Review: Sense8, Episodes 1-4

Sense8 posterMy first review since I went radio silent!

I submitted my thesis on Friday 29th May and I’m slowly trying to figure out what it is to live in a world where I am not constantly guilty about not writing my thesis. It’s been a strange and emotional week. I have been looking for jobs and sleeping and playing Dragon Age II. And mostly not watching as many shows as I’d like because so many of them are over and the only currently airing ones I’m watching are Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (great) and Game of Thrones (problematic). I was badly in need of some new fodder and despairing of finding any. Sense8 came out of nowhere and… and it’s fantastic, to be honest.

Sense8 is the new Netflix Original released on 5th June. Having originally been blown away by Netflix Original output, I’ve since been pretty disappointed. The difference between Hemlock Grove seasons one and two was astounding. House of Cards was so patriarchal I’ve given up in frustration. And as for Daredevil, there’s so much sexist disappointment I wouldn’t even know where to begin. So I’ve come to look at Netflix Orignals rather warily. And then I saw a post on Tumblr giving trigger warnings for it (but saying it was great), and my interest was piqued. Tumblr has a not unjustified reputation for liberal criticism, and when the Tumblrites I follow say something is painful but good, I pay attention. Particularly when they say it’s painful but good in its depiction of trans folk, and the programme in question was also created by a trans woman.

So, with nothing to lose and not yet ready to go to bed at midnight last night, I decided to give it a go. At 4am, I forcibly tore myself away.

What is Sense8, then?

Sense8 is a twelve episode show about a bunch of people who discover that they are telepathically and empathically connected – they are ‘sensates’. They find themselves feeling what each other are feeling, seeing what each other are seeing, and being able to act on each other’s behalf. Find yourself in a fight? Wouldn’t it be hella convenient for your body to be taken over by a Korean martial arts expert? It would certainly help!

The eight sensates we follow were ‘created’ when a woman being pursued by an Evil Scientist shoots herself in the head. They each witness her death and then start seeing images of her as they go about their daily business, and then they start seeing and feeling what each other are seeing and feeling.

These people are refreshingly diverse: a Korean business woman who participates in underground fighting in her spare time, a white cop in Chicago, a lesbian trans woman former hacktavist, a gay Latino film actor, a coach driver in Nairobi trying to get together the money for his mum’s AIDs medication, an Icelandic DJ in London, a Hindu woman in Mumbai who is about to marry a man she doesn’t love, and a German safe cracker. Different backgrounds, different levels of wealth, different sexualities, and a blessedly even number of women and men.

How is it?

It’s good. I mean, it’s stay-up-to-4am good. And maybe it’s the emotional week I’ve had, but I was weeping from complex feelings at the end of the last episode I watched, and for me that’s always a good sign. The characters all have complex plot arcs and relationships, the episodes are well paced and gripping, and it’s shot in a visually engaging manner.

That said, the trigger warnings on the Tumblr post mentioned above are well given. The trans woman’s plot, in particular, is painful and may cut awfully close to the bone for some viewers. Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) is a woman in a healthy, loving relationship with a cis woman named Amanita (Freema Agyeman (!<3)), but her family are not so awesome. When she faints in the middle of a Pride march she wakes up in a hospital with her family, who misgender her, prevent her partner from seeing her, tell her she needs brain surgery, and sign papers that (somehow) mean she is unable to leave the hospital – her door is locked.

As a non-binary person I don’t feel equipped to speak with authority as to whether this is well handled, but it seemed so to me. It’s certainly wonderful to see a trans character who was both created by a trans woman (Lana Wachowski) and played by a trans actor. I have no sense that the character herself is portrayed with anything but sympathy. Nevertheless, of the few trans characters that exist in TV and film, they are so often shown only through their pain – its a trope familiar across LGBT protrayals in film, what has been described as ‘dead gays for the straight gaze’ or ‘queers die for the straight eye‘ (although I hasten to add that we are not talking about literal death in this case, although identity death certainly looms as a possibility). I know some of my trans friends have lamented the fact that there are so few portrayals of trans people that are not difficult and painful to watch.

Whilst we’re here, I’d just like to add that it’s a pleasure to see the awesome Martha Jones Freema Agyeman on screen again, and whilst her American accent is somewhat wobbly, her portrayal of Amanita as Nomi’s compassionate, vibrant, sex positive partner is wonderful. Her presence on screen is a balm in difficult scenes.

I’m a little less comfortable about some of the scenes given to Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) who winds up in an awkward three-way relationship with his boyfriend and Daniela Velasquez (Eréndira Ibarra) the actress who discovers Lito’s secret relationship and imposes herself as an unasked for live-in ‘beard‘. Miguel Ángel Silvestre and Alfonso Herrera are accomplished and subtle actors who play the motions of a couple living in a difficult, closeted situation well, but the comic relief offered by Daniela sits uneasily with their more serious portrayal. Overall, it just doesn’t work for me.

I also wonder about racial and national stereotyping. Sun Bak (Bae Doona) is engaging and convincing as the secretly badass Korean woman who can fuck you up but bows meekly to sexist treatment in the day. I recall all too well the questions raised by my Asian friends about the protrayal of Mako Mori in Pacific Rim. Ami Angelwings was particularly articulate on the issue of white women saying how wonderful Mako was whilst East Asian women had issues with the portrayal that were overlooked. There’s a culture of white feminists drowning out voices whenever there’s a meek feminine woman who is also shows strength, on the basis that there are so few of such characters, despite the fact that there are (to my eyes) more portrayals of this than any other type of female character. And I find it worrying that Mako Mori springs immediately to mind when I see Sun Bak. I wonder how much the charactisation of the extreme sexism against which Sun Bak must work reflects racist assumptions about South Korea. The truth is, as a white British woman, I simply don’t know, but if I’m noting a pattern in how East Asian women are being represented in American shows, there is a chance we are being presented with a type, and not a character.

Similarly, the poverty stricken black people beset by crime and AIDs in Capheus’s (Al Ameen) plotline raise flags. As does the fact that the Indian woman is facing the prospect of a marriage supported by her family and friends that she does not really want. Do people like this exist? Perhaps – I’m wary of making any judgements as to the truth of that as a British white woman – but I think it’s worth asking whether there weren’t other characters and plotlines we could have had for a woman in India or a man in Nairobi, ones that didn’t fit so very neatly into Euro-American stereotypes of what life is like in those places.

From a less significant aspect, we also see stereotyping of white characters based off their nationality. There’s an Australian girl (not a main character) who is very blunt spoken, and everytime she makes a faux pas either she or her boyfriend says it’s because she’s Australian. I’ve known a lot of Australians in my time, but none who acted like that. They… were as varied as other people? And then there’s the Icelandic DJ. She’s has whiffs of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and her general nightclub/alternative music aesthetic makes me think of Björk. Part of me wonders if a musical alternative girl is the only kind of woman they could imagine coming from Iceland.

I also have questions about the use of the suicide of Angelica Turing (Daryl Hannah) as the inciting incident. Especially as it is at the urging of one man in order to escape another and to ‘give birth’ to the sensates. Whilst this is not a classic case of ‘fridging‘ a woman in order to advance a man’s plot – as she advances the plots of several woman, too – it is using the death of a woman as a plot device, it is to fulfil the designs of a man, it is also to escape man-on-woman violence, it substantiates a sense of men as patriarchal figures, and the ‘giving birth’ metaphor gives it an unnecessary veneer of reporductive violence as well.

All of which is not to undermine the fact that these are still engaging and rounded characters or that I find myself incredibly moved by their stories. Rather, it is to acknowledge that these stories are not perfect. In comparison to everything else I am watching right now the show is still infinitely more diverse, it does provide a range of female characters such that I don’t feel any of them particularly stands as representing what it is to be a woman, it also provides a racially diverse cast (including the beautiful Naveen Andrews as Jonas <3), as well as an array of LGBT characters. One could wish for some disability diversity too, but overall, it’s a refreshing improvement.

And as for the science fiction… well, it’s more fantasy than science fiction, but that’s OK. The light-touch on scientific explanations offered so far is better than the Heroes route of talking absolute rubbish about evolution in order to justify the plot. I would like to see more consideration given to the dodginess of just taking over someone else’s body, but it’s early days, yet. Bodily autonomy is definitely a theme. I feel for these people. I engage with these people. I see both male and female characters I don’t often get to see on screen, and that means something to me. And they have superpowers. And those superpowers are both making them awesome and giving them emotional problems. Which is right up my alley, basically.

If you’re in need of some quality drama and starved of shows that don’t give centre stage to straight white cis men, Sense8 is a really wonderful choice, and I commend it to you.

Review: Sleepy Hollow, Pilot Episode

Sleepy Hollow promo image

Look at these sexy bastards

Finally, something new in the visual medium to sink my teeth into. I think I’m going to enjoy this.

Sleepy Hollow is a new TV series from Fox, based (loosely, I assume) on the short story ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow‘, by Washington Irvin, and not to be confused with the film of the same name.

In this latest iteration, Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is a British man who was serving as a spy for George Washington during the American Revolutionary War when he beheads a man on the battlefield. Having been wounded himself, he loses consciousness… and wakes up alone in a cave in the present day. At the same time, Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) and her partner, the Kurgan, August Corbin (Clancy Brown), are investigating a minor disturbance when Abbie discovers a decapitated body, and Corbin, alas, loses his head. Abbie witnesses the headless horseman – the same man Ichabod beheaded – fleeing the scene.

When Ichabod is found wandering the streets, obviously confused by being transplanted to the 21st century, he becomes a suspect. Something he doesn’t help himself with when he is able to provide further information about the murderer. Whilst his tale is obviously wild and taken as evidence of insanity, Abbie is intrigued by the fact that it matches the more unbelievable elements of her own story, such as the murderer’s lack of a head, which she failed to reveal to her colleagues. Despite being told to steer clear of the case, Abbie continues to investigate, with Ichabod’s help, and things continue to get stranger.

How was it?

I enjoyed this very much. A great cast doing an excellent job in what could easily have been a somewhat painful fish-out-of-water story. Tim Mison being easy on the eyes doesn’t hurt, but he also flawlessly portrays an earnestness and confidence in Ichabod that carefully skirts the potential chasm of cringe/embarrassment humour. Nicole Beharie is also great, as Abbie Mills – the intelligent and insightful cop who isn’t afraid to break rules on her hunch – and if you’ve been reading me for a while you’ll know how refreshing I find it to have a female actor in a role like this. I’m also loving the plentiful people of colour in prominent roles. Nicole, as co-protag, but also John Cho, as another cop, and Orlando Jones, as Captain Irving.

There are some silly elements. Pilot episodes tend to be prone to info-dumping, and Abbie’s opening up to Ichabod about a plot-relevant moment in her childhood seemed particularly unlikely. We get time-travel/ressurection, a headless horseman, apocalyptic portents, and witchcraft all in the first episode, an whilst I am pro those kinds of things, it’s a lot to put on the other plate of the suspension of disbelief scales. Overall, given the fantastic hurdles of its premise, I think it bears up rather well.

This is fun, reasonably well-written, well-acted, and provides plentiful eye-candy (including dishevelled-18th century-military-uniform eye-candy) – what’s not to like! Certainly a welcome new input to those of us waiting for Game of Thrones our old familiars to start up again.

Review: Hemlock Grove, Season One

I have now watched all of Hemlock Grove. That’s right. All of it. Since Friday. I would therefore like to revise my original tentative assessment and say this: Hemlock Grove is basically the best and most original thing you haven’t watched yet.

Unless you have, in which case: O_O amirite?

Brief iteration of the premise

I couldn’t possibly summarise the plot, and if I tried I would have to spoil far too much. This thing is one hell of a mystery and you have to go on that journey by yourself.

The premise is this: Hemlock Grove is a small town with a lot of secrets. The rich and powerful Godfreys have secrets. The scientist Johann Pryce (Joel de la Fuente) has secrets. The Romani family who have just returned to the town have secrets. Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron) is suspected of being a werewolf. Peter thinks Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård) is an upir (vampire), but also that Roman doesn’t know it. Shelley Godfrey (Nicole Boivin and Michael Andreae) is very tall for a girl, bandages her hands, glows when her emotions are disturbed, is bald, and has one eye much larger than the other. Olivia Godfrey (Famke Janseen) is mysterious, dangerous, beautiful, and bored. And Johann Pryce bolsters the wealth of the Godfreys with his research in what are rumoured to be unnatural ways.

When young girls start being killed in what looks like animal attacks (but for which no animal tracks are found) accusations fly. Peter and Roman, in particular, are suspects, and despite the enmity of their families they form a strong but awkward friendship, trying to find and stop the real killer.

Why praise it so strongly?

A foray into a new medium is an opportunity for experimentation, and Hemlock Grove uses its unusual freedom from the restrictions of traditional media outlets to its full extent. It defies pigeonholing by genre. Outofmyplanet on Twitter commented to me: ‘It’s interesting. I feel like I’m just not familiar with the storytelling style, but it’s American so I should be?‘ and I think that’s spot on. This is a melding of writing styles. The surface level American teen werewolf/vampire drama is belied by the complex plotting and sophisticated characterisation. The casual blending of the supernatural and surreal with the everyday feints towards European and Latin American magical realism. The bleak, gritty approach, drawing out the relationship between economic and social issues is reminiscent British cinema in general, and recent British science fiction, fantasy, and horror in particular (Misfits, The Fades, the original Being Human). It doesn’t challenge so much as defy expectation, and yet somehow artlessly manages to take the viewer with it.

In my review of the pilot the dominant feeling I came away with was that I was intrigued. I didn’t really know what was going on, what sort of program this was going to be, but I wanted to find out. That feeling didn’t go away. It kept me guessing as to where it was going, both dramatically, stylistically, and thematically right through the end of the very last episode. And yet every episode you feel like you’ve come to understand a lot more of what’s going on. That’s quite a feat.

You may also recall that I had some reservations about the presentation of women. I won’t go so far as to say that the representation is perfect. A number of characters voice sexist opinions and it is somewhat ambiguous as to whether the voiced thoughts are intended to represent truth. What is true is that we have a vibrant range of female characters, each of whom has a rich and complex psychology.

Olivia Godfrey presents as a femme fatale, and yet she is not as cold and heartless as she seems. Her love for her children, although often cloaked by an air of indifference, even cruelty, emerges as a core element of her character in moments of crisis.

Shelley Godfrey’s hulking form is belied by her sweet disposition. Despite crippling shyness and an inability to talk in more than grunts, she proves herself articulate and even confident in her views when conversing via email with her uncle, Norman Godfrey (Dougray Scott). She also avoids saccharine sweetness, displaying forgivable moments of frustration and selfishness when she fears her few vital emotional supports are threatened.

Lethe Godfrey (Penelope Mitchell) also verges on the saccharine, yet she is never meek. She’s fully capable of standing up to Roman’s suffocating affection and jealousy, and does not calmly submit to the men in her life treating her as a precious thing to be protected.

Christina Wendall (Freya Tingley), a teenage girl who thinks of herself as a novelist and a bit of an outsider, has a complex and interesting relationship with her friends and surrogate sisters, Alyssa (Emilia McCarthy) and Alexa Sworn (Eliana Jones). These twin girls present on the surface as stereotypically bitchy, ultra-feminine girls. Yet, despite their often cutting remarks, their affection – their love and concern – for Christina slowly becomes more evident. They’re just young girls doing what society tells young girls to do, the show seems to say, they aren’t to blame for it, they’ll probably grow out of their ‘mean girl’ aspects in time. They’re also interesting as fraternal twins whose behaviour seems at first so similar that you might take them for identical, yet they are allowed, in quiet moments, to show subtly different personalities.

Clementine Chasseur (Kandyse McClure) provides an important contrast to an otherwise very femme cast. People react against ‘strong female character’ stereotypes, but I still feel like the majority of television is dominated by a feminine presentation that women like me feel alienated by. I would not call Chasseur a stereotype in any case. Chasseur is an agent of the mysterious Order of the Dragon, who are devoted to finding and destroying werewolves, vampires, and other abominations. Despite Kandyse McClure’s slender build, it’s clear that Chasseur has the muscles to back up her presentation of strength, and her character is a fascinating mix of determination and doubt. Chasseur is mentally and physically formidable, yet plagued by alcoholism, and haunted by the memory of the first werewolf she killed: a pregnant woman whose medallion of St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, she wears around her neck.

Destiny Rumancek (Tiio Horn) is more problematic, as the town sex-worker and fortune-teller. She’s comfortable in her sexuality, and that’s good, but a theme of magical curing sex makes me uneasy. I’m also concerned for her representation of Romani women as promiscuous and as fortune tellers, as well as in her penchant for conning her customers. The only other Romani woman we really have to compare her with is Peter’s mother, Lynda Rumancek. Lynda’s sympathetic enough, but her only source of income seems to be in selling the drugs the late Nicolae Rumancek left in his trailer to Olivia Godfrey at an inflated price. Beyond that there’s not much to say about Lynda except that she’s a good mother. In a cast as large as Hemlock Grove’s it’s a lot to ask for every character to be complex and involved, and as someone who knows relatively little of Romani people and culture it’s difficult to judge, the Rumancek’s are certainly more sympathetic than the Godfreys, overall. There is some attempt to deal with prejudice against Romani people, and the persecution of Peter by the townsfolk is presented as unjust. Nevertheless I feel it important to highlight that some aspects of their presentation might be viewed as problematic.

It should also be noted that there is some good representation of race. Clementine and Michael Chasseur (Demore Barnes) are both played by people of colour and are great characters that I felt were well presented. Johann Pryce in some respects does reflect a stereotype of intelligent asian people with poor social skills; however, his strikingly Germanic name suggests that the role was cast without any particular race in mind, and Pryce as a character is revealed to be much more complex and interesting than he first appears – as could be said for virtually all the characters. Ashley Valentine (Emily Piggford) is also Asian, and she didn’t seem to me to match any racial stereotype.

In general, the acting is excellent. I can’t think of a single character, no matter how minor, who turns in a duff performance. Particular praise should be reserved for Bill Skarsgård whose portrayal of Roman Godfrey is strikingly nuanced. Roman is probably the most complex and interesting of any of the characters – a daunting presentation for any actor, especially one so young (gah – 23 is young to me now! Of course, he’s playing an even younger man). To detail the range required for this role would be to spoil too much of the plot, but if this man doesn’t get an Emmy he’ll have been robbed.

I can’t close this review without mentioning one of the more controversial aspects of the show, although it is difficult to tackle without touching on spoilers. I shall try to be circumspect, but if you really don’t want to be spoiled you might need to skip to the next paragraph. The matter I refer to concerns an incidence (two actually) of a character presented as largely sympathetic who commits rape. I should say that the rape that occurs onscreen is in no way presented as sympathetic. What makes the incident challenging is that the character who commits the rape goes on to, in other ways, present as broadly sympathetic. This, perhaps, was the only thing I had reservations about until the very last episode. My feeling is that this is intended to be uncomfortable. The writer intends for us to be confronted by the fact that our sympathies can still be engaged by a character who, as a rounded human being, has committed terrible things in a moment of emotional disturbance. I did not feel that the show in any way excused his action. Rather, it sought to confront us with the way our own moral compasses might be forced into muddy confusion. I do not think this is a bad handling of the subject matter; however, people who find this subject triggering may wish to avoid the show for that reason.

Challenging, original, provocative, well-written, well-acted, and intriguing. This show is giving Game of Thrones a run for its money, and then some. That’s how much I think you should watch it. I don’t star my reviews, but if I did, this one would get five.

Review: Rome Burning, by Sophia McDougall

Title: Rome Burning
Author: Sophia McDougall
Series/Stand alone: Volume Two of the Romanitas Trilogy
Genre: Alternate History/Fantasy
First Published: 2007
Edition Reviewed: Orion Books/Gollancz (2008)
Hb/Pb/ebook: Paperback
Price: Available from Amazon Market Place from £0.01 (+P&P) at time of posting.

Sophia McDougall is my find of the year. I can’t say that I have gotten as much out of any other books, with the possible exception of China Miéville’s Kraken, which is but one book, whilst Romanitas is a trilogy. After finishing the first I could barely wait the length of time it took to order the second. It was only by strength of will that I forced myself to hold out for the paperback, which I dearly desired for both ergonomic and practical reasons – these are fantasy books where there is real value in having a map you can actually read, and the Kindle version was sadly lacking on this front.

I’m glad I held out. This is a rich and complex book that spans the politics of a world both like and unlike our own. Being able to flip to the front to check the place names and countries in this alternate history was a real advantage. Which is not to say that the book could not be read and enjoyed without reference to the map – to say otherwise would be a disservice, and I certainly enjoyed the first book in electronic format despite this minor issue – it’s more that I feel it speaks interestingly to the role that the map-at-the-front plays in fantasy books. I have friends who love them and friends who rarely look at them. I sit somewhere in between. I don’t think all fantasy books need one. I shouldn’t be surprised if there is an occasional truth to the thought that fantasy authors and publishers tend to include them more because Tolkein ‘started with a map’ than anything else. Certainly, one of my very favourite fantasy (and other genres) serieses, The Dark Tower, positively benefits from the lack of one. Mid World is a place that has grown with the telling of its story – both within the text and without. In the very first volume Roland notes that the distances on maps are no longer accurate – the world has moved on. By contrast, my other favourite fantasy series, Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy (and related novels) is seated in a political world where geographical location matters, grounding alliances and peoples – my understanding of the Six Dutchies and its neighbours would have been poorer without the map.

Books are interesting and complex physical objects. We live in a time of evolution for story-telling. If we think of ebooks as freeing the pure story from it’s awkward, limited, physical trapping, we are missing part of both what people value in books and the opportunity for creativity and development. Publishers who think of the shift to ebooks as a simple transcribing of text from one medium to another have missed that wonderous variety that technological evolution has introduced to our lives. There are opportunities, here, and the best creativity has often drawn on the past for inspiration. I’m not saying that the ebook should try to ape its physical cousin, but it is a mistake to miss what people have loved about that medium for centuries and not take this moment to pause on the threshold and ask what multiplicities of function and art the ebook can offer.

My books are art objects. The best of them have drawn me in by their covers. I have bought multiple editions of the same book because of the cover art. It decorates my rooms – says something about me, as well as the book. I know some people who have rebought a book so that they can have a matching collection. I have not done this, but I have bought ‘lending out’ copies of the same edition when the original, cherished object became to fragile, and I felt that a friend would miss out on some of the full experience I had enjoyed if they read a different edition. I haven’t done this very often, but I have done it, and I’ve talked to many people who have done the same, or similar. I have yet to see an ebook cover that wasn’t actively ugly, usually because the image, if the publisher bothered to include it, is a low resolution black and white copy of artwork intended for a different, coloured medium. The same attitude has been given to the map-at-the-front, and it suffers similarly. The text is a part of the image, and thus unscalable and mostly illegible.

I envisage that ebooks will adapt and change in part with the technology. E-ink will become more widely available in colour, combinable with touch-screens and generally more flexibility. But I also note that cost doesn’t seem to be coming down much for these items. People who see libraries going digital are forgetting about those that cannot afford ereaders, or even computers. There is scope for more creativity at the limited end of the spectrum, as well – those who wait for IT creatives to tell them what they can now do with ebooks will soon find that their more imaginative competitors have left them behind.

But I digress. On to the review!


Rome Burning picks up a few years down the line from the events of Romanitas. Marcus is heir to Rome, he and Una are still together, although worried about how his relations regard their relationship, and whether they will ever be allowed to marry. It’s summer and swelteringly hot. In the baking heat fires are common – worryingly so, perhaps even more so than the heat justifies.

Drusus, Marcus’s cousin and rival for the throne, has been avoiding Rome since the events of the previous book. Unknown to everyone but us [Spoilers for book one ahoy! Although if you haven’t read that one yet, what are you doing reading this review? Get started on Romanitas, STAT!] Drusus is the real mastermind behind the deaths of Marcus’s parents, Varius’s wife, Gamella, the attempt on Marcus’s own life, and the attempted cover-up. Una discovered the guilt of the emperor’s mistress, Tulliola, via telepathy, but although she poisoned the sweets that were meant for Marcus and killed Gamella, the plan was Drusus’s. To prevent her revealing this secret, Drusus kills her, and portrays it as suicide.

Relations between Nionia (aka Japan) and Rome are tense. A conflict breaks out on the Terra Novan border and it is unclear who started it. During attempts to resolve the dispute, the emperor suffers a stroke. Marcus is sworn in as regent, and his and Una’s lives change. As regent, he cannot fulfill his promise to free all slaves, but he does free all the palace slaves, offering them positions as servants. Convinced that peace with Nionia can be achieved, he arranges talks with the Nionians on the neutral ground of Sina (China). Una, who has never trusted Drusus, uses her telepathy to discover his guilt. He tries to kill her to prevent the truth coming out, but she escapes and he is thrown in jail.

But all is not well. General Salvius, who commands Rome’s forces, mistrusts Marcus and Una. He does not believe peace with Nionia can be achieved and he loses respect for Marcus in his failure to respond with force. Drusus convinces Salvius that Una and her brother Sulien are part of a Nionian plot to mislead Marcus, and Salvius frees Drusus from jail, persuading Emperor Faustus, who is still weak and confused from his stroke, that Una and her brother are traitors, along with Varius, whom Marcus has persuaded to act as his advisor.

Meanwhile, some other faction has been acting covertly from within Rome itself. Tensions with Nionia increased after the events in Terra Nova, and worsen when a weapons factory explodes near Rome. Varius and Sulien had been visiting it at the time. Sulien has been working with Varius in a clinic set up to help sick and injured slaves, using his healing skill. The factory had had a very poor safety record, and Varius had been trying to persuade the manager that it was in his own interest to treat his slaves better. Varius and Sulien had been caught in the explosion and barely survive with their lives. Everyone suspects Nionia, but something doesn’t add up. Then again, if Nionia isn’t to blame, who else could it be? Drusus? If so, why? Was he trying to kill Sulien? If so, who was it who tried to kidnap Sulien shortly before the explosion?

Was it awesome?

Very much so. The plots and twists are intricate and gripping, and the characters build on what was established in the first volume to develop real depth. Sulien forms a particularly interesting case. His character in Romanitas was less fully developed than Una’s. He seemed oddly resilient to the events that surround him. He is described as having a conveniently malleable memory. When bad things happen to him, he just forgets them – he moves on, he lives in the present. I wouldn’t say it was precisely implausible, but it was at least peculiar. I sometimes wondered if his unusual character might be linked to his healing ability – his mind subconsciously healing itself by removing the troubling elements.

In Rome Burning, Sulien’s world view is repeatedly challenged. Even his even-tempered nature cannot withstand witnessing the murder of thousands of slaves at the factory. One senses that something has shifted in him forever – he is no longer sure that he wants to take everything in good grace. It is a peculiar and interesting character study in loss of innocence. Sulien had endured being wrongly accused of rape, sentencing to crucifixion, being on the run with Una and Marcus – all the events of the previous book – with barely a chink in his good humour. The only exception was his realisation that he himself would be prepared to kill to save his sister; a realisation that he has tried not to think about since. Sulien is not entirely broken by his experiences in Rome Burning, but something has changed.

He makes for an interesting comparison to Varius, who was broken by his experiences in the first book. He was tortured and changed by having given in to torture – he has betrayed Marcus, and although Marcus has forgiven him, he cannot forgive himself, and he has not stopped grieving for his wife. I was particularly moved by the description of his failed attempt at a new romance. He develops a relationship with a neighbour, but cannot understand what she sees in him. His self-respect is so low that he concludes she can only be interested in some romantic idea of him as a broken man. It’s a nice episode of knowing reflection. I had already begun to work on my Varius-crush, and there is something uncomfortable in being confronted with the reality of a romantic ideal. I love a tortured hero, but I must confess that I’m attracted to more stable men in real life. No one wants to be loved for the sake of an idealised version of themselves. That’s not love, and it’s only ‘romantic’ in its crudest sense. We often see women idealised out of true character-hood in books and films. It’s something I’ve found frustrating in my own life. I cannot stand to be pedestalised for the sake of romance, but there is an entrenched cultural ideal that this is how love should work. It’s good both to see the tables turned on a male character in this way, and also to have one’s own habits challenged. Women can objectify men just as men objectify women; women should recognise this. Equally, it’s good to have a character men can identify with, and thus experience frustration on beahlf of, in the face of such treatment (even if it remains unknown whether his perception of the relationship is a fair assessment).

Una and Marcus also grow as characters, confronted with the realities of a world where Marcus is expected to assume the responsibilities of power and restrictions that go with it. Una, the forceful character from the previous novel, finds herself oddly displaced in the world of power, to which she is only permitted as Marcus’s mistress. She has talents that are applicable in the political world – as she demonstrates when she accompanies him to Sina – but she is only there because of her relationship to a man. This limits her and makes her uncomfortable. Marcus, on the other hand, is growing into his power. He looks like he just might make a good ruler. He is wise and sensitive, and still just idealistic enough… yet he is also confronted by a ruthlessness within himself that, although it is necessary – good even – in a ruler, changes him in ways that he himself does not entirely like. Another kind of loss of innocence. Another example of someone learning something about themselves by being confronted by what they will do.

There is a question here about the nature of personal identity and self-knowledge – about how we know about ourselves, and what we can know. I don’t think it is as simple as saying that we only really know ourselves by witnessing what we do, however. Rather, we are both formed by our experiences and by what we decide to do. Or perhaps I am projecting my own philosophy onto these characters. The book doesn’t really offer any answers, on this front, but it prompts interesting questions.

I cannot complete a review of this book without touching the interesting examples of women in power it explores. Three of the most powerful and important movers in this political drama are women, and only one of them is in a position of power herself. Enigmatic and captivating, the Empress of Sina is heard of before she is seen, as Una wonders to herself how she did it – how this woman took such power to herself having been merely the emperor’s mistress. It’s an interesting mirror on Una herself. The cultural values are different, but the similarities striking. Una is what we would call Marcus’s girlfriend, but because he is in a position of power, and she had previously been a slave, Roman law says she can never be his wife. Of course, Marcus wants to change that law, when he is emperor, but it isn’t clear that his dreams will truly be within his power to realise. Moreover, it is heavily implied that Una was once a prostitute, and there is a theme of the connection between women and sex and power that hangs tantalisingly in the air. McDougall wisely does not draw any straight lines. Both the Empress and Una are in positions of power because of their relations to powerful men, but Una’s past experience of prostitution represents an underminding of her power and strength. It is an element of her past she cannot even think about, although, unlike Sulien, she does not seem to have been successful in simply wiping the events from her memory. They linger on. If sex is an avenue to power, it is a fragile one, as it is clearly also an avenue to violation and destruction.

To me, what this implies, is more a challenge to the commonly drawn line between women and sex and power. Neither Una nor the Empress are ever really seen to use sexuality to get what they want. Una’s flowering as a political entity in Sina is utterly independent of Marcus. In fact, she could not be more forcefully separate from him when she takes control of events and forges a sort of women’s alliance with Noriko, the Nionian princess, and the Empress Jun Shen. She is held by the Nionians as a hostage, and he is trapped on a train in the middle of nowhere. Similarly, however she originally came to the emperor’s attention, Jun Shen is unquestionably the power in Sina in her own right. We never even see the emporer.

Noriko stands as an interesting counterpoint, both similar and different to the other two women. Unlike them, she was born into her position, and yet she seems to have taken very little power to herself before this point. Her presence in Sina is as a mere playing piece – the Nionians hope they can cement peace with a marriage. Noriko is initially shocked when she realises Una’s history, and that she is not noble born at all, and had once been a slave… until she recollects that Jun Shen was not nobley born either, and, in fact, the Empress and the ex-slave have more in common with each other than they do with the princess. Yet, Noriko is not entirely inert before being exposed to these other strong ladies. Her first meeting with the empress is when she is caught spying on Marcus, trying to find out who this man is that she may be asked to marry. Even as the empress chastises her, there is a moment of identification when she offers backhanded advice to Noriko: “‘Your disguise is pitiful, it does nothing but tell the world you have something to hide… Better to find a way of doing your work in your own person. That… is what I would have done.'” Even though the empress is contemptuous of the manner in which Noriko acts, she confesses that she would have acted similarly to obtain more information were she in Noriko’s position, and there is a sort of friendliness in her correction – it indicates that she wants Noriko to take charge of her own life, to use her position as an asset, rather than a constraint.

Again we see a familiar trope of the relationship between women and power: that power is something that never truly belongs to women, that it merely passes transitively through us as conduits for males who wish to cement relations. There is a large and fascinating literature on ‘The Traffic in Women’ – the value of marriage in gift-culture, and the wide-ranging consequences of such actions and attitudes. Noriko is partaking in the traditional exchange in a way that Jun Shen and Una have not. Jun Shen is a successful transgressor of that boundary – she has taken power out of the system of male exchange. Rather than one man confirming an alliance with another by offering him one of his women, Jun Shen assumed all of the most powerful man in Sina’s power for herself. An incredible feat. Una started from a position of no power at all – literally the property of men, as well as figuratively. It was her forceful personality in seizing control of Marcus’s life in order to protect him that won her his heart. She transitioned from one man’s possession to take from others first one man (her brother) and then another, who happened to not only be a free man himself, but heir to the throne. But she did so by running away from the world of rules. Marcus took power back for himself in returning to Rome, and in this novel they are learning that power is a network of agreements between people, and the established rules are the main way that you access that power. Until Una forms a tentative network of her own with Noriko and Jun Shen she has no access to the power that Marcus has. She is left adrift in a world where the cables of power only allow female connections as a way of joining men to each other.

You only break into such a system by breaking the system apart and putting it back together in a new form. Which, of course, is exactly what Marcus wants to do, but hanging over this novel is the question of what Una, Sulien, Varius – any of them – can do if anything happens to Marcus. In a sense, he has to become entirely isolated in order for others to start taking power on their own. And that’s exactly what happens.

In this sense, the removal from Rome to Sina is interesting in another way. There is no single network of power, here. There are three large, powerful, ancient, entrenched cultural nexuses coming together. Everything that happens in Sina must be performed by careful, even tortured, forging of new behaviours, rituals, alliances. This is particularly obvious in the ceremonial ritual Varius is forced to devise to allow all three monarchs (or their representatives) to meet with no party placed above any other. A difficult task where each monarchy claims to be descended from a god. The result is painfully awkward for all involved, but it is achieved. The old traditions are bent to new ends, and this is symbolic of the incredible possibilities that open up when cultures meet and engage in exchange. It is in part being away from the strictures of court life that allows Noriko to take a more active part than she ever has before. But this simply highlights that the mechanics of power are not simply about gender – they are about race and culture and religion, and a multiplicity of other things. It is difficult to adapt to other ways of thinking and behaving, but the more we are open to other people and cultures, the more possibilities open up before us.

This is a rich and complex book with a relentless pace that manages not to sacrifice character for tension. It’s a book to eat up your life and make you neglect more important things. The only note that struck a little false, for me, was the ending. Without wanting to give away the details, I can’t comment on this without noting that it is a cliffhanger, and one that felt slightly forced, to me. I appreciate the temptation, in trilogies, to use the second book to do something daring and leave the reader wanting more. The Empire Strikes Back is a famous example from film, and famously popular. But even though Han Solo is trapped in carbonite and many questions remain unanswered, there is still a kind of resolution, and I think you need that, unless you’re saying something beyond ‘buy the next book, now’. Thinking of cliffhangers in books, I’m actually coming up with nothing, so take another example from film: The Italian Job – this works because even though it’s frustrating, the anti-narrative ending fits with the quirky, anti-establishment tone of the movie. The film is giving us a slip in the same way that the characters have led the police a merry chase. I don’t really find anything in Rome Burning that justifies the cliffhanger. The book could have ended comfortably just short of this moment with plenty of questions left to want you to get to the next book, but without the slightly ragged feeling of just having… stopped.

Perhaps it’s a matter of taste, but it simply didn’t work, for me. As complaints go, this should not be considered as too significant, however. I was going to buy the next book anyway – I hadn’t wanted the story to stop – and I would still recommend it to others. You can tell I found a lot to sink my teeth into just from the length of this review, and I haven’t even touched on some of the major plot points, in an effort to avoid spoilers.

Go, read it. It is worth your time.

Review: Kraken, by China Miéville

Cover Art: Kraken by China MiévilleTitle: Kraken
Author: China Miéville
Series/Stand alone: Stand alone
Genre: Fantasy/Contemporary
First Published: 2010
Edition Reviewed: Del Rey (2011)
Hb/Pb: Trade Paperback


Billy is a curator at the Natural History Museum. His main work is in preserving specimens, and his biggest triumph was the preservation of Architeuthis dux, the giant squid. But one day, as he is giving a tour of the museum – one which always ends in a viewing of the squid – when he opens the door to the big finale… the squid is gone.

Naturally the police are called in, but it’s all a bit of a mystery. There’s simply no way that squid could have been moved without the (conspicuously absent) intervention of cranes and other noticeable paraphernalia. A special branch of the police are called in, the FSRC. They caution everyone present in the museum not to talk about what has happened, but Billy can’t resist. There’s no way such an event could be kept secret anyway, he reasons, so he tells his best friend, Leon, and Leon’s girlfriend, Marginalia. But, you see, he wasn’t supposed to be able to talk. Office Collingswood of the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime unit had ‘knacked’ everyone who had knowledge of the squid’s disappearance so that they couldn’t talk about it. In breaking that knack, Billy has called attention to himself. He is visited by the FSRC again, and they admonish him once more not to talk.

More and more curious, and beginning to understand that something other than natural is going on, Billy decides to investigate the odd sounds he’s always heard around the museum that nobody else ever seems to. In following the noises, he is led to discover something truly shocking: a man sealed into a jar of preservative. A man who had only recently gone missing, but who seems to have been enjarred for decades… in a jar whose neck he could not possibly have fit into. His discovery makes Billy officially a person of interest, and not just to the police, who make efforts to mystically seal his flat from entrance by unwanted individuals. A more substantial ‘knack’ is laid upon Billy not to talk, and the police suggest they can put more substantial protections on him if he comes to work for them.

Billy’s in shock. He doesn’t know what he’s gotten into, but the world’s different today than it was yesterday, and he just saw a man who had been murdered and pickled. He calls Leon, and Leon comes round. Despite the more powerful knack, Billy manages to talk, telling Leon everything, just as two terrifying newcomers find a way around the mystical protections on Billy’s flat: Goss and Subby. Goss inhales Leon before Billy’s eyes, and abducts the stunned curator, taking him to see the fearsome Tattoo – a crime boss whose enemy, Grisamentum, had turned into ink and tattooed onto the back of a hapless man. The Tattoo, like everyone else in London underworld, wants to know what has happened to the Kraken – a powerful symbolic item – and he thinks Billy knows. Billy, the man who preserved the Architeuthis, who first discovered it missing, who found the pickled man. But Billy knows nothing. He only escapes from the Tattoo’s clutches with the aid of some power within him he didn’t know he had and Dane, a cultist who worships the Kraken as a god, and who has been tracking Billy just like everyone else.

Billy is thrust into a mysterious and terrifying world of magic and crime, a world where religions and cults are more various than we in the ordinary world could ever imagine, a world where belief is power, a world where someone has stolen a god, and the precognitive Londonmancers have suddenly started predicting an apocalypse unlike any other – unlike the many and varied apocalypses of the many religions of London. An apocalypse where time itself is unwritten, and there will be no new world to follow. Billy and Dane are in a race against time, and against the police, the Tattoo, Dane’s own church, and possibly even the supposedly dead Grisamentum, to find out who took the Kraken and how to stop the end of the world.

How was it?

Rather awesome, is how it was. This book has a lot of elements aligned to recommend itself to a number of people of my acquaintance: giant squid, not-Cthulhu cultists, supernatual police-procedural, gangsters, and the familiar mix of intensely imaginative oddities we expect from China Miéville. And it delivered on all these fronts, surprisingly well.

I say ‘surprisingly well’ because, having treated myself to this book at EasterCon last year, I then put off reading it. I put off reading it because although I hold Perdido Street Station to be one of the most phenomenally well-written, engaging, and original pieces of fiction to be released in decades, I’ve struggled a bit with China’s other works. I read and liked The Scar, but although I did eventually reach the point of addicted what-do-you-mean-I-have-to-stop-reading-to-eat-things, it did take quite a while to get into. If I hadn’t loved Perdido Street Station so much, I probably would have given up long before the addictiveness kicked in. I also own The Iron Council in hardback, but I haven’t read it. I’ve read the first few pages a few times, but it doesn’t grab me, and it doesn’t help that those I know who have read it report that it is relentlessly slow, overly-political, and only really worth it for what is apparently an awesome tableau at the end.

Why did I buy Kraken, then, given that I haven’t read the last China Miéville book I bought? Well, I was intrigued that it was set in our world (or one very closely adjacent). I speculated that rooting it in the familiar might save on the intensive description that worked so well in Perdido Street Station, but not so much in his other works (and I like descriptive writing, as a rule). Plus, I’d heard good things – people were telling me that it was a much easier read. So I thought: what the hey? And gave it a go.

I’m so glad I did. I really have very little bad to say about this book. It’s swiftly paced and quite a contrast in style to my more recent readings of China’s work. Where I expect a Miéville book to be dense, this book is positively sparse. It was a bit of a jolt, actually, and I’ll admit that in places a little more description might have helped me to visualise what was going on, but these places were few and far between. It read a lot like a slightly more polished Neil Gaiman novel (oh yes, I went there). Miéville is masterful in this light-touch approach. The layer on layer of mystery and intrigue could easily be confusing and difficult to follow, but Miéville avoids such pitfalls, carrying the reader effortlessly along with his protagonist, who is just as out of his depth as we are.

I have just two complaints. The first is a particularly poor use of language that happens very early on in the book. It may well be that this wouldn’t bother most people, but it very nearly put me off completely. It’s just a little piece of dialogue, Leon describing Marginalia: “Convent girl. Hence tiny Jesus-shaped guilt trip between her tits”. I instantly dislike Leon, and I don’t think I’m meant to. I mean, I get it: ha ha, Jesus juxtaposed with an especially crude term for a woman’s breasts. See how I mean that she’s sexy but still weighed down with the remains of Catholic guilt? But ‘tits’ isn’t a sexy word. It’s an ugly, objectifying word – hard-edged, reductive, silly. Like you’ve not only reduced the woman to these wobbling tips on her chest, but also ridiculed her. Using the word ‘tits’ connotes a complete lack of respect for the items designated, and for the person they’re attached to. That’s how I feel about it, anyway. Maybe it is just me – I’ve had men protest that it means just the same to them as ‘breasts’, and they don’t see what’s wrong with it… but I can’t help but note that they don’t seem to use the word in the same way, and I’ve seen countless contradictory statements that equate the use of the word with an extra layer of objectification. At the end of the day I have to admit that I do instantly lose a bit of respect for anyone who uses it, and if that’s just me, then, well, all I can do it honestly report on how I responded emotionally. Part of me feels uncomfortably prudish – haven’t I always argued that no word should be banned, and an author is absolutely right to use a ‘crude’ word if it’s the right word for the context? Well, yes, but it seems to me that ‘breasts’ or even ‘boobs’ would have worked just as well, if not more so. Because it wouldn’t have made me assume that Leon was being deliberately and unpleasantly dismissive of his girlfriend, which I realised after several chapters wasn’t the author’s intention at all.

So, that’s minor point number one. And it is minor, except that it really bothered me, and it took a substantial amount of subsequent good writing for me to be comfortable again with the novel. The other point is philosophical, and not 100% negative. It’s this: one of the plot points turns on an exemplification of a rather neat philosophical point about personal identity. Anyone who’s dabbled in this area of philosophy will have come to realise that on most likely accounts of what it is for a person’s identity to remain the same across time, most of the explanations offered for what transporter pads do on Star Trek entail that that kind of teleportation is, in fact, murder. Or, at the very least manslaughter-cum-suicide. If it’s direct dematerialisation and rematerialisation from different molecules elsewhere there is no spatiotemporal continuity whatsoever, and most accounts of personal identity require spatiotemporal continuity as a minimum. Now, of course, if you include souls or spirits in your ontology, this doesn’t necessarily follow; although an account would have to be given of how the incorporeal aspect of self related to the physical body, and you’d still have to do some fancy footwork to argue that the soul would instantly attach itself to this completely other set of particles in this completely different location. Miéville’s plot point turns on the rejection of such an account; ‘beaming’, in Kraken, is essentially killing.

So, it’s lovely to see a work of fantasy engage with the discussion of personal identity at this level. However, this then contrasts with a rather blasé fudge of personal identity that forms another major plot point. This next bit is a rather spoilery, so you may want to skip on to the next paragraph, depending on how much you care about that sort of thing. Basically, a character has worked out how to render his essence into ink, to escape death. He is then able to exist not only as a single puddle of ink, but as writing on multiple and disparate pieces of paper. Each individual piece of writing has separate consciousness and awareness from the main puddle, yet is regarded as the same individual, capable of returning to be reabsorbed into the whole without difficulty. This seems to fly directly in the face of whatever theory of personal identity rested on the principle of spatiotemporal continuity employed so explicitly throughout the rest of the novel. At the very least it seems to be required that there will be some difficulty or confusion stemming from the re-integration of disparate memories and experiences. Not to mention that it looks like not simply each page of writing, but each letter unjoined to its neighbour will, however briefly, have a disparate identity.

Long story short: two completely different and contradictory theories of personal identity seem to be required for these two key plot points. Perhaps I’m just being niggled by this because I know a bit about philosophy, and if it weren’t a specialism of mine I could ignore it, but I guess the thing is that what I tend to go by is internal consistency. I’m inclined to agree that a literal dematerialisation/rematerialisation-from-different-particles-elsewhere transporter probably would be the killing of one person and the creation of a clone, but it doesn’t particularly bother me when I’m watching Star Trek. That’s partly because there’s just enough fudge around what exactly transporter beams do that it’s not clear that ‘beaming down’ really does fit this model. In one episode Lt Berkeley actually gets attacked by something whilst in the transporter beam, which rather suggests some kind of physical transportation of matter, plausibly allowing for spatiotemporal continuity. On the other hand, other episodes suggest the reverse. The episode where there end up being two Rikers because something goes wrong in transport and Riker rematerialises in two places rather suggests that we do have the destruction and reconstruction out of new particles scenario; as is backed up by the idea (expressed fairly frequently) that replicators and transporters work off much the same principles. But the thing is, Star Trek never really tries to say anything rigorous about this, so I don’t mind. The trouble here is that Miéville goes ahead and makes a significant plot element turn on a rather pleasingly sophisticated account of personal identity and its consequences… and then goes and completely ignores this for one of his other major plot points.

I can’t decide whether this bothers or intrigues me. Maybe it’s less of a problem than a challenge. Maybe Miéville is prompting us to reflect on our own ideas about personal identity by presenting us with two apparently contradictory views and thus poking us to reflect upon what we think about them. Perhaps they don’t have to be reconcilable. Much of Kraken is concerned with the thought that reality is partially dependent on our beliefs concerning what reality is. Maybe both beliefs are permissible (within the world of the book) because people generally don’t reflect significantly hard on the matter to make either concretely true for everyone everywhere. I don’t know. That’s probably the get out clause. It just feels a little… fudgy. Just can’t decide if it’s fudgy-bad or fudgy-provocative.

Like I say, a minor point that stood out for me because of who I am and what I do when I’m not wittering on about fantasy novels. On the whole, this is a rich, sophisticated, and remarkably accessible book. I heartily recommend it to everyone, but particularly to those who like squid, cults, and supernatural police procedurals (you know who you are).

I’m now off to spend some of my Amazon gift certificate on King Rat, as I’ve heard that’s a relatively accessible Miéville, too, and I’m having withdrawal now that I’m done with Kraken.

Read Along with Rhube 23: A Dance with Dragons, Chapters 45 & 46

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

Apologies for the radio silence over the last couple of weeks. It’s been crazy in Womblevonia. Plus, you know, supposing an average of 1,500 words per RAWR post, I had totted up around 33,000 words on this here behemoth, so I hope you’ll excuse the break. Anyway, onwards and upwards! The end is in sight – I want to see if we can reach it by the new year!

Chapter 45: The Blind Girl

It’s Aryaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! I’m excited, I am. I have to admit, early on I had completely forgotten that Arya had gone to Braavos and been taken in by the House of Black and White (after killing someone?), but a friend reminded me, and it came back. As well as the fact that she’s blind now. Not that I really expected her to stay blind. Martin does like to kill off people we like, but he clearly had much left to do with Arya, and whilst I could believe that a blind assassin could still kill people, it seemed a bit of an odd step for the House of Black and White to take with her. And thus we see in this chapter that it is a part of her initiation, and she is repeatedly asked if she would like her eyes back. To which question she must say ‘no’, of course. She must become so used to being blind that ‘darkness is as sweet to [her] as light’.

I suppose that must be a useful skill for an assassin to have – to be able to move just as well in darkness as in light. But this is not all that Arya must do. She must obliterate her own sense of identity until she thinks of herself as ‘no one’. She went to Braavos to learn to kill. She has a specific list of people that she wants to kill, which she has been repeating as a mantra, and adding to as people commit unforgivable actions towards her and those she loves. Now, perversely, she must let go of her own selfish motivations for killing. The people at the House of Black and White only give out death that is asked for by others, not for their own wishes. They give good deaths to people who come to them suffering sickness or depression. They give deaths to bad people that others have asked them to kill. They never do it on their own behalves. Arya must therefore make herself a tool, not a person, and certainly not Arya Stark.

Which is all well and good, but Arya has a part of herself that she can never entirely let go of – a part that runs with the wolves at night. A part that can also see out of the eyes of a cat, if she wishes to. She uses this skill to correctly identify the person who has been delivering beatings to her in the darkness as the priest she thinks of as ‘the kindly man’. These beatings are meant to train and toughen her, of course. She reveals that she has worked out that it is him when she reports to him one day – as she does every day – three things she knows that day that she did not know before. That he is her tormentor is one of those things. And in return for this, she is rewarded by the restoration of her sight.

I liked this chapter. The harsh training of a young person is a stock fantasy coming-of-age thing. Jon had it, up at the Wall. I must have read it countless times in other stories – Alanna, in The Song of the Lionness, by Tamora Pierce, as she trains to be a knight; Fitz, as he trains to become an assassin, and as he learns to control the Skill in Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb; Leland, in Steven Gould’s Helm as he is toughened physically and mentally for the unexpected responsibilities his stealing of the ‘helm’ have thrust upon him – the whole ‘forging’ thing is important in explaining both where your hero’s skills have come from, and why they’re extra-humanly tough, as well as skilled. So this aspect was familiar and therefore not especially interesting, but it was fairly well done. What’s more interesting is the tension maintained between Arya’s (and our own) desire that she should succeed and become all that she can be, and equally her desire (and our own) that she avenge what has been done to her and her family, thus fulfilling the motivation that took her to Braavos in the first place.

It is precisely this motivation that she really ought to give up if she is to succeed. But we don’t want her to. I’m not in favour of violence. I’m not in favour of a child being raised to be a killer, or a person taking revenge by killing others, but there is a dramatic satisfaction that is required. Arya’s mantra – the listing of those she wants to kill – has reinforced this as a poetic justice that is demanded by the text. I’m caught in the rhythm of her anger and hatred and the injustices that have been done to her: ‘Ser Gregor… Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei‘. I can’t even remember what all of these people did, but I am caught up in the rhythm of her feelings. I want to see this through.

Which is a quandary, because I’m made of the same stubborn stuff that makes me not want her to quit, that makes me want her to prove that she has what it takes… even though what it takes in letting go of her anger. So the way that Martin has found around this is interesting – that she can keep a part of herself hidden away with her dire wolf – but it also feels a bit like cheating. And I can’t help but feel that this is going to come back to bite her somewhere down the line…

Chapter 46: A Ghost in Winterfell

The title of this chapter puzzles me. It doesn’t seem to refer to the point-of-view character, which is, as ever, Theon. Unless he’s really gone mad and this is a split personality disorder. Anyway, temperatures have been running high in Winterfell, and someone has started killing people – the ‘ghost’ of the title. Theon is briefly under suspicion, but it’s clear to anyone with half a brain that he doesn’t have it in him. Fights very nearly break out between the Manderleys and the Freys, but that gets smoothed over for the time being. And then… the sound of drums. Stannis has apparently come at last (although that seems mighty quick to me, given that we last saw him snowed in a considerable distance away). As the castle prepares for battle, Theon is drawn to the godswood – they are not his gods, but he grew up with them, and he fancies, as he stands beneath the weirwood, that he can hear Bran. In grief and guilt he speaks aloud of how he killed two other boys to take the place of Bran and Rickon: ‘I had to have two heads’… and Abel’s women come upon him. The time has come to throw off pretense and demand Theon’s help where it could not be wheedled out of him.

A nice chapter of things coming to head and alliances fraying as the idea of war is put to test under the reality of waiting for attack in a ruined castle in the sort of winter most of us will never experience. Sometimes it feels like the message of these books is simply ‘War is hell and war is stupid; anyone who would wage it is a dick, and a bloody idiot besides’. Not that we’re not bloodthirsty enough to want to read and write about it nonetheless.

I enjoyed the reveal where Abel’s women disclose themselves to him, but the fact that they don’t seem to cotton on to the fact that he is admitting to having not killed Bran and Rickon is a bit annoying. I know it’s a way of drawing it out for dramatic tension, but it feels a bit like Gaeta not bothering to mention the one crucial bit of evidence that proves his innocence in Battlestar Galactica until they practically have him out an airlock. That’s just not how it would go down. You’d shout the crucial part of your defence from the beginning! Not that Theon’s in the habit of protesting his innocence, but he pretty much confessed to not having killed Bran and Rickon right in front of those who despise him as a kin-killer, and somehow they don’t understand the implication and he fails to adequately protest. It just feels a little… contrived.

But never mind. An otherwise good and entertaining chapter of things coming to a head. Rock on!

Read Along with Rhube 22: A Dance with Dragons, Chapters 43 & 44

(Index of previous ADwD posts here.)

I’m playing catch-up, so you get twice in one weekend! 😀

Chapter 43: Daenerys

So, Dany and Daario are now doing a whole Romeo and Juliet thing – wishing the dawn away so that they can have rampant bunny-sex and forget about the fact that Danerys has promised to marry Hizdahr. You can imagine how much I enjoyed these scenes. To give him his credit, though, Daario genuinely seems to be attracted to Daenerys as a strong woman. He doesn’t like this marriage, not only because it takes her away from him, but because he knows the Meereenese are chipping away at her power base, and Hizdahr is likely to steal it out from under her the moment they are married.

Not that I’m now sold on him. I still have no clue what was supposed to be attractive about him in the first place, and up until this point he really didn’t seem to have that many admirable qualities. All in all, it doesn’t seem to me that Dany is presented as loving him because he respects her power. To be honest, that came as a bit of a surprise. Dany’s interest has so far been expressed as a wish to be dominated by him. But whatevs.

The fun part of this chapter is that Quentyn has finally got himself an audience with Dany, and reveals his plan. Bless his little Dornish socks. But his offer comes too late. She is to be married to Hizdahr for the sake of peace within her city and without. Dany rejects his offer, she has to, but she has the decency to respect the distance he has traveled to reach her, and commands that others treat him with the honour he deserves. Must make for a nice change after the road.

And so Dany marries Hizdahr. The chapter ends with them both bound ‘wrist and ankle with chains of gold’. The metaphor for bondage is a little obvious, but if you squint a little there’s a nice echo back to Tyrion strangling Tysha with the Hand’s chain of gold. There’s also a nice moment where Dany declares she will ride to her wedding on a horse, but her maids regretfully point out that she cannot ride in a tokar. A nice demonstration of the ways that fashions have so often been used to stunt women’s ability to act freely, as well as a symbol of how this marriage is likely to restrict Dany, and prevent her from doing the things she wants to do. The inability to ride a horse is a nice symbol, considering her first power was as khaleesi of the Dothraki, a horse people.

Of course, I’m frustrated that Dany can’t marry Quentyn, but he’s not ready for her yet – he’s still a bit soft around the edges, and Dany wasn’t in a position to change her mind about marrying Hizdahr at that stage. Not without unleashing anarchy. Guess I just have to wait for Hizdahr to get killed off!

Chapter 44: Jon

Queen Selyse arrives at Castle Black, and is a right pain to everyone. This is Stannis’s queen, and she’s rather aware of her position, sadly without the savvy to do much sensible with it. She also has various irritating hangers-on, such as the delightful Ser Axell Florent, who fancies himself as a husband for Val. Plus one daughter, Princess Shireen… who has greyscale. Surely not a good thing for a potential monarch to have, what with the early death and madness we were hearing about being associated with this disease earlier in the book.

More interestingly, Selyse brings with her a banker from Bravos – Tycho. Tycho is come to chase after the debts of the iron throne, as Cersei has refused to pay them, and as far as the banker is concerned the debts are owed by the thrown, and whoever sits on it. If Stannis is prepared to pay those debts, he could have a powerful ally/source of coin. But it would be taking on an awful lot. But for Jon, what’s more important is what Tycho could mean for the wall. He wants money for food, and for ships to rescue the foolish wildlings who have headed up to Hardholme to die. They haggle under the watchful eye of Mormont’s raven, finally settling on an agreement that pleases neither, but probably means they both got something.

Incidentally, I’ve been developing a theory about Mormont’s bird. After all the wargs in this book, and with the story earlier about how people used to use ravens because they could possess them to send messages by having the ravens speak it… well. All I’m saying is that it’s not beyond the realms of plausibility that Mormont’s raven carries something of Mormont’s spirit, and may be guiding Jon, somewhat, from the grave. Not that I expect this theory to be confirmed in any way, but it fits, for me.

The big surprise comes at the end of the chapter – a grey girl on a dying horse. Jon was expecting Arya, I was expecting Jeyne (although it puzzled me that she would arrive so soon), we’re both wrong. It’s some girl we’ve never heard of, before. Woman, really. Alys Karstark – rightful heir to Karhold, if her brother dies, on the run from a forced marriage. She reveals that Arnold Karstark declared for Stannis in the hopes of provoking the Lannisters to kill her brother, though he plans to betray Stannis in the end. Before that happens, they hope to force her into a marriage to a man who will almost certainly kil her off once she’s produced a child, just so that they can lay claim to her birthright.

It’s all a bit of a mess, really, but the point is that she has come to John for protection, and she is neither Arya, nor Jeyne. Which leave me wondering… Jeyne’s escape is somewhat less assured than it previously seemed.

Read Along with Rhube 18: A Dance with Dragons, Chapters 35 & 36

(Index to previous ADwD posts here.)

Sorry to keep you waiting for this one, had to try and get on top of real life things for a while. But I’m still reading, and this behemoth ain’t gonna review itself. Let’s get to it!

Chapter 35: Jon

Short and sweet, this one. Time has come to swear in some new men of the watch, and some of them want to do it before a tree of the old gods. This means going out into the lands beyond the Wall. For some reason, Jon decides to go out with the men escorting the new blood. I’m kind of with Dolorous Edd on this one – he points out that, nice though the gesture is, Jon should really be thinking of looking after himself as Lord Commander. Nevermind, it means we get eyes and ears outside the Wall.

So, they head on out and it turns out the weirwood is rather farther from the Wall than I supposed from when Jon went to take his oath there. It’s late in the night by the time they arrive, and they do so to find a bunch of wildlings huddled around the tree, come to die before their gods, because they had nowhere else to go. Things are a bit tense for a moment, especially as one of the wildlings is a giant, who starts roaring something unintelligible to most of the men. Fortunately, though, one of the swearees is a former wildling himself, and he is able to speak the Old Tongue. He talks the giant down and is able to explain that they’ve just come to worship themselves. Once communication is established, they’re also able to invite the wildlings back to the Wall with them, which they’re pretty willing to do, seeing as they’re near death, and the only reason they didn’t go surrender to the Wall in the first place is that they heard about Melisandre’s burning of weirwood in her fake Mance-killing show. Nice one, Melly.

So, Jon is now up some new recruits, including a giant. He gets back to the Wall somewhat later than intended, but fairly safe and well. He finds a letter waiting for him from Stannis, saying that he’s taken Deepwood Motte and plans to march on Winterfell to take it and save Jon’s sister, if he can. Jon ponders that if Stannis were his brother Robert, he’d take his men on a forced march and probably get there with the advantage of time and ahead of the snows. Stannis is unlikely to do this, however, so it’s probably not going to end well.

I liked this chapter – I like that some of the wildlings are integrating and actually choosing to take the Black. I like that the wildling, Leathers, is able to use his knowledge of the Old Tongue to the advantage of the Night’s Watch to bring more wildlings into the fold. I like the exploration of religious tensions. There’s a little mention of further tensions with the women who have volunteered to help man the Wall, but I can’t say it overly engaged me. Having women in your army causes tensions – wah wah – that doesn’t mean they aren’t good fighters – wah wah – but some men can’t help themselves anyway – wah wah. Nothing wrong with dealing with this issue, it’s just that so far it’s very much predictable and uninteresting. Clearly we’re being set up for some Event further down the line, but there’s nothing to write home about, or to the Internet with, yet. This chapter progressed things a bit, but didn’t do that much more.

Chapter 36: Daenerys

The predicted waves of plague-riddled Astapori have arrived at Meereen. They’re starving and dying. Some say they are eating their dead. Against everyone’s guidance, Daenerys goes out to deliver the food herself. Appalled at their conditions, and knowing that things will only get worse if the people don’t wash and dispose of the dead properly, Dany gets down off her horse and goes to help them herself, shaming everyone else into joining her. Everyone thinks this is a bad idea, but Daenerys reassures herself that the blood of the dragon never gets sick, which I guess is nice for her, if true, although I don’t know about her men.

So, they feed and wash the sick and fifty of her Unsullied go to help burn the bodies of the dead. Then they return to the palace and wash a lot. After which Dany has to go speak to the Graces about her upcoming wedding, where they try to force a number of ‘merely symbolic’ concessions on her, including an examination of her lady-parts to verify that she’s still fertile… which of course she isn’t. It’s not clear whether she wins the day on that, although she concedes virtually everything else, including washing Hizdahr’s feet as a symbol of her subservience. Dany demands that he should wash her as well, which he concedes to, but I can’t help but feel that if this marriage goes through it’s not going to be as much to her liking as she thinks it’ll be.

After this, Daario arrives with bad news. Hearing that he’s covered in blood, Dany breaks her resolve not to see him anymore, although it turns out that the blood is mostly someone else’s. His news shocks everyone: Brown Ben Plumm has gone over to the Yunkai’i. I don’t know if I’m supposed to remember this dude, but I don’t. Dany does, though, and she’s as shocked as everyone else. Is this one of her predicted betrayals? If this is the one for money, was she wrong about Ser Jorah? (Answer: yes, but I guess she lacks our omnipotent perspective.) She commands the closure of Meereen’s gates, even though this means that the Astapori will be left helpless outside.

After this, Daario and Dany are left alone and she gives into her inexplicable desire to sex him up. Apparently realising she’s unsure about what the prophecies mean anymore means that she now thinks Daario won’t be one of her betrayers? Don’t ask me, I don’t get any of this line of character motivation. All I can think is that this dude has killer pheromones. His final line before she ends the chapter by saying ‘What are you waiting for?’ is to boast that he’s had a thousand women before her. I guess it must be true that some women are turned on by lines like this, but to me it’s not only laughably cheesy, but the cheese is an unpleasant, oily sort of cheese. Eh… I’m bored of bitching about the Daenerys/Daario plotline. If you’ve come this far with me you know why it bothers me, and, to be honest, this is probably the least offensive chapter in which he has featured. At this stage I just have to go ‘Lust is blind’ and hope that it won’t be too long before his inevitable betrayal.

As for the rest of the chapter, well, I’m glad the war appears to finally be reaching her. I know it fits with the realism that armies take a while to get together and go whether they need to be, but we’ve been doing an awful lot of treading water down here in the southerly plotlines. The plague-filled Astapori outside the walls are interesting, though. If the Yunkai’i are in for a siege then that’s going to cause them problems. Biological warfare FTW!

And that’s about it, for now. Toodle-pip!

Review: The Fades, Episodes 1-4

I wasn’t sure about The Fades at first. It was interesting and lively, but also a little bleak and slow. I often find it difficult to get into things closer to the horror end of the spectrum. It’s not that I don’t like horror, it’s just that I don’t scare easily, and the more familiar the horror tropes employed, the more likely I am to get bored simply because the fear-factor isn’t stepping in to maintain my interest. I more often enjoy horror in company – I find it easier to buy into the suspense when other people are doing so, too. So it’s not entirely The Fades‘ fault that I was not immediately gripped.

Even so, there was enough to pique my curiosity, and with other friends starting to get into it, too, I was persuaded to keep watching. And I’m glad I did.


The ‘fades’ are spectres of the dead that have failed to ‘ascend’. Usually a spirit will hang around for a bit, then, when the right moment comes, they’ll go to an ascension gateway, and if they’re lucky they’ll go on to… whatever’s next. If they’re unlucky they’ll stay in this world, having to watch their friends and loved ones getting on with their lives, unable to communicate with them or touch them, slowly going mad. So far, so ordinary ghost story.

The ‘angelics’ are human beings who can see the fades. They also have other powers, in various ranges of efficacy. Healing seems prominent. It usually involves the healer disgorging insects afterwards. We start the story with the angelics finding themselves hunted by something new that is emerging amongst the fades. This new sort of fade can affect the physical world, apparently as a result of consuming human flesh. So, we have ghosts and zombies and hunter-slayers.

Enter Paul (Iain de Caestecker) and his friend Mac (Daniel Kaluuya). They’re teenagers (16/17ish), on the geeky/unpopular end of the social spectrum, at stark contrast with Paul’s twin sister, Sarah (Natalie Dormer), who’s the typical popular-bitch style girl. Mac hopelessly fancies her – I’m not sure why, he’s much cooler than her. Paul, on the other hand, fancies Sarah’s friend, the more indie/quirky Jay (Sophie Wu). Anyway, Mac, in his role as the funny, geeky friend, persuades Paul to enter an abandoned building looking for things to use in a homemade zombie movie for set dressing. Whilst there, Paul runs across an angelic, Neil (Johnny Harris) chasing the fade that’s turning into a zombie-thing. Neil realises that Paul can see the fade, and is therefore an angelic himself.

It becomes steadily obvious that Paul is no ordinary angelic, but something very special. Neil tries to persuade him to leave his family and friends and embrace his angelic nature, as sooner or later he’ll only put those he loves in danger. But Paul’s still a teenager, dealing with teenage things, and he’s not ready to do that yet. Meanwhile, he continues to receive visions of a blasted future, whilst discovering more about himself and his powers, which increasingly interfere with his attempt to live a normal life.

My Thoughts

This was described to me as something highly original, and it didn’t immediately strike me as such. It’s a pretty typical chosen-one set up. It could very nearly be Buffy. Granted, it has a washed-out, grey, Brit-indie thing going down, but in that regard it’s just the standard British grim-take on a genre that has been dominated by more brightly-coloured and optimistic American imports. Misfits was fairly original in this take, but The Fades is simply taking the same Brit style and applying it to a more horror-centric, Buffy-style premise.

None of which is to deny that what it does is interesting and well-made. I find the names ‘angelic’ and ‘fades’ somewhat jarring. I don’t understand why they wouldn’t just call the fades ‘ghosts’, bearing in mind that their unusual zombie characteristics are a decidedly recent thing. ‘Angelic’ on the other hand, seems a little too on the nose for the grey-realism style of the show. Besides that, though, the writing is excellent, especially for the funny-geek friend, Mac. Yes, it’s a stereotype of the genre, but it’s very well done. He’s a lively joy to watch, and, after all, geek people watching a geek program love a well-deployed geek reference. It plays well to the audience without losing the authenticity of the character. This is thoroughly believable teenage humour as well as enjoyable witticism for the viewer.

The casting is excellent. The protagonist may be a white male, but his best friend is a black guy and the object of his affections is asian. Of course, the funny black friend is a bit of a stereotype, but at no time do I feel like Mac is meant to be funny because he is black, and the effect is to some extent balanced out by his severe, police-detective father, who believably commands respect. Mac is in no sense token. His awkward relationship with his distant father adds not only poignancy to the humour and enthusiasm with which he usually approaches life, but rounds out the character, making it clear that his significance is not solely based around his relationship to the lead white male. Daniel Kaluuya is to be strongly commended for such a nuanced portrayal of a character that could have been very one-dimensional in the wrong hands. Writing and acting come together beautifully, here.

Paul himself is interesting. He is neither conventionally handsome nor otherwise striking in appearance. He is always presented in washed out clothes, and rarely steps forward to take command of the scenes he is in. He’s very much the gawky teenager, and not the Hollywood-homely of the usual TV social outcasts. Which, I hasten to add, is not to malign the appearance of the actor himself; rather, it’s to praise the fact that he does look like a normal, gawky teenager, both in terms of his looks, his wardrobe, and how he carries himself. I never met a mid-to-lower tier social-outcast like Buffy was supposed to be who could convincingly sashay into a room like Sarah Michelle Geller.

I’m also loving the range of roles offered to women. Everything from the striking and commanding presence of the priest, Helen (Daniela Nardini), to the popular-bitch, Sarah, and the waif-like, timid fade, Natalie (Jenn Murray). I’m particularly in love with Paul’s mother, Meg (Claire Rushbrook). It’s very easy for the mother of a ‘chosen one’ to fit into a familiar role that fades into the background and requires little colour for itself. Buffy’s mother, Joyce Summers, initially presents just such a character, but blossoms into something much more interesting in the her later seasons. Meg is wonderful and understated as a woman who is dealing with two volatile and complicated teenage children on her own and often times doesn’t know what to do. This is not to criticise the character, her light-touch respect for her children as people is deeply endearing and very sensible, even though one senses her quiet despair that there is obviously something going on with her son that she doesn’t know how to help with. The hint that she perhaps neglects her daughter in her concern for Paul is very much an aspect of a rich character, rather than the familiar outsider-critique on motherhood that is so common in television shows that deal with family dysfunction. The issues of this family are not, in fact, insurmountable, and had Paul not turned out to be an angelic they probably would have resolved themselves in the natural course in the ways such things usually go in real life.

The thing that really hooked me, though, is The Fades‘ continuing efforts to up-the-ante of weird each week. Somehow events keep getting stranger and stranger, and yet the writing, if anything, improves. Four episodes in and we have not embarked on the painful implausibility such spiraling strangeness so often invites. It’s only getting richer, drawing its threads together as the strangeness grows, rather than fragmenting into a sprawling mess.

That’s why, at this point, I decided it was time to review and recommend this to you all. The Fades: watch it. All the episodes are still on iPlayer, for your catch-up leisure, and will be available until 2nd November 2011. Next episode airs at 10pm, Wednesday, BBC3.

Read Along with Rhube 17: A Dance with Dragons, Chapters 33 & 34

(Index to previous ADwD posts here.)

It’s a bumper ADwD weekend, here in Womblevonia. I’m still playing catch-up with my reading and trying to make sure this doesn’t end up as something I doggedly do all winter as some kind of penance for my geek-sins. Not that I’m not enjoying it, it’s just that I don’t have a lot of time left over to review anything else, atm, and I know not everyone comes to ISotHM for the RAWR.

Let’s get started!

Chapter 33: Tyrion

This is a nice little chapter, mostly about character development, but that’s OK.

Tyrion and Ser Jorah have set sail for Slaver’s Bay, and taken poor Penny, the dwarf girl who’s brother was killed in Tyrion’s place, with them. Jorah is mostly drunk, seasick, and taciturn. Tyrion is mostly bored. He talks to a red priest who’s on board for a bit and reads the three books the ship lays claim to. Penny mostly hides away in her cabin, grieving. She doesn’t know anyone except Tyrion and Jorah, and she’s understandably not comfortable in their presence at first. Tyrion determines to be a friend to her when Jorah refuses, however, and eventually wins her trust. Jorah suggests that he sleep with the girl, but Tyrion doesn’t fancy her, even when she starts angling at him either as a bed-companion, or as someone to take her brother’s role in the comedy dwarf jousting that used to earn her a living.

The chapter ends as they pass near the ruins of Valyria, but not so near as to see it. That, we are told, is to become cursed. We learn that Tyrion’s uncle, Gerion, went to Valyria and never returned. Tyrion had begged Lord Tywin to let him go along, but Tywin forbade. It sounds as though there was a massive earth-movement – quakes and volcanoes, sinking cities beneath the waves and turning the sea to acid. Nice. Tyrion discusses it with the red priest, Moqorro, who also has visions, just like Melisandre. He has seen that others seek Daenerys, including a ‘tall and twisted thing with one black eye and ten long arms, sailing on a sea of blood’.

So, no real events, in this chapter, but a lot of colour. You know I like the whole lost-civilisation thing, and Valyria has been hovering in the background, a looming past that we see only tantalising glimpses of. (Is it bad that I sort of want Martin’s next series to be a prequel? In the unlikely event that he finishes this one, that is?) I may get a bit drowned in visions, though. I sort of like it, but at times the sudden upsurge in magic in this book is too sharp a contrast with its notable virtual non-existence in the earlier volumes. I’ve known many people to praise the originality of the series as a fantasy tale with relatively little magic. Well. It’s certainly not that anymore.

The twisted black thing with one eye and many arms is intriguing, though. Methinks this is not Quentyn. Daenerys’s missing black dragon, perhaps? Not with the many army and only one eye. It sounds more figurative – could be the plague from Astapor, but then, what’s the eye? Curiouser and curiouser.

I like that Tyrion befriends Penny, and also that he does not sleep with her. I had a fear for a while that he might, and it would be all ‘Gosh, isn’t it just easier when people stick to their own “kinds”?’, but fortunately, it wasn’t. I sort of like that Jorah callously suggests it, though. It rounds out his character. Loyal he may be, but that doesn’t mean he’s perfect. I wonder if those lines will make it into the TV series, if they make it that far. It does underline that there are some of the differences in characterisation, however much my hormones would like imagine Ser Jorah as he is in Iain Glen’s portrayal.

I both like and don’t like Tyrion’s attitude to Penny’s name. He’s disgusted by the fact that she’s chosen a name for herself that signifies her worth as equivalent to the smallest denomination of currency. He therefore refuses to call her by her name. He’s right in his analysis, and that it is a sad thing that she devalues herself so. At the same time, though, that is the name that she chose for herself, and there’s something a bit distasteful in the fact that he refuses to use it. It’s disrespectful of her and looks down on her for not having the intelligence to recognise how stupid her name is and that she should have the self-respect to choose a better one. Oh, Tyrion, you’re too smart for this – have the sense to recognise the irony in what you’re doing.

It sort of hits a nerve for me. I chose the name ‘Rhube’ as my Internet handle more than a decade ago. Actually, it goes back to before I was on the net – back when fans communicated almost solely via fanzines. I initially chose the name ‘Spacehippy’ for my interactions with ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, the Hitch-Hiker’s fanclub. But someone assumed I was a man, and at the tender age of 14 I was too embarrased to correct them, and chose to go by ‘Rhubarb’ instead. I won’t bore you with the details, but ‘Rhubarb’ had a meaning for me and tickled me. When a penpal I got through ZZ9 took to shortening it to ‘Rhube’ I was flattered by the affection this signified. When the Internet entered my life and I started frequenting my first online forum, the Star Ship Titanic help forums, it was only natural that I take the name ‘Rhube’ with me. I have a lot of good memories tied to that name, memories that stand in stark contrast to the associations I have with my real name. There’s a power in choosing a name for yourself, one that I think Penny probably knows well. Imagine how I felt, then, on entering my university creative writing group’s forum, when one of my new university friends told me ‘Great to see you here, but we have to find you a new name – that’s AWFUL’. His objection? ‘Rhube’ sounds like ‘Rube’, which is apparently a slang term I’d never heard of for ‘country bumpkin’. It simply wouldn’t do for me to call myself something that, in his eyes, undervalued me and revealed my ignorance.

Took me a long while to get over the anger and shame generated by that careless comment about how stupid I had been not to respect myself more in my choice of name. Now I know that he was the idiot, and have embraced my self-chosen name again, but I’m still angry that I allowed him to colour my thought that way. So… I guess what I’m saying is: it’s awesome that Martin is presenting this nuanced look on the complexities of prejudice and respect, but all I want to do is just shake Tyrion and say: ‘Grow up! Do her the decency of respecting her choices, whatever they may be, gods damnit!’ Hope it comes out and they have a blistering row that brings him to his senses.

Chapter 34: Bran

Ohhhhh, this shit is creepy.

Bran continues life with the children of the forest and the greenseer that’s mostly just a corpse wired into a tree, now. He learns to control ravens, and that the reason people in Westeros use ravens rather than pigeons to carry their messages is that the First Men learnt from the children to slip into the skins of the ravens and speak the messages directly, rather than tying scraps of paper to their legs.

Bran is also getting far too comfortable about using Hodor to go places and do things. He’s also clearly working up to using Hodor to have a physical relationship with Meera. Not convinced she’ll be 100% cool with that, dude. Plus, they’re eating a blood soup of unknown meat – what are the odds this turns out to be man flesh?

Towards the end of the chapter they decide that it’s ‘time’. The children give Bran a paste of weirwood seeds, the mush of which apparently has red veins in it from the red sap of the trees. I’m not entirely clear how that works. I’d have assumed that if you mush it up it would go a pinky colour, but whatever. With some reluctance, Bran eats the mush and finds that he can see things through any weirwood tree he chooses, and because time feels different to the trees, a moment in the past can feel as present as now. Bran sees his father as a younger man beneath their tree back at Winterfell, and as he calls out to him Ned almost seems to hear him.

When Bran wakes up, Hodor carries him to his bed in the darkness. Neither Jojen nor Meera are there, Meera having wandered off with a case of the sads earlier. There’s something ominous about their absence. Bran resolves to stay awake until Meera gets back, but instead he slips into visions of the tree at Winterfell again, going rapidly back in time to what seems to be its beginning, where a woman slits the throat of a captive in what seems to be an offering. At the end, Bran cries out, asking them to stop, and one is left wondering whether this is only happening in the deep past at Winterfell, or if something is happening to Bran himself, or one of his friends. Meera’s and Jojen’s cryptic comments hint at something like that. It’s not clear what there is for them to do here, but it seems that Jojen, at least, does not expect to be going back down south.

So, anyway: super creepy. Suggestions of cannibalism are rife, whether real or symbolic. I have to say, the whole ‘going into the tree’ thing, with roots wrapping round and through your mouldering corpse, is squicking me out. I have actually had nightmares about it, people. I don’t want this for Bran. It’s not clear that he wants it, either, he’s just kind of going along with it, not least because no one else has offered him an option of a viable active life where it doesn’t matter that his back is broken. I keep wanting for him to stand up and say ‘no!’, but I don’t think he’s going to. And I guess that’s maybe part of my problem. He’s still so young and impressionable, he’s too easily led, too eager to show that’s he’s a brave man and will give things up if called upon. I don’t think I’m going to be happy with how this ends, and I can’t decide if it’s the book being good in taking me to extremes, or if I actually just don’t like it. I think it’s probably the former, but… what can I say? I’m uncomfortable. I’m half dreading the next Bran chapter because I’m not sure I want to find out what’s happened.

But the book keeps rolling on. Tune in next time for more Read Along with Rhube!