Although there are several settings throughout the novel, Saint-Malo is the main location. The story takes place in Europe during the Second World War.
Reinhold von Rumpel is a German soldier and former gemologist. Since he is suffering from throat and intestinal cancer, he searches for the Sea of Flames, a stone that supposedly heals the person who is in possession of it. He is selfish and relentless, and he is the antagonist.
Reinhold von Rumpel
Daniel LeBlanc is a former museum curator who had to move to Saint Malo with his daughter, Marie, shortly after the war started. He, like Reinhold, is searching for the Sea of Flames, but for his daughter, who is blind. The silent battle between Reinhold and Daniel brings out the differences between them and shows Daniel as being selfless and caring.
Werner, a boy from Germany who is about as old as Marie, was constantly told in his childhood that he was not good enough. He experiences an internal conflict when he has visions of himself saving Marie from wreckage, but he believes he does not have what it takes to do so.
When hiding with Marie at her house, Reinhold barges in with the intent to harm Marie and anybody else who might get in his way. Werner recalls the visions he has had about saving Marie, so he knows what he has to do. He kills Reinhold. It is at this moment that Werner realizes he does have the capacity to do what he wants, and that he is good enough.
When Anthony Doerr describes the fire that overtook much of Saint-Malo, he uses paragraphs full of personification to describe the way the flames and fire act. For example, on page 95, Doerr writes, "Flames scamper up walls....The fires pool and strut...Smoke chases dust."