Review: A Dream of Spring

dream of springWhen I heard that the last Song of Ice and Fire book was finished, I called bullshit like everyone else. In hindsight, I suppose skipping over The Winds of Winter was Martin’s best move. The sixth season of the TV series did more than steal his thunder; it underscored how badly he had fallen as a writer. Like the early novels it moved mountains of plotting, and some critics are calling it the best season yet. If Martin ever does bother finishing The Winds of Winter he should simply adapt the TV-script with minimal modifications. Weiss and Benioff showed him up big time this year, and the message was loud and clear: Remember who your readers are, George — what they signed on for, and what you used to be capable of.

Martin was evidently worried this might happen, because for the past year he’s been rushing to crank out book seven. Yes, it’s really finished but for now only available through special channels. Those of us who have had the privilege of reading it can say it’s pretty damn good, certainly the best entry since A Storm of Swords, though it shows signs of haste. At 574 pages it’s the shortest volume (even Feast for Crows topped 600), and overloaded with shocks, deaths, and surprises that come flying out-of-nowhere and sometimes feel forced. Above all it betrays an author who is pissed at how superior his story has become in the hands of TV adapters. A Dream of Spring is Martin’s desperate appeal that he can still write a good story, and his blatant attempt to go out with a bang before the show writers can. He’s largely successful in this regard. He was too under the gun to craft anything close to a masterpiece; but where he does score, the payoffs are grand.

Huge spoilers follow, so stop now if you don’t want to hear them. Bran is the character who demands the most attention, and I’ll start with his homoerotic passion for a Forest Child, which will be controversial for his age. In the TV series Isaac Hempstead Wright has become a strapping youth of 17, but in the books Bran is still only 10. (Four years have passed since the first chapter of book 1.) It is implied that Bran’s greenseer powers have accelerated certain aspects of his biology, but this is still disturbing territory, and there are heavy shades of Ishmael, the androgynous figure from Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. In that film Ishmael physically caresses the prepubescent Alexander, encloses the boy in his arms, and together they will the death of Alexander’s abusive stepfather. Pollen caresses Bran and empowers him in a similar way to murder a key figure leagues away, but the carnality is much more overt; Pollen is blatantly sexually assaulting him until Bran’s rage turns to passion. It’s an extremely well-written scene, and I’ve said in previous reviews that Martin’s best writing comes in the Bran chapters. But it’s a scene you will feel ashamed of reading.

Bran’s chapters will be controversial in other ways. He’s the most important character (he gets 14 chapters out of 62, almost a quarter of the novel), but his seminal moments depend on changing the past in ways that don’t really change it at all. That worked brilliantly in the TV series in paying off the character of Hodor, but at this stage the results are too predictable: It is Bran Stark who raises the Wall 8000 years ago, unleashing an explosive force of weir-magic through his ancestor Bran the Builder. It is likewise Bran Stark responsible for the mysterious vanishing of the Others in that same year, as he summons them forward in time to the point of four years ago, in order to precipitate the events which will lead to Jon’s alliance with the Wildlings. And he is also Bran the Breaker, who in a fit of epileptic fury defeats the Night King and solves the riddle of Joramun’s Horn. Time travel is always risky business, and for the most part Martin handles it well, but again, the events are rather banal once they are telegraphed; we’ve seen this kind of thing done before in fantasy and sci-fic. On the other hand, it’s a solid payoff to Bran’s warging abilities combined with his weir-magic that gives him a near godlike omniscience and omnipresence across time.

The lady Starks get good chapters and surpass themselves. It’s impossible to not feel elated for Sansa as after so much torment in the previous books she assumes control of both Winterfell and the Eyrie, and shafts Littlefinger by having Arya execute him. Before this, for her part, Arya assassinates literally hundreds of Freys in a glorious payback for the Red Wedding. She tries this stunt much later on a Lannister host, and is gang raped for her efforts when Qyburn sees through her faceless talent. Her prolonged torture and death is inflammatory by even Martin’s standards, and while this isn’t exactly a complaint on my part, there does seem to be a “My dick is bigger than yours” thing going on between the novels and TV series, as if Martin and Weiss/Benioff are competing to outshine each other with shock value. I wonder how Martin’s spouse-equivalent has reacted to this. Arya is her favorite character and was originally slated to die in book 2; it’s well known among fans that she forbade Martin to kill her off. Arya is my favorite character too, and while I don’t object to her dying unjustly, I’ll certainly say she deserved to go out better than this.

There are shocks around every corner, not least the devastation unleashed by Drogon. As the Dothraki assault the Lannister army returning from Highgarden, Dany unleashes an inferno that channels Balerion the Black Dread. By far the most gratifying shock, however, is the Iron Throne’s literal rejection of Cersei Lannister. While there have been hints that the Throne is sentient (“Some days you can feel it eating into you,” said King Robert in book 1), the reawakening and arrival of dragons in Westeros seem to have triggered a full-blown animation. The Mad Queen treats herself to a court slaughter, only to be gruesomely impaled by the throne’s blades. The scene is awkward, because one minute Ellaria Sand and Missandei are being raped and dismembered, and the next Cersie is being shredded in a cartoonish fashion. I was cheering in any case. Jaime is another matter. His murder at the hands of Ser Enchanted-Gregor is anything but cartoonish and rather upsetting. We’ve come a long way with Jaime since he threw Bran off the tower, and it’s safe to say he will go down a big favorite of many fans. He finally works up the stones — or to be precise, he disciplines them for a change — to oppose his wretched sister. All of Martin’s characters are believable, but none more so than Jaime. He has been Martin’s most authentic character by far.

As for the showdown between the Hound (villain turned hero) and Lady Stoneheart (hero turned villain), it’s entertaining but the tone is all wrong, like something out of a B-grade horror film. In chapters like these Martin was clearly taking the piss in his hurry to finish the book. Euron is another case in point. The Greyjoy thread was my favorite part of A Feast for Crows; it was loaded with potential. But Euron’s story devolves into a caricature of sadistic kinslaying — brandishing Theon’s head in public while dressing up in his niece’s skins to terrorize his fellow man. On the other hand, Aeron Damphair gets a standout chapter. His toxic prayers against Euron backfire (literally: he’s killed by a sea-storm so wild it may as well be the Drowned God incarnate), but his righteous tirades are the most entertaining I’ve read in a work of fiction.

The battle between the dragons and the Others is what we’ve long waited for, and on TV next year it’s sure to be mind-blowing. The identity of the dragon with three heads is as I predicted — Dany on Drogon, Aegon (Jon) on Rhaegal, and Tyrion on Viserion, until the last pair die at the hands of the Night King who then raises Viserion as a zombie-dragon. There is a Martinesque poetry in two bastard sons (Tyrion from Aerys, Jon from Rhaegar) being Dany’s right and left wings, and of course the usual Martin-nihilism when one of them is killed at the worst moment. Tyrion does save Jon as he goes down, closing the loop of their friendship established in book 1 when Tyrion visited the Wall.

Which brings me to the Wall’s fall. It’s the most pulverizing event of the series, and the Black Massacre makes the Red Wedding look like a tea party. It calls to mind the ninja assault on Osaka’s castle in Shogun and indeed Martin’s characters are almost stand-ins for Clavell’s: Borroq the new Yabu, allowing the horde of wights through the Wall to overtake Castle Black and Oakenshield; Val sacrificing herself like Lady Mariko. Unlike Mariko, she fails miserably to save the day, and Jon is left quasi-deaf thanks to (the real) Joramun’s Horn; unlike his Shogun analog, Captain John, whose ears recovered, Jon’s are forever infected, as he is strangely able to hear people leagues away while having to strain to make sense of those in front of him.

Fans have expected Jon and Dany to fulfill the ice and fire prophecy — Jon being the ice and Dany the fire. In fact, it is Sansa who is the ice (she being a complete Stark, unlike Jon), and Aegon (Jon) the Targaryen fire as promised. I didn’t see it coming with Sansa, even though a fringe group of fans have been predicting a Jon-Sansa pairing. I rejected that theory and am now eating crow. Their passion for each other is intense, though somewhat cheap; I didn’t care for the way Sansa’s red hair evoked memories of Ygritte every time she and Jon were in the sack, nor for their cheesy promises to each other. The Iron Throne does seem to be where Dany is headed (Jon is fucking her too, by the way) until Martin pulls a fast one, leaving the rule of Westeros to an incestuous pair, as per the Targaryen standard, but with House Stark comprising far more of the bloodline. Dany fades to black, a savior of Westeros whose nephew will wear the crown. That is Martin’s song: the marriage of House Stark and Targaryen’s most capable members.

Many will object to Dany’s ending, but I always had reservations about her ruling Westeros. Her departure for Mereen may seem anti-climactic, but for me it works, especially considering the unfinished business there on top of Daario Naharis’ assassination. In the end she finds herself concerned about oppressive injustices more than a prestigious birthright, which is Aegon’s (Jon’s) anyway. She accepts that she is a tyrant despite her cause for the dispossessed, unlike Sansa who is more naturally tender and knows cruelty firsthand, and different also from Jon who has learned to balance his Ned-like integrity with the realities of politics. All is not well and tidy by the end, however. The epilogue is ominous as the Wildlings seem to be a major problem. Jon reaps what he sowed by his noble intentions, like Dany returning to a mess in Slaver’s Bay. Which is all fine and well. A Song of Ice and Fire was never slated for the most happy ending, and it deserves to live up to its grim reputation. The closing chapters do that, leaving us with only a dim hope, or dream, for a better Westeros.

I doubt that Martin will ever bother finishing The Winds of Winter, and at this point that’s probably just as well. The TV series told that part of the story better than he could ever hope to. I’m just glad he was able to pull his shit together for A Dream of Spring and produce a satisfying conclusion. Even without a leg A Song of Ice and Fire now stands as one of the best epic fantasies of all time.

Ratings

A Game of Thrones — 5
A Clash of Kings — 5
A Storm of Swords — 5+
A Feast for Crows — 3
A Dance with Dragons — 4
The Winds of Winter — ?
A Dream of Spring — 4 ½

(Previous volumes reviewed here.)

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Pastor Anderson’s war on the sodomites

Click for video

Our friend Pastor Anderson isn’t content with smashing his fist on the podium and kicking it until his toes break. Now he jumps on top of the thing and threatens to excommunicate anyone in his church who doesn’t support his all-out war on the sodomites. The sermon is a very long 1 hour and 14 minutes, so I made 5-minute clip of the jaw-dropping parts (click right image).

As usual, he’s a train wreck impossible to stop watching, and the Orlando shooting has clearly pushed him into meltdown. What’s especially dispiriting are the kids in the audience laughing fondly and enjoying his invective against the LGBT community. I can’t imagine growing up in a church like this. Anderson combines the theatrics of Saturday Night Live with the hate of fanatical fringe groups to produce something rather unique.

Rape and Gun Memes

rape shootingsI’ve seen two memes on Facebook recently that satirically “explain” the singular causes of rape and mass shootings. As much as I appreciate what these memes get at (namely: criminals should be held fully accountable for their actions), the rhetorical effect suggests that dress attire, alcohol, walking alone in high-risk areas are not aggravating factors (“causes”) of rape, which isn’t true. Likewise that unrestricted access to guns cannot be viewed as significantly enabling a killer’s success. And note the hypocrisy: liberals brandish the rape meme, conservatives the gun meme, both equally unwisely.

With regards to the rape meme: It’s irresponsible to expect rapists to behave themselves as we educate the world about rape culture. The reality is that rapists will be rapists and certain behaviors enable their success. That’s not victim-blaming; it’s common sense. The rapist should always get the full 100%-blame in a court of law, but people should also be smart enough about their own safety to apply measures of preventive maintenance as situations warrant. The same is true of any crime: If I walk alone at night in a crime-infested city area and get mugged, the mugger is fully accountable. But I was acting very stupidly.

With regards to the gun meme: It’s equally irresponsible to not regulate guns — and actually permit the sale of assault weapons — in the expectation that all citizens are decent and mentally stable. In the U.S. we’re long overdue for tighter gun control. Allow me the caveat I’ve added elsewhere: I don’t believe for a moment that better gun control will reduce the number of mass killings (full explanation here). But better gun control will at least go a long way to curtailing gun deaths resulting from domestic abuse, accidents involving children, and hard-core criminals who shouldn’t own a gun at all.

These memes do emphasize where full accountability lies, and yes, that’s important. But they are ultimately naïve.

Where are the white terrorists?

color chartTerrorists have been traditionally defined as vigilantes who use threats or violence against civilians in order to attain political, religious and/or ideological goals, by process of fear, intimidation, and/or coercion. These days you can be exempt from the label according to ethnicity, as the satirical graph on the right shows.

This wasn’t true before 9/11. Ted Kaczynski (“the Unabomber”) opposed modern technology, and mailed bombs to people between 1978 and 1995, and Timothy McVeigh was a white supremacist and New Order conspiracy theorist who blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. They were called terrorists by every mainstream media outlet. Today they probably wouldn’t be.

Consider Daniel Cowart (the white supremacist who plotted to kill black school students and then President Obama in 2008), James Von Brunn (the Holocaust Memorial Museum shooter in 2009), Byron Williams (the Tea Party member inspired by the propaganda of Glenn Beck, who armed himself and went “liberal-hunting” in 2010), and Jared Loughner (the conspiracy theorist believing in a governmental plot to brainwash people, who killed six people in 2011). The terrorist activities of these men speak for themselves, despite the reluctance to call them terrorists in a post-9/11 world.

We should acknowledge the reason for that reluctance. Terrorisms have different manifestations and threat levels. To lump the above men together creates the misleading impression that there is a concerted movement equivalent to the Islamic jihad. Jihad is a massive global threat first of all. In the U.S. there have been many foiled jihadist plots, and if we included those in comparing the number of Islamic terrorist attacks vs. non-Islamic, the former would dwarf the latter. And when you factor that whites comprise 77% of the U.S. population, and Muslims less than 1%, that magnifies the jihad threat exponentially.

It doesn’t take fear-mongering to recognize that Islamic terrorists are a persistently dangerous breed, but that doesn’t warrant making them the “only” terrorists. That strips the definition and fuels counter-productive political narratives. Dylann Roof is as much a terrorist as Omar Mateen.

The Motives of Walter Fritz

orgyAs everyone and their mother knew by yesterday’s end, the owner of the Jesus-Wife fragment has been unmasked by the brilliant detective work of Ariel Sabar (The Atlantic, July/August, 2016). The owner’s name is Walter Fritz, who is also more than likely the forger:

“By every indication, Fritz had the skills and knowledge to forge the Jesus’s-wife papyrus. He was the missing link between all the players in the provenance story. He’d proved adept at deciphering enigmatic Egyptian text. He had a salesman’s silver tongue, which kept Laukamp and possibly others in his thrall. Perhaps most important, he’d studied Coptic but had never been very good at it — which could explain the ‘combination of bumbling and sophistication’ that King had deemed ‘extremely unlikely’ in a forger.”

But if Fritz did do it, what was his motive?

“Money drives many forgers, and by 2010 Fritz’s assets certainly appear to have taken a beating. The owner of the papyrus agreed to loan it to Harvard for 10 years, but that’s hardly exculpatory: An Ivy League imprimatur could produce a kind of halo effect, giving a forger cover to sell other fakes with less scrutiny.

But there was another possibility. If Fritz had seen his Egyptology dreams thwarted, maybe he nursed a grudge against the elite scholars who had failed to appreciate his intellectual gifts—who had told him he was mediocre at Coptic and short on original ideas. Not a few forgers over the decades have been driven by a desire to show up the experts.” [Edit: Like Morton Smith.]

Or it could even be that Fritz and his wife had seen in The Da Vinci Code a way to sanctify their libertine sex life. They launched a porn site right after the novel was published, and enjoyed gangbangs, premised on the fantasies of husbands who were helpless against their wives’ lust for other men.

“Beginning in 2003, Fritz had launched a series of pornographic sites that showcased his wife having sex with other men — often more than one at a time. One home page billed her as ‘America’s #1 Slut Wife.’ The couple advertised the dates and locations of ‘gangbangs’ and asked interested men to e‑mail ‘Walt’ a photo and phone number, so he could clear them to attend. There was no charge, but the men had to agree to Walt’s filming.

‘I just wanted to thank you for a wonderful time during the gangbang on Friday,’ someone named Doug was quoted as saying on the fan-mail page of one of the sites. ‘Don’t get me wrong Walt you are a great guy, but your wife…Wow!!!’

All of the sites seem to have been taken down in late 2014 and early 2015. But archived pages and free images and videos were easy to find online. In an interview on a German-language Web site, Fritz’s wife, under her porn name, described herself as the daughter of a U.S. military officer who had been stationed in Berlin when she was a teenager. She and Fritz met in Florida in the 1990s, and he encouraged her to act out their shared fantasies of her having sex with other men.

Fritz appears in a few videos, but he is more often behind the camera. He included a bio on one site, under his occasional porn name, Wolf: ‘I am a 45 year old executive, living in S. Florida. Stats: 6’2”, 185 lbs., brown hair, slim, no belly, clean cut, and well endowed.’ Then he went on to list his academic credentials, as if for a LinkedIn profile: ‘I am college-educated with a technical MA-degree form [sic] a major university, and an associate degree in arts. I speak three languages fluently and read two old languages.’

This juxtaposition of lewd and learned appears in still sharper relief on one of his wife’s sites, where passages from Goethe, Proust, and Edna St. Vincent Millay are interspersed with philosophical musings on Jesus’s teachings, the slippery nature of reality, and ‘the Perfection of Sluthood.’

After trawling regions of the Web I hadn’t even known existed, I discovered that Fritz’s wife, under her porn name, enjoyed a measure of fame. Before Yahoo shut it down in 2004, she boasted online, her ‘Femalebarebackgangbangextreme’ discussion group had nearly 50,000 members. The couple’s work belonged to a fetish genre built around fantasies of cuckolded husbands powerless to stop their wives’ lust for other men. The genre is called ‘hotwife.’

When I mentioned these findings to my own wife, she told me to read The Da Vinci Code. Studied closely, she said, the book could be a Rosetta stone for Fritz’s motives.

Dan Brown’s best seller is fiction, of course, but it draws on the work of feminist religious scholars like King. Its premise is that conservative forces in the Roman Catholic Church silenced early Christians who saw sex as holy and women as the equals — or even the saviors — of men. Threatened by these vestiges of pagan goddess worship, Church fathers defamed Mary Magdalene and enshrined the all-male priesthood to keep women out.

Brown’s chief point of departure from scholars like King is his made-for-Hollywood plot, which turns on a Catholic conspiracy to destroy evidence of Jesus’s marriage to—and child with—Mary Magdalene. A clandestine society whose past members include Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Isaac Newton has resolved to keep alive the secret of Jesus’s marriage, along with an ancient practice that celebrated the sanctity of sexual intercourse. In a pivotal scene, members of the society take part in a ritualistic orgy.

I wondered whether Fritz and his wife had seen in the book a way to sanctify their adventurous sex life, to cloak it in the garb of faith. The couple launched their first porn site in April 2003, a month after The Da Vinci Code was published. Perhaps they had spun a fantasy of Fritz — whose birthday happens to be Christmas — as a kind of Jesus figure, and his wife as a latter-day Mary Magdalene.”

Whatever his motives — there may have been many — Walter Fritz will fall somewhere on my list of Top 20 Literary Hoaxes when I get around to updating it.

Two helpful responses to Orlando

There have been the expected bend-over-backwards apologias in the wake of the Orlando shooting, and so it’s important to hold up two courageous exceptions:

1. Heina Dadabhoy (right), “Erasing LGBTQ Muslims & Islamic Homophobia”, a lesbian [EDIT: bisexual; see comments] who knows from experience how entrenched homophobia is in Islamic thought:

“Non-Muslims prone to apologism for Muslims, please check yourselves, as I am tired of having to check you. I am tired of hearing all about how much nicer Muslims are to you than they ever were to me. I am tired of biting my tongue as you engage in cutesy ‘experiments’ where you don oppression drag for shits and giggles and positive results where people like us cannot so merrily do the same. I am tired of having to keep you at arm’s length because I don’t know who you’d side with were I to be murdered for living loudly and proudly about my un-Islamic choices.

“As for the Muslims and ex-Muslims doing the same, especially those claiming to have progressive values, the jig is up. Islamic homophobia is real. This is the time when you’re going to either have to acknowledge that Islamic teachings and Muslim communities are rife with rampant anti-LGBTQ sentiment, or for you to decide that your wish for Islam to be seen positively matters more than the struggle of your GSM siblings. I hope you choose the less-selfish route.”

2. Ayaan Hirsi Ali (right), “Islam’s Jihad Against Homosexuals”, the well-known human rights activist who refutes myths that either lax gun laws (according to liberals) or lax immigration laws (according to Trump devotees) are responsible for the Orlando shooting:

“The Orlando massacre is a hideous reminder to Americans that homophobia is an integral part of Islamic extremism. That isn’t to say that some people of other faiths and ideologies aren’t hostile to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, community. Nor is to say that Islamic extremists don’t target other minorities, in addition to engaging in wholly indiscriminate violence. But it is important to establish why a man like Omar Mateen could be motivated to murder 49 people in a gay nightclub, interrupting the slaughter, as law-enforcement officials reported, to dial 911, proclaim his support for Islamic State and then pray to Allah.

“Following the horrific attack in Orlando, people as usual have been rushing to judgment. President Obama blames lax gun laws. Donald Trump blames immigration. Neither is right. There has been comparable carnage in countries with strict gun laws. The perpetrator in this case was born in the United States. This is not primarily about guns or immigration. It is about a deeply dangerous ideology that is infiltrating American society in the guise of religion. Homophobia comes in many forms. But none is more dangerous in our time than the Islamic version.”

Thank you, Ms. Dadabhoy and Ms. Ali, for speaking rightly where silver-spooned scholars and pundits fail us.

What gets lost in all the cries for more gun control are the ideological beliefs which so clearly drove Omar Mateen. He was reported by his fellow employees for being an Islamist, and interviewed twice by the FBI. He was on a terror watch list and then dropped off the list because there are too many people like him to keep track of all of them, which of course is what groups like ISIS count on. He invoked the Boston Marathon bombers and obviously meant to emulate them in carrying out a jihad attack. With or without legal access to guns, he would have in all probability killed a lot of people. He was ideologically driven to kills gays, as much as the Muslims who kill cartoonists of Muhammad. Orlando a hate crime? Sure. But hate crimes and holy wars aren’t mutually exclusive.