Welcome to A Read of Ice and Fire! Please join me as I read and react, for the very first time, to George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.
Today’s entry is Part 14 of A Storm of Swords, in which we cover Chapter 23 (“Daenerys”) and Chapter 24 (“Bran”).
Previous entries are located in the Index. The only spoilers in the post itself will be for the actual chapters covered and for the chapters previous to them. As for the comments, please note that the Read of Ice and Fire spoiler thread has been moved to a new thread here on Tor.com. Any spoileriffic discussion should go there, where I won’t see it. Non-spoiler comments go below, in the comments to the post itself.
And now, the post!
Chapter 23: Daenerys
Dany stands in the Plaza Pride in the city of Astapor, where the slaver Kraznys mo Nakloz is showing her his wares: a thousand of the Unsullied. Dany pretends not to understand how he insults her in his own language and only reacts to the slave girl’s translation. The girl explains that the boys are chosen at the age of five and trained endlessly; only one in three survives it. Nakloz boasts that they are perfect warriors, and will stand as ordered until they drop dead. Arstan calls that “madness, not courage”; he has been against the notion of buying them from the start.
Dany asks why they are eunuched, and Nakloz replies that it ensures they have none of the passions or temptations of full men. Nor do they feel pain; he demonstrates by cutting off the nipple of one of the soldiers, who does not react, and explains they are fed a concoction which deadens pain and emotion. They are not even permitted names, and are required to slay an infant and kill a puppy they’ve owned for a year to complete their training, or are put to death. He has eight thousand currently available for purchase, weapons included.
Dany asks Arstan’s opinion, and he replies that he is violently against it. He tells her that slavery is held to be an abomination in the Seven Kingdoms, and if she arrives with a slave army at her back many will oppose her merely because of that alone. Dany points out that she must have some army. Arstan tries to convince her that many will rally to her, but is less than wholly convincing. Dany tells the slaver that she needs time to consider, and again pretends not to understand his crude propositions and insults.
She reflects on the city as they return to the ship, and Arstan remarks that it is said “the bricks of Astapor are red with the blood of the slaves who made them.” Dany says she believes it. Arstan entreats her to hire swords instead, but Dany tells him her brother tried to do so for years, and received nothing but empty promises. She reminds him sharply that she knows what it is to be sold; Arstan apologizes humbly, and Dany wonders why Jorah distrusts him so. She reflects on Jorah, and how his unwanted kiss has reawoken her libido against her will. She had ended up pleasuring herself in the night, only to wake Irri, who finished it for her. She resolves that it will not happen again, and has been careful not to be alone with Jorah since he kissed her.
She reboards the ship, and in her fury at the treatment of the Unsullied she slaps Jorah’s face, and tells him he should never have brought her to “this vile sty.” She wants to sail away this moment, but says she cannot, and must find some way to buy eight thousand eunuchs. She goes to see her dragons, who were not pleased at their confinement, and Irri senses her sadness and offers to pleasure her again. Dany tells her that she has been freed and is not required to offer such services, and sends her away.
Jorah comes to her later, and argues for using the Unsullied as her army. He points out that they will never commit atrocities on the people they conquer, unlike almost any other army, and that even the Dothraki shy from engaging them. Dany observes that Viserys would have bought them in a heartbeat, and points out that Jorah had said she was more like Rhaegar, who led free men into battle, not slaves, men who believed in her brother’s cause. Jorah answers that this is true, but Rhaegar also lost his war and his kingdom.
“Rhaegar fought valiantly, Rhaegar fought nobly, Rhaegar fought honorably. And Rhaegar died.”
Well, if that’s not a summation of one of the core themes of this series I never heard it. Ned did the same exact thing, didn’t he, and got the exact same result.
So that’s not depressing or anything. I’m sometimes tempted to wonder whether Martin’s actually trying to make a point here, or if he’s just indulging in rampant nihilism for the anti-lulz.
I know what he’s actually doing, of course, or so I flatter myself: this is all part and parcel of the larger aim of using ASOIAF to deconstruct classic epic fantasy tropes. And there are few fantasy tropes out there more prevalent than the notion that honor/good/courage must ultimately triumph over their polar opposites.
And let’s just say, there’s a reason deconstructionism has been accused of nihilism as a side effect; once you’ve set yourself to systematically test unto destruction the conventions that generally make stories nicer (or at least fairer) places to be than reality, it’s inevitable that you’re going to end up in some pretty bleak territory. Which is why so many people don’t care for it.
For me, I appreciate it intellectually, and it’s created some of the best bits of popular entertainment I’ve personally come across (aside from this series, also see The Wire), but sometimes I feel a little bit bad for Mr. Martin that he has to live inside his own head. To be so constantly cognizant of the very, very ugly depths to which your world or characters can sink must be rather… draining.
In that vein, this chapter keeps up that tradition admirably—or something—with its description of the Unsullied’s “training” “regimen,” which is more or less a How To on the most efficiently vile way to violate every single Geneva Convention in existence, plus a few more things no one else was sick enough to think we needed laws against in the first place. I think I need a shower. That shit ain’t right, to drastically understate it.
I’m not sure whether Arstan is on the level or not, but I have to say I certainly agree with his opinion that Dany shouldn’t touch this deal with a twenty-foot pole—for both practical and moral reasons, which unfortunately aren’t nearly so often in conjunction as they are here. Not that Jorah doesn’t make some good points, even a couple of moral ones—but as much as I approve of non-raping-and-pillaging soldiers, I don’t think it matters much from an ethical point of view when those soldiers are, in fact, the ones who have been raped and pillaged, in the most soul-destroying manner possible. Victims are victims, and at the risk of repeating myself, that shit ain’t right. Best to run the fuck away from the whole conundrum, if you ask me.
However, I don’t think I’m going to get my way on this one, as my impression here is that Dany’s going to buy them just to get them away from the horror show that is Astapor. Which is nice, and all, but the temptation to then use them is going to be… large.
Ugh, the whole thing is just disgusting.
But hey, at least I learned a new word! cof·fle, n. A group of animals, prisoners, or slaves chained together in a line. Yay?
The Peaceful People, her folk were called. All agreed that they made the best slaves.
*snort* There’s an unpleasant lesson in there…
“I will feed her jellied dog brains, and a fine rich stew of red octopus and unborn puppy.” He wiped his lips.
…Okay, now Martin’s just making shit up to be as obnoxiously gross as possible. Seriously, what does this culture have against puppies? Puppies!
(I mean, I can’t even. Puppy fetuses. For snacks. No, just go, get away from me, go over there. Go!)
In other news, I kind of have to love how Irri treated getting Dany off to be about on the same level, taskwise, as getting her a cup of tea. Need a refreshing beverage, no problem. Need a (refreshing?) orgasm, no problem. Heh.
Humor aside, though, Dany’s in a dangerous position if she’s going to let lust start clouding her judgment—especially if she lets Jorah get any further than he already has. Fortunately everyone is always perfectly rational and level-headed when it comes to sex, right?
Chapter 24: Bran
Bran, Summer, Hodor, Meera and Jojen wend their way into the mountains, heading north. Bran complains that they would go faster if they followed the kingsroad, but Jojen insists they would be far too memorable, and should avoid other travelers at all costs. They don’t see any of the mountain people except once, when they share a cave with a man Bran thinks is a Liddle. He gives them food and ale, and tells them there are “squids” (ironmen) in the wolfswood, and “flayed men” (Bolton’s men) asking after strangers and paying bounties for wolf pelts. He also says there is an ominous lack of word from the Wall, and laments that it was different when there was a Stark in Winterfell. Jojen tells him he dreamed that the wolves will return, but the man is skeptical.
They see an eagle the next day, and Bran tries to leave his body and ride with it as he does Summer, but it doesn’t work. He explains to Meera and Jojen that Hodor is not Hodor’s real name, but that Old Nan said it was Walder. He gets sad, thinking of Old Nan, and asks Meera if she knows any stories. Bran asks for a story about knights, and Meera tells him the story of the Knight of the Laughing Tree. Jojen is surprised that Bran’s father never told him about it.
Meera tells how a crannogman decided to leave the Neck in order to learn more of the magics outside it, and traveled to visit the Isle of Faces, to find the green men who lived there. She won’t tell what happened to the crannogman there, but says he eventually left and rowed to where a great castle bordered the lake, which Bran excitedly guesses is Harrenhal. A great tourney is about to be held there, but as the crannogman approaches, he is set upon and beaten by three squires. A “wolf-maid” chases them off, and brings him back to the castle where he meets her three brothers.
At the feast, the crannogman identifies the three squires who attacked him, one of whom is with the Freys. The wolf-maid offers to outfit him to challenge them, but the crannogman fears to make a fool of himself if he attempts vengeance himself, so instead he prays that night toward the Isle of Faces, to the old gods. Then midway through the tourney a mystery knight appears, with the device of a laughing face upon a weirwood tree. Bran excitedly supposes this to be the crannogman in disguise, but Meera refuses to say either way. She says the mystery knight, whom they called the Knight of the Laughing Tree, proceeded to trounce each of the three knights whose squires had beaten up the crannogman, and demanded that they teach their squires honor as ransom. The next day he disappeared.
Bran likes the story but is ambivalent about the ending. He thinks to himself that if the little crannogman could visit the Isle of Faces and learn about the green men’s powers, maybe he could too. Maybe they could help him walk again.
They turned the little crannogman into a knight, even if it was only for a day, he thought. A day would be enough.
All possible yummy allusions/implications aside, I love the way Meera told this story. Referring to the characters by their sigils/symbols rather than by name gave it a wonderful flavor of ancient legend or myth, when it’s clear that she’s describing events that took place less than two generations ago. It’s not the first time a character within the story has done that, of course, nor will it be the last I suspect, but it’s worth mentioning how much I enjoyed it.
Like this, for instance:
“The storm lord drank down the knight of skulls and kisses in a wine-cup war.”
I don’t even know who the hell this is referring to, but it is awesome. (Though I have a feeling I ought to know who “the storm lord” is, but the only person coming to mind is Stannis, and he’s not exactly the drinking contest kind of guy, so I think that’s probably way off.)
“And the mystery knight should win the tourney, defeating every challenger, and name the wolf maid the queen of love and beauty.”
“She was,” said Meera, “but that’s a sadder story.”
Which is how I know the tourney was a recent event, as this is obviously a reference to Lyanna, and the story of her thing with Rhaegar and her death that I still don’t know, or haven’t pieced together anyway. I’m guessing her “wild” sibling in the story was Brandon, Ned was the quiet one, and Benjen the “young pup.”
All in all there was a ton of stuff in this story that I suspect I probably should have understood better, but without names it’s all rather nebulous and confusing. I’m pretty sure this tourney was a pivotal point in whatever this whole Lyanna/Rhaegar/Brandon/Ned saga is, or was, though, so I feel certain this is definitely a story that I’ll want to come back to at some later point.
As for the rest of the chapter, I think Jojen’s dream is the first solid indication we’ve had that the Starks are actually going to regain Winterfell. Although of course, what he actually said was “the wolves will come again,” and that’s plenty vague enough for Martin to be as weaselly as he wants to be with the actual fulfillment of the prophecy. Even in “straight” fantasy, prophecies are rarely fulfilled the way anyone, especially the reader, thinks they ought to be.
Though I suppose in that case the contrary thing to do would be to have it come out exactly as you’d think it would. But I still ain’t holding my breath.
Re: the eagle: whoa, will Bran eventually be able to skinwalk with any animal he wants? That would be badass. If potentially rather confusing.
Hodor’s real name is Walder? As in, a Frey? That’s… weird. I have no idea what to make of that.
“No one visits the Isle of Faces,” objected Bran. “That’s where the green men live.”
You really should know better than to leave declarations like that just hanging there, kiddo. Ten bucks says someone’s going to have to visit there now, just because you said it!
…And yup, by the end of the chapter, it’s gonna be Bran, or at least he wants it to be. Although he’s kind of going in the exact wrong direction to get there, natch.
(Are the green men the same thing as the children of the forest, or are they something different? I might have been told of the difference (if there is one) before now, but damned if I can remember it if so.)
(Note: if the answer to that question is a spoiler, please don’t actually answer it.)
And that’s our show, kiddies! Have a lovely weekend, as always, and I will catch you again next Friday!