I've had this book suggested to me a few times when I express my desire to find an example of quality epic fantasy, but I later found out that several...moreI've had this book suggested to me a few times when I express my desire to find an example of quality epic fantasy, but I later found out that several people suggested it because they wanted to see me tear it apart for having a main character who is described as unsure but who constantly acts arrogantly, surrounded by a cast of cliche fantasy archetype characters, where every conflict is solved soon after being introduced, every character seems to have 'read the script' and always seem to know where to go and what to do next (then again, it's a 'chosen one' plot about an evil empire, so who wouldn't be familiar with it), and with an abruptly tacked-on love story and the kind of predictably lengthy diatribes about the setting and the many magic systems that destroy the pacing of so many attempted adventure fantasies.
Indeed, every review I've read mentions that the book's redeeming strengths are the 'depth of worldbuilding' and the 'meticulously designed magic system', two things which, in my experience, always mean a terrible book:
"Well, the author isn't very good with character, plot, dialogue, or prose, but I was very impressed by the way his novel resembled a CIA Worldbook for yet another pseudo-medieval kingdom combined with a list of rules for playing Magic: The Gathering."
I mean sure, complex magic systems are fine in a videogame, where it's important to know how much damage a fireball can do, and how many times you can cast it before being exhausted, but when you make a set of concrete, predictable rules that govern magic in a novel, you're just making magic itself predictable and tangible, which is to say, you're making it less magical.
And as for worldbuilding, I've never seen a book praised for the depth of its world that wasn't bland, cliche, and full of distracting complexity and details that added nothing to the story. Now, Mistborn could be the remarkable exception, but based on what friends and other reviewers have said, it isn't, so if I want to find good epic fantasy, it looks like this is another book I should avoid.(less)
How rare it is to find a book which is exactly what its author meant it to be. There are no missteps here, everything is deliberate, and much of it ma...moreHow rare it is to find a book which is exactly what its author meant it to be. There are no missteps here, everything is deliberate, and much of it masterful. It is not surprising that, when he first read one of Clarke's short stories, Neil Gaiman remarked:
"It was terrifying from my point of view to read this first short story that had so much assurance ... It was like watching someone sit down to play the piano for the first time and she plays a sonata."
The English tradition of Fairy Stories is one of the core inspirations of all fantasy, and yet it seemed that these odd, delightful, sometimes frightening stories were doomed to die out with their greatest practitioners, such as Kipling and Dunsany. Yet I think, in an anthology, Clarke's stories could stand up well against anything they produced.
She is so good at making a whole world out of hints and references. Notice that she never has to get out of character and explain anything to the reader, she is always able to make the dialogue and the situations do the work for her, letting the action of her scenes reveal everything. This not only creates a strong, confident authorial voice, it also means that she is never obliged to break her pacing to 'catch us up', and so the thick, vibrant tone of her stories is never interrupted or betrayed.
Yet for all of the similarity of their setting and theme, each story's tone is very different. Each may have aspects of the other, but overall, it is remarkable how completely she is able to shift tone between stories that could have been very similar, under a less skilled pen.
Some are very funny, others intriguing, and several rather unsettling. The general theme which binds these stories is the use of magic by women, and the place it holds for them. Clarke lamented that, in her grand work, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, she did not have the opportunity to explore the experience of women in her world--at least, not as fully as she could have wished.
She did not want to make the error of betraying her well-researched setting by including female characters who were too thoroughly modern to make sense in that period. It is probably the single most common error amongst writers of historical fiction: that they tend to include protagonists who are inexplicably modern feminists who bear little relationship to the women of the time.
I am glad that Clarke wanted to avoid this, but it is unfortunate that she was not able to find a way, within Norrell, to make a female character who was strong and central but not in an anachronistic way. A woman does not have to be acerbic, mighty, wealthy, or politically powerful in order to be strong, she just needs to have as much personality and self-reliance as the male characters.
But we do get that vision here--and it is an interesting one. Her magic is most definitely magical, as it is not embodied in simple tools and objects, but permeates all parts of reality, thick with idea, contradiction, and unpredictability. Her magic is a living thing, capricious and wonderful.
The illustrations were excellent, with Vess evoking the classic style of the high period of English Fairy Tales more effectively than any other modern artist I have seen. And as with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the binding, cover, layout, and font selection were all so carefully chosen to harmonize together that it warms a bibliophile's heart.
The fact that such an interesting, unusual, complex book has become critically and economically successful is actually astounding. It's so rare that things all come together and everyone seems to get it right.
Usually, when I hear the phrase 'feminist rewrite of a fairy tale', I shudder and think of a terrible place that female genre authors go to die, to be read only in compulsory Women's Studies classes. Yet there are a few who are capable of defying convention and actually doing something worthwhile for fairytale women: Angela Carter, and Susanna Clarke.
This is because to them, 'feminism' does not seem to mean making women into men, it does not mean making them masculine, forceful, ruthless, and unemotional. It does not mean making them better. Often, it means showing their flaws, because that is the only way to let the reader understand their personal experience. We are not all equally human in our perfection, but in our foibles.
And for a perfect unveiling of our foibles, few are equal to Susanna Clarke.
I have spent a long time searching for a modern fantastical epic which is worth reading. It seems like there should be one, out there, somewhere. I ha...moreI have spent a long time searching for a modern fantastical epic which is worth reading. It seems like there should be one, out there, somewhere. I have so enjoyed the battlefields of Troy, the dank cavern of Grendel's dam, Dido's lament, Ovid's hundred wild-spun tales, perfidious Odysseus, the madness of Orlando, Satan's twisted rhetoric, and Gilgamesh's sea-voyage to the forgotten lands of death. And so I seek some modern author to reinvent these tales with some sense of scholarship, poetry, character, and adventure.
There are many great modern fantasies, but the epic subgenre lacks luster. In reading the offerings--Martin, Jordan, Goodkind, Paolini, even much-lauded Wolfe--I have found them all wanting. They are all flawed in the same ways: their protagonists are dull caricatures of some universal 'badass' ideal, plot conflicts are glossed-over with magic or convenient deaths, the magic itself is not a mysterious force but a familiar tool, and women are made secondary or worse (though the authors often talk about how women are strong and independent, the women never actually act that way).
But then, they are all acolytes of Old Tolkien, who is as stodgy, unromantic, and methodical as a fantasist can be (without being C.S. Lewis). Though I respect Tolkien's work as a well-researched literary exercise, it is hard to forgive him for making it acceptable to write fantasy which is so dull, aimless, and self-absorbed. It is unfortunate that so many people think that fantasy began with Tolkien, because that is a great falsehood, and anyone who believes it does not really know fantasy at all. It nearly died with him.
Yet there are many who do think he started it. They like to comment on reviews, especially reviews of their favorite books--especially negative reviews of their favorite books--which have, lamentably, become a specialty of mine. And often, they end up asking me "Well, what fantasy do you like?" There are many I could name, numerous favorites which have shocked and overawed me, which have shaken me to my core, which have shown me worlds and magic I dared not dream. But none of them are epics.
I could mention Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a powerfully self-possessed work and one of the only fantasies of the past twenty years that I consider worth reading--the other is China Mieville's Perdido Street Station--but these are a Victorian alternate history continuation of the British Fairy Tale tradition and a New Weird Urban Fantasy, respectively. I could mention Mervyn Peake's Titus books, which so powerfully inhabit my five-star rating that Mieville and Clarke must be relegated to four--but this is a work whose fantastical nature would probably not even be apparent to most fantasy enthusiasts.
Alas they are not good counter-examples. I can (and do) mention Robert E. Howard's Conan, and Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series, but these are fast-paced adventure stories, and though their worlds may be vast, mysterious, and grand, the stories themselves lack the hyperopic arc at the heart of an epic work.
But there have been many suggestions, many readers who have come to my aid, and who have named authors I might look to next, in my quest: Guy Gavriel Kay, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Jeff VanderMeer, Michael De Larrabietti, John M. Harrison, Scott Lynch, Patricia McKillip, and John Crowley (Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss have been both suggested and sneered at). It is my hope that, somewhere amongst them, I will find the exemplary epic fantasy I am looking for--but I haven't found it in Moorcock.
Moorecock is good, he has scope, depth, complexity, and long, twisting plots, but at their core, his stories are modern, metaphysical, and subversive. They are light and lilting, ironical and wry--too quick and twisting to be 'epic'. The characters are introspective and self-aware, and it is clear that it is they, and not the world, who will be at the forefront.
It is all so thoroughly modern, so reinvented, full of sprightly ideas and metaphysical brooding. But it is decidedly not modern in the accidental, self-defeating ways of all those pretenders to the 'epic' title. The characters are not merely the male-fantasy counterpart of a bodice ripper, with modern, familiar minds dressed thinly in Medieval costume. The world is not simply our world with an overlay of castles--dragons for jet fighters, spells for guns, with modern politics and sensibilities.
No, Moorcock's world and characters are alien and fantastical, but Moorcock does not achieve this by ripping them whole-cloth from history, but by extrapolating them from modern philosophical ideas. Fantasy stories have always been full of dreamscapes, of impossible places for the reader to inhabit. These places draw us in, somehow we recognize them, like our own dreams, because of what they represent.
Anthropomorphism is the human tendency to see people where there are none: to see smiling faces in wood grain, to assign complex emotional motivations to cats, and to curse at the storm that breaks our window. The 'Other World' of British Fairy Tales is based on the latter: the assigning of our luck--good and bad--to capricious spirits. The world of fairy has rules (as do storms), but those rules are mostly a mystery to man.
But Moorcock's world personifies the ideas of Kant and Nietzsche: his 'Other Worlds' (called 'Planes') are those of the human mind: they are places of morality, like heaven and hell, except he has updated the concept to existential morality. There is Chaos, and there is Law; Chaos is the selfish urge, Law the communal urge, and he arrays his magic, spirits, and dreamscapes along this axis.
Like Milton, he has infused his epic with the latest thoughts and notions, updating it for the modern age. Also like Milton, Moorcock's influence has been felt, far and wide, despite the fact that most people do not recognize it.
The Dungeons & Dragons game prominently used his Law/Chaos dichotomy, among other concepts, and his 'Wheel of Psychic Planes' is an influence on their most audacious and unusual publication, the philosophical 'Steampunk' setting, Planescape. And many of these tropes have filtered down into the grab-bag common to the modern voice of fantasy stories.
Reading Elric, one will invariably be reminded of a dozen other books and games, as Elric drinks endless potions to maintain his strength and vitality, slaying twisted demons on a plane of fire in search of a rune-sword, dressed in ornate black armor and a dragon-helm. Indeed, the central mythology (and much of the plot) of the Elder Scrolls games--in particular Oblivion--owe a vast debt to Elric and his world, and not simply for the land of 'Elwher'.
Clearly, Moorcock's odd vision has been transcribed onto the imaginations of fantasists, but as with those who were inspired by Tolkien, most of his followers have failed to recreate the weight of the original message. Except for a few outliers, like Planescape and Perdido Street Station, most authors have copied the outward appearance of Moorcock's alien world, but were not skilled or knowledgeable enough to take the substance along with the form--the existential ideas, the vital core of his dreamscapes, are most often missing, or at best, faded.
But while the ideas and the overall vision are strong--even compared to the ubiquitous attempts to recreate them--there are a number of flaws in Moorcock's presentation. The first and most damaging is a weakness in the voice. Moorcock has a lot to say, but must sometimes resort to explaining his ideas to us. He is not always able to deliver his world and characters through interactions, hints, tone, and actions. He is hardly an inexperienced enough author to explain to us that which is already self-evident, but it is a weakness in his delivery which sometimes takes us out of the flow of the story, so that we must step back from the world and listen to Moorcock talk about it, though he does do his best to veil it with Elric's thoughts.
Secondly, it can be difficult to get a strong impression of his characters, they are often difficult to sympathize with or to predict. It isn't that they aren't vivid and active, but that their actions are often based around ideas and concepts--the things Moorcock built his world on--which can create a sense of a top-down world, where the characters are there to fulfill a purpose, to explore various notions and philosophies.
The book is certainly not an allegory--there are no easy one-to-one correlations to be made between characters and ideas, but the world does not revolve around personalities--except, perhaps, for Elric's, but his thoughts and motivations are often the most difficult to reconcile. The personalities of all the other characters are, more or less, wholly dependent on him.
To some degree, the characters seem to operate on much older fantasy rules: their capricious yet repetitive acts becoming motifs for the larger ideas in the story, not unlike Tolkien's fantasy forefather, E.R. Eddison, whose characters seem half-mad with heroism for its own sake (another candidate for my favorite epic, if I didn't think his beautiful, deliberate archaism might prove too remote for many readers).
Part of the reason for this is that Elric's personality and world were created as an exercise, and with an explicit purpose: to portray the anti-Conan. He is sickly, weak, pale, effeminate, sorcerous, erudite, cruel, reluctant, intellectual, and hardly promiscuous. Conan becomes king by his own hand, while Elric begins as emperor and we witness the hardships of his downfall.
But this contrariness, while coloring the story, is hardly its center. Moorcock uses it as a springboard--an inspiration to drive him to something greater. It is one more example of the fact that genius is at its best when it has a lofty challenge before it. Moorcock is not interested in making a parody, but in exploring a little-trodden path, operating on the notion that if you start with something familiar and begin to move away from it, you are bound to end up somewhere else.
I must also mention an unbelievable incident involving a group of blind soldiers, which put dire strain to credulity. A bit of creative myth or capricious magic could have saved it, but as it stands in the book, it makes little sense.
But despite the subtle weaknesses in voice and characterization, Moorcock's idiomatic adventure story is eminently enjoyable. There are few fantasy books I could name which suggest such a playful intellect as this, and though it is not as wildly imaginative as his Gloriana, this philosophical exploration disguised as a pulp adventure is a delightful read that never gets bogged-down in indulging its own thoughtfulness.
I've read a lot of fantasy, and I've spent a lot of time looking for fantasy that won't disappoint. When fantasy disappoints me, it usually does so pr...moreI've read a lot of fantasy, and I've spent a lot of time looking for fantasy that won't disappoint. When fantasy disappoints me, it usually does so predictably: either the world is poorly-built, the entire story is derivative, it is filled with creepy repressed sexuality, or the Hat Trick.
An equestrian friend of mine suggested this series: it was one of her favorites. However, her suggestion was somewhat tentative. She had previously passed Eragon and Eye of the World along to me, which are so derivative and poorly-written that they just felt like babelfish translations of Tolkien. However, she had also forced me to read the Potter books (I was recalcitrant due to their popularity) and Pullman's Dark Materials, which weren't bad.
Now, I am as disappointed in modern Feminism as your average gender-queer culture-jamming existentialist transhuman chaos magician, so I am slow to suggest that the gender of an author should inform us about their ability to write. However, I will concede that in this culture, the way you are gendered will have long-lasting effects.
Apparently, as a man, you end up entirely unable to write sex in a fantasy novel; maybe sex full stop. Tolkien just kept his romantic leads a few thousand miles apart the whole story. Goodkind creeped us the fuck out with lots of fetishized stabbing. Jordan made spanking a part of his world's justice system. Gor.
Of course, there are female authors guilty of making their books into lewd, plotless sex romps, like Anne Rice and Laurell Hamilton, but at least the sex is still mostly about the characters; and sex should be. It should be an event in the character's life that causes some emotional reaction, and reveals something about the character's personality. Reading most popular male authors, you get about the same emotional depth as a child smacking two naked barbies together. There were times, particularly later in their careers, when both Rice and Hamilton managed to make sex almost as impersonal as their male colleagues, and I'd suggest in Rice's case that her (less and less) latent Christian repression did a passable job standing in for male sexual discomfort.
The sex in Lackey's work is of another breed. It feels human. It feels pleasant. It doesn't make you feel frightened that you might be a bad person if you're turned on by it. In short, it blew my fucking mind. I mean sure, there are male authors like Gaiman, Moore, or Mieville who can write a complex, personal, natural sexual interaction, but they are all authors of allusive, thickly-textured works that draw from literary tradition. What makes Lackey remarkable to me is that she writes a fairly standard, fun piece of pop fantasy and somehow, the sex isn't terrible.
But it's not just the sex. It's all pretty naturalistic and refreshing. Except for the magic--and the psychic horses. The world building is not grade A, but it isn't chicken feet. The magic is pretty new age touchy-feely, but so is the world, so it mostly works. In fact, the only thing that tips off the esscapist fantasy is the psychic equine love-bond. However, I'm not going to look into that too closely: I don't want to find that Lackey's sexual repression was staring me in the face all along.
I know of no author in all of the English language who is like Peake, or who could aspire to be like him. His voice is as unique as that of Milton, Bi...moreI know of no author in all of the English language who is like Peake, or who could aspire to be like him. His voice is as unique as that of Milton, Bierce, Conrad, Blake, Donne, or Eliot, and as fully-realized. I am a hard and critical man, cynical and not easily moved, but there are passages in the Gormenghast series which so shocked me by the force of their beauty that I snap the book shut, overwhelmed with wonderment, and take a moment to catch my breath.
I would drop my head. My eyes would search the air; as if I could find, there, the conclusion I was seeking. My brow would crease--in something like despondency or desperation--and then, of its own accord, a smile would break across my face, and I would shake my head, slowly, and laugh, and sigh. And laugh.
Peake's writing is not easy fare. I often needed room to breathe and time for contemplation, but he is not inaccessible, nor arduous. He does not, like Joyce or Eliot, require the reader to know the history of western literature in order to understand him. His story is deceptively simple; it is the world in which he sets it that can be so overwhelming.
Peake writes with a painter's eye, which is natural enough, as he is more famous as an illustrator than a writer (the only self-portrait in the National Portrait Gallery). He paints each scene, each moment, in such careful, loving, playful detail that it can only be described by the original definition of 'sublime': a vista which is so grand and beautiful that it dwarfs our humanity, evoking a wonder akin to fear.
But Peake's writing is not so entirely alienating; on the contrary: he is vividly concerned with life. Gormenghast is the story of a life starting at birth, though our hero only got as far as the cusp of manhood before Peake was seized by malady and death. Each character is brightly and grotesquely alive. The 'fantasy' of this book is not, like so many epics, magic signifying moral conflict. The magic of Peake's world is the absurdly perfect figures that people it.
They are stylized and symbolic, but like Gogol, Peake is working off of his own system of symbology instead of relying on the staid, familiar archetypes of literature. Unusual as they may be, there is a recognizable verisimilitude in the madness imbued in each. Their obsessions, quirks, and unpredictability feel all too human. They are frail, mad, and surprising.
Like the wild characters of his sketches, Peake writes in exaggerated strokes, but somehow, that makes them more recognizable, realistic, and memorable than the unadorned reality of post-modernists. Since truth is stranger than fiction, only off-kilter, unhinged worlds will seem real--as Peake's does. This focus on fantastical characters instead of fantastical powers has been wryly dubbed 'Mannerpunk' or a 'Fantasy of Manners'. It is a much more enveloping and convincing type of fantasy, since it engages the mind directly with visceral artistic techniques instead of relying on a threadbare language of symbolic power. Peake does not want to explain the world, but paint it.
Tolkien can certainly be impressive, in his way, but after reading Peake, it is difficult to call him fantastical. His archetypal characters, age-old moral conflict, and epic plot all seem so hidebound against the wild bulwark of Peake's imagination. The world of Gormenghast is magical and dreamlike, without even needing to resort to the parlor tricks of spells, wizards, and monsters.
Peake's people are more fantastical than dragons because their beings are instilled with a shifting and scintillating transience. Most dragons, fearsome as they may be on the outside, are inwardly little more than plot movers. Their fearful might is drawn from a recognizable tradition, and I question how fantastical something can really be when its form and behavior are so familiar to us.
Likewise Peake's world, though made up of things recognizable, is twisted, enchanted, and made uncanny without ever needing to stretch our disbelief. We have all experienced wonder, confusion, and revelation at the world, so why do authors think that making it less real will make it more wonderful? What is truly fantastical is to find magic in our own world, and in our own lives.
But then, it is not an easy thing to do. Authors write in forms, cliches, archetypes, and moral arguments because it gives them something to work with; a place to start, and a way to measure their progress, lest they lose themselves. To write unfettered is vastly more difficult, and requires either great boldness, or great naivete.
Peake is ever bold. You will never catch him flat-footed; his pen is ever moving. He drives on in sallies and skirmishes, teasing, prodding, suggesting, and always, in the end, he is a quantum presence, evading our cumbersome attempts to catch him in any one place. Each sentence bears a thought, a purpose, a consciousness. The only thing keeping the book moving is the restless joy of Peake's wit, his love and passion for his book, its places, characters, and story.
He also has a love for writing, and for the word, which is clear on every page. A dabbler in poetry, his careful sense of meter is masterful, as precise as Bierce. And unlike most fantasists, Peake's poetry is often the best part of his books, instead of the least palatable. Even absent his amusing characterization and palpable world, his pure language is a thing to behold.
In the introduction, Quentin Crisp tells us about the nature of the iconoclast: that being different is not a matter of avoiding and rejecting what others do--that is merely contrariness, not creativity. To be original means finding an inspiration that is your own and following it through to the bitter end.
Peake does that, here, maintaining a depth, pace, and quality that is almost unbelievable. He makes the book his own, and each time he succeeds in lulling us into familiarity, we can be sure that it is a playful ruse, and soon he will shake free again.
Alas, not all readers will be able to keep up with him. Those desiring repetition, comfort, and predictability will instead receive shock, betrayal, and confusion. However, for those who love words, who seek beauty, who relish the unexpected, and who find the most stirring sensation to be the evocation of wonder, I have no finer book to suggest. No other fantasist is more fantastical--or more fundamentally human.
This is my favorite installment of the quintessential modern bildungsroman. Nevertheless, it has its problems, familiar to any reader of Rowling's.
She...moreThis is my favorite installment of the quintessential modern bildungsroman. Nevertheless, it has its problems, familiar to any reader of Rowling's.
She never seems to gain control of her writing, which spirals out into thousand-page doorstops filled with unimportant side characters and rambling plots. The story is moved along by arbitrary plot devices, often magic. Instead of using the magic to make her world seem more strange and wondrous, she uses it to cover up plot holes. Why write a consistent plot when you can just put in a spell or two to fix the problems?
Likewise her world is poorly defined. She did not start by constructing the 'wizarding world' and then base her stories off of it, rather she changes her setting to fit whatever she needs at the moment. This constantly shifting setting means the world doesn't make much sense if you take the time to sit and think about it.
Her fractured plots are not the result of 'realism', which some authors use to create a sense of a 'real world', separate from archetypes. Rowling is just trying to fit in all the disparate ideas and characters she has in her notepad. She becomes so attached to her characters and ideas that she is unwilling to sacrifice them for a more streamlined book.
She has problems connecting the many dots of her story, but uses her magical 'plot devices' to keep us from noticing that the scaffolding behind the facade is rather bare (indeed: crumbly). Her rabid plot movement points away from the cracks in her storytelling: "move along, nothing to see here".
I find it somewhat ironic that Rowling wants to 'graduate' from Potter to writing adult mysteries. A mystery needs to have a tight plot, based not in the characters but in the events surrounding them. Though many people tried to 'figure out' the Potter books and predict them, in truth there is nothing to figure out.
Rowling's foreshadowing is vague and unsupported, and there are just as many clues as red herrings. The only reason some of the elements seem predictable is because there was a crack team of several million people making every guess under the sun.
Combine that with the fact that the final book introduces completely new elements to finish the plot, and we can see that Rowling is not really in charge of her own pen. She is a slave to her own sentimentality. Then again, so are millions around the world.
The only thing which makes these meandering plots move along at a reasonable pace are her characters. They connect us to the magical world, so that even if it doesn't make sense, at least we can see how it might work for the people who live in it.
Her characters are vivid, emotional, motivated, and archetypal without being banal. They may not be psychologically deep, but for a monomyth like this, that is hardly the point. Most people aren't that complex, either.
In the series, this book gets the prize for the most psychological depth and also the most consistent mood. Before this, Rowling was still trying to get her footing, figuring out what exactly she was writing, and trying to explain the world to her readers.
She finally hit her stride in 'Prisoner of Azkaban', and got much of her unsure world-building out of the way in 'Goblet of Fire'. This is before she started feeling the pressure to wrap things up in a neat package, which again begins to take its toll on her consistency. This is the first, and really the last of her books where Rowling is able to write without being overly concerned with either the beginning or ending of her series.
Instead of placing a scattered plot over her characters, Rowling was instead able to let the characters travel through their own path of growth and self-exploration. The change is the most apparent in Harry himself, and though his transformation is somewhat sudden, it is still honest and believable for the character.
By focusing chiefly on her strength--character building--and escaping the constraints of the monomyth, if only for a moment, Rowling is able to avoid her weakest points as a writer and turn out her strongest book.
I read this book before I tried to tackle Pratchett on his own merit, so I may have to retroactively skew this review based upon what I now know. The...moreI read this book before I tried to tackle Pratchett on his own merit, so I may have to retroactively skew this review based upon what I now know. The book is enjoyable, but may suffer from the fact that it represents its two authors at what seems to be their most basic states.
There is no question as to the recognizability of both Gaiman's and Pratchett's respective styles here, but neither seems to add anything to the other. One of Gaiman's weaknesses is surely his general lack of humor. Anything that makes you laugh in his books isn't likely to qualify as a joke. While this could have been remedied by Pratchett's collaboration, his humor tends to be more groan-worthy than profound.
It seemed to me that, by collaborating, both authors felt a need to simplify and de-personalize their respective styles, which for Gaiman meant an unfortunate loss of much of his dark charm, and for Pratchett that he was even more watered down than usual.
I know a lot of people, especially fantasy fans, love this book, and I will admit that it is romp-y, easily digestible, and certainly doesn't betray the inclinations of either author. Unfortunately, it also doesn't surpass them or create anything new or interesting. The whole is less than the sum of its respective parts. However, certainly worth a read; if only to get a fix of Gaiman while waiting for him to actually finish his next book.
UPDATE: After reading Gaiman's Anansi Boys, I have come to find that he can be quite uproariously and side-splittingly funny. I am now unsure just what part Pratchett played in Good Omens at all.
Authors who inspire a movement are usually misunderstood, especially by those they have inspired, and Tolkien is no exception, but one of the biggest...moreAuthors who inspire a movement are usually misunderstood, especially by those they have inspired, and Tolkien is no exception, but one of the biggest misconceptions about Tolkien is the idea that he is somehow an 'innovator of fantasy'. He did add a number of techniques to the repertoire of epic fantasy writers, and these have been dutifully followed by his many imitators, but for the most part, these techniques are little more than bad habits.
Many have called Tolkien by such epithets as 'The Father of Fantasy', but anyone who makes this claim simply does not know of the depth and history of the fantasy genre. For those who are familiar with the great and influential fantastical authors, from Ovid and Ariosto to Eddison and Dunsany to R.E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, it is clear that, long before Tolkien, fantasy was already a complex, well-established, and even a respected literary genre.
Eddison's work contains an invented world, a carefully-constructed (and well-researched) archaic language, a powerful and unearthly queen, and a central character who is conflicted and lost between the forces of nobility and darkness. Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword, which came out the same year as The Fellowship of the Ring, has distant, haughty elves, deep-delving dwarves, a broken sword which must be reforged, an epic war between the armies of light and darkness, another central character trapped between those extremes, and an interweaving of Christian and Pagan worldviews.
So, if these aspects are not unique to Tolkien, then what does set him apart? Though Dunsany, Eddison, and Anderson all present worlds where light and dark come into conflict, they present these conflicts with a subtle and often ironic touch, recognizing that morality is a dangerous thing to present in absolutes. Tolkien (or C.S. Lewis), on the other hand, has no problem in depicting evil as evil, good as good, and the only place they meet is in the temptation of an honest heart, as in Gollum's case--and even then, he is not like Eddison's Lord Gro or Anderson's Scafloc, characters who live under an alternative view of the world, but instead fluctuates between the highs and lows of Tolkien's dualistic morality.
It is a dangerous message to make evil an external, irrational thing, to define it as 'the unknown that opposes us', because it invites the reader to overlay their own morality upon the world, which is precisely what most modern fantasy authors tend to do, following Tolkien's example. Whether it's Goodkind's Libertarianism or John Norman's sex slave fetish, its very easy to simply create a magical allegory to make one side 'right' and the other side 'wrong', and you never have to develop a dramatic narrative that actually explores the soundness of those ideas. Make the good guys dress in bright robes or silvery maile and the bad guys in black, spiky armor, and a lot of people will never notice that all the 'good guys' are White, upper class men, while all the 'bad guys' are 'brutish foreigners', and that both sides are killing each other and trying to rule their little corner of the world.
In Tolkien's case, his moral view was a very specific evocation of the ideal of 'Merrie England', which is an attempt by certain stodgy old Tories (like Tolkien) to rewrite history so that the nobility were all good and righteous leaders, the farmers were all happy in their 'proper place' (working a simple patch of dirt), while both industrialized cultures and the 'primitives' who resided to the South and East were 'the enemy' bent on despoiling the 'natural beauty of England' (despite the fact that the isles had been flattened, deforested, and partitioned a thousand years before).
Though Tom Bombadil remains as a strangely incoherent reminder of the moral and social complexity of the fantasy tradition upon which Tolkien draws, he did his best to scrub the rest clean, spending years of his life trying to fit Catholic philosophy more wholly into his Pagan adventure realm. But then, that's often how we think of Tolkien: bent over his desk, spending long hours researching, note-taking, compiling, and playing with language. Even those who admit that Tolkien demonstrates certain racist, sexist, and classicist leanings (as, indeed, do many great authors) still praise the complexity of his 'world building'.
And any student of the great Epics, like the Norse Eddas, the Bible, or the Shahnameh can see what Tolkien is trying to achieve with his worldbuilding: those books presented grand stories, but were also about depicting a vast world of philosophy, history, myth, geography, morality and culture. They were encyclopedic texts, intended to instruct their people on everything important in life, and they are extraordinarily valuable to students of anthropology and history, because even the smallest detail can reveal something about the world which the book describes.
So, Tolkien fills his books with troop movements, dull songs, lines of lineage, and references to his own made-up history, mythology, and language. He has numerous briefly-mentioned side characters and events because organic texts like the epics, which were formed slowly, over time and compiled from many sources often contained such digressions. He creates characters who have similar names--which is normally a stupid thing to do, as an author, because it is so confusing--but he’s trying to represent a hereditary tradition of prefixes and suffixes and shared names, which many great families of history had. So Tolkien certainly had a purpose in what he did, but was it a purpose that served the story he was trying to tell?
Simply copying the form of reality is not what makes good art. Art is meaningful--it is directed. It is not just a list of details--everything within is carefully chosen by the author to make up a good story. The addition of detail is not the same as adding depth, especially since Tolkien’s world is not based on some outside system--it is whatever he says it is. It’s all arbitrary, which is why the only thing that grants a character, scene, or detail purpose is the meaning behind it. Without that meaning, then what Tolkien is doing is just a very elaborate thought exercise. Now, it’s certainly true that many people have been fascinated with studying it, but that’s equally true of many thought exercises, such as the rules and background of the Pokemon card game, or crossword puzzles.
Ostensibly, Scrabble supposedly is a game for people who love words--and yet, top Scrabble players sit an memorize lists of words whose meaning they will never learn. Likewise, many literary fandom games become little more than word searches: find this reference, connect that name to this character--but which have no meaning or purpose outside of that. The point of literary criticism is always to lead us back to human thought and ideas, to looking at how we think and express ourselves. If a detail in a work cannot lead us back to ourselves, then it is no more than an arbitrary piece of chaff.
The popularity of Tolkien’s work made it acceptable for other authors to do the same thing, to the point that whenever I hear a book lauded for the ‘depth of its world building’, I expect to find a mess of obsessive detailing, of piling on so many inconsequential facts and figures that the characters and stories get buried under the scree, as if the author secretly hopes that by spending most of the chapter describing the hero’s cuirass, we'll forget that he’s a bland archetype who only succeeds through happy coincidence and deus ex machina against an enemy with no internal structure or motivation.
When Quiller-Couch said authors should ‘murder their darlings’, this is what he meant: just because you have hobbies and opinions does not mean you should fill your novel with them. Anything which does not materially contribute to the story, characters, and artistry of a work can safely be left out. Tolkien's embarrassment of detail also produced a huge inflation in the acceptable length of fantasy books, leading to the meandering, unending series that fill bookstore shelves today.
Now, there are several notable critics who have lamented the unfortunate effect that Tolkien’s work has had on the genre, such as in Moorcock’s Epic Pooh and Mieville’s diatribe about every modern fantasy author being forced to come to terms with the old don's influence. I agree with their deconstructions, but for me, Tolkien isn’t some special author, some ‘fantasy granddad’ looming over all. He’s just a bump in the road, one author amongst many in a genre that stretches back thousands of years into our very ideas of myth and identity, and not one of the more interesting ones
His ideas weren’t unique, and while his approach may have been unusual, it was only because he spent a lifetime trying obsessively to make something artificial seem more natural, despite the fact that the point of fantasy (and fiction in general) is to explore the artificial, the human side of the equation, to look at the world through the biased lens of our eye and to represent some odd facet of the human condition. Unfortunately, Tolkien’s characters, structure, and morality are all too flat to suggest much, no matter how many faux-organic details he surrounds them with.
"There are my 'Poe' pieces and my 'Dunsany pieces' – but alas – where are any Lovecraft pieces?"
-H.P. Lovecraft, 1929
What really makes Lovecraft interesting is the degree to which he was a student of the Horror genre. As his influential essay Supernatural Horror in Literature shows, Lovecraft was a voracious reader who went far afield in his search for interesting Horror authors. If Lovecraft hadn't been such an odd recluse, and instead pursued an academic career, we might not have had to wait a century for scholar S.T. Joshi to drag the genre into the sphere of literary criticism.
Due to his vast knowledge, Lovecraft was able to pick through influences and styles when he wrote his stories, but instead of synthesizing all of those disparate inspirations into a new vision of his own, Lovecraft was more likely to work in bits and pieces, creating recognizable, sometimes formulaic story types in which we can easily trace the ideas he drew from Dunsany, Blackwood, Hodgson, Chambers, or Bierce.
Beyond that, his style was not always engaging, relying as he did on rather purple prose and extended explanations of his characters' innermost thoughts, instead of letting the actions and subtle cues speak for themselves. As such, his stories tended to lack the power and poetry of the great Horror authors who influenced him, but Lovecraft was such a prolific author, and so invested in his genre on a conceptual level that he did create a number of classics.
He also had a considerable influence on other writers through the vast correspondence which he kept up throughout his whole life with lasting, notable authors such as R.E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Derleth, Clarke Ashton Smith, and numerous others, not only introducing them to the many ideas and authors Lovecraft had collected, but opening himself up to the thoughts and experiences of all those young, up-and-coming authors.
Then there is the lasting effect of the 'Mythos' (sometimes called the 'Cthulhu Mythos'), that interconnected set of ideas and approaches that became a sort of 'shared world' for other authors to explore--whit are still being explored in an unabated string of short-story collections published every year despite the fact that all the stories in them tend to be terrible. But the Mythos was not quite Lovecraft's original invention, it was instead an attempt to take the worlds of the previous great Horror authors and combine them into one grand setting.
Probably the most unique aspect of Lovecraft's work was his combination of the chilling, aloof alienness of Dunsany's elves with the otherworldly, interdimensional terrors explored by Hodgson to produce that characteristic 'Cosmic Horror' which, while not invented by Lovecraft, was brought to a higher lustre in his works.
Though the Lovecraft stories that I find most interesting are not his 'Poe pieces', his straight Horror works--which should not be surprising, since I'm not especially fond of Poe--but his Dunsany-inspired Fantasies, such as The Silver Key and several other entries in his Dream Cycle, which tend to be rather less formulaic recreations of the styles and forms of earlier authors, than explorations of the mind, and of possibility. Beyond that, Lovecraft's very deliberate, thoughtful style seems to work better in a world of waking dreams than one of world-hopping adventure and monster attacks.
However, in the end, I would suggest that the most lasting effect of Lovecraft's work was born in his intense dislike of seafood, which gave his monsters and beasties their shapes, and proved a much more effective choice than Hodgson's odd distaste for pig. Indeed, Lovecraft's disgust must surely rank among the most influential gustatory preferences in the history of literature.(less)
Perhaps it speaks more to the age I live in than that of the author, but I'm always surprised to find a reasonable, rational mind on the other end of...morePerhaps it speaks more to the age I live in than that of the author, but I'm always surprised to find a reasonable, rational mind on the other end of the pen. Though Ariosto's unusual work is full of prejudice and idealism, it is constantly shifting, so that now one side seems right, and now the other.
His use of hyperbole and oxymoron prefigures the great metaphysical poets, and like them, these are tools of his rhetoric and satire. Every knight is 'undefeatable', every woman 'shames all others by her virtue', and it does not escape Ariosto that making all of them remarkable only makes more obvious the fact that none of them are.
Ariosto's style flies on wings, lilting here and there, darting, soaring. He makes extensive use of metafiction, both addressing the audience by means of a semi-fictionalized narrator and by philosophical explorations of the art of poetry itself, and the nature of the poet and his patron.
As with most epics, Ariosto's asides to the greatness of his patron are as jarring as any 30-second spot. His relationship to his various patrons was extremely difficult for him--he was paid a mere pittance and constantly drawn away from his writing to deliver bad news to the pope (if you're thinking that's a bad job, Ariosto would agree--the See nearly had him killed).
This is likely the reason that these moments of praise fall to the same unbelievable hyperbole as the rest. His patrons could hardly be angry at him for constantly praising them, but his readers will surely be able to recognize that his greatest compliments are the most backhanded, and merely serve to throw into stark contrast the hypocrisy of man--tell me a man is great once, and I will believe you, tell me five times, and I'll start to think you're covering for something.
Since we will all be oblivious hypocrites at some point (for most of us, nearly all the time), the only useful defense is finding the humility to admit our flaws. Great men never have it so easy: they cannot accept their mistakes, but must instead be buried by them.
Though Ariosto often lands on the side of the Christians, his Muslims are mighty, honorable, well-spoken, and just as (un)reasonable in their faith. The only thing which seems to separate the two sides is their petty squabbling.
Likewise, he takes a surprisingly liberal view of sex and gender equality, with lady knights who are not only the match for any man, but who need no marriage to make them whole--they are women with or without a man beside them. He even presents homosexuality amongst both sexes, though with a rather light hand.
His epic is not the stalwartly serious sort--like Homer, Virgil, or Dante--Ariosto is a humanist, and has none of the fetters of nationalism or religious idealism to keep him chained. His view of man is a contrary, shifting, absurd thing. The greatest achievements of man are great only in the eyes of man.
By showing both sides of a conflict, by supporting each in turn, Ariosto creates a space for the author to inhabit. He is not tied to some system of beliefs, but to observation, to recognition--not to the ostensible truth of humanity, but to our continuing story.
Ariosto took a great leap from Petrarch's self-awareness: while Petrarch constantly searched and argued in his poems, he found a sublime comfort in the grand unknown. Ariosto is the great iconoclast, not only asking why of the most obvious conflicts, but of the grandest assumptions. The universal mystery is only as sacred as it is profane.
Ariosto is also funny, surprising, and highly imaginative. Though his work is defined by its philosophical view, this view is developed slowly and carefully. It is never stated outright, but is rather the medium of the story: a thin, elegant skein which draws together all characters and conflicts.
The surface of the story itself is a light-hearted, impossible comedy. It is no more impossible than the grand heights of any other epic, but only seems so because it is not girt tightly with high-minded seriousness. Perhaps Ariosto's greatest gift is that he is doing essentially the same thing all the other epic authors do, the same situations and characters, but he makes you laugh to see it.
To be able to look at life simply as it is and laugh is the only freedom we will ever know. It is all wisdom. For this gift, I hail fair Ariosto: the greatest of all epicists, all poets, all writers, all wits, all humanists, all men--never to be surpassed.(less)
There are plenty of fantasy authors who claim to be doing something different with the genre. Ironically, they often write the most predictable books...moreThere are plenty of fantasy authors who claim to be doing something different with the genre. Ironically, they often write the most predictable books of all, as evidenced by Goodkind and Paolini. Though I'm not sure why they protest so much--predictability is rarely a death sentence in genre fantasy.
The archetypal story of the hero, the villain, the great love, and a world to be saved never seems to get old--and there's nothing wrong with this story when it's told well. At the best, it's exciting, exotic, and builds to a fulfilling climax. At the worst, it's just a bloodless rehash, and the worse are more common by far.
Perhaps it was this wealth of predictable, cliche romances that drove Martin to aim for something 'different'. Unfortunately, being different isn't something you can choose to do, you have to come by it naturally. Sure, Moorcock wrote Elric to be the anti-Conan, but at some point, he had to stretch out and find a core for his series that was more than simply 'this is not Conan'--and he did.
In similar gesture, Martin rejects the moralistic romance of the genre, tearing the guts out of epic fantasy: the fantastical, the romantic ideals, the heroism, and with them, the moral purpose. Fine, so he took out the rollicking fun and the social message--what did he replace them with?
Like the post-Moore comics of the eighties and nineties, fantasy has borne witness to a backlash against the moral hero, and then a backlash against the grim antihero who succeeded him. After all, if all Martin wanted was grim and gritty antiheroes, he didn't have to reject the staples of fantasy, he could have gone to its roots: Howard, Leiber, or Poul Anderson.
Like many authors who try to develop realism, Martin forgets that 'Truth is stranger than Fiction'. The real world is full of strangeness: unbelievable events, coincidences, and odd characters. When authors remove these elements in an attempt to make their world seem realistic, they end up with a fiction duller than reality; after all, unexpected details are the heart of verisimilitude.
When Chekhov and Peake removed the easy thrill of romance from their stories, they replaced it with strange and exciting characters. They wrote things strange enough to seem true. Compared with these authors, Martin's world comes off as dull and gray. Instead of innovating new, radically different elements, he merely removes familiar staples, and any world defined by lack is going to end up feeling rather thin.
However despite trying inject the book with history and realism, he does not reject the melodramatic characterization of his fantasy forefathers, as evidenced by his brooding bastard antihero protagonist (with pet albino wolf). Apparently, his idea of 'grim realism' is similar to 'Draco in Leather Pants'. This causes a central conflict in the story's tone, rather like putting the cast of a soap opera into an existentialist German film.
He also puts in lots of sex and misogyny, and wall-to-wall rape, which isn't necessarily bad, if its handled well. I think books should have sex in them, and shouldn't shy away from any uncomfortable, unpleasant reality of life. The problem is when people who are not comfortable with their own sexuality start writing about it, which seems to be the problem of every mainstream fantasy author.
If an author writing some sex and lets the pen get away from him, his own lack of fulfillment starts leaking into the scene. It's not about the characters anymore, now it's just the author cybering with me about his favorite fetish. I don't want to buy a book just to get lost in someone's squicky fetish. If I cyber with a fat, bearded stranger, I expect to be paid for it.
I know a lot of fans probably get into it more than I do (like how plenty of WOW players enjoy making their female night elf hunters hump each other), but reading Goodkind, Jordan, and Martin--it can be like seeing a Playboy at your uncle's house where all the pages are wrinkled. That's not to say there isn't servicable pop fantasy sex out there--there is, and it's written by women.
Though I didn't save any choice examples from this book, I did come across an article which mentioned this quote, from a later book in the series:
"When she went to the stables, she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest . . ."
I can imagine the process, as Martin sits, hands hovering over the keyboard, trying to get inside his character's head:
"Okay, I'm a woman. How do I see and feel the world differently? My cultural role is defined by childbirth. In the process of marriage, I can be bought and sold by my own--Oh, hey! Look at that, I've got tits! Man, look at those things go. *whooshing mammary sound effects* Okay, time to write."
Yet we don't get any descriptions of variously-sized dongs swinging within the confines of absurdly-detailed clothing. We do get a set of giant manboobs--which, as an overweight, elderly man, I assume Martin has some personal experience with--but not until book five, and even then, it's not the dude being hyperaware of his own, secretly moving under his clothes--they're just there to gross out a dwarf. Not really a balanced depiction.
The books are also well known for featuring sudden, apparently pointless deaths, which some suggest is a sign of realism--but, of course, nothing is pointless in fiction, because the author must deliberately decide what to include. Sure, in real life, people will often suddenly die before finishing their life's work (authors of doorstop fantasy series do it all the time), but there's a reason we don't tend to tell stories of people who die unexpectedly in the middle of thing: they are usually boring and pointless. They build up for a while and eventually, lead nowhere.
Novelists often write in isolation, and so it's easy to forget the rule to which playwrights adhere: your story is always a fiction, and any time you ignore that fact and treat it as if it were real, you are working against your own writing. The writing that seems to be the most natural is never effortless, it is carefully and painstakingly constructed to feel natural.
People are often told in entry-level creative writing classes to 'listen to how real people talk, and write like that', which is terrible advice. A transcript of spoken conversation is often so full of repetition, half-thoughts, and non-specific words ('stuff', 'thing') as to be incomprehensible--especially without all of the cues of pattern, tone, and body language. Written communication works very differently, so making dialogue feel like speech is an artificial process. It's the same with sudden character deaths: treat them like a history, and your plot will become just as choppy and hard to follow.
But then, I'm not sure Martin's deaths are truly unpredictable. As in an action film, they are usually a plot convenience: kill off a villain, and you don't have to worry about wrapping up his personal arc. You don't have to defeat him psychologically--the finality of his death is the great equalizer. You don't have to do the hard work of demonstrating that the hero was morally right if he's the only option left.
Likewise, in Martin's book, death ties up loose threads--namely, plot threads. Often, this is the only ending we get to his plot arcs, which makes them rather predictable: any time a character could get enough influence to make things better, or more stable, he will die. Any character who poses a threat to the continuing chaos which drives the plot will first be built up, and then killed off.
"I killed (view spoiler)[Ned (hide spoiler)] because everybody thinks he’s the hero and that, sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it. The next predictable thing [someone] is going to rise up and avenge his [death]. And everybody is going to expect that. So immediately [killing (view spoiler)[Robb] (hide spoiler)] became the next thing I had to do.
He's not talking about the internal motivations of the characters, or the ideas the characters represent, he's talking about them as tools he can use to shock the audience. But then, the only reason we think these characters are important, the only reason we expect them to succeed is because of how Martin writes them.
He treats them as central, heroic character, spending time and energy on them, but it all ends up being a red herring so he can get rid of them for a cheap twist. It's like the mystery novels of the 70's and 80's where to surprise the audience, the author would add in ghosts or secret twins or a new character in the last chapter--it's only surprising because the author has torn up the structure of their own book, undermining the trust between author and reader.
Like all authors, Martin begins by producing plot arcs that grow and change, providing tension and goals for his characters. Normally, when such arcs come to a close, the author must use all the force of his skill to deal with themes and answer questions, providing a satisfying conclusion to a promising idea that his readers have watched grow.
Or you could just kill off the character central to the conflict and bury the plot arc with him. That way, you never have to worry about closure, you can just hook your readers by crafting a new arc from the chaos caused by the dissolution of the previous build. Start to make the reader believe that things might get better, to believe in a character, then wave your arms in distraction, yell and point, 'look at that terrible thing, over there!', and hope your audience becomes so caught up in worrying about this new problem that they forget that the old one was never actually resolved.
By chaining these false endings together, you can create a perpetual state of tension which never requires solution--this is how most soap operas work--plus, the author never has to do the hard work of finishing what they started. If an author is lucky, they die before reaching the Final Conclusion the readership is always clamoring for, and will never have to worry about meeting the collective expectation which all the long years of deferral have built up. It's easy to idolize Kurt Cobain, because you never had to see him bald and old and crazy like David Lee Roth.
Unlucky authors live to write the Final Book, which will break the spell of continual tension and expectation that kept their readers enthralled. Since the plot has not been tightening into a larger, intertwined conclusion (in fact, it's probably been spiraling out of control), the author must wrap things up conveniently and suddenly, leaving fans confused and upset. And, having thrown out the grand moral story of fantasy, Martin cannot even end on the dazzling trick of the vaguely-spiritual transgressive Death Event on which the great majority of fantasy books rely for a handy tacked-on climax (actually, he'll probably try it anyways, with dragons).
The drawback is that, even if a conclusion gets stuck on at the end, the story fundamentally leads nowhere--it winds back and forth without resolving psychological or tonal arcs. But then, doesn't that sound more like real life? Martin tore out the moralistic heart and magic of fantasy, and in doing so, rejected the notion of grandly realized conclusions. Perhaps we shouldn't compare him to other writers of romance, but to grandly realized Histories.
He asks us to believe in his intrigue, his grimness, and his amoral world of war, power, and death. In short, he is asking us to compare him not to the false Europe of Arthur, Robin Hood, and Orlando, but to the real Europe of plagues, power struggles, religious wars, witch hunts, and roving companies of soldiery forever ravaging the countryside.
Unfortunately, he doesn't compare very well to them, either. His intrigue is not as interesting as Cicero's, Machiavelli's, Enguerrand de Coucy's--or even Sallust's, who was practically writing fiction, anyways. Some might suggest it unfair to compare a piece of fiction to a true history, but those are the same histories that lent Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock their touches of verisimilitude. Martin might have taken a lesson from them and drawn inspiration from further afield: even Tolkien had his Eddas.
More than anything, this book felt like a serial melodrama. It is a story of the hardships of an ensemble cast who we are meant to watch over and sympathize with, being drawn chiefly by emotional appeals (the hope that things will 'get better' in this dark place, 'tragic' deaths), even though these appeals often conflict with the supposed realism, and in the end, there is no grander story to unify the whole. The 'grittiness' is just Martin replacing the standard fantasy theme of 'glory' with one of 'hardship', and despite flipping this switch, it's still just an emotional appeal. 'Heroes always win' is just as boring and predictable as 'heroes always lose'.
It's been suggested that I didn't read enough of Martin to judge him, but if the first four hundred pages aren't good, I don't expect the next thousand will be different. If you combine the three Del Ray collections of Conan The Barbarian stories, you get 1,263 pages (including introductions, end notes, and variant scripts). If you take Martin's first two books in this series, you get 1,504 pages. Already, less than halfway through the series, he's written more than Howard's entire Conan output, and all I can do is ask myself: why does he need that extra length?
Some authors use it to their advantage, but for most, it's just sprawling, undifferentiated bloat. Melodrama can be a great way to mint money, as evidenced by the endless 'variations on a theme' of Soap Operas, Pro Wrestling, Lost, and mainstream superhero comics. Plenty of people enjoy it, but it's neither revolutionary nor realistic.
Some have tried to defend this book by saying "at least Martin isn't as bad as all the drivel that gets published in genre fantasy", but saying "he's better than dreck" is really not very high praise. Others have intimated that I must not like fantasy at all, pointing to my low-star reviews of Martin, Wolfe, Jordan, and Goodkind, but it is precisely because I am passionate about fantasy that I fall heavily on these authors.
A lover of fine wines winces the more when he is given a corked bottle of vinegar, a ballet enthusiast's love of dance would not leave him breathless at a high school competition, and likewise, having learned to appreciate Epics, Histories, the Matter of Europe, Fairy Tales, and their modern offspring, the fantasy genre, I find Martin woefully lacking.
There's plenty of grim fantasy and intrigue out there, from its roots in epic poetry to the Thousand and One Nights to the early fantasies of Eddison, Dunsany, Morris, Macdonald, Haggard, and Kipling. Then there are more modern authors: Poul Anderson, Moorecock, Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Mervyn Peake, China Mieville, Phillip Pullman, Howard, Lovecraft, and Leiber.
There seems to be a sense that Martin's work is somehow revolutionary, that it represents a 'new direction' for fantasy, but all I see is a reversion. Sure, he's different than Jordan, Goodkind, and their ilk, because they took equal parts Tolkien and Howard, the pseudo-medieval high-magic world from the first and the blood-and-guts heroism from the second. Martin, on the other hand, has more closely followed Tolkien's lead than any other modern high fantasy author--and I don't just mean in terms of Orientalist racism.
Tolkien wanted to make his story 'real'--not 'realistic', by using the various dramatic techniques of literature--but actually real, by trying to create all the detail of a pretend world behind the story. Over the span of the first twenty years, he released The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, and other works, while in the twenty years after that, he became so obsessed with worldbuilding for its own sake that instead of writing stories, he filled his shed with a bunch of notes (which his son has been trying unsuccessfully to make a book from ever since).
It's the same thing Martin's trying to do: cover a bland story with a litany of details that don't contribute meaningfully to his characters, plot, or tone. So, if Martin is good because he is different, then it stands to reason that he's not very good, because he's not really very different. He may seem different if all someone has read is Tolkien and the authors who ape his style, but that's just one small corner of a very expansive genre. Anyone who thinks Tolkien is the 'father of fantasy' doesn't know enough about the genre to judge what 'originality' means.
So, if Martin neither an homage nor an original, I'm not sure what's left. In his attempt to set himself apart, he tore out the joyful heart of fantasy, but failed replace it with anything worthwhile. There is no revolutionary voice here, and there is nothing in Martin's book that has not been done better by other authors.
However, there is one thing Martin has done that no other author has been able to do: kill the longrunning High Fantasy series. According to some friends of mine in publishing (and some amusingly on-the-nose remarks by Caleb Carr in an NPR interview), Martin's inability to deliver a book on time, combined with his awful relationship with his publisher means that literary agents are no longer accepting manuscripts for high fantasy series. So it turns out that Martin is so bad at structuring that he actually pre-emptively ruined books by other authors. Perhaps it is true what they say about silver linings . . .
Though I declined to finish this book, I'll leave you with a caution compiled from various respectable friends of mine who did continue on:
"If you need some kind of closure, avoid this series. No arcs will ever be completed, nothing will ever really change. They keep saying 'Winter is Coming', but it's not. As the series goes on, there will be more and more characters and diverging plotlines to keep track of, many of them apparently completely unrelated to each other, even as it increasingly becomes just another cliche, fascist 'chosen one' monomyth, like every other fantasy series out there. If you enjoy a grim, really long soap opera with lots of deaths and constant unresolved tension, pick up the series--otherwise, maybe check out the show."
My Fantasy Book Suggestions["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)