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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Myrhaf,

When I first read "Eye of the World" on the advice of my brother, I came to the same conclusion; that it was somewhat derivative of Tolkien including some fairly blatant versions of Trolls and Ents. My brother assured me that I needed to read more and sent me the next 5 books.

Jordan diverges from the Tolkien model; his magic becomes more "technological" in that it does have specific rules and is less a walking deus ex machina and, for the next 4 books his prose is increasingly enthralling.

Thomas Shippey, who wrote "Author of the Century," an in depth study of Tolkien, detailed the facility with which Tolkien moved between various narrative modes and integrated them into his writing. The modes I recall were, in order, rustic, romantic, heroic and mythical. As an example, "The Silmarillion," per Shippey, was written almost entirely in the heroic and mythical modes; another instance of the multi-level interplay was found in Frodo and Sam's encounter with Faramir in Ithilien where Faramir and Frodo supply the heroic and Sam the rustic.

The reason I bring this up is that Jordan, in his 4th book has an expositional segment that is one of the best examples, outside of Tolkien, of integrating the mythic mode into a heroic and romantic narrative. There are other instances where he uses the mythic but this is his best.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Jordan does not remain an imitator of Tolkien. The central conceit of his world is that History is a Wheel (adapted from Buddhism) and that by the time the wheel returns to the present Age, what came before has been forgotten. Intervening ages are significantly mis-remembered; you might say that he does with historical concretes what Campbell did with mythological themes. It is rather fun to pull out the historical happenings from his historical mis-hints. One example is when Lenn flew to the Moon in the belly of an Eagle... A conflation of John Glenn with Neil Armstrong's Lunar Lander with the narrative approach of Cyrano de Bergerac thrown in.

After the 6th book, Jordan suffers from what you observed in Martin's series. He Sloooowwws down the narrative and it can be very irritating. I read very fast and so it doesn't bother me like it does my brothers but even I tend to just hit the high points when I re-read him.

The good news is that the last book Jordan wrote, number 11, his prose becomes more succinct and his plots start resolving and are thus less byzantine. And aside from a couple of over-the-top mis-steps his post-mortem collaborator, Brandon Sanderson has done a good job with his two books to date.

If you have the time, (and you will need time!) I think that the Wheel of Time series has a lot to recommend it. I consider it a step below Tolkien, partly because I think he has a bit more trouble with his heroic and mythic modes and his slow movement in his middle books.

c. andrew

PS. I read all of them the old fashioned way, using the product of dead trees. I've yet to listen to a book on tape or utilize a kindle or the like, so I don't know how well my experience reading would translate to listening. I'm not a technophobe, just one of those leap-frog adoption types.

Myrhaf said...

Hey, thanks for the great comment, C. Andrew. I had no idea about the rest of the series. I should give book two a try. Have you listened to Brandon Sanderson's podcasts at Writing Excuses? He puts a lot of thought into the business and craft of writing.

Myrhaf said...

I just noticed that in one paragraph I say I got bored and put down book two of SOIAF for 10 years, then in the next paragraph I say Martin keeps you turning the pages. Slight contradiction there.

I don't know why I lost patience 10 years ago. It probably has something to do with my love/hate relationship with SF&F. I go through long periods when I will have nothing to do with it, and I read the most tedious of naturalists such as Chekhov, O'Hara and Tolstoy. Then I find myself yearning for -- I dunno, a plot maybe? -- and I binge on pulp adventure stories. I go along reading SF, and then I stop and think, "This has nothing to do with anything in reality! It's just weird for the sake of being weird!"

Anonymous said...


I hadn't looked into any more of Sanderson's work after I tried to find the Mistborn series at my local library and they didn't have it. I'll have to check out his podcasts. I'm assuming from the title that they are writing tutorials of some sort?

I've only once tried to read Tolstoy. I made it through Anna Karenina and it was more depressing than Wuthering Heights, which I detested.

I tend to read SF&F from the perspective of whether the author has done a consistent job of creating his world. If there is too much reliance on "out of frame" devices it starts to irritate me. But if he is integrated in his narrative I enjoy it even though it obviously doesn't have real world significance although sometimes it can acquire such import by metaphor. For instance, Tolkien's theme on the problem of power has interesting real world applications; you might say that it is a novel length explication of Lord Acton's famous dictum.

Harry Turtledove's "Guns of the South" was interesting and the first 3 or 4 novels in that world-line were thought provoking. I never did finish his alternate WWI ending and his alien invasion short circuit of WWII turned me off of the series before I got there. I think that might be the "weird for weirdness sake" that you're talking about.

c. andrew

Inspector said...

I read the alien invasion Turtledove series in high school (hm, dating myself there), and enjoyed it at the time. Couldn't say if I still would. I did stop after the 5th or 6th book because I thought he was really slowing down and milking the series at that point. If anything, though, the last impression I got from it was that it was being weird for the sake of weird. He was going into a rather great amount of detail to explore the idea of a hidebound, orthodox mentality that happened to have thousands of years of a head start.

But then, Tolkien was the first thing I can remember ever reading, so the mundane genre "strangeness" of SF/F may not bother me as much.

Did I detect a swipe at R.A. Salvatore, Myrhaf? I've never read his stuff but I hear it's quite Mary Sue. Or at least the action hero equivalent. I haven't tried it, myself, as I was already out of Junior High by the time I'd heard of it. But I could be wrong - maybe it can be enjoyed as an adult.

I like the point about how we've crossed into imitation of parody of imitation. I think that's the lament that Modern Art is trying to express. "Well, Michaelangelo has already existed, so anything I do will be derivative. But I want to be ORIGINAL." So they end up spinning in circles trying to question the conventions until they've got noting but cubes and splatters. Really, it's the lament of the hack. If they were any good, it wouldn't matter whether they were standing on the shoulders of giants.

Changing gears a bit, remind me... what Heinlein have you read besides Stranger in a Strange Land, Myrhaf? If you're looking for a non-tedious coming of age adventure, he's one of if not the best out there with that trope that I'm aware of, with his Juveniles. Starship Troopers, Citizen of the Galaxy, Have Spacesuit Will Travel and Glory Road are a few that come to mind. I could read books like those all day and never feel the need to resort to horrid naturalists. But that may just be me.

Myrhaf said...

It is a common problem for a series to lose steam -- maybe unavoidable, if it goes long enough. I look back at the silver age comic books I loved so dearly as a child, and I must admit that most were not terribly well written. There are stunning moments, like Spider-Man #33, in which Ditko's storytelling shone, but the average comic is not much.

I've never read Salvatore, but I was thinking of a series of books called Forgotten Realms that I believe is (or was) published by D&D and targeted to roleplaying gamers.

I read everything Heinlein published from Stranger on, and also most of his Golden Age short stories. He brought realism to science fiction. He is probably the greatest and most influential SF writer. I have not read his juveniles. I keep meaning to get around to them. I saw the movie of Starship Troopers. Does that count?

Myrhaf said...

This might be heresy to my fellow comic book fanatics, but the superhero movies Marvel is now making are better written than the original comics. Stan Lee and his bullpen of artists had great vision, but today's screenwriters do a better job of putting it all together. They have more time to think the stories out.

I'll give you one example. In the comic books Peter Parker is a scientific genius who creates webslinging devices that go around his wrists. In the movie, the webslinging power comes with the spider bite. The movie is superior because it asks us to accept one outlandish thing: a radioactive spider bite turns a teenager into a superhero. The viewer is willing to suspend disbelief for one impossibility, without which there would be no story. The comic books ask the reader to accept TWO impossibilities: the spider bite and the guy who gets bitten just happens to be a scientific genius.

The comic books were written for children, who happily accept any impossibilities you can dream up. Look at the Superman series. In one Golden Age Green Arrow story, GA shoots an arrow from San Francisco to New York City. For kids, no problem. Today's movies write on a more sophisticated level.

I think I wasted what could have been an entire post on this comment.

Inspector said...

"I've never read Salvatore, but I was thinking of a series of books called Forgotten Realms that I believe is (or was) published by D&D and targeted to roleplaying gamers. "

Oh, that makes this more delicious, then: R.A. Salvatore's works are set in the world of Forgotten Realms (the setting being one I'm quite familiar with, having played many a video game and D&D session set there)... so I thought you were referring to a derivative of the derivative body of work, rather than the original derivative. Exactly as we've been talking about!

"I saw the movie of Starship Troopers. Does that count?"

Hahahahaha no.

Actually, Starship Troopers is the example I always trot out when talking about dreading book-to-movie adaptations. I consider the movie to be the worst movie adaptation of a book in human history. It took a cerebral tale of coming of age and anti-fascism and "adapted" it into a vapid, cheap, and sarcastically PRO-fascist abomination.

Yes, not only did it cheapen the book and dumb it down exponentially, but also it completely reversed its theme. It would be like if Whitaker Chambers' review of Atlas Shrugged were used to make that movie.

Inspector said...

Oh, but to add to that, I do definitely recommend you give his Juveniles books a read. Not only because they are a perfect example for the subject of this fascinating discussion, but also because they're just darn good reading. Plus, he tends to restrain his weirder tendencies a bit in them.

That's true about comic books - and also most material aimed at children. The interesting part is, though, that those works are good to the extent that they *didn't* do that.

Kids can take a lot, I think, and only the worst of them are actually turned off by things that go over their heads. I know I sure didn't - the more the merrier in that regard. That was the really "cool" stuff; you didn't want thing that were dumbed down for babies. And this was my attitude at, what, 6 years old?

It's like the modern mistake of putting a child character in a movie. Kids don't want to see people at their own level - they want to see teenagers or young adults that they can aspire to. So long as the theme is sufficiently resonant with the universal condition of childhood, the characters could be 10 or 20 years older for all a kid cares. Even better, really.

Inspector said...

Ech, excuse my grammar on that last comment. I had the phone ring and hit "post" before proofreading.

The second paragraph should make a mention that I'm changing the subject to your comments on comic books.

In the third paragraph, "didn't" should be, "wasn't." The third sentence should read, "That was the really "cool" stuff; you didn't want things that were dumbed down. That was, to phrase it how I'm sure a young version of me would, "for babies." Or idiots. Yes, I would have said that. And this was my attitude at, what, 6 years old?"

And in the last paragraph, it should say, "aspire to being."

Anonymous said...

My take on Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers" was that it was a mashup of old nazi propaganda films with the 1960's Batman TV series (starring Adam West). I fully expected to see 'BAM' and 'POW' superimposed in glaring graphics on the screen.

I frequently re-read Heinlein's juveniles. They are some of the best crafted stories out there. My favorites when I was in grade school were "Starman Jones," "Between Planets," and "Citizen of the Galaxy." They may have been juveniles but Heinlein talked about important issues. "Tunnel in the Sky" was another good one.

c. andrew

Anonymous said...

Oh, and for another book to screen abomination, "The Puppet Masters" with one of the less famous Baldwin Brothers IIRC. I don't remember much about it and put that down to severe PTSD.

c. andrew

Myrhaf said...

Heinlein said something to the effect that a juvenile novel is an adult novel without the sex.

Anonymous said...


I think that's a pretty good description of his juveniles. There was an anecdote that he related - I think it was in "Expanded Universe" where a (female) editor criticized his juveniles because she thought they "read like they had been written for Boy Scouts." Apparently Heinlein growled back, "That's because they were."

A number of his juveniles were serialized in "Boy's Life" magazine.

c. andrew

Katrina said...

Please please please please do not give up on The Wheel of Time! It is truly one of the greatest fantasy plots ever conceived. The Eye of the World is a boring LOTR knock-off; the rest of the series is so much more. Get through at least book three before you give up. I guarantee you will be hooked! Oh, and there are 15 books if you include the prequel, ha. Definitely worth it!

Myrhaf said...

Well, I'll have to listen to the second book to see what people are raving about.