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 18 of A Dance With Dragons, in which we cover Chapter 30 (“Daenerys”) and Chapter 31 (“Melisandre”).
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 Powers That Be have provided you a lovely spoiler 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!
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Chapter 30: Daenerys
Dany contemplates the large and effective blockade of Meereen in the bay, and finds no encouragement from her admiral Groleo, who bitterly mourns the loss of his former ship and entreats her to unleash her dragons on the blockade. Barristan reminds her their stores are plentiful for the moment, and that his orphans are coming along nicely in their knighthood training. Skahaz comes to report that his spies have seen Hizdahr zo Loraq visit eleven pyramids so far, and there have been no murders for twenty-six days. Skahaz is convinced Hizdahr is not only in league with the Sons of the Harpy but that he is their ringleader, but Dany does not think her enemies in the city are that organized. Skahaz also thinks she should use the families of the Meereenese ships in the blockade to force them to stand down, but Dany counters that sending his Brazen Beasts into the pyramids will precipitate open war in the city, and refuses.
Galazza Galare, Grey Worm, and three Blue Graces come to her to deliver news of a refugee from Astapor who said the city was burning before dying of what seemed to be an arrow wound but which the Graces believe was actually “the bloody flux.” Galazza thinks he is a harbinger of ruin, but Dany says he was only one sick man, and dismisses them. She sends for her bloodriders and mercenary captains to return to the city, including Daario, though she secretly worries that he might betray her.
Brown Ben Plumm returns first, eight days later, bringing her refugees from Astapor who tell her the horrific tale of the city’s suffering and downfall, from disease, starvation, and rioting just as much as the besieging army outside their walls. Their contempt and disappointment that she had failed to rescue them is thinly veiled, but Dany knows that she would have lost Meereen had she marched to Astapor. Ben tells her there are more refugees coming, many of them sick. He and Reznak urge her to bar them from the city, but Dany is loathe to do so. Reznak urges her to marry Hizdahr at once, but Dany remembers that Quaithe had been right about “the pale horse,” and thinks Reznak may be the “perfumed seneschal” she warned Dany about as well. Ben and Reznak argue about the dragons until Dany shuts them up fiercely.
Ben says that if she refuses to use the dragons, then they should sell Meereen back to the Yunkish and leave, but Dany will not hear of it. Skahaz and Barristan argue over whether it is better to allow the city to be besieged or to take the battle to the enemy. Dany decides to send Ben’s Second Sons to scout the enemy and get an idea of their numbers. Ben suggests taking gold along to possibly bribe the mercenaries to switch sides, and Dany agrees. She still wants to shelter the Astapori refugees, but Barristan warns her that he has seen the bloody flux take down entire armies, and she reluctantly agrees to set up a camp for them outside the city instead.
Later, she asks Barristan privately what he thinks of their chances. He thinks they have too many enemies within the city to withstand a siege, and again urges her to let him take the battle outside. Dany points out that if he takes his knights-in-training and the Unsullied, she will only have Skahaz’s Brazen Beasts to hold Meereen. She prays for guidance, but receives none.
When she opened her eyes again, Daenerys said, “I cannot fight two enemies, one within and one without. If I am to hold Meereen, I must have the city behind me. The whole city. I need… I need…” She could not say it.
“Your Grace?” Ser Barristan prompted, gently.
A queen belongs not to herself but to her people.
“I need Hizdahr zo Loraq.”
Aw, man. Not Hizdahr.
Mostly just because, but also because I still say it is Hinky Indeed, that we (and Dany) don’t know what exactly he has been doing to secure this internecine peace. I don’t like it.
But then, what’s to like? As far as Dany’s situation is concerned, it seems that the answer is: not a damn thing.
And some things even less than others:
[Galazza:] “The gods sent this man to us. He comes as a harbinger. He comes as a sign.”
“A sign of what?” asked Dany.
“A sign of wroth and ruin.”
She did not want to believe that. “He was one man. One sick man with an arrow in his leg. A horse brought him here, not a god.” A pale mare.
I See What You Did There, Martin. Nothing like a little Revelations to brighten up your day!
By the way, Barristan is absolutely right about keeping those refugees out of the city. “Bloody flux,” or dysentery as we call it these days, killed more U.S. soldiers in the Civil War than the actual war did, and it is highly contagious. I know this because of my learnings.
It’s also how I learned that if you think the United States never had concentration camps on its soil, you’re wrong. And unfortunately, it seems like Dany is being forced to set up her own little Andersonville, right outside the walls of the city.
Not that I think that’s actually going to help Meereen, really. With crap sanitation infrastructure, pun intended, little or no concept of proper hygiene, and no antibiotics for treatment? Galazza’s assessment of the man on the horse is just about dead right. With emphasis on the “dead” part.
And they let the dude right in the walls.
Shit. Pun also intended.
When does the fun stop, is what I want to know.
In other news, I raised a very distrustful eyebrow at Dany’s blithe acceptance of Ben Plumm’s suggestion that she give him a shit ton of gold and jewels and then send him haring off into the countryside with it. Sure, he might go try to bribe other mercenaries with it… or he might just take the money and run. At this point I almost wouldn’t be able to blame him if he did.
“Almost” being the functional word there. Which brings us to:
Afterward, Ser Barristan told her that her brother Rhaegar would have been proud of her. Dany remembered the words Ser Jorah had spoken at Astapor: Rhaegar fought valiantly, Rhaegar fought nobly, Rhaegar fought honorably. And Rhaegar died.
Yeah, that’s about the crux of it, isn’t it. This is the fundamental question Martin keeps coming back to over and over again. If anything could be said to be the theme of ASOIAF, in fact, it’s this: the question of whether honor is honorable when employed in an honorless world.
It remains to be seen where Martin’s story will come down on the question – or whether it will choose an answer at all – but as it stands at this particular junction, a betting person would certainly lay odds on the “fuck honor” option.
That’s not a stance I agree with, personally. But I am also aware that in comparison to many people (and certainly in comparison to most of the characters in ASOIAF), I have led a singularly privileged and sheltered life, where such questions tend to be much more in the arena of the abstract and theoretical than they are of urgent and imminent reality. In other words, I must consider the possibility that idealism is a luxury that not everyone can afford.
…But even given that, I still must hope that there are principles worth standing up for. The trouble is knowing which principles those are, and whether they are worth everything. I really don’t think Dany is doing the smart thing, but I do have to respect that she is doing what she thinks is the right thing, and hope that doing it doesn’t get her and all her people killed.
Historically, though, in this series… well, that may turn out to be a sucker’s bet.
Chapter 31: Melisandre
Melisandre watches the flames and prays to R’hllor to grant her a glimpse of Stannis, but instead she sees the eyeless faces again, towers crumbling into the sea, shadows shaped like skulls, bodies writhing together, great winged shadows in the sky. She thinks that she needs to see the grey girl on the dying horse, for Jon Snow will expect it of her. She sees a wooden white face with a thousand red eyes, and a boy with a wolf’s face beside him, and knows that the face sees her too. She sees Jon Snow, alternately a man and a wolf, and sees that he is surrounded by skulls; she knows he is in danger, and reflects that unbelievers never listen until it is too late. She is annoyed that she prayed to see Azor Ahai, but only saw Snow instead.
She reflects on her squire Devan; though she knows he wanted to go with Stannis, she had specifically requested him to stay with her where it was safer, as her tribute to Devan’s father Davos and his loyalty to Stannis. She wonders if the wooden face she’d seen was the face of the enemy, but dismisses it as not scary enough. She thinks Jon Snow is at least savvy enough to demand that she come to him instead of the other way around. She sends Devan to fetch Rattleshirt, and reflects that she is running low on her poisons and special effects powders, but comforts herself that she is more powerful at the Wall than she has been anywhere else, and soon will no longer need to resort to cheap tricks.
When the wildling arrives, wreathed in shadows, she observes that he is not wearing his bones. He replies that the clacking was driving him mad, and she reminds him that the bones protect him; they are part of the spell that makes people see what they expect to see, and if it fails, they will kill him. This doesn’t concern the wildling overmuch. They discuss her vision of the eyeless rangers, and he says that is the Weeper’s signature move, and it’s not good if the wildlings are turning to him instead of Tormund. Melisandre pretends to care about this, and then goes about trying to convince him to rescue Jon Snow’s sister to gain his trust.
They are interrupted by the horn announcing the rangers’ return. Melisandre leaves the wildling in her rooms and goes down to the Wall and under it, to where Jon Snow and others are examining the eyeless heads of three rangers skewered on spears and planted in the ground. Snow orders the heads taken down and burned, and then asks Melisandre to walk with him, to her satisfaction. He asks about the other six rangers, and she promises to look for them. He tells her of reports of the wildlings massing opposite Shadow Tower. She tells him about her vision of towers submerged in a tide; he assumes she means Eastwatch, and she agrees even though she thinks that is the wrong answer.
She invites him to her rooms to talk further, and he goes, though she feels his mistrust. She reflects that Snow and Stannis have more in common than they would admit. Snow is upset to find Rattleshirt in her rooms, and incensed at the idea of sending him after his sister, declaring that he’d be more likely to rape and murder Arya than rescue her. Melisandre removes the glamour on the wildling, revealing him to be not Rattleshirt but Mance Rayder. Jon is astonished, and she explains how the real Rattleshirt was burned in Mance’s stead. She says that Mance owes his life to Jon, and will not betray him.
“I told you that the Lord of Light would hear your prayers. You wanted a way to save your little sister and still hold fast to the honor that means so much to you, to the vows you swore before your wooden god.” She pointed with a pale finger. “There he stands, Lord Snow. Arya’s deliverance. A gift from the Lord of Light… and me.”
Before I even read a word: MOTHER PUS BUCKET ARE YOU KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW.
Goddammit, this had better not be Jaime Lannister all over again. Can’t I just distrust and dislike a character in peace over here?
Okay, so, now I have actually read the chapter, and… okay, I’ll get to the Mance thing in a minute, but first, it definitely clears up a few things about Melly, sort of mostly in her favor. For one, it answers my question of whether Melisandre was ever a slave. I still wonder how she got out of the cheek tattoo thing, though.
For another, it seems that her belief that Stannis is The One True Savior is absolutely sincere, which at least rescues her from the accusation of hypocrisy. So that’s nice. It’s also nice that she is trying to protect Davos’s son… though defining Castle Black as “safer” than being on campaign with Stannis really seems like nearly wild-eyed optimism on Melisandre’s part. At least down south he’ll have a much lower chance of being turned into Night of the Frozen Dead. But, you know, blah blah thought that counts blah. So, good on her for that.
However, while it also seems that she has no active malice toward Jon Snow, she very clearly regards him as a means to an end, i.e. disposable if necessary. Which is kind of ironic, because:
Yet now she could not even seem to find her king. I pray for a glimpse of Azor Ahai, and R’hllor shows me only Snow.
The vision of Jon with skulls is pretty disturbing, though her conversation with him later in the chapter indicates that in Melisandre’s version of fortune-telling, a future she sees can be averted. So there’s that. She’d better hope so, anyway, if that little bit of irony above is actually foreshadowing and not a red herring.
How about some more vision interpretation? Okay!
The eyeless faces, obviously, are already explained. If the crumbling towers aren’t Eastwatch, then… well, this could be any number of places, depending on how you define “tower.” I mean, pick a city or hold on a coastline: King’s Landing, Meereen, Casterly Rock, White Harbor, Volantis, Braavos… the list goes on and on. So, not especially useful at this point.
Winged shadows in the sky: duh. And skulls represent death? Well, no kidding, Melly. I took Art History 101 too!
Shadows shaped like skulls + bodies sexing = Magical Shadow Assassin Babies™? Though you’d think Melisandre would recognize that for what it is, seeing as, well, they’re her creations. As an aside, she seems awfully afraid of shadows for someone who produces them (literally) on the regular. But then again, maybe she just knows better than most what shadows are capable of.
The wooden face and wolf-faced boy are pretty obviously Bran and the plant-throne dude he met up with when we last saw him. I’m also pretty sure that describing him as “plant-throne dude” is inducing palpitations somewhere among my readership, but hey, I have to categorize him somehow, and until I get more information on him I might as well make it amusing while I’m at it, eh?
Everything else she sees just seems to generically point at conflict happening on or near the Wall, which also falls under the category of duh.
I skipped over the part where she talks about how she hates sleeping and fears dreaming and never gets more than an hour of sleep a night, but you know, if I were still in the mindset where I was trying to explain away her visions as delusional instead of real magic, I could make a really solid case based on sleep deprivation-induced hallucinations, because damn. I’m pretty sure you cannot survive in the long term with only an hour of sleep in every 24… unless you are a priestess-slash-sorceress, evidently. Must be nice!
As for Mance: well, hey there, Mance! It appears the rumors of your fiery horrific death were visited upon a much more deserving asshole instead! Congrats!
Of course, now he has to go around pretending to be that asshole, which has to suck. Still, well-played, Melly (and Martin): toooootally did not see that one coming. Nice.
It puts that duel he had with Jon Snow earlier in a very different light, that’s for sure. I’m sure at least a part of that was Mance getting a little revenge on Jon for his betrayal, but unlike the real Rattleshirt, I don’t think Mance genuinely wants Jon dead, either practically or personally. So that’s definitely a relief. Unless I’m totally wrong, of course. Which I could be. But hey, if it’s a choice between Rattleshirt traipsing around, and Mance Rayder pretending to be Rattleshirt traipsing around, there’s really just no fuckin’ contest there.
I’m a little unclear on how this great hoax was devised – like, I would absolutely love to know whether Mance suggested it to Melisandre or the other way around – nor am I clear on what the ultimate endgame is here for either of them, but it’s definitely an extremely interesting development that I am definitely intrigued to see where it will go. *chinhands*
In any case, I do hope that Mance actually succeeds in rescuing not-Arya aka Jeyne Poole, for her sake obviously more than for Jon’s, and doesn’t take the opportunity to ride off into the sunset so he doesn’t have to wear annoying bone suits anymore.
In conclusion re: Melisandre: well, obviously everyone always regards themselves as the protagonist/hero of their own story, and owing to the way we’ve been trained as readers, getting inside a character’s head almost inevitably inclines us to sympathize more with them than we did while outside it. This is a psychological trick Martin has exploited ruthlessly in his ongoing quest to make us sympathize with characters who really, really don’t deserve it.
The thing about Melisandre, though, is that however sympathetic she appears in this chapter, she still strikes me as extremely dangerous. Not so much for what she can do (though that’s plenty dangerous enough), but for how she sees the world. Regardless of whether her single-minded, zealous certainty that Stannis has to save the world is true or not, it remains that “single-minded, zealous certainty” can have disastrous results for anyone who gets in its way.
And there are an awful lot of people who could potentially get in her way. And at the moment, it looks like Bran and Jon are at the top of that list. And that is Not Good.
And that’s what I have to say about that, so y’all go gaze into a fire or something for a week and then come back next Thursday for Moar! Yay!