A Dance with Dragons: Book Five of a Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin (New York: Bantam Books, 2011. 1152 pp)

George R. R. Martin is an American author and screenwriter of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Born in New Jersey, Martin earned a B.S. and M.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University. He began writing fiction in the early 1970s with his first works earning him a Hugo and Nebula award. In the 1980s, he began writing in Hollywood for the Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. Martin is best known for his critically acclaimed epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, which was developed into Game of Thrones, an HBO television series.

*Spoiler Alert for Previous Books*

The Memento Mori

Classic to art is the concept of the memento mori. It’s the practice of placing intentional reminders of mortality in art. Most popular in medieval times, artists would paint a skull as a small reference point in a larger piece.

The practice orbits many great thinkers as well. It would not seem out of place to find a human skull sitting on the desk of a philosopher, theologian, humanist, psychologist, or any other intellectual. The purpose behind the practice focuses on balance. We as humans should never work in such a way that we forget that we all have to die.

George R. R. Martin has threaded this concept integrally in his Song of Ice and Fire, most prominently in the catch phrase, “Valar Morghulis,” which translates to “all men must die.”

The Expanding Universe

A Dance with Dragons continues Martin’s recent trend of expanding the Game of Thrones universe. These stories illustrate the current events unraveling in the North at Winterfell and the Wall. We also get a close look at Slaver’s Bay and the city of Meereen, located in the continent of Essos, across the sea.

Above all else, A Dance with Dragons focuses on Jon Snow and Daenerys.

The Winds of Winter

In the north, Jon Snow has taken command of the Night’s Watch. With Stannis Baratheon arriving with an army at the Wall to assist the Night’s Watch against the free folk, Jon Snow finds himself in a sticky situation; his vow means he cannot meddle in the affairs of the realm, and yet accepting the help of Stannis might suggest rebellion against King’s Landing.

Jon seems to be up for the job of leadership, but the path is hard:

“You will have little joy of your command, but I think you have the strength in you to do the things that must be done. Kill the boy, Jon Snow. Winter is almost upon us. Kill the boy and let the man be born” (103).

Making matters worse, winter approaches and food supplies run low. Yet Jon refuses to let the wildlings starve, especially when their arms might be needed against the white walkers of winter.

To the East, to the East; All Your Suitors in a Ship to the East

To the east, Daenerys finds ruling a difficult task. Having freed the slaves, she remains frustrated with the grinding gears of cultural change. Even though they’ve gained their freedom, many slaves yearn for the days of chains. Even worse, Daenerys closed the fighting pits, one key money maker in the city. Worse than that, the previous cities she conquered on her march to Meereen have reverted to their old, slave ways and have begun to march on Meereen. Worst of all, her dragons have become unruly.

“He loved to talk of dragons. She knew how Harrenhal had fallen. She knew about the Field of Fire and the Dance of the Dragons. One of her forebears, the third Aegon, had seen his own mother devoured by his uncle’s dragon. And there were songs beyond count of villages and kingdoms that lived in dread of dragons till some brave dragonslayer rescued them. At Astapor the slaver’s eyes had melted. On the road to Yunkai, when Daario tossed the heads of Sallor the Bald and Prendahl na Ghezn at her feet, her children made a feast of them. Dragons had no fear of men. And a dragon large enough to gorge on a sheep could take a child just as easily” (159).

The very symbol of power for Daenerys might be her downfall.

And behind the scenes, the game of thrones continues with unrest emerging throughout Westeros.

Memento Mori and the Game of Thrones

The memento mori, however, provides a foundation for this political chess match. Those that understand their mortality the best seem to face better odds in this cruel bloodbath, and yet all men must die. There are good people fighting valiantly for virtue. There are the brazen grasping for power like a serf given one chance to grab as much gold from a vault as possible. No matter the affairs of the state, always expect a dagger in the end.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

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