who seek to manipulate men through sex – does not cast her as a representative of all women. Not even all women who seek to control men through attraction. She is Cersei – both weak and strong in different ways – and it is her precise decisions, good and bad, that have led her to this place. She resists shallow analysis and labelling. And that can only be to the good.

Read Along with Rhube 26: Chapters 51 & 52

Seems like I’m always apologising for not getting back to this sooner. What can I say? It’s a 959 page story and I’ve reviewed 672 pages. That’s 50 chapters down with an estimated 22 more to go (based on an average chapter length of 13 pages). It’s a bit daunting. But I’m 70% done now, so I don’t want to quit, and I don’t want to let down those of you who have come this far. I guess it’s just going to have to become a long-term project that I dip in and out of, rather than something I post religiously every week (which I pretty much did do until Christmas). Anyway, these reviews aren’t going to write themselves!

Chapter 51: Theon

Theon gets his name back! Three cheers for Theon! And it is apt, this chapter is the culmination of all that has gone before it. With the help of Abel’s women, Theon rescues Jeyne Pool (although, of course, Abel and his women think they are rescuing Arya). As Theon has become something of a lady’s maid to Jeyne, he is able to arrange to dress Jeyne in a servant girl’s clothes and sneak her out whilst in the pretext of bathing her. Squirrel takes Jeyne’s clothes and will pretend to be her to give them more time. Theon uses his position as the despised and ignored Reek – allowed free reign of the castle because he is harmless, and Lord Ramsay’s pet – to get past the guards at the wall (or at least close enough to them for the women to do their bloody work). But, alas, the violence is more than poor Jeyne can take. She screams and gives them away. Frenya stops to hold the guards off whilst Theon, Jeyne, and Holly escape. Too late, they realise that Frenya was the one who had the rope they were to use to get down from the wall. Holly falls to a crossbow. There is nothing for it, Theon and Jeyne jump from the wall into the snow…

The sub-plot of this chapter also sees the culmination of the tensions between the factions in Bolton’s army. The latest murder in the night is not some random soldier, but Little Walder – a mere boy – and the Freys are out for blood. Much is spilt. Lord Wyman Manderly has ‘three of his four chins’ cut, which seems to not kill him, although several others die. Finally, Roose Bolton calls them to order and dictate that the chief antagonists, Wyman and Hosteen Frey, be the first to gather their knights and direct their agression towards Stannis, who waits outside the walls.

This is a great chapter. Tensions running high on all sides and every moment taught. Nice to see Theon take something back of himself, although he is still a broken man. Still not entirely sure of who he is and what he should be, torn, as he ever was, between the Starks and the sea. He does not expect to survive this rescue attempt, and if he dies he does not know if he will go to the sea god or remain at Winterfell, but who ever he is, and wherever he will go when he dies, he knows it is better to die as Theon than to live as Reek, and that is some kind of a triumph.

It remains perplexing, however, that he still hasn’t told Abel or his women that he didn’t kill the Stark boys. He did kill two boys, and that’s pretty bad, but he’s getting a lot of enmity for being a kinslayer, and insisting that he’s not without explaining why just makes people dislike him more, for they take him to be rejecting kinship with the Starks. If he explained that he had actually saved the Stark boys by killing two different boys he might get at least some more sympathy. One supposes that it must be part of the psychology of self-punishment stemming from his torture, but it remains frustrating for the reader, and still feels like a bit of a fudge to keep the pressure on. The pressure is already on quite enough.

Chapter 52: Deanerys

Another chapter of culminations. The fighting pit has been re-opened, and in honour of Daenerys and Hizdahr’s wedding they are to be put to enthusiastic use. Daenerys dresses up in the constricting native dress and submits to attending the fighting she worked so hard to keep closed. Tyrion gets his moment in her presence, play fighting on pig-back with Penny, but if he thought he might get her attention then, he is sadly mistaken. In fact, he is lucky to leave with his life. Daenerys learns that the dwarf entertainers are to be surprised by lions at the end of their act, and angrily countermands the order. She has consented to free men and women fighting if they consent to do so, but not to people who have agreed to no such thing.

Meanwhile, someone’s plot has been afoot, and all fingers point to Hizdahr. He invited her to eat spiced and honeyed locusts, which he does not touch himself. Daenerys decides it to too hot for spicy food, and so does not eat them, but Strong Belwas helps himself to plenty… and soon starts to feel considerably worse for wear. Before this can fully come to the attention of those around him, however, an event happens that put all others in shadow: Drogon returns.

Attracted by the blood and fresh meat, Daenerys’s lost dragon swoops down on the arena and begins eating the combatants. Much screaming and panicking ensues. Fortunately, Daenerys was already in the process of removing some of her encumbering garments, disgusted by the blood-sports and finally rebelling against the oppressive customs of her conquered home. She leaps into the arena and runs to Drogon. For a moment it seems that he will eat her too, not recognising her for his ‘mother’. In the background, Ser Barristen Selmy has followed her and is vainly trying to pull Drogon’s attention to himself. But Daenerys is not some princess in need of a knight to save her from the dragon. She stands her ground and pulls a whip from the dead hand of a corpse. With it, she demonstrates her fearlessness and command. She imposes her will upon Drogon, and proves herself as blood of the dragon. Taming the beast, she mounts him, and flies away…

I gotta say, everything about this is a class-act. It’s a long, long time in coming, and I have to admit I feel like we could have done without some of the treading-water chapters that brought us here, but it was worth the wait. I have my problems with Daenerys as a character, or at least, with her depiction, but I can’t deny that this is glorious. When she’s good, she’s very very good. And I didn’t realise until I was writing about it how completely Martin is inverting the fairytale trope of what knights and princesses and dragons are supposed to do in each others presence. Daenerys doesn’t need rescuing from the dragon, she is a dragon, and Drogon is not her assailant or her captor, but her route to freedom. It is Meereen that has ensnared her these 52 chapters, and she has finally broken free.

Read Along with Rhube 25: A Dance with Dragons, Chapters 49 & 50

(Index to previous A Dance with Dragons posts here.)

Back on the waggon again! Sorry for the gap, chaps. Absence of Internet for three weeks in January plus Life equals a bit of a RAWR backlog, and once I got off this horse it was a little daunting to try and get back on again. But I’m not leaving this baby unfinished. I’m still flattered by the number of hits this gets, and I kind of feel I owe it to people not to get 48 chapters through and just stop. So: onwards and upwards!

Chapter 49: Jon

Jon sees Alys Karstark married to the Magnar of Thenn to save her from an unwelcome marriage claim and help cement peace. Jon keeps Cregan Karstark (Alys’s uncle, who would have taken her by force) prisoner in an ice cell under the wall. Jon offers t let him take the black if he yields his claim upon Alys’s holding, but he refuses. Tensions continue to run high between the Queen’s men and the men of the Night’s Watch, and between the old guard of the Night’s Watch and their new wildling brothers and sisters. Lady Melisandre says that she has seen the Queen’s fool in her fires, surrounded by skulls, but when she searches for Stannis all she sees is snow. The same as when she searches for Mance. When she searches for Jon, she sees daggers ever closer. Happy omens all. The chapter closes with the sound of a horn, heralding Val’s return, with what Jon hopes will be a host of friendly wildlings to swell their ranks.

The plot inches onward in this chapter. The wedding saves Alys and will presumably mean something somewhere down the line. Val’s return will be important, but we don’t actually see her safe and sound and backed by a host of friendly wildlings, yet. Mostly, we’re treading water, although there’s a lot going on in Lady M’s visions. Menacing skulls and daggers and an awful lot of snow. And, of course, Snow may have a double meaning – the snow Stannis and Mance are buried by in the weather-stalled conflict to the south, or ‘Snow’ – the last name of a certain significant viewpoint bastard. Is Melisandra seeing snow when she searches for R’hllor’s champion because it is Snow who should be her champion, not Stannis? Everything is much too vague to say much of anything, for now, but it’s interesting that the fool is being highlighted as sinister. Fools have a literary history of unusual significance.

Chapter 50: Daenerys

Daenerys is married, and uncomfortable with the concessions she has made to gain peace. Peace with slavers – slavers who trade directly outside her walls. There’s a recurrent and poignant refrain in Daenerys’s thought ‘If I look back, I am lost‘. It is both her strength and her weakness. She has come as far as she has by pushing ever onward and not showing uncertainty, but there is a weakness, too, in sticking to one’s decisions and never retreating. Staying in Meereen seems to have been an increasingly bad idea. Daenerys is as unyielding as Tyrion is as changeable as the wind. Both are survival tactics, and I become ever more and more curious of what will happen when they meet. Oh God I hope they meet!

Daario had reportedly become wild since the wedding, and likely to kill Quentyn for his betrayal. Daenerys sends him and several others to the Yunkai’i as hostages against the peace. She must also make peace with Brown Ben Plumm of the Second Sons and in talking to him she learns that he betrayed her because he saw her as defeated – because she had chained her dragons, instead of releasing them. She comes to understand, and learns a valuable lesson, but it would be wrong to say that she forgives. Uneasy in her peace, Daenerys plots to reach out to the other mercenary companies, so that she will be ready if betrayed.

She also takes Quentyn to see her dragons, and warns him – she is his only friend in these lands, and she is married. The sellswords would kill him for his betrayal, her husband is not likely to be at ease with another suitor so close at hand, and Quentyn, bless him, is just a boy with two knights and a bit of paper. He says he will stand his ground, of course.

OK, so maybe Quentyn is not made of the same hard iron as Daenerys. Bah. It’s an interesting chapter, but like the one before it, one senses that it is mostly setting things up for the future. The various tensions and potential alliances are outlined for us, and Quentyn meets some dragons, but it’s still a waiting game. No one has come out into the open, yet; it is all preparations and secrecy. It’s well described, but I was hoping for a bit more bang in the 50th chapter. I guess one shouldn’t expect writing by nice round numbers, though.

Tune in next time to see if something actually happens!