by Andrea Huse
In George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in the epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, many different characters are struggling for political power, revenge, or survival. Martin has created a very complex world with many interwoven story lines, telling the story through the eyes of eighteen different characters. In my opinion it’s these characters that make the story great, but at the same time having so many different people in different places, several of whom are in separate story lines, can be distracting.
His method of writing each chapter from a different point of view really lets the reader understand the feelings and motivations of all the characters, villains and heroes alike. Martin is a genius when it comes to creating characters that you love to hate and then letting you into that character’s mind to see their side, which in most cases makes you sympathize with their motives. For example, Theon, a ward of the Stark family in Winterfell in the beginning of the series, turns on the Starks and other residents of Winterfell, capturing the castle when war breaks out. He’s conflicted. He doesn’t want to hurt the people who raised him, but he wants even more to earn his father’s respect, and the only way to do that is through conquest. By the beginning of A Dance with Dragons, Theon has been imprisoned and horribly tortured by the unimaginably cruel Ramsay Bolton after Bolton takes Winterfell from him. Bolton has also taken a girl he believes is Arya Stark as his wife, to legitimize his claim to the castle. Theon ends up rescuing the girl, helping her escape Bolton’s cruelty, even though Theon himself is broken physically and mentally. Theon’s transformation from supporting character, to villain, to a character the average reader can sympathize with or even root for shows how by giving characters strong, realistic motivations the author can create strong, realistic characters.
There is a downfall of having so many viewpoint characters though. It can be so long between certain characters’ individual chapters, that it can be hard to remember exactly who was doing what where. A Dance with Dragons and the fourth book in the series, A Feast for Crows, were originally planned to be one book so the events take place at the same time but are separated geographically. Characters that were featured in A Feast for Crows aren’t seen again until the latter half of A Dance with Dragons and some of the characters in this book hadn’t been seen since book three, and with 11 years between the two, I found myself having to go back to refresh my memory about certain events. With some of these chapters not contributing much to the plot, Martin might have streamlined the books a little more. Then again, he has a way of working in details that will be pertinent many chapters or even a book or two later.
I was glad to see one of my favorite characters return for this book. Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf and the uncle of the current child-king, has killed his father and other nephew (the mean-spirited, short-lived, previous king) and gone on the run, seeking Queen Daenarys like so many others. Griff asks him “’There is blood between Targaryen and Lannister. Why would you support the cause of Queen Daenerys?’ ‘For gold and glory,’ the dwarf said cheerfully. ‘Oh, and hate. If you had ever met my sister, you would understand.’” With just the word ‘cheerfully’ Martin shows the dark sense of humor and sarcasm that makes Tyrion a favorite of many readers. This book is filled with excellent dialogue that moves the plot and makes the characters come to life. The personalities of the individual characters really shine through, giving them a depth of character that makes them realistic and not just flat stereotypes.
Martin is not afraid of killing off his main characters either. From the very first novel of this series, he has proven that the good guys don’t always win. Honor and playing by the rules isn’t enough to save you. It gets such an emotional reaction from the reader and is part of what keeps at least some of us reading. As a writer, it might be worth keeping in mind that even ‘big’ characters can be vulnerable.
Bran and Rickon, the two youngest Stark children were assumed dead at one point in time. It’s unclear where Rickon currently is, but Bran (who is crippled and has to be carried by his simple-minded friend Hodor) has ventured to the icy land north of the Wall in search of the mystical children of the forest who can teach him how to skin-change and see through the ‘eyes’ of the weirwood trees. Describing a scene that occurs just before Bran and his group find the children of the forest Martin writes: “But the air was sharp and cold and full of fear. Even Summer was afraid. The fur on his neck was bristling. Shadows stretched against the hillside, black and hungry,” it’s easy to imagine how menacing the lands north of the Wall are. Using just a description of the setting he effectively foreshadows the imminent attack by the undead creatures known as wights. Martin has given us a world so richly described that it’s easy to get lost in. From the icy dangers of the lands north of the wall to the deserts of Dorne in the south, the way he depicts these places sets the atmosphere and tone of the situations the characters find themselves in.
Though at times the number of major characters seems unwieldy, overall Martin does a good job at managing the plot. After all, it’s those characters that I keep coming back for. I must find out what happens to them. Even if it does mean I end up outraged by the injustice of their deaths.