Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 62-64

Strange_BlackEvery one of these chapters feels like it could be a climax, but none of them really quite manage it. Instead, they continue the enormous build up to the reuniting of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Rereading these chapters, I found myself fascinated by a couple of things that I don’t remember really “getting” during previous readings.

First, there is some really gruesome stuff in this book–like, some really graphic and gory descriptions of violence that I guess maybe I just never caught or that never really stood out to me when I wasn’t paying so much attention.

Second, these late chapters are really where Susanna Clarke does an amazing job of working with the themes of dualities that she’s developed throughout the earlier parts of the book. Strange and Norrell’s reunion isn’t the only one happening late in the novel, and these chapters begin an almost frantic-seeming pairing off of characters and seeing how different relationships resolve before we get to the Strange/Norrell main event.

The Crossroads

Chapter 62 is entirely dedicated to a meeting between Henry Lascelles and Christopher Drawlight, and it’s amazing to see how these two characters have changed since we first met them.

Lascelles began the book as a skeptic and a cynic, but his acquaintance with Norrell has convinced him of the reality of magic as well as created in him a drive to be part of great things. Though Lascelles is not himself a magician, he rather fancies himself a sort of magician kingmaker, and he wants to make Norrell into a sort of Raven King for the modern age–primarily by zealously working to banish the mythology of John Uskglass from respectable society. Lascelles envisions magic as a gentleman’s profession, and John Uskglass and Jonathan Strange are not, in Lascelles’ view, gentlemen.

Drawlight, of course, is not so much profoundly changed by his experiences as he is almost driven mad. He’s a simple man, and his life since meeting Mr. Norrell has become anything but simple. At this point in the novel, Drawlight’s meeting with Jonathan Strange has frightened him nearly to death, and he returns to England basically to throw himself back on Lascelles mercy. Drawlight is at his wit’s end–which is no place to be for a man who has always lived by his wits.

When we met these men early in the book, they came as a pair. If they weren’t friends, exactly, they were probably as close as either of these fairly awful people could manage. It was only when Drawlight’s side business was discovered that there was a break between them. And it was only when Lascelles saw a new use for Drawlight that he bothered to “help” him out of debtor’s prison.

Now, Drawlight has returned to England carrying his three messages, and Lascelles meets him alone at a crossroads in the country. Lascelles extracts Jonathan Strange’s messages from Drawlight and then essentially executes the poor fellow. In one of the most poetically gruesome descriptions I’ve read of death in ages, Drawlight’s body is quickly eaten up by the earth, which seems to have taken on a bizarre new life. Lascelles, of course, doesn’t notice anything amiss because he’s too busy feeling like a badass after murdering his ex-friend.

Mr. Norrell at an inn on the way to Hurtfew Abbey.
Mr. Norrell at an inn on the way to Hurtfew Abbey.

The Road to Hurtfew Abbey

When Lascelles returns to Norrell after murdering Drawlight, he tells the magician that Drawlight never showed up for their meeting, but only left a letter. Of the three messages that Jonathan Strange gave Drawlight, the only one that is conveyed accurately is the message to Norrell that Strange is coming. Though Childermass is suspicious of Lascelles, his concerns must wait to be addressed as they are quickly on their way to Hurtfew Abbey, where it seems most likely that Jonathan Strange will appear.

On the road, Lascelles and Childermass continue their various ongoing disagreements, each trying to undermine the other in Norrell’s eyes. Also on the journey, it becomes even more apparent that magic is returning to England, and one of Lascelles and Childermass’s many arguments is concerning Childermass’s failure to fight a strange man he met while exploring a fairy road. Lascelles, still riding the bloodthirsty high he got from killing Drawlight, insists that Childermass should have dueled the fellow–who was ominously called the Champion of the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart–and that Childermass is a coward for retreating.

By the time the party arrives at Hurtfew Abbey, things are near a breaking point, and the final argument comes while they are waiting for Jonathan Strange to arrive. Childermass has been reading his tarot cards, and he divines that Lascelles has a message for him. Lascelles denies it, and Childermass calls the other man a thief. Lascelles responds to this by attacking Childermass, cutting the servant’s face, and forcing Norrell to choose between the two of them. Norrell, ever class conscious and seemingly incapable of making a right decision, sides with Lascelles, sending Childermass packing.

Fortunately, Childermass did manage to pick Lascelle’s pocket and retrieve the box with Lady Pole’s finger, and when he leaves Hurtfew, he rides off with purpose.

The Servants

As Childermass rides away from Hurtfew, he is the first person to notice that the darkness surrounding the house is not natural–Jonathan Strange has already arrived, although the inhabitants of the place don’t know it. It doesn’t take long before things start getting weird, though, and even as Childermass is riding away all the clocks in the house start to chime.

The servants and Lascelles help Norrell with some final preparations, and the whole group starts going towards the library only to find that Jonathan Strange has changed Norrell’s labyrinth. Norrell quickly becomes lost and confused, and before long he’s been separated from the rest of the group.

In Norrell’s absence, his remaining servants realise that there is nothing else for them to do here and prepare to leave. After protesting the servants’ departure and practically accusing them of thievery, Lascelles decides to leave Hurtfew as well. While the servants are planning to disperse to neighboring farms, Lascelles determines to travel down a fairy road, hoping to find the fight he believes Childermass was a coward for running from.

Lady Pole’s Enchantment

Childermass, in the meantime, has ridden for Starecross to see Lady Pole. When he arrives, he finds John Segundus in a sorry state. Segundus has always been sensitive to magic, and living in constant contact with Lady Pole’s enchantment has caused him to be, not ill exactly, but not well either.

When he’s taken to see Lady Pole, Childermass is even more negatively influenced by the magic that surrounds her, but he is able to learn what has happened. He is even able to discern a remedy, and Childermass and Segundus cast a spell to break Lady Pole’s enchantment once and for all. The relieved Lady Pole is passionately anxious to avenge herself on Norrell and to punish Strange, and she lets slip that Stephen Black and Arabella Strange are likewise enchanted. While she is still expressing her fury, Childermass takes his leave to return to Hurtfew, where he hopes to offer his assistance to the two magicians there in freeing Stephen and Arabella.

Plucked Eye and Heart

Finally, we return to Lascelles, who manages to find the Champion that Childermass refused to fight on the fairy road. Without even listening to what the man has to say, Lascelles initiates a duel which the Champion seems to lose on purpose. Lascelles is still reveling in his victory when another traveler approaches, and Lascelles turns to the new arrival and says, “I am the Champion of the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart…”

It’s a fitting ending for Lascelles, and I really appreciate the symmetry of events here and the way the author has ordered things so that as one character escapes enchantment, another replaces her.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 59-61

Strange_RedThings just get better and better. For the reader, that is. Maybe not so much for the characters in the book, for most of whom things are just getting scary.

These are the chapters where I would say Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell becomes an epic fantasy in a characteristic other than page count. While Norrell has done quite a bit of magic around England, most of it has happened off-page, and though Strange has done some impressive magic, especially in the war, it still feels inconsequential in comparison to the things going on now.

Rumors

In Venice, Dr. Greysteel receives a visitor: the newly-freed-from-debtor’s-prison Mr. Drawlight, who is as odious as ever. Drawlight has already been flittering about all over Venice in order to find out rumors, malicious and otherwise, about Jonathan Strange in addition to spreading some of his own (namely, the rumor that Jonathan Strange murdered his wife). Finally, Drawlight makes his way to see Dr. Greysteel, hoping to pump the man for information about Strange. To Drawlight’s disappointment, Dr. Greysteel is a sensible man and a loyal friend; even Greysteel’s servants are incorruptible.

Unfortunately, Drawlight doesn’t truly need Greysteel’s help to blacken Strange’s name all over town, and soon “Jonathan Strange murdered his wife” is added to the list of things that “everyone” knows. When Drawlight tries to bribe Greysteel’s servant, Frank, he finds himself pushed unceremoniously into a canal that uncannily whisks him into the dark part of town that surrounds Jonathan Strange.

Drawlight discovers Jonathan Strange outside a church in Venice.
Drawlight discovers Jonathan Strange outside a church in Venice.

Three Messages

Drawlight is terrified by the darkness he finds himself in and is wandering around trying to find his way out when he finds Jonathan Strange. It takes a moment, but Strange recognizes Drawlight and tells him he has three messages Drawlight must deliver.

First Strange tells Drawlight about Lady Pole’s enchantment and that it’s Norrell’s doing. He gives Drawlight the box with Lady Pole’s finger in it and tells him to give the box to John Childermass and tell Childermass what Norrell has done. Next, Strange gives Drawlight a cryptic message for all the magicians in England:

“Tell them this… Tree speaks to stone; stone speaks to water. It is not so hard as we supposed. Tell them to read what is written in the sky. Tell them to ask the rain! All of John Uskglass’s old alliances are still in place. I am sending messengers to remind the stones and the sky and the rain of their ancient promises.”

When Strange is done, Drawlight reminds him that he never gave the third message. Strange seems very caught up in a moment of madness, but finally he spits out the last message:

“Tell Norrell I am coming!”

Back in England, Stephen Black is visited by the man with the thistledown hair, who is frightened and angry. He knows what Jonathan Strange is doing, and he doesn’t like it.

Aunt Greysteel
Aunt Greysteel

Flora Greysteel

I’m so happy that Flora kind of gets her own chapter here, and it’s a good one.

After being sent away from Venice, she and her aunt have taken lodging in Padua where Flora can rest and deal with her disappointment over her separation from Jonathan Strange. Before Flora can really move on, though, she has one last meeting with Strange, under bizarre circumstances.

We find out that the purpose of this meeting was so Flora could persuade Jonathan Strange to give up the madness, and he has even given her the bottle of tincture he made so she can dispose of it. Flora is sad about the loss of Strange, but she is determined to be a good friend to him and insists that she convinced him to leave off the madness because she believed it was what Arabella would want. When Flora pours the remainder of Strange’s madness tincture into the sea, I feel like she really is going to be okay.

The Magic of England

In England again, Norrell and Lascelles are very concerned about how things are going. While they have managed to largely discredit Jonathan Strange, this has also worked against their own interests, and Norrell is no longer receiving any commissions from the government and has become rather generally disliked and distrusted.

Perhaps the first sign of change is when Childermass informs Norrell that magic is being done in England. While there has been talk for years of magic, this is the first time that it seems to be legit claim, and Childermass seems alarmed. Lascelles is disdainful of the idea, though, and directs Norrell’s attention to a summons from the Ministers in the hope that it will be a new commission at last.

When Norrell and Lascelles meet with the Ministers, it turns out that it is a commission, but it’s not what either of them expected. Childermass was correct in his assertion that people were doing magic in England again, and the Ministers have numerous confirmed stories of their own. When Norrell denies any knowledge of or responsibility for any of this, it becomes obvious that Jonathan Strange has done something to bring back the magic.

Norrell’s new commission, therefore, is to prevent Jonathan Strange from returning to England. Norrell knows that there’s really no way he can prevent it–he can only prepare for it. Childermass suggests that Strange will go to Hurtfew Abbey–presumably for Norrell’s library–so that will be the place to meet him.

Also, Drawlight is back.

Watch the first trailer for The Martian

The Martian was a book that surprised me when I read it. It’s definitely a book that seemed to me aimed at the “loves-watching-people-burn-things-for-science-on-YouTube” crowd, but I ended up loving it. It’s smart and funny and while it sometimes feels a little too much like reading hundreds of pages of Hackaday, I still had an inexplicably hard time putting it down.

When I heard it was being adapted for film, I was pleased, and now that I’ve seen the first trailer, I’d rate my feelings about it as excited.

Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted coverUprooted is probably my favorite book that I’ve read so far this year, and it’s definitely the best thing I’ve ever read by Naomi Novik. I did rather like His Majesty’s Dragon, but I never kept up on the series. This book is nothing like the Temeraire books, though.

Reading Uprooted is a truly magical experience, and I tore through it in less than a day. Although I generally am not a huge fan of first person narration, I fell in love with Agnieszka immediately. She’s a character with a very strong personality that shines out from every page, and her voice only gets stronger and more certain as she grows throughout the novel.

Her love interest, the Dragon, is a little less three-dimensional, but I think he works. While I don’t usually like large age gaps in my romance and teacher-student romances are even worse, Novik neatly side-steps about 95% of any weirdness by making Agnieszka extremely self-sufficient. The Dragon doesn’t really have that much to teach her; the things Agnieszka needs to learn can’t be taught much at all. Instead, she and the Dragon become friends and partners, and I felt like their relationship grew so organically that by the time the actually consummate it (in a scene that manages to be sexy and fun without being a distraction from the plot) it feels perfectly timed.

The supporting characters are mostly good as well. Perhaps the most important relationship in the book is the one between Agnieszka and her best friend, Kasia, and I love that it’s not always easy. Novik isn’t afraid to look at the darker side of their long friendship and explore negative emotions like jealousy and resentment in an honest and positive way. I liked the Falcon, who is one of the best sort of mostly-static characters–he is who he is, and there’s not much that is going to change him drastically. The book could stand to be more diverse, but the one notable character of color is a black woman who is a badass wizard and gets her own sort of happy ending.

The plot is something else. I read quite a lot of retold fairy tales, and I rather expected Uprooted to be in that vein. Instead, it’s something very different and fresh, and there were several times when I thought I was reading one kind of book only to turn the page and find out that it was something different. While Uprooted is inspired by Polish folk stories, which gives it a certain feeling of familiarity, it’s a wholly original work that pays homage to fairy tales but avoids all the worst fairy tale tropes. In fact, Uprooted plays with fairy tale conventions in some really interesting ways that I definitely see putting it at the top of my year’s best list.

Game of Thrones Recap: Season 5, Episode 9 “The Dance of Dragons”

Well, that happened. I was actually moderately excited about this episode for the Daznak’s Pit stuff, and even that was disappointing. “The Dance of Dragons” is just a big old mess of bafflingly terrible adaptational choices topped off with pretty clear evidence that they spent their whole effects budget on Hardhome last week.

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Melisandre investigating the disturbance.

The episode opens in the North, with Melisandre hearing something happening outside her tent. As she walks outside and lifts a lantern to see into the night, men start yelling and fires start springing up all over the camp. In perhaps the coolest visual effect of the episode, a horse runs by actually on fire and screaming its head off, which is a horrifying sound and definitely adds to the sense of terror here. That said, it seems a little silly that this is the stuff that freaks Melisandre out. A woman who burns people alive for a living and who is one of the driving forces behind this war to begin with is this unsettled by stuff that is part of completely conventional warfare? Okay. Sure.

In the morning after this attack we find out that this was Ramsay Bolton’s plan being successful. Less than twenty men managed to sneak into Stannis Baratheon’s enormous encampment, completely undetected, and destroy all their food, supplies, and siege weapons. If they can do that successfully, why not just assassinate Stannis himself? Or Melisandre? Where did the Bolton men get their intelligence? How on earth, no matter how well they know the North, did they know exactly where to go in that camp to do the most damage? When all the tents basically look the same and everything is covered in snow? Like so many other things on this show these days, none of this makes much sense if you think about it at all.

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Jon Snow returns from Hardhome.

Even farther north, north of the Wall, Jon Snow has returned with the relatively few Free Folk that he’s managed to retrieve from Hardhome. There’s an attempt to create a tense moment as Alliser Thorne glowers down disapprovingly from the top of the Wall, but there’s not really any point at which one seriously feels that he’s going to refuse. In a huge disaster of an episode, I did love this moment, even though I don’t think it was entirely successful as a piece of drama.

Ser Alliser will do his job, but he's not going to pretend to like it.
Ser Alliser will do his job, but he’s not going to pretend to like it.

Owen Teale as Ser Alliser really just knocks it out of the park in this episode, and I feel like he’s brought an interesting level of depth and sympathy to the character that never existed in the books, where Ser Alliser is only experienced through the point of views of characters to whom he acts as an antagonist. His thoughtful gaze as he watches the Wildlings from the top of the Wall communicates a lot about this character’s reaction to these events, and Alliser proves his loyalty (or maybe just his basic humanity) when he opens the gate to let them in. However, his last remarks–”You have a good heart, Jon Snow; it’ll get us all killed”–make his position more clear. Ser Alliser won’t leave children to starve in the snow; he’ll let them in, but he won’t be happy about it.

Back at Stannis’s camp, Stannis is sending Davos back to Castle Black to demand more horses and supplies. First Davos suggests that any boy with a scroll could deliver this message, but Stannis insists that it must be Davos. Then Davos offers to take Selyse and Shireen with him, then just Shireen (”A siege is no place for a little girl.”), but Stannis only responds that his family is staying with him. And holy shit, are they about to do what I think they are going to do? Of course they are.

The last happy moment in all of Game of Thrones, probably.
The last happy moment in all of Game of Thrones, probably.

But first, Davos goes to visit Shireen, and it breaks my heart that this is the last scene we’ll see between these two characters because their friendship is so sweet and good and one of the few nice things that happen in this show. As much as I love this scene because I love these characters, the lead-up to what’s about to happen to Shireen is so goddamn heavy-handedly done, I end up just feeling resentful about it. Because of course the show is going to give us this beautiful scene (and this season’s earlier nice scenes with Shireen), even though we probably all should have known she was doomed as soon as Stannis didn’t leave her at the Wall like he did in the books.

Ellaria does her part to keep things weird.
Ellaria does her part to keep things weird.

In Dorne, we get our first awkward family dinner with the Martells, and this is the first scene in Dorne that I haven’t completely hated. Probably because awkward family dinners are perhaps the single thing that this show does consistently well. Jaime is insolent, Ellaria pouts shamelessly and ends up flouncing off in a huff, Trystane looks beautiful, Myrcella is still in teenage rebellion, Doran is much slimier sounding than I envisioned him in the books, and Areo Hotah looks long-suffering. Looks like Myrcella is going back to King’s Landing after all, but with Trystane in tow to take Oberyn’s place on the Small Council. And Bronn will be released back to Jaie.

Cute couple.
Cute couple. I look forward to awkward family dinners in King’s Landing with these two.

I kind of hate this, actually–I did only say I didn’t completely hate this scene. In the books, it’s Lady Nym who is sent to King’s Landing with Tyene accompanying her, and this is after their plot to crown Myrcella queen has been foiled and Doran has brought them into his plot. It’s bad enough that the show decided to omit Arianne Martell altogether, and it’s obnoxious what they’ve done with Ellaria–they’ve characterized her (and the Sand Snakes) as unreasonable, stupid, and ineffectual to boot–but replacing the Sand Snakes’ trip to King’s Landing with sending Trystane? This is just ridiculous. Not only did we not get a major female character from the books, but the group of women we did get are being sidelined from their own story in a way that will basically leave them with nothing to do.

Why did the show even bother to include the Sand Snakes and the trip to Dorne at all if this is how they were going to handle it? They could have just as well had Doran send a letter saying “Hey, I’m sending your daughter home, but here’s my son and the betrothal is still on.” If a full season full of “story” can be done equally effectively by just sending a raven, there’s a big problem.

My expression through this whole scene.
My expression through this whole scene.

But wait, it gets worse! Because, goodness knows, we have to head off to Doran’s dungeons now, where Bronn is listening to the Sand Snakes playing some kind of game that sounds like 50 Shades of Grey. Apparently, the game is for Nym to try and slap Tyene’s hands, which she is holding completely stationary so Tyene gets slapped again and again while Nym taunts her all sexy-like about how Tyene likes humiliation and pain. It’s gross and unnecessary, and just as they are about to get into a sexy girl fight, Areo Hotah shows up to spoil their fun by glaring disapprovingly at them. As Bronn is released, Tyene wants him to tell her again that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, and Obara stops sulking just long enough to call her sister a slut. Because D&D will never miss a chance to demean women as much as possible, and for some reason they really hate the Sand Snakes. Bronn is turned over to Jaime, but not before Areo Hotah elbows him in the face–Trystane’s condition for Bronn’s release, apparently.

Street harassment really adds to the "realism" of things, I guess?
Street harassment really adds to the “realism” of things, I guess?

Speaking of demeaning women, we next move along to Braavos, where Arya is verbally assaulted by some gross dude without seconds of appearing on screen. I was kind of enjoying the wider shot of the docks and was planning on saying something nice about how seeing these broader views of the setting helps make the world of the show feel more real. But then I got this lovely reminder that even in fantasy worlds women can’t escape disgusting men who feel the need to harass them on the street for no reason whatsoever besides being a random act of sexual aggression towards a character who is supposed to still be a very young teenager.

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Ser Meryn Trant in Braavos.

Arya is doing her rounds and getting ready to spy on the thin man that she’s supposed to kill when she recognizes Ser Meryn Trant, who has just arrived in Braavos with Mace Tyrell. For all that Arya is supposed to have made some real progress this season, she basically immediately abandons her true mission in order to pursue her vendetta against Ser Meryn.

Mace Tyrell is a bloviating windbag, and not even in a particularly entertaining way as he attempts to schmooze with the banker, Tycho Nestoris. I thought I would be more excited to see Mark Gatiss back, but I just found myself bored with these scenes. It’s pretty much just Tyrell blustering (and singing, ugh), Nestoris smirking, and Trant looking around suspiciously and almost recognizing Arya like five times.

Eventually, Arya follows Trant to a brothel, where we get another disgusting scene of female degradation as prostitutes are trotted out one after another for Trant’s inspection only to be deemed “too old” over and over again. Finally, he’s brought a literal child to brutalize, and Arya is finally shooed out of the brothel. This scene is actually really weird to be because the madam who is showing the girls to Trant seems so reluctant to bring him such a young girl, but does it anyway. And her removal of Arya from the place seems motivated at least partly by concern for Arya’s safety or virtue in such a place. If this woman has such scruples, why cater to a piece of trash pedophile in the first place? And, if this woman is concerned for Arya, then how is Arya going to convince her to allow Arya near Trant the next night, since I’m assuming that’s where this is going? It just doesn’t make much sense.

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My face through all of this shit.

Also, it makes me sick that Arya’s character is even being used this way. I suppose we can be glad that Maisie Williams was only seventeen during filming for this season, so we probably won’t see her get actually raped or anything, but it’s truly reprehensible how Benioff and Weiss seem so determined to expose the Stark girls to sexual violence.

Who needs dignity, anyway?
Who needs dignity, anyway?

Back in Dorne, Ellaria has to swallow all of her rage and pride and reswear her fealty to Prince Doran because her “rebellion is over.” Which is pretty laughable, really. One half-baked bungled plan to capture Myrcella isn’t exactly a rebellion. Honestly, it just feels like a putting of Ellaria and the Sand Snakes back in their place, whatever that is, since it certainly isn’t what it was in the books. And as much as I’ve hated what has been done with Ellaria’s character this season, I think this moment is the thing I hated the most. The writers have made her irrational, cruel, and stupid, and now they make her abase herself before a man she disagrees with and who has threatened to just kill her (multiple times just in this episode) if she doesn’t submit to his authority. And they do this while the Sand Snakes are forced to look on meekly.

For fuck's sake. This just feels disproportionately humiliating.
For fuck’s sake. This just feels disproportionately humiliating.

Systematic disempowerment of women seems to be a running theme this season, and this definitely plays on that. Even worse, it’s incredibly disappointing to me as a book reader. Ellaria Sand, the Sand Snakes, and Arianne Martell were, in the books, a diverse and interesting group of women with ideas and plans and opinions of their own that didn’t always agree even with each other. In the show, they’ve been reduced to a group of sexy caricatures of Strong Female Characters.

That frown on Obara doesn't make this any less depressing.
That frown on Obara doesn’t make this any less depressing.

They’ve accomplished nothing at all, and the most significant development in their storyline from the books has been given to Trystane.

After her humiliation in front of Doran, Ellaria goes to speak with Jaime to let him know that she knows about him and Cersei. I actually kind of like this, as it shows Ellaria being emotionally intelligent and empathetic (even though there’s no good reason why she would be kind to Jaime at this point), as well as insightful. I felt like there was a sort of veiled threat at the end of her speech, but it was so veiled I’m not sure it was actually a threat. It’s another weird scene that doesn’t really seem to fit with anything else that has happened in the season.

Oh, for fuck's sake, again. Could you beat us over the head with this any harder?
Oh, for fuck’s sake, again. Could you beat us over the head with this any harder?

Back in the North, Shireen is playing with the toy stag Davos gave her earlier when Stannis pops in to speak with her. Because this show is fucking terrible they write this scene so that Shireen practically absolves Stannis of what he’s about to do to her. Because, you see, she wants to help her dad. She’s practically signed herself up for being burned at the stake–which is exactly what happens next, in what is hands down the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen on this show.

This is the worst thing I think the show has ever done to a character yet.
This is the worst thing I think the show has ever done to a character yet.

Still carrying her new toy, Shireen is marched to the stake between four armed guards, down a gauntlet of mostly horrified-looking men on either side, and it’s clear that she has no idea what is going on. Then she sees the stake, and Melisandre steps into her line of sight, and she knows. The next couple minutes are nothing but Shireen’s increasingly panicked screams for her father and mother and her pleas for them to save her. It’s actually Selyse who breaks in the end and wants to stop it, but it’s too late. Stannis holds his wife back, and by the time she fights her way free of him and through the crowd around the stake, Shireen has stopped screaming words at all.

The worst.
The worst.

Even knowing that this was coming, because I googled the episode before I watched it, I still couldn’t quite believe they really did it. Stannis’s love for his daughter in the books is really part of the core of who he is, and this is basically the one thing he’s absolutely unwilling to do in order to win. He’d have sacrificed Aemon Targaryen, and he’d have sacrificed Mance Rayder’s baby, but he won’t sacrifice Shireen. It’s really one of book!Stannis’s few redeeming characteristics, and this has been true on the show as well, to the point that Stannis has been a fan favorite character pretty much since he was introduced on the show. Shireen is an actual child, and her sweetness and kindness and her friendship with Davos have led to some of the show’s best scenes in the last couple of seasons, again creating a character who is beloved by fans.

The absolute fucking worst.
The absolute fucking worst.

To have Stannis sacrifice Shireen like this is just a piss poor decision on the part of the show runners, and it doesn’t even quite make sense. It’s implied that it has something to do with helping Stannis be successful and keeping the troops alive, but it’s not really clear exactly what Shireen’s sacrifice is supposed to accomplish. Melisandre’s magic, such as it is, has never been that well defined in the show or the books, and the only true magic that it’s confirmed she can do is birthing the shadow baby assassins. By this point in the books, it’s even confirmed that her visions aren’t particularly accurate and are very tricky for her to interpret, so the burning sacrifices she makes to her god are of debatable use other than as a way of disposing of inconvenient people and putting on a terrifyingly impressive show for people who are impressed by that sort of thing.

All it has accomplished here is to make Stannis such a thoroughly dislikeable character that I don’t see how anyone will like him ever again. It may even be a sign that Stannis’s own days are very numbered. We know that he’s about to engage in a sizable battle, and we know that he’s been on a collision course with Brienne of Tarth, who wants to avenge Renly’s murder. It could be that next week’s episode, or perhaps the first episode or two of season six, will see the end of Stannis Baratheon. I imagine this would send Melisandre scuttling back to Castle Black, putting her in place to be handy when Jon Snow gets attacked by his own men and needs to be resurrected. Then again, all this would start to make a little sense then, and sense-making has not been Game of Thrones’ forte this season so I’m not getting my hopes up.

The wall of Daznak's Pit.
The wall of Daznak’s Pit.

Similar to last week’s episode, “The Dance of Dragons” ends with a long segment in a single location. This time, it’s about seventeen minutes in Daznak’s Pit, something that I’ve been looking forward to all season because getting to see dragons eat people is one of the very, very few truly pleasurable things about watching this show anymore. I’m sad to say that this scene didn’t at all live up to my expectations, and when Daenerys finally flies away on Drogon it reminds me of nothing more than the last scenes of The Neverending Story.

The Pit from above.
The Pit from above.

The aerial views of the Pit are kind of cool and initially give a sense of grandness and scale to the events, but the smallness of Daenerys’s court undoes a lot of that effect. This is something that has been a problem on the show in both Meereen and King’s Landing, to be honest. The books have literally hundreds of characters, and the various royal courts are full to the brim with colorful personalities who make these places seem alive.

This just looks so empty.
This just looks so empty.

Daenerys’s court, such as it is, now consists of Hizdahr zo Loraq, Missandei, Daario Naharis, and Tyrion, and these folks don’t even fill up a small platform at the Pit. It’s just not very impressive, and it’s times like these that the world of the show feels very empty–no matter how big a crowd they manage to composite in to a giant stadium.

Jorah wins his fight.
Jorah wins his fight.

The actual gladiator matches were fairly well done, although Jorah’s fight does end up dragging on just long enough to start to be silly. The main event, though, is when the Sons of the Harpy attack, which is another significant departure from the books that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense the way the show has presented it. In A Dance With Dragons, Daenerys’s marriage to Hizdahr is contingent upon the curtailing of the Sons of the Harpy, and as soon as she agrees to the marriage and to reopening the pits, the Sons are mysteriously controlled. It’s pretty certain that if Hizdahr isn’t their leader himself, he’s at least up to his neck in the whole business.

Whoops for Hizdahr zo Loraq.
Whoops for Hizdahr zo Loraq.

In the show, however, the Sons of the Harpy have been a lot more ambiguous in their goals. It’s been kind of stated that they are people who want to return Meereen to Meereenese rule and bring back slavery, but even that is mostly conjecture, as the issue just hasn’t been dealt with all that well. With their attack at the Pit, the Sons of the Harpy now make a lot less sense. In this episode, they seem to be killing pretty indiscriminately, just slaughtering people in the stands. They even kill Hizdahr, which seems to suggest that they aren’t his people–even though Hizdahr was running late and sort of ominously said he was making sure everything was ready. So, basically, the political situation in Meereen–which was deep and nuanced and fascinating in the books–is a mess on the show, and it manages to be both overly simplistic and completely confusing.

Daenerys face to face with Drogon.
Daenerys face to face with Drogon.

None of this is helped, either, by Daenerys flying off on Drogon at the end of the episode. It does kind of inexplicably end all the fighting, which we notice in the last shot of the episode, which focuses on the stunned faces of Tyrion, Daario, Jorah, and Missandei, who are all just standing in the middle of the Pit, not doing anything.

Welp, that happened.
Welp, that happened.

The worst thing about Daenerys flying off, however, is how truly terrible the special effects are here. It’s really, truly poorly done, and it turns what should be one of the most amazing and empowering moments of the season into a moment of silliness.

All in all, “A Dance of Dragons” just another letdown in a season of letdowns. It veers wildly between being offensive and being offensively badly written, and the adaptational choices of the show runners just become increasingly ill-conceived the more they diverge from the source material.

**plays the theme from The Neverending Story"
**plays the theme from The Neverending Story”*

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 55-58

Strange_BlackSomething great about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is that there’s not really any singular point at which things go off the rails for our characters. There’s no one moment where I read it and am like, “shit just got real.” In fact, because of the way the story is presented–as if it is a slightly scholarly history book, looking back on the events of the novel from some time later–there are remarkably few actual surprises for the reader.

And so, in these chapters, although there are big reveals for several of our main characters, the surprises for the reader are much smaller scale and sandwiched into the quieter moments between major events.

Arabella

Jonathan Strange dances with a fairy woman at Lost Hope.
Jonathan Strange dances with a fairy woman at Lost Hope.

The biggest major event of this section of the book is Jonathan Strange learning that his wife, Arabella, is not dead at all, but has actually been imprisoned in Faerie all this time. The stand-out characters in these scenes, however, are the women–a fairy woman Jonathan Strange speaks with, Lady Pole, and Arabella herself.

Before seeing his wife alive, Strange’s first conversation at the Lost Hope party is with a fairy woman whose conversation seems to indicate that maybe the two English magicians ought to have paid better attention to Vinculus’s prophecy. Strange and Norrell must fail, she says, but Strange is unwilling or unable to understand–it’s too late for them to fail, he thinks.

After parting from the fairy woman, Strange runs into Arabella and Lady Pole. Arabella thinks he must have come to rescue them, but Lady Pole thinks (correctly) not. Lady Pole steals the scene here with her general disdain for the powers of men to do anything to help their situation. Jonathan Strange manages to look like a huge asshole throughout this whole party, to be honest, and it’s no different here.

Meanwhile, Stephen Black is trying unsuccessfully to persuade an irate gentleman with thistle-down hair that it would be best to release Lady Pole and Arabella from their enchantment to avoid angering the magician. However, the fairy gentleman has another plan entirely. To Stephen Black’s dismay, the gentleman expels Jonathan Strange from Lost Hope and places a powerful curse upon the magician.

Darkness, Misery, and Solitude

Sent forcibly back to Venice and reeling from the shock of seeing Arabella, Jonathan Strange goes immediately to tell Dr. Greysteel the news and warn him to send Flora Greysteel away. The doctor, who is a sensible man, is appalled at Strange’s seeming madness, but he can’t deny that things are getting weird. This is confirmed the next day when a huge dark tower has sprung up and looms over the city and the parish where Strange has been living is cloaked in a sort of permanent night.

Various luminaries of the city come to Dr. Greysteel to beg him to intercede with his friend the magician, but when Greysteel arrives to speak with Strange, the magician has not even been aware of the unusual darkness that surrounds him. Instead, Strange has been feverishly working magic and writing letters, primarily to Arabella’s brother, Henry Woodhope, asking him to come immediately.

While it’s not terribly important, there is, at the end of Chapter 56, an excellent encounter between Dr. Greysteel and Lord Byron, who discuss Strange’s madness. It’s a thematically interesting conversation between two characters who seem like they should never be in a room together, and it might be my favorite part of this section of the book.

Back in England, Henry Woodhope visits Mr. Norrell rather than going to Strange in Venice. Norrell denies any knowledge of what Strange’s letters might mean, and Norrell and Lascelles dissuade Henry from visiting his brother in law at all. Even the news that Arabella’s corpse had been replaced with a black log is explained away, and Strange’s letters to Henry are practically confiscated–only to turn up later, published in a misleadingly altered form in order to imply that Jonathan Strange murdered his wife with magic.

As the chapter ends, Lascelles is paying off someone’s debts–presumably the someone that he and Norrell are sending to retrieve Jonathan Strange since they don’t trust Childermass. Elsewhere in London, various ministers and the Duke of Wellington are gathered to discuss the Strange situation themselves.

 

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