After the change in pace and characters in A Feast For Crows, the first half of Dance with Dragons feels a lot more like the series I'd grown used to, with its characters spread out across the continent of Westeros and beyond. I had missed a lot of characters in the previous volume, so was pleased to see Tyrion, Daenerys, Jon and Bran return to the centre stage, although I was stricken by the horrible realisation that I had grown attached to Tyrion, despite all the warnings not to get too emotionall yinvolved, because Martin kills off so many favourite characters. So far, although I've been a bit shocked or saddened by some of the characters' deaths, I haven't lost anyone I've really cared for. I thought I was keeping a safe emotional distance. My realisation that there is someone I would be really upset to see die, whose absence would be a real hole in the series, made me feel apprehensive of Tyrion's future.
All through the series, Daenerys' story has been taking place apart from the others, with her stranded on another continent, with only the occasional rumour of her dragons. Now the plotlines are beginning to come together, and not in the obvious way. From the start of the series, I, and probably everyone else, expected her to invade Westeros with her dragons and reclaim the Iron Throne - but in Storm of Swords she made the decision to stay where she was. Now Westeros is coming to her - various factions across the continent are pledging their support of the exiled Queen.
But Daenerys' rule of her current kingdom is not going to plan. Firstly, she is beginning to realise the truth of what I warned her back in my review of Clash of Kings, that baby dragons may be cool and mark you out as something different, but untrained fully-grown dragons are death on scaly wings. Her kingdom is threatened with rebellion, war, starvation and now disease. Although she is a compassionate Queen, perhaps her compassion is her undoing. She's taken too many people under her wing, but hasn't the resources to keep them alive. I have no idea how this situation can be resolved without Dany ruthlessly abandoning her principles and her people.
After a two-book absence, we are reunited with Theon Greyjoy, the foster son of the Stark family who betrayed the closest thing he had to family - closer than his own family - and was betrayed in his turn. There had been a few hints that Theon was alive and not having a happy time of it, and now the full extent of his misery is revealed. All this time he has been the captive of the sadistic Ramsay Bolton and horrifically tortured. The most pitiful thing was the way Theon has suffered so much at the hands of Ramsay and yet he is so pathetically grateful for all the things that Ramsay could have done to him and didn't. I hated Theon by the end of Clash of Kings, the last time we saw him, but perhaps the two-book break cooled my anger with him. Was that a deliberate decision on Martin's part? After reading his chapters I can feel only horror and pity for him - and hope that he'll be put out of his misery soon. These chapters are the most harrowing of all, and worse is to come as Ramsay prepares for his marriage to "Arya Stark." The real Arya is far away now, but I read in dread thinking of the innocent girl, Jeyne, who has been chosen to take her place.
In this book we rejoin Arya's brother Bran, whose story hasn't really interested me that much since he was believed dead in Clash of Kings. His chapters have been full of wolf dreams in which he sees through the eyes of his direwolf Summer, which I've fouind rather abstract, and he seems to be losing part of his humanity each time he "borrows" (to use Granny Weatherwax of Discworld's phrase) the body of another. He and his two guardians have been travelling to meet someone who can train him to use his psychic abilities, and finally they meet. Here, the story took an eerie and unusual twist - instead of the wolf-dreams, Bran now has tree-dreams, or visions, where he can see the past from the point of view of the oldest trees. Possibly there is even a bit of time travel involved, as the people he watches sometimes seem to hear his voice, faintly, on the wind. But what sort of toll is this taking on Bran?
This volume is only really the first half of a book, so although a lot has happened, I'm not entirely sure what the plot is doing - it still feels that Martin is setting the pieces into place for a big climax. Still, we've had a couple of massive game-changing plot twists, including the introduction of a character who has long been presumed dead, and the final chapter of the volume going from bad, to a brief moment of hope, before ending on a sudden note of OH NO! And look out for an audacious Monty Python reference on page 378.