(Index of previous ADwD posts here.)
I know, I know, it’s been an age, but I haven’t forgotten you, you mad cap fools who for some reason are interested in what I have to say about every single chapter of A Dance with Dragons. Alas, I’ve had a number of bouts of illness and when I’ve had the critical energy for analysing heavy tomes I’ve been devoting myself to my PhD rather than this. But today I’ve decided I’m well enough to do something, but not well enough to read Crispin Wright on hinge propositions (or whatever the hell this paper I’m looking at is heading towards) so you get my thoughts on the inhabitent’s of George R R Martin’s mind, instead.
Chapter 55: The Queensguard
In this chapter we follow Barristen Selmy as he deals with Daenerys’s court in the absence of Daenerys. Last time we saw her she was flying off on a dragon – a great personal move, no doubt, but she has kind of left things in disarray. Hizdahr, naturally, assumes control, and he wants his people around him in court. He chooses pit fighters, whom Selmy can see are not really appropriate for the role. Factions are splintering in Daenerys’s absence. The Unsullied are loyal only to Daenerys and refuse to fight under a man of Hizdahr’s choosing. Selmy can see the issues, but his own inability to adapt to local customs makes it impossible that he should be able to provide a similar role to Hizdahr as he did for Daenerys. Hizdahr insists on being treated like a Meereenese King, Selmy insists on treating him as a king of Westeros, and without Daenerys’s deft hand and cultural flexibility the court is falling apart.
Added to this, no one is quite sure what has become of Daenerys. Some think her killed by the dragon, others that she was taken away against her will. Selmy saw her riding Drogon and knows she is not dead, but that does not tell him where she has gone, why she has not returned.
And then there is the question of who tried to poison Daenerys with the tainted locusts…
Shakaz of the Brazen Beasts seeks to involve Selmy in schemes, attributing trechery to Hizdahr, but it is anathema to all Selmy believes in. He only wants to do his duty, he has no interest in the game of thrones. Yet it is also his duty to protect Daenerys. She never commanded him to protect Hizdahr, and with the possibility that Hizdahr himself might be behind a plot to kill Daenerys, Selmy finds himself embroilled in intrigue nonetheless. Shakas reports that Volantis is moving against them and he believes that Hizdahr will open the gates to them. Steps must be taken to protect Daenerys’s reign if Hizdahr is a traitor. Reluctantly, Selmy agrees to talk to Grey Worm, to gain the aid of the Unsullied, on condition that he be allowed to question the poisoner, who has been caught.
This is an interesting chapter, showing us just how fragile Daenerys’s peace was, and how much it depended on her for its continuance. But it also underlines her mistakes – that she was too flexible, too benevolent, too eager for peace. Meereen bent to her because she commanded dragons and great armies. But she kept her dragons chained, and when Astapor fell she did not move to save it or calm it for fear of losing the peace she had established in Meereen. It is as though Dany regarded Astapor as a mistake, and cast it aside, determined not to make the same mistakes with Meereen, and therefore stood fast at her new base rather than returning to sort out the old one. The trouble is that the fates of the two cities were not disconnected. Trouble in Astapor and her failure to act upon it made her seem weak, and when Astapor fell to plague, her people followed her to Meereen and brought the plague with them. Similarly, she chained her dragons because it seemed that they might have killed children. She chained them to prevent further deaths, but this robbed her of their power and made it seem that she did not have the strength to wield such power and also control it.
What should we make of this? I’m still not at ease with this mother role Daenerys has been cast in – a role that is again re-emphasised in this chapter. We are told that the Unsullied will only follow their ‘mother’, and that the freedmen call her ‘Mhysa’ which means mother. I mean, yeah, yeah, ‘mother of dragons’ and all that, but the trope of motherhood is one of caring and enabling, not of commanding and dominating – she is not the rider of dragons or the ruler of dragons, she is the one who has nurtured dragons. The thing about mothers is, however loyal their children, they all go off and live their own lives eventually. Which is not to say that mothers cannot be more than this – they absolutely can – but it troubles me that a young girl like Daenerys is being cast in this role which seems to connote something at odds to her role as conqueror.
She also seems to be vulnerable to the stereotypical ‘weaknesses’ of mothers. It is hearing that a child has been killed by her dragons that leads her to restrain them rather than train and utilize their power. She has a soft spot for children. Which is entirely understandable. She lost her own child – I’m not saying this mothering role is out of character – it’s just that having her weaknesses be so stereotypically feminine is… uncomfortable, for me.
That said, it is also clear that the instability in Meereen is the result of a myriad of factors, many of which have had unforeseeable consequences. The book is called ‘A Dance with Dragons‘ and that should be the clue that all of the action is really circling around Daenerys and her ‘children’. She’s a power centre and almost everyone is drawn to her – Tyrion, Quentyn, Selmy, ‘Young Griff’, the Astapori, the Volantenes, the Yunkai’i… she stinks of power and agency. When she was on the move she went to the people and places she wished to encounter and act upon. By sitting still, the possibilities she represents swirl about her, and the more people catch up to her the more possibilities are added to the mix – events start rolling in ways impossible to predict. Her absence shows the instability of her reign, but it also shows the strength of her influence in that she managed to keep it in check.
Chapter 56: The Iron Suitor (Victarion)
I keep reading this guy’s name as ‘Victorian’, it’s a problem. But I confess that it is my problem. What’s more problematic is just where this character has come from. The name rings a bell and tickles distant memories of some kind of plot, but it’s the first time we’ve seen him in this book and it’s a big book that we’re three-quarters of the way through. Adjusting my mind to what he’s doing and why I should care requires a little bit of effort, but hey, I do so.
Victarion has been leading a massive fleet from the Iron Islands to (guess what?) try to get to Daenerys before everyone else, and especially the Volantenes. He’s been caught in the same storm as Tyrion’s boat and lost a hefty chuck of his ships. He’s also got a hand that’s festering from some cut he got in some battle I don’t know if I’m supposed to remember. There’s a Maester on board who’s tending to the hand, but Victarion doesn’t like him, and he really doesn’t like that the man keeps saying he wants to cut the hand off (which pretty much sounds like the sensible thing to do). He’s also got a ‘dusky woman’ with him. Because of reasons. Probably ‘sexy’ ‘exotic’ reasons.
Anyway, the priest, Moqorro, who was washed off of Tyrion’s ship, seems to have wound up on Victarion’s. He offers to help Victarion with his hand to prove his worth and save his life. Victarion has some qualms about this, ’cause, you know, he’s a good Iron Born, and he serves the Drowned God. But the Drowned God doesn’t seem to be being too helpful and/or pleased, if he sent a storm like that, and Victarion figures that if the red priest was washed up near him he might have been washed up by the Drowned God to help him.
Victarion accepts Moqorro’s offer and Moqorro heals his hand. Victarion is pleased and spares his life, taking the Maester’s instead as a sacrifice to the Drowned God.
So, there are a few interesting things about this chapter. It certainly is a striking coincidence that Moqorro should be washed up right by Victarion and be able to heal his hand. (I honestly can’t remember if we were aware of this wound before, or if it’s basically been parachuted in to allow Moqorro to have an in with Victarion.) What’s clear, as has been indicated elsewhere before, is that the gods in this world definitely have physical domains, their strength and ability to act in the world determined by the strength of their worshipers as well as other factors. The Old Gods seems to be tied to the frigid north. The Red God seems to be based in the warm south, although he clearly has eyes on the north. Thus, here, the Drowned God seems to have little to no power (you’d have thought the whole ocean is his domain, but I guess it’s still a long way from most of his worshippers), and R’hllor seems strong. We also get a few more tidbits of history about the destruction of Valyria, but we don’t really learn very much more.
I’m not awesomely happy with the whole ‘dusky woman’ thing, though. She has no voice and no name and she is quite literally a sex slave. That’s a… that’s a hell of a character for a woman of colour to have in your novel. I mean, I get it, the Iron Islanders are down with slavery and salt-wife taking and all that jazz. It’s a culture thing. GRRM depicts a lot of cultural stuff that he doesn’t seem to endorse. But this woman is so anonymous. She is given no character at all. In as much as we have any indication of her feelings, she doesn’t seem to mind being Victarion’s sex slave – he’s not the guy who cut her tongue out, so he’s kind of OK, right? Right?
There’s nothing wrong with having people of colour being slaves in fiction per se, it’s how it’s treated, and sensitively should be the key word. Similarly for women in sexually subservient positions. There are many ways to handle this that are fine. But just thrown in in a way that seems to add nothing to the plot, with no voice and no name, described in exoticised terms like ‘dusky’, with no real examination of how the woman herself feels about her condition… this is pretty clearly playing to the male gaze, and the white male gaze at that. Not classy, not classy at all.
Use the negative aspects of history to colour your fantasy novel by all means, but don’t just throw them in unreflectively because you think they’re ‘cool’. That’s a pretty easy way to be pretty damned offensive.