A Read of Ice and Fire

A Read of Ice and Fire: A Clash of Kings, Part 21

Welcome back 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 21 of A Clash of Kings, in which we cover Chapters 44 (“Tyrion”) and 45 (“Catelyn”).

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, The Powers That Be at Tor.com have very kindly set up a forum thread for spoilery comments. 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 44: Tyrion

What Happens
In hopes of a command position, Lancel tells Tyrion of Cersei’s plan to send Tommen to Rosby and disguise him as a page there. Tyrion asks whether she fears the mob or himself, and Lancel replies, both. Tyrion worries that Varys had said nothing to him of this. Later that night Tyrion gives Bronn a letter to bring to Bywater that instructs Bywater to go scout the roseroad, but for Bronn to tell him to ignore the letter and instead ambush the party escorting Tommen, and take him to Rosby themselves. He promises Bywater a lordship out of it, but tells Bronn to warn him not to do any killing in front of Tommen.

They head to Chataya’s, but Tyrion abruptly tires of the subterfuge and instead heads straight for Shae’s manse. He is annoyed to find a fat singer there, who is foolish enough to greet Tyrion by name. He threatens the singer and takes Shae to the bedroom; she starts to protest that the singer won’t speak of his presence, but Tyrion cuts her off with lovemaking.

Later, Varys arrives, disguised as a beggar; both he and Tyrion are startled that Shae recognizes him instantly, and she tells them whores must learn to see the man, not the garb, or they will not survive long. She leaves, and Varys tells Tyrion that Ser Cortnay Penrose is dead, and Storm’s End fallen to Stannis. Tyrion is incensed, having hoped the fortress would keep Stannis occupied until Tywin had finished with Robb Stark. He sends Varys to the stables to wait for him.

Shae returns, and Tyrion tells her she is no longer safe at the manse, and wants to move her into the castle disguised as a scullery maid. Shae says that she wants to be his lady, not his whore, but he tells her that is impossible, that his family forbids it. She does not understand why he is scared of Cersei and his father, and tries to seduce him into forgetting the idea. Then she taunts him, and Tyrion slaps her. He immediately apologizes, but Shae acts wooden toward him, and he finds himself confessing the story of how Jaime and his father had duped him into falling in love with the whore they had hired to have him lose his virginity, and then forced him to watch her be gangbanged. Shae accepts the idea, then, but Tyrion is not sure she believes that it is only temporary.

He leaves with Varys, terrified that he had confided so much to Shae. He tells his scheme to Varys; Varys points out that in the kitchens Shae will be the object of both curiosity and lust, and suggests instead that she replace Lady Tanda’s maid, whom Varys knows is a thief, and from there be slipped into Tyrion’s chambers on the sly. Tyrion is displeased but not surprised that there is a secret passage into the Hand’s chambers, but accepts the idea.

Varys reports that Penrose apparently jumped to his death, but Tyrion doesn’t buy that at all, and assumes he must have been assassinated. He asks Varys how, and Varys asks whether Tyrion believes in “the old powers”, in light of Renly and Penrose’s mysterious deaths. Tyrion scoffs at the notion, and Varys tells him of how he was bought as a young boy and made a eunuch by a man who not only cut off his manhood, but chanted and burned it on a brazier, and Varys says he heard a voice answer the man, and it is that voice which haunts his dreams ever since.

“Was it a god, a demon, some conjurer’s trick? I could not tell you, and I know all the tricks. All I can say for a certainty is that he called it, and it answered, and since that day I have hated magic and all those who practice it. If Lord Stannis is one such, I mean to see him dead.”

Tyrion apologizes, but says he doesn’t believe in such things, and assumes it was the work of a very skilled assassin. Varys goes on that there is no word on either Tywin or Littlefinger, who appears to have disappeared. Tyrion begins laughing, to Varys’s confusion. Tyrion tells him the jest:

“Storm’s End is fallen and Stannis is coming with fire and steel and the gods alone know what dark powers, and the good folk don’t have Jaime to protect them, nor Robert nor Renly nor Rhaegar nor their precious Knight of Flowers. Only me, the one they hate.” He laughed again. “The dwarf, the evil counselor, the twisted little monkey demon. I’m all that stands between them and chaos.”

Well. There was a remarkable amount of honesty happening in this chapter, from two characters perhaps the least inclined of any to indulge in it – Varys especially.

And as usual, Martin has done a frustratingly excellent job of making the reader (well, this reader, anyway) sympathize with a character who would in many other narratives be easily dismissed as either a low-level villain or as an object of ridicule, or both. It’s kind of wildly hypocritical of me to feel this disgruntled that Martin insists on giving so many of his characters layers and depth and shit, but at this point it would be nice to have someone I could unequivocally hate without reservation.

Oh, wait: Joffrey. And Gregor Clegane. Never mind, I’m good.

(Funny story: I was at a crawfish boil a week or so ago where I had to walk away from a group of folks because they’d started discussing HBO’s A Game of Thrones – I figured it was rude to ask them to stop, but I didn’t want to risk being spoiled – and the only thing I heard as I was walking off was one guy saying: “So, how much do you want to beat the shit out of that Joffrey kid, huh?” SO, SO MUCH, DUDE. Heh.)

Anyway, Varys’s story is horrifying, of course, but also sort of morbidly fascinating at the same time – what exactly did the sorcerer who mutilated him get out of it? It does provide a tiny bit more info on how Martin’s magic “system” works. I use the quotes because at this point of the story there really isn’t enough info on how it works to even be sure there is a system to it (or, if so, how many different systems there are), but it seems like it’s definitely being established that at least for many kinds of magic here, some type of cost/reward balance is demanded.

Which is a pretty common limiting factor in fictional magic systems, which by their very nature dictate that, from a narrative point of view, their limitations are more important than their benefits. (See Brandon Sanderson’s essay on his Second Law of Magic for a detailed analysis of this idea.) In other words, in order to get something, you have to give something; the bigger the thing you want, the bigger the sacrifice needed to get it, otherwise it would be far too easy for characters to use magic to solve every problem they have.

It’s also a pretty common trope that an easy (if utterly immoral, of course) endrun around this cost/reward problem is to make someone else make the required sacrifice for you – whether they want to or not. I’m theorizing at the moment that this is at least partially what’s going with Stannis and Melisandre and their magical shadow assassin babies, and it’s also what seems to have happened with Varys as well.

Sacrificing a boy’s manhood, literally, is heinous (duh), but it is also an extremely powerful act, both physically and symbolically: you’re taking away not only what is (for better or worse) the physical indicators of the boy’s very identity as a male, but you are also sacrificing his chance to father children and thus pass his blood into future generations. From a certain point of view, the act could be viewed as just as much a ritual murder of all of Varys’s potential children as it was a ritual mutilation of Varys himself. That’s… some serious shit, right there. So I don’t know what that sorcerer guy was after, but it must have been something big.

Whatever it was, I hope it ate him. Bastard.

Anyway. This chapter also featured Tyrion making a lot of rather unnervingly bad decisions, and I include the honesty in that. I hope they do not come back to bite him in the ass later, but given what series I’m reading here, I have to assume imminent ass-biteage is pretty much inevitable, so, sigh.

Call me crazy, but moving Shae to the castle is just begging to send everything pear-shaped. Even if Varys stays loyal (which, ehhhh) and Cersei shockingly doesn’t get wind of it somehow anyway (which, eeesh), Shae is currently a very wobbly pillar of discretion and/or trust herself, and Tyrion just handed her a shitload of ammunition to use against him should she so choose. Not to mention that he also, almost in the same breath, provided her the motive to do so, by finally fulfilling her sad (if totally understandable) expectations and actually treating her like a whore.

AAAAGGGHHH, the fail, it burnssss.

I did have to love that Shae is the only one who is completely unfooled by Varys’s powers of disguise. All other considerations aside, it’s long been contended that there is a much stronger area of commonality between the art of psychological analysis and the practice of the sex industry than most people are comfortable admitting. What people really want (or need), sexually or otherwise, is frequently the thing they try hardest to hide, and if your trade depends on seeing what people want (or need), sexually or otherwise, you’d better be pretty good at cutting through their surface bullshit.

Let’s hope for Tyrion’s sake that Shae is good enough at her job to cut through his low self-esteem bullshit and see how crazy in love with her he really is, and not betray him. I don’t know that I’ll hold my breath, though.

Other notes:

Lancel, you little shit. Turned just that easy, eh? Unless he’s being a double agent, which… isn’t much better, little shit-wise. Blearg.

Also, bye, Ser Cortnay. That really sucks, dude. Killed by a magical shadow assassin baby, what a way to go. On the upside, at least that’s a fairly original way to be killed? In the grand scheme of things? Possibly I’m looking too hard for a silver lining here?

What the hell is Littlefinger doing? Where is he? Bah. Well, wherever he turns up, I’ll bet you money it’s going to epically suck for someone. The question is, who?

Chapter 45: Catelyn

What Happens
Edmure and his company ride out from Riverrun, and Catelyn tries to be optimistic. Brienne is miserable that she cannot go. Catelyn reflects bitterly that just like always, she is doing her duty, but now she cannot determine anymore where her true duty lies. She prays at the sept, then finds a singer singing the story of Lord Deremond at the Bloody Meadow, and wonders why boys so love to play at war. Brienne tells her:

“Fighting is better than this waiting,” Brienne said. “You don’t feel so helpless when you fight. You have a sword and a horse, sometimes an axe. When you’re armored it’s hard for anyone to hurt you.”

“Knights die in battle,” Catelyn reminded her.

Brienne looked at her with those blue and beautiful eyes. “As ladies die in childbed. No one sings songs about them.”

Catelyn contends that children are a battle of a different sort, and that sometimes she feels torn apart, wanting to keep them safe, and that in the absence of her male relatives who are supposed to protect Catelyn in turn, Brienne must do so instead. Brienne vows to try.

Later Catelyn receives word of Penrose’s death and the fall of Storm’s End to Stannis, and notes that there is no mention of what happened to Robert’s bastard, though she assumes he was surrendered to Stannis. She wonders what Stannis wants him for, and Brienne’s description of the boy makes Catelyn realize that Stannis means to parade him about to show his obvious resemblance to Robert, in contrast to Joffrey, though she personally doesn’t think it will persuade anyone who doesn’t want to be persuaded in the first place.

She reflects that of all Ned’s children, only Arya and Jon Snow had favored Ned in looks, and wonders uneasily whether Jon’s unknown mother grieves for Ned too. She also thinks of how strangely men behaved when it came to their bastards: Ned had loved Jon, and Penrose had given his life for Edric Storm, while Roose Bolton (in a letter which also reported he was about to march on Harrenhal) had not cared at all that his bastard son Ramsay had been executed.

That night three small parties of Lannister outriders make attempts at the mined fords on the river, and are easily beaten back. Ser Desmond is exultant at the victories, but Brienne opines to Catelyn that Tywin is merely testing Riverrun’s defenses, and will eventually come at them in force. The next morning Catelyn goes to question Ser Cleos Frey, having had him plied well with wine beforehand, and hears the terms Tyrion Lannister had given him to convey. She is puzzled that he had offered to trade Arya and Sansa for Jaime Lannister, and forces Cleos to admit that while he had seen Sansa at court in King’s Landing, he had not seen Arya. That worries her, but she is intrigued that Tyrion and not Cersei had offered the terms. She remembers that Tyrion had defended her in the Vale, and wonders if perhaps she could trust him, but then remembers the assassination attempt on Bran, and rejects the notion.

Eight days later, Edmure sends word that he had won a victory against Tywin’s forces, keeping them from crossing the river and almost succeeding in killing Gregor Clegane. Riverrun celebrates that night, but Catelyn is untouched by the merriment of the rest.

The gods had granted them victory after victory. At Stone Mill, at Oxcross, in the Battle of the Camps, at the Whispering Wood…

But if we are winning, why am I so afraid?

You’re afraid because you’ve got sense, Catelyn.

Maybe I am just merrily traipsing down the suggestive narrative path Catelyn’s misgivings have laid for me, but these feints and skirmishes Tywin put forth on Riverrun in this chapter struck me as positively sophomoric, strategically, and therefore I am highly highly suspicious of them. Tywin’s not going to win the Father of the Year Award anytime soon, but a crappy warleader he certainly is not. Verdict:

Like, for reals.

Catelyn’s moment of almost-trust for Tyrion here left me all confuzled, because I am rooting for Catelyn and I am also rooting for Tyrion, and superficially it seems like a no-brainer that I would want them to join forces so I can root for them together, but then I actually look at the situation and realize that makes no damn sense at all. And then I sulk a little bit.

It is simpler for [Brienne], Catelyn thought with a pang of envy. She was like a man in that. For men the answer was always the same, and never farther away than the nearest sword. For a woman, a mother, the way was stonier and harder to know.

I don’t buy this statement on its merits, if for no other reason than the simple fact that Brienne’s very existence puts the lie to the monolithic mindset Catelyn tries to apply to both men and women alike, but I love that she and Brienne are having this dialogue throughout their association thus far, that they are discussing what they see as the differences between “men’s strength” and “women’s strength,” regardless of whether I agree with either of their assertions. Just not having the dichotomy be assumed as a foregone conclusion is pretty awesome.

It may also be a trifle sad that my standards are of necessity so low on this topic that a mere acknowledgement of it is cause for excitement, but that’s a different rant.

Re: Edric Storm, in my opinion Catelyn is right on the money in that his resemblance to Robert is only going to convince people who already are convinced that Cersei is guilty of incest. People are funny that way. Welcome to the wonderful world of political spin, eh?

Also, Roose Bolton is about to attack Harrenhal, reallllly. Well, that should be interesting. Imminent Arya rescue, perhaps, yes yes? *bounce, clap*

I don’t know that Catelyn’s observation re: men and their bastards should really apply in Roose’s case, though. Because, if I had a (by all reports) total monster like that for a kid, I’d probably want to wash my hands of him too. I’m just saying. That he was a bastard should have had nothing to do with it.

… although, going back and re-reading that bit, Roose does blather about “tainted blood” and such in his letter, so okay, maybe it does count. Er. Never mind?

And, well, yeah. That’s all for now, kiddie-kadanzies. Have a delightful degorgeous degroovy weekend, and I’ll see you next Friday!


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