Every family has that point during the summer where its members are so buried in summer camps, conflicting vacation plans, and "oh crap that list of things I planned to do over the summer isn't getting any shorter" that everything else gets shoved to the back burner. For my family, it's this week. Thus, instead of 1200 words about feminism, theology, or writing theory,  I present the Song of Ice and Fire Drinking Game: Dunk and Egg Edition!

If you haven't read the Dunk and Egg novellas (which are now available in one book), I highly recommend them. They're good for the Song of Ice and Fire reader who's trying to decide whether to stick a toe into the Olympic swimming pool of ancillary materials, the Game of Thrones watcher who's thinking about reading  the books but doesn't have time for a thousand-page door stop, or the fantasy fan who has no exposure to either the show or the books, is curious about them, but is daunted by the length of both series. The AV Club listed the first Dunk and Egg novella, "The Hedge Knight," as a gateway to George R. R. Martin's work because it nicely compresses the themes and tone of Westeros into a bite-sized, pleasant piece (the novella collection clocks in at 368 pages for three novellas, and that's with illustrations at least every five pages and  generously sized print.)

The novellas are also a lovely read for anyone who mostly enjoys Game of Thrones, but wishes it weren't so darned Game of Thrones all the time. They have complex situations and shades of grey, but also some genuinely heroic heroes and genuinely villainous villains--and the villains don't have to prove how bad they are by eating people's faces and raping every woman in sight.  (In fact, I don't recall a single incident of, or even allusion to, sexual violence in any of the three novellas. The closest we get is a woman who's almost forced into an arranged marriage to a man she despises, but even that doesn't  happen, and he doesn't spend the whole time leering about how much he's going to rock their wedding night.) Endings are invariably bittersweet, but not to the point where the protagonist is decapitated in  front of a jeering crowd. And perhaps most importantly, for the first time since Storm of Swords, Martin seems to be having fun writing these. The last two Song of Ice and Fire  books felt like something Martin was dutifully crossing off  his list of chores. Dunk and Egg never does.

And  now, without further ado, the drinking game!

Take a drink every time. . .

. . . someone comments on Dunk's height.

. . . you recognize a house name from Song of Ice and Fire.
  • If you actually recognize where you know the name from ("Hey, it's the Freys!") rather than just vaguely knowing they sound familiar from somewhere ("Oh, the Crakehalls. Right. Who are they again?"), drink twice.
  • If you recognize a specific character from their being mentioned in Song of Ice and Fire, drink three times.

. . . Dunk threatens to give Egg a  clout on the ear.
  • If he actually gives him a clout on the ear, finish the bottle.

. . . any of the following phrases appears:
  • "Dunk the lunk." 
  • "Thick as a castle wall." (Thus, if you get "Dunk the lunk, thick as a castle wall," drink twice.)
  • "Tanselle Too-Tall they called her, but she was not too tall for me."
  • "How  many eyes does Bloodraven have? A thousand eyes, and one."

. . . you have to reread the paragraphs in The Hedge Knight  laying out  the current Targaryen family situation to get the brothers straight.

. . . Egg asks to use his boot.
  • If he actually uses it, drink twice.

. . . the sexual politics between Dunk and Rohanne get creepy.  (Or just save yourself time and drink every  time they have a scene together.)

. . . John the Fiddler hits on Dunk.

. . . Egg calls Dunk on  having a terrible idea in The Mystery Knight  and is ignored.

. . . Egg is the one with a terrible idea. 

What else should be on the list?
 
 
In my last post, I talked about how frustratingly difficult it is to find modern wide-release movies for adults that embrace mercy as a critical theme. This week, I want to celebrate the positive,  taking a look at a few relatively recent wide-release movies that get mercy right. I'm also going to expand the net to some favorite books and short stories, because . . . well, I'm a short story writer. It'd be silly not to talk about books on a writing blog.

Something I particularly appreciate is that in most of these stories, the recipient of mercy has genuinely done something horrid. Showing mercy and compassion to a dying, destitute Fantine is absolutely laudable, but it's much, much harder to show mercy to the kid who just blew up your entire planet.

Captain America: Civil War (2016). Since this one just came out, I don't want to say too much for fear of spoilers. Suffice it to say that a character embraces forgiveness over vengeance in a way that feels fully earned, without any of the weird macho "I forgive you and the horse you came in on" posturing of a lot of other movies. What's more, because we love both Cap and Iron Man, we genuinely want to see them reconciled rather than watching them pound each other to a bloody pulp. It's a lovely thing when a movie makes you wholeheartedly root for mercy rather than appealing to that nasty bloodthirsty part of your heart that just wants to see the bad guy die in a thousand horrific ways. Even if we think that either Cap or Iron Man is dangerously wrong, we can't help empathizing with them both.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). On the one hand, I kind of wish this movie  had embraced mercy for its own sake rather than taking the approach of "if we let Mystique assassinate this horrible person, the world will  become a nightmarish dystopia." On the other hand, I get that a multi-million dollar summer blockbuster needs epic stakes, and "prevent the world from becoming a nightmarish dystopia" is easier to sell than  "save Mystique's soul." Even taking the movie on its own terms, it's a far more interesting story to save the word by sparing the life of a truly odious human being than by rescuing a saintly Professor X type (or, heaven forbid, yet another story where they save the world by blowing up a doomsday device). It may not be all the way to loving your enemy and praying for those who persecute you, but it's darn close, and that's a rare thing.

Les Miserables (2012). The list of merciful films that kicked off these blog posts had the 1935 version of Les Miz, but the musical is always going to have a special place in my heart, and this is, after all, about recent movies. (The 2012 adaptation is especially welcome in light of the 1998 abomination that ends with Valjean witnessing Javert's suicide and skipping away with a huge smile on his face.) The Bishop of Digne's mercy toward a Valjean who certainly didn't deserve it at that point, Valjean showing compassion and love to Fantine and Cosette rather than looking the other way, Valjean saving a stranger from imprisonment and condemnation at the expense of the life he's made for himself, an antagonist who is essentially the personification of justice without mercy--they all combine to make one of the most stirring testaments to mercy that I've ever seen.

The Phantom of the Opera (2004). At its  heart, Phantom is Gothic horror, and Gothic horror loves heroines whose mercy can  get through to a monster. (See also Mina Harker; her redemption of Renfield is one of my favorite parts of the novel, and it sadly tends to get passed over in adaptation.) The Phantom doesn't let Christine and Raoul go because Raoul beats him in a duel or because Christine screams at him until he realizes that she will never love  him, but because Christine shows him love and compassion for the first time in his life--and that makes him realize how wrong it is to imprison her. 

Of course, one could point out that Gothic stories should have allowed women to kick butt as well as being merciful saints. This is absolutely true--but it's a two-way street, and I'd like to see more men being merciful saints in addition to kicking butt. 

(Side bar: I'm going with the 2004 version because it meets the criterion of "wide-release movie," not because I'm trying to make a statement  about whether it, the  2011 live version, or the original cast  recording is better.)  

...

I'm casting the net on merciful spec fic stories to include classics as well as recent fare, because otherwise this list is going to be embarrassingly short. Either mercy is rare as a major component  in spec fic (which would surprise me, since literature can take more risks than wide-release movies can) or I've been reading the wrong books.

"The Other Foot" by Ray Bradbury. Ray Bradbury's fiction runs the gamut from joy to whimsy to melancholia to horror, so it's no surprise that mercy works its way in there, too. His final novel, Farewell Summer, had a reconciliation between the town's rambunctious trouble-making boys and the crotchety old man, but I unfortunately can't remember any details. Everything about the end of that story is eclipsed in my memory by the scene where the old man and the lead boy have heartfelt conversations with their penises (no, really). 

But the theme of mercy comes through most starkly in "The Other Foot," one of the few beams of light in the almost oppressively dark anthology The Illustrated Man. An all-black colony on Mars discovers that white settlers are coming, and the colonists are prepared to get revenge by instituting some reverse Jim Crow laws--until they discover that Earth has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust and the lynching trees have burned to ash. There are racially problematic elements in this story, to be sure; as this essay points out, there are issues with the feel-good white wish fulfillment stories of black people "transcending" the wrongs done to them and forgiving white people willy-nilly. But Bradbury has also written lesser-known stories that refuse to let white people off  the hook. If you're interested in reading some of these stories, check out his realistic fiction anthology The Cat's Pajamas. In addition a downright vicious revenge story about a white man who rapes and murders a black woman and draws the wrath of some local carnies, it features a story about a cold-hearted white man with no regard for the black housekeeper who essentially raised him; Bradbury admits in the anthology's introduction that this character represents his own worst fears about how he'd treat his housekeeper if he met her again. Taken in light of Bradbury's other stories, "The Other Foot" is a plea for mercy  that he's not entirely certain any white person, including himself, deserves.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Up until the last chapter, Ender's Game is a bizarre non-example. It's one of the only works I can think of in any medium that starts out by embracing empathy without compassion--Ender completely loves and understands his enemies so he can crush them into the dust. (Yes, he thinks killing the buggers is a game. That doesn't change what he does to Stilson and Bonso.) Like its opposite, the compassion without empathy that we see in "poverty porn," this has little to do with genuine mercy. In the end, however, we get to see Ender using his love and empathy to save lives rather than end them, and the buggers show mercy and forgiveness to him as well.

Although I'm talking about adult media here, I have to give an honorable mention to Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. YA books tend to bring in mercy as a major theme, in part because their target audience is in the process of learning that there are few card-carrying villains in the world. Before I Fall, a cross between Mean Girls and Groundhog Day, is my favorite example of this. Popular, bitchy Sam Kingston enters a repeating time loop that causes her to reevaluate the way she treats her family, her teachers, and her peers. Too often, when we see the "mean kid learns not to be mean" character arc, it ends with the protagonist going from one kind of bully to another; instead of taunting and humiliating nerds, she taunts and humiliates her shallow former friends. Before I Fall doesn't shy away  from how unconscionably cruel Sam and her friends can be, but it also constantly reminds us that they're acting out on very real pain of their own. In fact, the loops that make her feel worst about herself are the ones where she lashes out at her catty best friend or jerk boyfriend in ways that would have been played as stand-up-and-cheer moments in lesser books. Sam's growth isn't complete until she learns to show mercy to all her peers, no matter how undeserving.

Am I forgetting any of your favorites? Let me know in the comments!