A Thousand and One Knights: George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons

July 29, 2011 | 6 books mentioned 12 5 min read

coverThe publishing world went medieval this month with the publication of A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in George R.R. Martin’s epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. The series inspires lifestyle-changing devotion among its biggest fans, seething ire among those it has lured in and let down, legions of new enthusiasts drawn in by the HBO adaptation of the first book, and bewilderment from those who can’t imagine what’s so interesting about knights and dragons.

These detractors, frankly, bore me. Seabiscuit wasn’t about a horse. You don’t have to like football to love Friday Night Lights. A great narrative is great in any genre, and A Song of Ice and Fire is perhaps the most compelling, fully realized narrative in modern literature.

Set in the kingdom of Westeros and its neighboring lands, the series follows the political unrest that results from the king’s death in the first book. That king, Robert Baratheon, was himself a usurper, and his eldest son Joffrey is still in puberty. That, combined with the fact that Joffrey’s legitimacy is in serious question, means loyalty to the young king is easily shaken, and before long there are a handful of lords hoping to take the throne. All these claimants at war with each other throws Westeros into chaos and, as of Book Five, it still hasn’t calmed down. As one character says, “So long as men remember the wrongs done to their forebears, no peace will ever last. So we go on century after century, with us hating the Brackens and them hating us. My father says there will never be an end to it.”

The books are narrated in turn by several of the principal characters — Catelyn, the widow who supports her son’s campaign to be king of the North; Tyrion, the dead king’s dwarf brother-in-law who is brilliant, funny, and hated by his family and eventually the whole kingdom; Davos, one of the claimants’ lowborn adviser, as wise as he is downtrodden; Sansa, a beautiful young heiress, dumber than a box of rocks, who is fought over as a marriage prize; and Daenerys, the daughter of a murdered king, who has grown up in exile with dreams of reclaiming her father’s throne.

These characters, among several other narrators, are our windows into the upheaval in Westeros. Although the action has brought in dozens of noble families and their households, several kingdoms, and more than 1,500 named characters, the two foci are the Starks and the Lannisters. It seems that no matter who you are in Westeros, you will eventually be fighting for or against one of these families.

The Starks are a stoic, noble family who are prone to loyalty, principled action, and terse conversation. The late Lord Eddard Stark is still quite present in the books as a fallen paragon of goodness. All but one of his children are narrators, and they are impossibly lovable with their stubborn, well-intentioned ways. The Starks have been separated since Book One, and none of them remain at their ancestral castle. The beating heart of the series, for me, is the hope that the remaining Starks will be reunited and reclaim their home. Killing off the Starks, or putting them in mortal peril, is one of Martin’s most painful habits.

The Lannisters, on the other hands, are presented in the first book as the slimeballs of the series. They scheme, lie, betray, and murder. They are unpredictable, and complicated, and throw a chaotic element into every situation they enter. Where the Starks’ life has been stable and loving, the Lannister siblings have been pressured, rejected, and distrusted since childhood. Martin has spent five books fleshing them out — showing how their manipulative natures were formed, and are in turn forming their adult lives. If the Stark family is a study in the limitations of morality, the Lannisters are a study in the limitations of existentialism.

Because in Westeros, your family is who you are. The honor or dishonor of your family name defines you, sometimes despite your actions. This is where Martin’s multi-voice narration brings Westeros to life. Looking into the inner lives of the characters shows us the knight who is afraid, the Lannister with regrets, the leader who needs advice, the boy with a destiny who just wants to go home. In A Dance with Dragons, Jon Snow perhaps speaks the most. Newly elected the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, a small force that guards Westeros’ northern border, he finds himself with few allies and no good council. “I am a son of Eddard Stark,” “I am the commander of the wall,” he reminds himself, but more often than not he feels unprepared and outnumbered.

All of the narrators are constantly doing this — comparing who they are meant to be with who they feel they are. Self-reflection is always done on the move, though, in this world where duty never ends. As Tyrion puts it, “Fight or hide or shit yourself, as you like, but whatever you decide to do, you’ll do it clad in steel.”

The narrative is operating on three levels at all times. The first is the day-to-day lives of the characters as they sit in council meetings, tell dirty jokes over dinner, haggle with ship captains, or pass the time with kingdom gossip. Martin is not wont to say that a voyage to Oldtown took five weeks and was difficult, he’ll drop in on the voyage a few times, tracking the mood of the travelers, showing them hash over their plans. This attention to minutiae takes most of the credit for the books’ lengths, but it doesn’t try your patience.

The second level is book-length story arcs for the narrators, like leading an army against the lords of the west, or journeying back to the capital after escaping from prison. These arcs, though, are rarely completed. Rather, when a character is about to accomplish what they’ve been striving for, they will usually find that the situation has changed, and will start on a new path. Jaime Lannister, for instance, spends a book trying to get back to his beloved sister in King’s Landing, only to reach her and realize he no longer enjoys her company. The characters continue to make their plans and predict their outcomes, but these plans will usually be rendered obsolete in the reshuffling of loyalties and quests that typifies the last 200 pages of each book.

The third level of Martin’s narrative is the slow march of history that manages to make the series, even though it’s at 4,000 pages and counting, seem like a small part of a much larger story. Martin has not just invented Westeros and its people; he’s invented thousands of years of its history, which he doles out little by little throughout the books. Westeros has seen the rise and fall of dynasties, new conquerors, centuries-old blood feuds, and plenty of wars. The conflicts that take up A Song of Ice and Fire will eventually be summed up in a few words sung by one of the kingdom’s minstrels.

coverGame of Thrones, the first book in the series, trained us, Martin’s readers, how to read his books. The beheading of Eddard Stark, the series’ original hero, sent the message that none of this was going to be pretty. We’ve stopped expecting fair outcomes. We know that a young, handsome, brave king can be killed by an old angry man while they’re eating dinner. When we see a character say, “I’m going to rescue your lost daughters,” we don’t hold our breaths. And we’ve become patient. When I finished Book One, I hurried on to Book Two with the expectation that I would soon see Arya Stark reunited with her companion direwolf (long story). Four books later, I’m still waiting. Another subplot — the murdered king’s heir’s return to Westeros to reclaim the throne — which was promised in the early chapters of Book One, is only realized in the final chapters of Book Five.

Much as the struggles of the Starks and the Lannisters hold our attention, they are not, the reader comes to learn, the be all and end all of Westeros. History will eventually forget most of them. And yet, as we follow them, each narrator is on an epic journey of their own. We see their daily lives, their attempts at glory or happiness, the way each of them — to themselves — is the entire world. We also see how, to Martin, and to Westeros, they’re only drops in a bucket. Every epic battle, king’s reign, or family history is a fleeting moment, and a story all its own.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.


  1. i was excited to read these as i like the show and the concept, but after getting a few chapters into the first one was seriously underwhelmed. the prose is wooden and dead and does not keep me interested at all. i’ll watch the movie and read something more artful, thanks.

  2. I must say that I agree with what Erik had to say. I have not seen the HBO production, but I did try to read the first volume. I gave up quickly–the prose is clunky, the characters and setting trite. It may be a great story in someone’s opinion, but it struck me as the same old thing with new names. Nothing new or exciting here.

  3. Wow, a very good overall review of the series, however I will have to disagree a little bit on one point.

    I do in fact believe that the minute details try people’s patience from time to time. The most popular complaints that I here people say is that they don’t feel like reading what such and such is eating for breakfast for the umpteenth time or they don’t care to read three chapters of nothing but traveling or that this side character has no huge overall impact on the story etc.

    Personally I enjoy most of it and while yes sometimes, I do feel like skipping a few pages I never do because it is all very well done. In the back of my mind I know that all this extra detail isn’t important but the writing is excellent and author is letting you grow with these characters and get to really just follow them around like one big reality show lol. Not only do you get to see everything that they do, but you know everything that they are thinking.

    It really makes the world come alive, so you kinda get to go on this huge journey and you get to see it from almost everyone’s point of view good and bad. Martin has very interesting way of trying to make you feel sympathy for the so called bad guys. And as the series goes on you start to realize that there are few really bad guys instead there are people that make some really bad choices and once they make their bed, they sleep in it.

  4. I fall somewhere in the middle on this series. On one hand, the concept and the storyline is a brilliant deconstruction of the fantasy genre, and Martin’s overall plotting and ability to keep readers on the edge of their seats is excellent. His little tributes throughout the books to the genre are also well placed and add an element of fun for long time fans of fantasy.

    On the other, the execution is a little clunky. I agree with a few of the above commenters that the prose is mostly dull and the books are bloated with unnecessary details and deviations from the story. There are some parts that are exceptions to the dull prose – particularly when Martin peeks into the hidden supernatural underside of his world.

    This is one of the rare instances where I think a screen adaption is superior to the book. Especially regarding the characters – while I also found some of the characters trite in the book, I felt like the cast of the show was able to own and create those characters in a way that made them much more complex, lifelike, and endearing. The show also is able to cut some of the fat from the plot and make it move along quicker, or at the very least make a very pretty background to watch during the boring parts.

  5. “and A Song of Ice and Fire is perhaps the most compelling, fully realized narrative in modern literature”.

    Only if you like soap operas. And I don’t. I like what I recall from the first two novels, but in the end its just Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, albeit with more blood and incest. Give me China Miéville instead.

  6. I think what Ms. Potter was saying about how to read the books should be taken into consideration. You read Game of Thrones and learn how you should actually READ the books. The first one has some typical fantasy tropes and characters with some stilted writing. Which can be typical of any genre. It is the setup. Martin gives you the cast of characters, the scene, the world, and then he expands. You move out with him on a reverse spiral and the higher you get the better the writing becomes, the more real the world and characters become. You can’t judge Martin by Game of Thrones any more than you can judge Tolkien by The Hobbit. You need to read all of his work, or none of it, to understand his genius.

  7. How can it be “perhaps the most compelling, fully realized narrative in modern literature” when the narrative is not even complete?

    And that’s only the most glaringly obvious error in this review.

  8. I’ve never heard “narrator” used in the sense of this review, to denote the central character of each chapter. Is this a valid usage?

  9. I, for one, agree with Janet Potter that this series is brilliant, and A Dance with Dragons is another solid entry into the longer tale. Admittedly, the tale is not yet finished, but already the scope and overall control of Martin’s world is impressive.

    I would argue that A Game of Thrones isn’t the best book of them, partially because Martin hadn’t written a book in over a decade. As a result, yeah, some of the descriptions are clunky, and the characters are left mysterious, but if you keep going (because, after all, this is a 4,000-pages-and-still-counting story), those characters gain depth and motivation as we explore them more.

    Also, some of the complaints AEF and Michael Travis listed I would see more as genre subversion. We may think “A fantasy novel! Dragon! Elf! Swords! Nobility! Heraldry!” but in reality, the middle ages, feudalism, and epic quests are brutal, long, and not more than a little unpleasant. However Martin’s strong point, which I think the review tries to point out, is characterization. We get full, rounded characters the deeper we dig, which is one of the joys of the dueling narrators. Martin is also exquisite about portraying how information travels, and while we as readers know a great deal, who found out what from who plays a large role in the major actions.

    To some, this might come off as a middle age soap opera, but I think the stakes are too high in the story for that to be true. The fact that we are dealing with the aristocrats of this world (although we do spend a fair amount of time around the plebeians, don’t you worry about smelling shit and seeing poor people do horrible things to one another so they can eat) gives us a lens into the bigger politics at play, which affect the whole world.

    The magic parts are admittedly fascinating, but really this story belongs to the characters you fall in love with. In some ways, Martin is transforming the fantasy genre away from the hero’s quest, and focusing more on the character interactions, the humanity in great literature that attracts us because people we like do fantastic and awful and weird things, and we still (mostly) love them for it. This one just happens to be long, and set somewhere that isn’t earth.

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