Thursday, May 14, 2015

Game of Thrones Series 5, Episode 5

Still jobbing, and loving it, so there are lots of book reviews that I'm working on but aren't quite ready yet. In the meantime here's another Game of Thrones recap to fill the gap!. 

‘Kill the Boy’

Series 5, Episode 5

*Spoilers ahead*, only read on if you’ve seen the episode.
This week’s episode opens with Missandei watching over a wounded Grey Worm. Who actually looks fine. I’m pretty sure he’s just sleeping.  Dany, meanwhile, watches over a dead Ser Barristan. I wish he was just sleeping...

She bitterly echoes the cries of those who have read the books by announcing with great distaste – that the immense Barristan Selmy died… in an alley?! I know Dany. He deserved better.

She looks genuinely crushed in this scene and it’s good to see Emilia Clarke back in form. I can kind of understand what the show is doing here – they’ve deliberately isolated Dany to force a definitive development and change her – which suggests a lead towards her Targaryen heritage. I’m intrigued. She sets her resolve and rounds up the leaders of Meereen’s great families and prods them into the dragon chamber. Yep. She actually feeds a few to her dragons. Mojo. It’s a great scene and watching Hizdahr sweat is pretty fun. Dany has had enough and is certainly seeking vengeance for the crimes against her. She is ready to rule with fear.

In a great switch of scenes, Sam is reading to Maester Aemon about Dany’s recent exploits – Aemon poetically utters: ‘a Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing’…
Not done with being profound, Aemon moves on to counsel Jon Snow – instructing him to ‘kill the boy’ and ‘let the man be born’. We’ll see how that works out.

Jon proposes an alliance with the wildlings because ‘winter is coming’ (yeah that phrase is getting old now) and they will need to fight together to beat what’s coming. This proves a little divisive. And by divisive, I mean everyone hates it. You can see parallels in the Jon and Dany storylines – they are doubles – ice and fire – both irrevocably altered by the roles they are cast into – roles that are bigger and more frightening than they ever imagined. I love the duality of it- it’s great craftsmanship on George RR Martin’s part.

Taking away from those literary tropes is the show’s quick-switch into softcore pornography. I’m not going to go into it. But it features Ramsay. And Ramsay asking his lover (Miranda) if she’s going to ‘bore him’. I guess Ramsay was always going to be kinky/disturbing in this area too. Darth Sansa, meanwhile, looks like a ghost wandering through the home she’s lost. She meets one or two friendly faces – one is a woman who keeps saying ‘the North remembers’ – and a girl who seems to deliberately lead Sansa to Theon by essentially poking her into the kennels. Sophie Turner is fantastic in this episode; Sansa looks visibly disturbed but also confused over how she feels when her eyes meet Theon’s.

Later, Theon confesses the encounter to Ramsay – and, instead of being horrific, Ramsay is forgiving – in a way that still oozes creepiness and manipulation. He also tells Theon that he smells ‘particularly ripe this evening’. I’m not sure what that even means. In one of the most awkward dinner scenes of all time, Ramsay makes everyone squirm by playing wind-up merchant and forcing Theon to apologise to Sansa for ‘killing’ her brothers. Roose Bolton’s eyes literally swivel back and forth between the two in a hysterically cartoonish way. The tension is palpable here and it’s actually one of my favourite scenes – there’s so much subtle nuance in everyone’s behaviour throughout. Brilliant performances from all. Ramsay even suggests Reek give Sansa away at the wedding, but is left unamused when Walda announces she is pregnant and expects it to be a boy. Sansa gets a chance to give Ramsay a smug smile.

Continuing his tour of good will, Stannis meets Sam – he literally tells Sam who he is, to which Sam can only answer ‘yes… that’s me’. They kind of bond, even though their families were on opposite sides. Stannis spreading-the-love-Mannis gives him respect and walks on.

Stannis readies his troops to march for Winterfell and Melisandre still flashes Jon creepy glances. He runs away to try and persuade the Wildings to rally to his cause. In Meereen, Grey Worm mistakenly thinks he failed his men – when actually it was a bit of cheeky contrivance by the showrunners, and Dany delivers the most unromantic proposal to Hizdahr ever. He looks a bit delighted terrified, understandably.

‘Long sullen silences and the occasional punch in the face’ – Tyrion effectively sums up the series so far, as he and Jorah paddle along through Valyria – Dany’s homeland. Tyrion literally becomes a tour guide and explains this and the history to the viewers. Could be one way for him to make money…

He is left speechless, however, when Drogon soars overhead. And less speechless when a stone man literally plops into their boat. ‘Don’t let them touch you!’ – famous last words Jorah. When Tyrion is dragged overboard, Jorah rescues him – but at how great a cost? In the final scene he pulls up his sleeve to reveal the first blemish of grayscale. This is another interesting deviation – it seems Jorah is doomed (and has had his character merged with Jon Connington from the book). It makes me wonder how much of that storyline they are going to keep – as there are certainly twists and mysteries to be had there.

I actually really loved the ‘long sullen silences’ in this episode – there was a lot of subtle character development, action and reaction conveyed through the performances and camera work. The scenery was also incredible, as usual. As always, there were distinct but perhaps necessary instances of un-subtlety – used to convey things that you can’t translate visually from the book. This was one of my favourites so far this series. 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Game of Thrones: Series 5, Episode 4

‘Sons of the Harpy’

Series 5, Episode 4

*Spoilers ahead*, only read on if you’ve seen the episode.

I apologise for the lateness of this one, I have just started a wonderful new job and have been very busy! 

On to episode 4. Bronn and Jaime hang out on the way to Dorne, with the latter still rocking that bizarre red leather jacket. Jaime defensively explains that he feels he has to rescue his ‘niece’, to which Bronn effectively gives him a wink and a nudge.

Cersei continues being awesome in small council meetings – ‘not small enough’ in her words. Poor little Mace Tyrell gets shipped off for being irritating (and with one of Cersei’s favourite henchmen) to the Iron Bank. I adore these scenes, Lena plays Cersei with such delightful nuance. We start to see the consequences of her alliance with the Faith Militant as they storm the city’s brothels – executing some brutal violence against naked women and mostly fully clothed men. Brutal violence is implied against the two men they find together, before they go on to arrest Loras Tyrell after being tipped off by Cersei.

Margaery bursts into Tommen’s chambers, who naively asks if she and Cersei aren’t getting along. This kid. He makes a rather feeble attempt to go and release Loras, but the Faith Militant block his entrance and Tommen refuses to go down the Joffrey route of forcing his way in. Townspeople shout abuse at him and he scarpers back to his rooms, much to Margaery’s frustration. Tommen doesn’t yet understand the power-plays and manipulation he is caught in, but starts to realise he might not be as powerful as he thinks.

In the most ridiculous scene of the night, which deserves a bit of ridiculous commentary – Melisandre opens her robe again in an attempt to seduce Jon Snow. This was so unnecessary – they do have a similar conversation in the books but the extremes of gratuitousness that they take this scene to are just laughable. Jon Snow gawps at her breasts for a full five minutes, then literally blurts out every possible excuse he can think of –

-          Do you want to see a vision, Jon Snow?
-          Don’t like magic...  Oh boobs.

5 minutes later

-          Um. I swore a vow
-          Mmhmm *wink*
-          What about Stannis?
-          He won’t know
-          Um. I have a girlfriend
-          Didn’t she die?
-          Sure but I still love her.

Seriously, Melisandre – get the message. She stalks off, but not before pointedly turning and saying ‘you know nothing, Jon Snow’. Goodness.

The show makes up for this with a fantastic Stannis Baratheon scene – probably now one of my favourites – because they finally give his character some good material! Stannis is a great, complex character in the books – which for the most part doesn’t translate so well in the show. It’s a shame because Stephen Dillane is a great casting choice and would easily handle being given more. Too often the show presents Stannis as one-dimensional, hard and wooden – here it peels back the layers as he talks to his daughter, Shireen. She asks Stannis if he is ashamed of her and he replies:

When you were an infant, there was once a trader that landed on Dragonstone. His goods were junk except for one wooden doll. He’d even sewn a dress on it in the colours of our house. No doubt he’d heard of your birth and assumed new fathers were easy targets. I remember how you smiled when we put that doll on your cradle. How you pressed it to your cheek. By the time we burnt the doll, it was too late. I was told you would die or worse the greyscale would go slow, let you grow just enough to know the world before taking it from you. Everyone advised me to send you to the ruins of Valyria to live out your short life with the stone men before the sickness spread through the castle. I told them all to go to hell. I called every master, every healer, every apothecary, they stopped the disease and saved your life. Because you did not belong across the world with the bloody stone men. You are the princess Shireen of the House Baratheon and you are my daughter.’

I got chills as Stephen Dillane delivered these lines and the two embraced. Stannis is a good man, sadly being manipulated by forces around him (one in particular), and I just hope Shireen isn't the one to pay for this. 

Jaime and Bronn arrive in Dorne and immediately run into some kind of patrol. ‘There are no sharks in Dorne’, apparently. Dorne is definitely the place for me. Bronn takes on the entire patrol, leaving one injured man for Jaime to fight, which he just about manages by literally catching the blow of the sword in his golden hand. We then meet the Sand Snakes. They are introduced very effectively one-by-one in the books and are distinctly individualised – here three of them are hardly introduced or characterised and just sign up immediately for Ellaria’s fairly pointless quest of brutal vengeance after word comes of Jaime Lannister’s arrival.

There is a beautiful, poignant scene between Dany and Barristan as they look out over the city. He tells her stories of her brother Rhaegar, and the good things that he apparently did, before bidding leaving her to hear yet another plea from Hizdahr Zo Loraq. Unfortunately the Sons of the Harpy choose this moment to launch a brutal attack and encounter a patrol of her unsullied – including Grey Worm. 

This scene and twist is a little inconsistent because the Unsullied would never fight as they do here. The whole point of the Unsullied is that they form unbreakable ranks and fight in a very particular impenetrable style, no matter how many of them there are. Here the writers seem to deliberately hope we’ve forgotten that and have them go off recklessly in all directions, making them easy kills for the untrained fighters of the Sons of the Harpy. It’s all fairly contrived for maximum drama and an effort to add in a ‘twist’ that’s not in the book.
Ser Barristan, one of the greatest knights in the Seven Kingdoms, hears the commotion and heroically rushes to the aid of Grey Worm and co. only to be cut down fairly quickly. I was genuinely surprised at this development – I had flashbacks to Obi Wan Kenobi in A New Hope. Trauma. The hugely dramatic music swells to a climax and there is silence as the camera pans away from the bodies of a (fatally?) wounded Grey Worm and the dead Ser Barristan. I love that guy. Genuinely sad and surprised. This all leaves Danaerys intensely vulnerable and very precariously placed, so I’m curious to see how things unfold a little differently now.

This was a mixed episode which took some risks in an effort to carve out its own path, but was mostly pretty entertaining with regular doses of humour and sentiment. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Game of Thrones: Series 5, Episodes 2 & 3

‘The House of Black and White’

Series 5, Episode 2

*Spoilers ahead*, only read on if you’ve seen the episode.

This ‘kind-of-review’is a little late because I’ve been working hard! So going to do episodes 2 and 3 together. My reviews are often based on my interpretation of the books and the changes on the screen, with a touch of humour and some character analysis!To be honest, I thought episode 2 was very weak and that’s probably why I couldn’t spin anything out earlier. These were the kind of changes that didn’t make sense and did disservices to certain characters – Jaime and Ellaria in particular. The strong points of the episode were Dany’s struggle to make decisions in Meereen, and Jon Snow’s, slightly rushed, journey to Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Both of these things are hugely important for their characters. Both are faced with responsibilities that they underestimate and perhaps go about in a naïve fashion, which they suffer for. You remember how young Dany is supposed to be as that crowd hisses at her in the final scenes. Her advisors couldn't even agree on what to advise her.  

A nitpicky point too – Arya’s list is meant to get longer, not shorter! How is she down to three people?! And when did she add Ser Meryn Trant? Still, Braavos is another visual spectacle and Arya’s journey is an interesting one going forward.

Meanwhile, Brienne announces to a whole pub that Sansa Stark was Sansa Stark and no one seemed to remember that there’s a bounty on her head. Instead, Brienne and Pod get dramatically chased from the pub for… some reason. The only good thing about this is that she seems to realise how awesome Podrick is and saves his life in true Brienne fashion. Sansa is understandably not trusting of anyone, pointing out that those Brienne allies herself to often end up dead. She feels safe in Littlefinger’s company, she and her mother have very much been his weakness but he will always put power and survival first.

We see Cersei unravel a little more as she is sent a threat from Dorne concering Myrcella. Jaime, still feeling guilty for his role in his father’s death, panders to Cersei and agrees to go to Dorne – which is a rather different holiday destination for him than in the books. He seems fairly weak and pathetic in these scenes which is very different to his character trajectory in Martin’s work. Still, he seems to say it is because of his sudden interest in and affection for his daughter.

Speaking of character disservice – Ellaria really wants to mutilate Myrcella in revenge for Oberyn’s death and send Cersei the pieces... Doran, quite reasonably, thinks that’s a bit mean. In the book Ellaria gets this brilliant position and quote instead: 

‘Oberyn wanted vengeance for Elia. Now the three of you want vengeance for him. I have four daughters, I remind you. Your sisters. My Elia is fourteen, almost a woman. Obella is twelve, on the brink of maidenhood. They worship you, as Dorea and Loreza worship them. If you should die, must El and Obella seek vengeance for you, then Dorea and Loree for them? Is that how it goes, round and round forever? I ask again, where does it end? I saw your father die. Here is his killer. Can I take a skull to bed with me, to give me comfort in the night? Will it make me laugh, write me songs, care for me when I am old and sick?’ (A Dance With Dragons, Ch 38)

I know they may be attempting to merge Arianne and Ellaria’s characters but it’s a disservice to them both because they’re both very valuable ones and I wish they would have made the effort to include Arianne and retain Ellaria as that voice of sense and strength. They’re both strong women in their own way. Genuinely sad.

‘High Sparrow’

Series 5, Episode 3

The first few minutes are literally a tour of the Braavos set. In some detail. Because it’s quite cool and clearly cost a bit. Arya is sweeping in the House of Black and White. Later in this episode she really has to decide whether she’ll commit completely to being No-One, and just what that entails. In her true independent fashion – I like her decision. She cannot bring herself to cast away Needle. This scene is genuinely emotional – as Arya blinks back tears in her eyes. It really evokes the moment in the book:

‘"It's just a stupid sword," she said, aloud this time... ... but it wasn't. Needle was Robb and Bran and Rickon, her mother and her father, even Sansa. Needle was Winterfell's grey walls, and the laughter of its people. Needle was the summer snows, Old Nan's stories, the heart tree with its red leaves and scary face, the warm earthy smell of the glass gardens, the sound of the north wind rattling the shutters of her room. Needle was Jon Snow's smile. He used to mess my hair and call me "little sister," she remembered, and suddenly there were tears in her eyes.(A Feast for Crows)

Needle is the very essence of who she is and what she has lost, she cannot cast it away. In this moment you remember she is a scared little girl, not a faceless assassin and she wants to keep the one part of home that she has left and cannot be taken from her without her volition. So she proceeds with her training on her own terms, and refuses to renounce all of herself. Arya Stark is Arya Stark, and Arya Stark is pretty cool. She still has reason to exist, however small.

In the happiest wedding ever on Game of Thrones, Tommen and Margaery get married. There’s an exact parallel of Cersei’s look of revulsion from when Joffrey first kissed Margaery – but this time it’s tinged with genuine terror and nerves. She knows she is starting to lose her grip on things – and just because the wedding has passed without threat, her chi
ldren may still be doomed.

In a cringe-worthy bedroom scene – Margaery keeps telling Tommen he’s very sweet (he’s 9 in the books) and – to be fair to her – he is. But he’s also had to grow up quickly, and he admits that he’s not sad that Joffrey died. Upon that subject, Margaery suggests that he sheds more of his family and send his mother back to Casterley Rock, as Cersei will always be the ‘lioness guarding her cub’.

Cersei is just brilliant. I’m starting a Cersei fanclub. Lena Headey owns all these scenes again and she’s somehow got me on Cersei’s side – especially where Margaery’s concerned. I love that look of distaste that she’s mastered, but she also appears much more vulnerable this season. She pays a visit to Margaery, who’s gossiping about her night with the king in truly horrendous, awkward fashion and Margaery does brilliantly quip: ‘I wish we had some wine for you, it’s a bit early in the day for us’. Burn. The tension is palpable.

Up North, we’re reminded how much we haven’t missed any scenes with the Bolton’s as we get some grizzly shots of flayed people. Gross. Why. Arghhh. These guys…

To make it worse, Roose and Ramsay are discussing peeling people’s skins off over dinner. Which then leads on to the subject of weddings… Roose wants some lucky girl to be Ramsay’s bride. I can see where this is going. And it’s potentially horrible. More horrible than the book version. But with a possible upside in the end? A chance of vengeance? We’ll see. I think most fans will be able to see the whole story the producers are setting out laying before them. I will say that, of the changes made from the book, this one could perhaps work in terms of continuity, character and plot. It’s possibly a decision that makes sense. That change being of course – that rather than reside in the Eyrie, as her old childhood friend (posing as Arya Stark) is forced to marry Ramsay, Sansa herself is going to have to marry Ramsay. So jealous. Said no one. Ever.

Sansa’s naturally a little reluctant to marry into the family who butchered everyone she loved, when Baelish suggests it. She threatens to starve herself. She doesn’t bring up the fact that she’s already married – she could even try and lie and say that the marriage was consummated. But perhaps it wouldn’t make a difference. Littlefinger cleverly placates her by appealing to her Darth side, saying that this is her chance to avenge her family:

‘There’s no justice in the world unless we make it. You loved your family. Avenge them.’

That would be lovely but Littlefinger’s motives are always a little ambiguous. At the end of the day, he’s usually just in it for himself. He is however, seemingly completely unaware of Ramsay’s… hobbies and reputation. He has literally placed Darth Sansa into the Sith Empire. Littlefinger tells Ramsay that Sansa has suffered enough, and Ramsay, playing the fawning groom, responds quite convincingly that he’ll never hurt her. I hope there isn’t too much abuse in store for Sansa, she’s one of the characters that I think a lot of people have grown to feel protective of and it would not be nice to watch her get humiliated and abused (particularly on a Ramsay scale – but the showrunners do have a penchant for drawing out the abuse and adding extra levels to it *cough Talisa*).

It is very obviously shown to us that Brienne and Podrick are following – again, I can see where these changes are going to go, in light of other apparent casting omissions. I’m happy to see what happens though. We do get a nice scene between these two as they graduate into full on buddies, bonding over their outcast-ness. Brienne relays some of her girlhood traumas and how Renly saved her from being a joke – she utters the line that both seems to guide her and plague her: ‘nothing’s more hateful than failing to protect the one you love’.

Jon faces the first challenge to his authority from Janos Slynt – just as he looks like he might waver, as Slynt begs for mercy, Jon executes him in true Ned Stark fashion. Stannis the Mannis nods his approval.

Because there’s got to be a brothel scene in each and every episode (there was one earlier too with the High Septon), that’s where Tyrion and Varis go as they take a break on their road to find Dany. This is another great Tyrion bromance – he can strike one up with everyone. I bet if they gave him a toy goat to interact with it would still be an epic friendship. And since reunions are a bit of a theme this series – hey, look, it’s Jorah! He’s just hanging out in that brothel. Near a prostitute dressed as Dany. Oh God. He didn’t, did he? Probably because of his own traumatic and brutal murder of his last partner, Tyrion cannot find it in himself to take a prostitute. Instead he goes off innocently to relieve himself off the side of the building – sadly he can’t even do that without stress as Jorah gags him (not like that) and kidnaps him.

Episode 3 definitely improved on episode 2 – even though it was definitely unsubtle at times, it did build the story and its changes more convincingly. It’s much better written and returned to the core of the characters, if not to their stories. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Game of Thrones Review: Series 5, Episode 1

This is my first post in my new Film/TV section. It’s a little experimental and different tonally, but hopefully something you readers will enjoy. Do let me know, we'll see how it goes. 

Game of Thrones Recap and Review

‘The Wars To Come’. 

Series 5, Episode 1

*Spoilers ahead*, only read on if you’ve seen the episode.
The opener of Thrones’ 5th season begins with a flashback to Cersei’s youth and a visit to a creepy maegi. Well, she’s creepy in the book, the show has naturally beautified her and made her resemble someone who’s woken up after a night-out (and made sure she’s dressed in a way that accentuates her cleavage). Still, I’m glad they kept this episode from the book and gave it prominence as a starting point. Often the book’s prologues and epilogues are slightly distanced from the current situations main players, so if they were going to have a flashback, they put it in the right place. It’s also a vital piece of character back-story for Cersei – and Young Cersei nailed her part. This trip would plague her for the rest of her life. Her idealism over her future is shattered, much like Sansa’s is in Series 1, and she must live with the prophecy that she will outlive all her children and have everything she ever wanted taken from her.

Meanwhile, TYWIN’S EYES.

Dead Tywin’s eye-stones are way creepier than Joffrey’s were for some reason. Cersei and Jaime hang out by a dead body, again. But not in that way. This time they just chat. Cersei, kind of understandably, blames Jaime for their father’s death. And he looks a little self-loathing too. Both Lena and Nikolaj are brilliant in this scene, capturing the tension and conflicting feelings perfectly.
Everything is typically rich and visually stunning, even through a small spyhole in a crate as Tyrion is unloaded like cargo on new shores and as an idol is toppled from atop a Pyramid in Meereen. The camera work and visuals are perfect in this episode. Still, it takes little over 12 minutes for the first appearance of boobs as one of Dany’s unsullied visits a brothel, where he just wants to be held and sung to. Even though the woman knows this is his regular order, she strips completely and redresses because the show-runners often like to cut interesting plots and characters in order to have more nudity.
Up North, Stannis fails to understand anything about Wildlings and thinks he can make them ‘bend the knee’ and fight for him if he gives them a hunk of grass and Brienne fails to understand just how awesome Podrick Payne is. Darth Sansa/Alayne and Littlefinger’s carriage literally drives right past them as they bicker. Argh. So close guys. Still, Sansa’s her own boss these days which is nice.

In a wonderfully awkward scene Margaery walks in on her brother and his lover. Because she’s hungry. And doesn’t leave. She literally just takes a seat. Girl wants dinner.

Back across the seas, Tyrion switches into Lannister mode and cracks open the wine. Varys give him two options, stay and drink himself to death in paradise, or go save the world and befriend a Khaleesi. Tyrion responds with the quote of the episode: ‘Can I drink myself to death on the road to Meereen?’. 

He’s still got it.

Dany also has decisions to make as she is faced with a plea from Hizdahr to reopen the fighting pits, so the civilians who have just endured a brutal oppressive regime can fight each other to the death for sport and entertainment. Seriously guys? She’s a little reluctant but risks alienating herself from the ‘culture’ of her new people. She refuses but it is still food for thought as she goes to visit her dragons. She calls their names as if she’s calling a small domesticated pet, and is kind of surprised when they get a bit mad. Mother of… teenagers? (That one was a little cliché, I apologise. Teenagers get so much stick).

As she faces fire, Jon faces ice. He has the unenviable task of convincing Mance Raider to swear fealty to Stannis, or be publically burnt alive. Mance solidly responds that the freedom to make his own mistakes was all he ever wanted. Out of respect, Jon takes matters into his own hands and makes sure that Mance doesn’t suffer. Much.

This was a very good and balanced first episode. It sets up the key themes for most of the season, though Dorne doesn’t appear yet (or the Iron Islands, but it doesn’t look like they’ll be covered at all this series…), and it draws well on some key book material. It’s very well filmed and produced and gives a good range of characters and diverse storylines to reconnect with, obviously cementing that before introducing the new characters and settings. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

'Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds...': Women and Mothers in George RR Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire'

I've had this in the works for a year or so. My ambition with this blog just kept growing until heights became unreachable. To do this comprehensively is just too big a task for right now so it is going to be more of an opinion piece supported by what research I have managed to do.

What I have written is shorter, simpler but still researched and something that I can build upon in the future. It centres upon two of my ‘favourite’ female characters in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series: Catelyn Stark and Cersei Lannister. As usual these ‘favourites’ of mine are much maligned by a lot of the readers and show-watchers. I’m also aware that when citing ‘good female characters’ in Game of Thrones, many would automatically think about Daenerys, Brienne or Arya – all who are ‘good’, or ‘badass’, in very overt ways. I love Brienne and Sansa, and like Arya and Daenerys, but they are quite easy to like and engage with as a reader – and I like a challenge. Daenerys, Arya and even Brienne all gain a certain degree of independence outside the moulds of society, determining their own path by fortune and by their own design. Catelyn and Cersei are, in some ways, more… troubling, and certainly more trapped.

There will be spoilers for show-watchers, so I would only read on if you have read the books, know plot and character details or aren’t bothered about knowing since they may not be included in the show anyway.

Catelyn and Cersei appear to be on opposite sides and become enemies: Stark vs Lannister, honour vs dishonour, good vs evil, North vs South etc. Upon closer inspection, they parallel each other in many regards. They are united by a simple fact: they will do anything to save their children.


Through all their apparently warped, and sometimes murderous actions (particularly Cersei), both are driven by tragedy, loss and a feeling of powerlessness because of their sex and roles as wives (not necessarily by choice) and mothers.

The show has its own interpretation of the characters, which is just that, an interpretation. And there are times when it strays from the source material but Lena Headey and Michelle Fairley are both fantastic actresses who, I think, do understand their characters and play them well.

Particularly in her point-of-view chapters in A Feast For Crows, the reader can see just how paranoid Cersei is and how haunted and affected she was by a prophecy she was told as a young girl. The prophecy she must live with is enough to drive her mad – as she is told that she will outlive all of her children (‘Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds … and when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you’ FFC, 611), endure an adulterous husband and will lose her power and status. She must live every day of her life, raising her children, knowing/fearing that they will die before her and there is nothing she can do to stop it (‘Queen you shall be … until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear’ FFC, 610).
Catelyn, too, thinks that she has outlived all, or nearly all, of her children (she does not count Jon as one of them). She believes Bran and Rickon to be dead, Arya to be lost/dead, Sansa in the clutches of the Lannisters and witnesses Rob’s own horrific murder. In the books, as opposed to in the TV show, she releases Jaime Lannister after hearing of Bran and Rickon’s apparent deaths, believing Sansa to be the only child she could possibly get back. (The show often omits details which seem small but actually radically alter or disrupt the continuity and character development, Robb is understanding of her motives in the books). In terms of their children, Cersei and Catelyn both seem doomed to suffer the worst as mothers.
The show has kind of broken my heart by apparently, so far, omitting Lady Stoneheart (Beric Dondarrion gives his ability to Catelyn when he finds her body in the river, and resurrects her as a mute, deformed living corpse). This storyline extension is one that takes part of womanhood – or of motherhood, in the wake of such horror – to a next stage which deserved to be seen. I am not saying I want Stoneheart for a cheap revenge narrative, but because she could come to stand for so much more. Catelyn was always a leader in life, her sex just didn’t allow it, she acted as advisor to Rob and stood by his side as a duty, rather than remaining in Winterfell to mother Bran and Rickon. Her most important warnings go unheeded because no one takes her opinion as ‘emotional’ woman and mother, seriously enough. I would like to see her lead the Brotherhood and where that storyline goes.

Valerie Estelle Frankel, in her book Women in Game of Thrones: Power Conformity and Resistance, writes of Lady Stoneheart as a ‘female monster’ (145). She is ‘the lady who was once highborn, conformist, lovely, well-spoken and proper has become her own shadow, a monster that lurks in the wild and subverts the patriarchy as a fearsome outlaw’ (145). She argues that such ‘female monsters produce shock, not because they are unusual… but because of their unwomanly conduct. With their immorality and amorality, they challenge human conventions’. Lady Stoneheart certainly conducts herself with a sense of amorality, in what we see of her. She is bloodthirsty and willing to hang Brienne and Podrick for their links to those who sinned against her. Estelle Frankel also alludes to a trope of folklore in which ‘women die powerless, betrayed by men, and then rise as monsters’ (146) – which aligns with the events of the Red Wedding and its aftermath. Stoneheart thus becomes an ‘outlet of female power’ and a representation of the ‘outcast’ (146), who can finally come back and challenge all the norms and standards of the world that trapped and pillaged her. She is finally unleashed as a warped but individual and independent woman, who could potentially be involved in the power play of Westeros.

By the end of A Dance With Dragons, nearly all of Cersei’s family ties are dissolved as well. She has been reduced to beast and outcast after her walk of shame and time in captivity – it will be interesting to see how that has changed her in Winds of Winter. It may create a Stoneheart out of her, having to fight for herself and rebuild her own world.

The show captures some of Cersei’s anger at being stuck as a woman in a man’s world (as cited by Estelle Frankel), as she sees it, which appears many times in the books. In episode 4 of series 3, she rallies against Tywin:

‘Did it ever occur to you that I am the one that deserves your confidence and your trust? Not your sons. Not Jaime or Tyrion, but men. Years and years of lectures on family and legacy … Did it ever occur to you that your daughter might be the only one listening to them, living by them, that she might have the most to contribute?’

This parallels a quote from A Feast For Crows, where Cersei rises in the wake of her father’s death:
Cersei did not weep, no more than her father would have. I am the only true son he ever had.’ (FFC, 54)

And this remains one of my favourite scenes from the series:

Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls Series 4, Episode 5. Lena delivers that line so beautifully. It’s a little different to the book material but I think it ties in to Cersei’s mothering side and how hard it was for her when Myrcella was sent away. Perhaps part of her is playing Oberyn, to win him to her side, but I am certain there is something genuine in this scene too.

Her love for her children, whatever delusions accompany it, is certainly there in the books. Joffrey’s death is much more poignant in the book (on a separate note, so is Ygritte's - so moving) – even narrated by Tyrion, who, in that moment, sees just a scared thirteen year old boy, not a tyrannical menace: ‘the boy’s eyes met Tyrion’s. He has Jaime’s eyes. Only he’d never seen Jaime look so scared. The boy’s only thirteen. Joffrey was making a dry clacking noise, trying to speak. His eyes bulged white with terror … “Nooo,” Cersei wailed, “Father help him, someone help him, my son, my son…”’ (Storm of Swords Part 2, 257) and then ‘When he heard Cersei’s scream, he knew that it was over… His sister sat in a puddle of wine, cradling her son’s body. Her gown was torn and stained, her face white as chalk … it took two Kingsguard to pry loose her fingers’ (258).

Furthermore, unlike in the show, Jaime is not present at the wedding and Cersei can only describe it to him later: ‘If you had seen how Joff died… he fought, Jaime, he fought for every breath … He had such terror in his eyes … When he was little, he’d run to me when he was scared or hurt and I would protect him. But that night there was nothing I could do … Joff is dead and Myrcella’s in Dorne. Tommen’s all I have left.’ 429

This is Cersei at one of her moments of most profound and utter powerlessness. The inability to protect and save her child causes her immense grief and parallels Catelyn’s in the moment she kills Walder Frey’s wife, only for him not to care. Both are devastated by their own inability to save the ones they love. Both, driven mad by it.

In A Feast For Crows, Cersei is intensely protective of Tommen. When a sip of wine goes down the wrong way, she has a kind of panic attack and shows her true vulnerability:

‘My son is safe, Cersei told herself. No harm can come to him, not here, not now. Yet every time she looked at Tommen, she saw Joffrey clawing at his throat. And when the boy began to cough the queen’s heart stopped beating for a moment. She knocked aside a serving girl in her haste to reach him. … “I’m sorry, Mother,” Tommen said, abashed. It was more than Cersei could stand. I cannot let them see me cry, she thought, when she felt the tears welling in her eyes. She walked past Ser Meryn Trant and out into the back passage. Alone beneath a tallow candle, she allowed herself a shuddering sob, and another. A woman may weep, but not a queen.’ (FFC, 202)

She vows that no harm will come to him while she lives, she will ‘kill half the lords in Westeros and all the common people, if that was what it took to keep him safe’ (613). While Cersei’s point-of-view chapters don’t always do much to characterise her beyond her manipulations and schemes, she has moments of tenderness that we have not been privy to before:

“I will break my fast with the king this morning. I want to see my son.” All I do, I do for him. Tommen helped restore her to herself. He had never been more precious to her than he was that morning, chattering about his kittens as he dribbled honey onto a chunk of hot black bread fresh from the ovens… I was never so sweet and innocent, Cersei thought. How can he ever hope to rule in this cruel realm? The mother in her wanted only to protect him; the queen in her knew he must grow harder, or the Iron Throne was certain to devour him” 661-2

Certainly she is a warped character – as a daughter of Tywin Lannister, she was bound to be to some extent. She recognises her own youthful naivety in Sansa Stark and both punishes her and tries to protect her from it. But she is intelligent, fierce and protective – though she often channels these parts of herself in destructive ways. They are traits that Catelyn shares. Both make mistakes, they are human, but they are both far more complex women than they initially seem and of immense value to Martin’s writing. They deserve to be taken a little more seriously by watchers and readers – and show-runners. A character like Cersei, perhaps not always deserving of sympathy, still deserves an attempt at empathy.

Additionally, I would like to say that the series’ apparent omission of Arianne Martell is perhaps one of its most blatant disservices to women. One of the wonderful aspects about Dorne, which Oberyn tries to explain to Cersei in that scene I included, is that gender does not matter in terms of hierarchy – women can rule and be heirs – they can fight and hold their own, even the ‘bastards’ (see the Sand Snakes, Oberyn’s ‘bastard’ children). Arianne is the heir to Dorne. Yet the showrunners have appeared to erase her and transferred her status to a male character who is frankly not that interesting in the book. This is even more annoying given that she is going to a point-of-view character in Winds of Winter! Arianne, Stoneheart/Catelyn and Cersei, even a character like Val the wildling princess, would, if all featured in the TV show, have been complex female characters involved in the power play of Westeros – two, at least, in charge of men.

I do watch the show and have enjoyed it – brilliant casting, acting, settings, effects - but it does have its failings. I think some, completely made up, brothel scenes could be sacrificed – and I’m not convinced Talisa was a great character addition when they somehow made the Red Wedding even more horrible by having her stabbed in her pregnant stomach… Some of their creative decisions have not made sense (Tyrion and Jaime parting on good terms, then Tyrion going on a murderous rampage?!). I know it’s an impossible job to maintain consistency and continuity when condensing books of these sizes into a ten episode season of a one hour TV show, but Ros and Talisa are hardly more interesting than an Arianne or a Stoneheart, or even Tysha. Still, showrunners have said not to judge until they have finished their story, so we shall see how it plays out. In the meantime, I await the Winds of Winter with great interest. I thoroughly recommend readings the books for the immense plot and character detail that are there – it is a lot more rewarding.

Full Citation for Valerie Estelle Frankel:

-          Women in Game of Thrones: Power, Conformity and Resistance by Valerie Estelle Frankel. North Carolina: McFarland & Company inc., 2014

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Review: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

*I received this book as an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

‘Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off. From now on, Punzel, we’re going to live by the sun and the seasons.’ He picked me up and spun me around, laughing. ‘Our days will be endless’

Our Endless Numbered Days was something a little different for my reading list and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I ended up reading it mostly in two sittings, completely immersed in Claire Fuller’s vivid prose and the way the narrative alternates between time-frames (the time spent in the forest, and the time after the return to civilisation).

Fuller weaves elements of the post-apocalyptic, the pastoral (hence the comparisons with Walden and Donoghue’s Room) and even suspenseful/psychological horror into her literary fiction, which she based on the ‘true’ life story of Robin van Helsum (a Dutch boy who claimed to have survived in a German forest with his father for 5 years). It’s a fascinating and mysterious premise which Fuller builds upon in an intriguing way, laying clues and lulling the reader into a false sense of security of ‘knowing’ what’s going to happen, or feeling as if they have predicted it (I felt the twists coming but their effect was in no way diminished). Instead, she has you, the reader, firmly where she wants you – right to the end.

It is Peggy’s father, James, who whisks her away to a hut (die Hütte) in the middle of a forest to begin a new life, away from civilisation. Initially he tells her that her mother, Ute, has died in a car crash while on tour; and then that civilisation itself has ended, and they are the only people left alive. The book's timeline begins in the 70s, depicting the ill-suited marriage of her mother and father and his involvement with a group of Survivalists who discuss methods for surviving the end of the world (amidst the historical context of the Cold War and the potential of nuclear catastrophe).  

‘They were members of the North London Retreaters. Every month they met at our house, arguing and discussing strategies for surviving the end of the world’

We know it takes Peggy nine years to return to her family – her mother, very much alive, and a brother she never knew she had - but we do not know just how much she has been changed or quite exactly what really happened in those woods until the end. She is by no means a reliable narrator, spending the formative years of her life alone in the woods with her increasingly unstable father. We become immersed in the experience of life in die Hütte, as young Peggy narrates it, delighting in the practical and the gritty aspects of survival – the skinning of squirrels, the hardships of winter, the descent of her father into madness and the possibility that they are not alone in those woods.

‘My father dropped a pile of foreign coins in her leathery palm and we hurried away. I had no idea this wind-worn woman, creased and bag-eyed, standing outside her barn with her cow on a rope, would be the last person I would meet from the real world for another nine years. Perhaps if I had known, I would have clung to the folds of her skirt, hooked my fingers over the waistband of her apron and tucked my knees around one of her stout legs. Stuck fast, like a limpet or a Siamese twin, I would have been carried with her when she rose in the morning to milk the cow, or into her kitchen to stir the porridge. If I had known, I might never have let her go'

In die Hütte, Peggy and her father construct a makeshift/imitation piano and music becomes both a way to stay sane and a measure of the descent into insanity.

‘If there was anyone else out there in all that blackness, a solitary note might flit through infinity and land on a shoulder to find its way inside that person’s head.’

Physically, Peggy becomes a young woman over those years and yet she is stuck in a state of timelessness, a feral unreality with a father who is so consumed by grief that he even sometimes confuses her identity.

The majority of the book is spent in the forest with Peggy and her father, and it is those sections you’ll want to re-read carefully come the end of the book. As a reader, you also enter a sense of timelessness as you read those years, so the change of pace and canter towards the ending is all the more startling and abrupt, leaving you with plenty to think about. A period of 8-9 years of daily, ritual survival in such a claustrophobic setting and without a concept of time or end-goal, could have been a challenge to read. But the sections in the forest do not lag because of the rich and vivid language and the interesting dynamic the two characters have with each other, themselves, and the world around them.

I found one moment particularly poignant and illuminative – where Peggy’s father tells her a bedtime story with her as the protagonist:

‘She heard the people of the world fighting with each other … they couldn’t live together happily. They lied to each other and when people do that, in the end, the world they have built will always come tumbling down. Punzel hated hearing the people of the world lie and argue. But one day she woke to find that the angry planet was silent; all she could hear was the sound of her father chopping wood for the stove and the animals asking her to come out to play. And Punzel was the happiest girl in the world.

Although he makes his daughter the protagonist, this says so much about James and whether he can be truly empathised or sympathised with. For him, there was a kind of apocalypse, one that destroyed everything he believed and made him renounce his faith in the world and the company of others. The book is also his tragedy, and the tragedy of a relationship/relationships gone wrong.

In a way, I would have been curious to continue to see what happened next – how Peggy recovers and assimilates back into everyday existence – whether she can get her grip back on reality or if the effects and beliefs of those years have left her with psychological scars that run too deep. Fuller’s chosen ending nevertheless allows your imagination to run wild, encouraging you to think more deeply about what has gone on, and it certainly packs an emotional and psychological punch. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Review: 'Reasons To Stay Alive' by Matt Haig

First - I very almost cried in public when I heard the news about Terry Pratchett's death. He was one of my favourite authors in my childhood. He was remarkable - from his open discussions about death and Alzheimer's and Assisted Dying, to his witty, imaginative and profound fantasy fiction with the Discworld series. He was a brilliant mind and human being who brought joy to so many. My thoughts are with all those who knew him and others suffering from Alzheimer's. 

One of the greatest fantasy authors of all time

- “‘I meant,’ said Ipslore bitterly, ‘What is there in this world that truly makes living worthwhile?” Death thought about it. Cats, he said eventually. Cats are nice.” 

- 'Goodness is about what you do. Not what you pray to.'

The Death of Rats looked up from the feast of potato.
SQUEAK, he said.
Death waved a hand dismissively. WELL, YES, OBVIOUSLY ME, he said. I JUST WONDERED IF THERE WAS ANYONE ELSE' 

Secondly -

Following on from a post I did a month or two ago about The Humans, this is a post to honour Matt Haig and his brave and touching new book - part memoir, part self-help, part a-few-hours-in-the-mind-of-Haig. 

It chronicles the period in his twenties when, living in Ibiza, he came closest to attempting suicide, and reflects on his life before and after. Haig writes brilliantly - he has become one of my favourite contemporary authors, so this book is immensely readable - it is not a slog in any way (each section is only a couple of pages) and is full of light and hope and is tinged with his own brand of perceptive humour (always reminds me of Douglas Adams). I think this book is essential reading for ANYONE - for modern LIFE. It's very well balanced (Haig's use of listing is in itself a kind of literary trope) and it became a bestseller almost immediately. That a well-written book about mental health became a bestseller in its first week is testament to Haig's ability to capture an audience and to engage resonate with individuals of all ages - which he does brilliantly on Twitter too. 

I've included some extracts of my favourite parts - I have read widely on this subject, it features in some of my favourite novels and I know many who suffer. Hopefully this book will help people open up about their experiences and things they feel embarrassed or ashamed to talk about and will help others understand how to help and how to just be there for someone with depression - and not to quit when it gets hard.

Depression lies. Depression makes you think things that are wrong.
The thing to take from this first page is that, if you can, challenge every automatic thought you have - patterns and habits that you believe are the truth. Haig later writes: 'The key is in accepting your thoughts, all of them, even the bad ones. Accept the thoughts, but don't become them.'

'If someone loves you, let them'. That is a lot harder than it sounds for many. It can be so difficult to love someone who does not love themselves but if you help each other through then it can be so rewarding and create a much stronger and more intimate bond. There will be lows, and moments when you may feel like there's nothing you can do or that the person is attacking you for no reason, but understand that their vision may be impaired in that moment and they just need you to stay. It will be worth it (if they become abusive, that's another story. Obviously a situational approach is important). 

'Trees are great'. Obviously this resonated with me. Trees are awesome. Live among the trees. Also, cats. 

Anyone who quotes Camus is guaranteed a place in my heart. But seriously, both options can be equally terrifying - and that is when stasis and paralysis take hold. 

The existential horrors can make you feel alienated - like you're the only one able to see clearly and you want to wake everyone else up - stop them on their way into work, talk through the meaning of everything etc. But Haig also reminds us of the improbability of life - the minuscule chance that any one of us had of being the sperm that made it, the way our genes aligned precisely in order to make us as we are and it's big and scary and random and comforting all at the same time. 

'A physical body is a universe in itself'. We simplify far too much and are only beginning to scrape the surface of everything that a human is, particularly in relation to neuroscience.

Haig's symptoms.

Being hyper-sensitive can feel like a curse but it is also a gift and if you channel it positively - it can fuel creativity and innovation. You can access emotions and thoughts that others may not be open to. You can raise awareness and make brilliant art and see the world in different ways.

'Maybe love is just about finding the person you can be your weird self with'

Haig caters for all affected - which is also part of what makes this book great. One, Four and Six are absolutely crucial to remember, especially if you are in a relationship where it's just the two of you. 

Books are a chance to communicate on your own wavelength and it can be the greatest relief. Read, read widely, listen to music, seek out the things that make you feel heard and valued and safe. Challenge yourself when you can but never punish yourself. Books and art are the only real way we have of truly communicating with our minds - to truly reach the inner life of another human being. 

This is an important text to have on your bookshelf - you never know when you may need it - the chances are you or someone you know will experience depression or something similar during your lives and even if you don't, knowing about it and the way our mind works is still important, especially in a rapidly changing/evolving world (see Haig has done something very important and I am looking forward to reading more from him in the future. I definitely recommend his novels as well! Let me know what you think and maybe some of your favourite reads on the same subject. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Why You Should Read 'The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender' (aka You Should Read The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender)

People of earth. Human folk. Read this book. 

You will thank me forever. It will make you feel wonder and sorrow and joy and you will get that quiet/screaming/aching feeling that only the best writers can induce. 

1. This is not a children’s book. I can only just about understand its classification as YA - it's just too reductive to make it into a high-school metaphor for 'fitting in'. I think anyone who doesn’t come across or read this because of those genre classifications is missing out.

2. For me, quality-wise, this holds its own with the literary summits of Magical Realism (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Midnight's Children etc.) Obviously it is different in many ways, but it would comfortably sit alongside these on a bookshelf.

3. This book surprised and surprised me again - it was so unexpected and so very welcome. Ava Lavender is narrator and protagonist, in theory, but she does not take centre stage till the end. She is born with the wings of a bird, wings she seeks to hide under a cloak - afraid of being judged. In every other way she is just a girl, a girl with a very interesting and unconventional family.

4. I was equally engaged with the stories of each and every family member - the generations before her. Emilienne and Viviane particularly spoke to me (esp. the latter) - I felt so much for them and became so invested in their lives. It's not often in these 'generational sagas' that I can recall each generation or remain invested in them.

5. Leslye Walton unfolds it all so carefully and poetically that it tugs at your heart the whole way through - and not in any sappy, overbearing or sentimental way. You're explicitly being told a story, and yet nothing feels forced. It's like it's unravelling itself organically. The emotion is subtle and wrapped in the beautiful language and expressions. 

6. One reviewer perfectly expressed it – this story isn’t ‘sanitised’ for a 'fragile' audience (not a children's book). It was shocking, tragic, dark and traumatic in parts, but full of love of all kinds, in all its broken forms and all its best. It’s a fable and fairytale that rings with eternal truths. 

7. It’s full of broken, scarred people – love's victims. People who had to overcome great odds. People who lost in love but continued and found meaning. Some of the best people.

8. I want to write so much - about Viviane Lavender and Jack Griffith and Gabe and Emilienne and Rowe and Henry and the bakery... about broken promises and regrets and friendship and family... but I just can’t divulge too much because you need to experience it as I did. I don’t even want to say what themes there are because I want you to be as stunned and grateful as I was. I don’t want to rob you of any measure of the experience. 

Instead, I will leave you just with some snippets of Leslye Walton’s magic.

- The bird-watcher never noticed Pierette’s drastic attempt at gaining his affection and instead moved to Louisiana, drawn by its large population of Pelecanus occidentalis. Which only goes to show, some sacrifices aren’t worth the cost. Even, or perhaps most especially, those made out love. 14

- If the past had taught her anything, it was that as long as she didn’t love someone, he wasn’t as likely to die or disappear 29

- By this point Viviane Lavender had loved Jack Griffith for twelve years, which was far more than half of her life. If she thought of her love as a commodity, and were, say, to eat it, it would fill 4,745 cherry pies. If she were to preserve it, she would need 23,725 glass jars and labels and a basement spanning the length of Pinnacle Lane. If she were to drink it, she’d drown. 107

- I found it ironic that I should be blessed with wings and yet feel so constrained, so trapped. It was because of my condition, I believe, that I noticed life’s ironies a bit more often than the average person. I collected them: how love arrived when you least expected it, how someone who said he didn’t want to hurt you eventually would. 173

- And that might just be the root of the problem: we’re all afraid of each other, wings or no wings.” 177

 - But while the thought of being dead seemed appealing, the actual act of dying did not. Dying required too much action. And if recent events proved anything, my body wasn’t going to give over to death without a fierce fight; so if I were to kill myself, I’d have to make sure I could do it. That I’d be good and dead once it was all over and not mutilated or half deranged but still dreadfully alive. 287