Sunday, August 21, 2011

Epic Fantasies

Spoilers ahoy!

I listened to Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World at It's the first book I've listened to. The method worked well with a story written in clear, fairly simple prose.

The story is good adventure fiction. Jordan combines the epic quality of Tolkien with the pulp action of Robert E. Howard, and achieves both wonder and suspense. He never goes long in this story without giving readers something to worry about, conflict or battle action.

This is a book for young people. The POV characters are teenagers, and it's about teenage concerns: striving for self-definition and flirting, mostly. You know the phrase, "he thinks the world revolves around him." Well, here it is literally true, with the main character discovering he is the one prophesied to save the world. That's a powerful adolescent fantasy.

Like Lord of the Rings this story involves a wizard who goes to some country bumpkins and orders them to follow. The group of kids go on a long quest across the world, and they are special because "the blood of the old ones is strong in them." If this sounds outlandish to you, then you probably want to return to your mystery or romance novel.

Th quest involves staying at an endless number of inns along the way. The group is chased by a variety of evil beings such as trollocs, who serve as Jordan's orcs. When the three boys sleep at night their dreams are troubled by an evil dark lord called Balthamel, who wants the boys to submit to him. "Luke, embrace the dark side."

The army that supposedly fights for the good side, the Children of the Light, are as much a nuisance as the dark ones. The Children of the Light, like the Inquisition, torture people until they confess they serve the dark side. This is one of the more original twists in the novel -- and it comes straight out of history!

My biggest problem with the book is that the magic is too easy. Moiraine, this story's female Gandalf, bails out the group at least a half dozen times, and her powers seem to expand each time. In Act II there is a long stretch in which the boys are separated from Moiraine; it had to be done to keep up the suspense. Otherwise, readers would think, "Oh, Moiraine will pull something out of her hat."

Staying at inns gets a little repetitive. Also, whenever the group needs information, one of the knowledgable characters explains what happened 1,000 years ago during the time of legends or whatever. It gets a little tedious, but I suppose this can't be avoided in epic fantasy.

Will I go on to book two? No. I'm not that interested in the story -- certainly not for another, what? 13 books? But then, it was not written for me. Had I read the book 40 years ago, it would have blown my teenage mind, as did Lord of the Rings, Dune, Foundation, Stranger In a Strange Land, Rendezvous with Rama, Way Station and Riverworld.

I learned a lot studying Jordan's pacing, his dramatization, his characters, and so on. I don't think listening is the best way to study writing, but it's good for a different perspective. (BTW, Michael Kramer is a talented reader.)

If you want to write an epic fantasy, you must study the important books in the field today -- not just the ones from the golden age -- in order to understand what the market wants. Jordan is a thoroughly competent professional, and a huge influence on the field.

Personally, I think the story template of the young bumpkin who discovers he has special powers and saves the world is tired. Epic fantasy needs to find something new. Admittedly, it is hard to find something as powerful as the classic "hero's journey" of Joseph Campbell.


I finished all five books of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire last month. I did it the old fashioned way -- reading books made of dead trees. And those books are some doorstops! Martin has cleared a forest with this series.

I read the first one back in the 20th century, then started the second one, but got bored and put it down for 10 years. The HBO series of "The Game of Thrones" reignited my interest, and in a marathon of summer reading I finished book two and then blew on through the next three books.

Martin is a brilliant writer. He keeps you turning the pages. He writes the set pieces as few can. Unlike Jordan he trades the classic quest template for something more modern and naturalistic. In Hollywood-speak the Song of Ice and Fire series is War of the Roses meets Lord of the Rings. Instead of good vs. evil, Martin's story seems more like gang warfare, albeit one gang (the Starks) is more honorable and sympathetic than the others. His characters are famous for all being shades of gray. Most reviewers take for granted that this is a sign of sophistication, but I'm not so sure. There is evil in the world, and just because "everyone has his reasons" does not make Hitler less evil.

It is also considered sophisticated to have profanity and graphic sex. It makes all the characters seem to dwell in the gutter. There is little romance in Martin's vision.

Martin's naturalistic, brutal world seems fresh for the same reason the naturalism of the 20th century did. Just as romanticism had become stale, today's epic fantasy is hackneyed.

It's like impersonations. When some water cooler clown says, "you dirty rat," he is not actually doing James Cagney. He is imitating his father doing Frank Gorshin doing James Cagney. No one impersonated George H.W. Bush until Dana Carvey did, and then everyone imitated Carvey. Likewise in fantasy, the hacks are not even imitating Tolkien at this point; they're imitating Dungeons and Dragons. The spirit of the original is a pale palimpsest when you've got writers inspired by a game based on a novel written 70 years ago. Studying Dostoyevsky and Flaubert prepares a writer to write great prose. Role playing games prepare a writer for nothing.

Martin does use such classic fantasy tropes as prophecies from the past and dragons -- there is even one dwarf -- but he refreshes them. This is certainly not the paint-by-numbers fantasy of Forgotten Realms.

The story loses steam in books four and five. The plot advances a few inches maybe in these books. Martin says he is a gardener as opposed to an architect, meaning, I think, that he writes without an outline. Books four and five could be subtitled "The Dangers of Gardening." I'll read the sixth book when it comes out, but I'm losing confidence in this series.

The problem is that Martin sets up certain expectations -- most notably involving the character Daenerys and her dragons. I want her to get to Westeros, kick ass and chew bubble gum, but instead she is dicking around in eastern countries. Who cares if she frees the slaves in Timbucktoo? When an author sets up expectations and then the characters do not make purposeful progress toward those goals, a story is just treading water. Not good.