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Posts tagged ‘high fantasy’

Day 12: A book you used to love but don’t anymore

Once again, it wasn’t hard for me to make a pick in this category.

When I first read George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, of which A Storm of Swords is the first volume, I was blown away.  I mean this was good stuff!  There was a huge cast of characters and lots of interwoven relationships and plot twists.  There was real, quality writing, including lots of great dialogue.  Major characters actually died, adding an element of unpredictability.  And the portrayal of a medieval society was gritty and realistic.

When I look back on this series, and particularly this book, from an adult perspective ten years later, I am no longer so enthused.  In fact, every quality that I formerly viewed as proof of greatness is now instead a pointer to the book’s mediocrity.

“The portrayal of a medieval society was gritty and realistic.”  Not really.  When I first thought that, I knew nothing about any medieval society, so I simply assumed it was realistic.  Looking back, I know it is not.  Martin’s society doesn’t truly resemble anything that ever actually existed.  Nor is it gritty.  It is filled with unrealistic pomp and decoration.  Everything from the buildings to the clothing is more fancy and high-tech than what actually existed in those times.  The real gory details of medieval life, from food to medicine to urban environments, are completely missing from this series.

“Major characters actually died.”  Well, actually they don’t, or at least not very often.  Major characters escape from death by amazing coincidences and tenuous plot twists far more often than they die.  Furthermore, contrary to what many fans seem to believe, the death of major characters is not an idea unique to Martin.  There are many fantasy series out there that tackle death, and do it much better than this series does.

“There was real, quality writing, including lots of great dialogue.”  Or not.  I actually participated on a message board devoted to the series for quite a while.  Everyone had several of Martin’s ‘great’ quotes in our signature lines.  When I read them now, I see that it’s mostly the characters threatening to torture and kill each other in witty ways.  Fine if you like that sort of thing, I suppose.  Being a Christian now, I no longer do.

” There was a huge cast of characters”.  No denial here.  There still is a huge cast of characters.  Back then I assumed that a huge cast of characters automatically indicated a good series.  Now I’m not so sure.  When I look at some of the best fantasy novels, I see that the cast is often quite small.  Not small to the point where necessary characters are left out, but definitely small.  Fifty or a hundred years ago, authors understood and readers appreciated elegance in writing.  One tried to make a book work, establish its theme, and entertain while using the minimum of everything.  Minimum of words, minimum of background, and minimum of characters as well.  That’s not to say that every good book has only one major character and ten minor ones.  Eddison used lots of characters.  So did Tolkien and Peake.  But there has to be some limit, and Martin is over it.  I mean come on: is there really any difference between the Iron Men, the Wildlings, the Mountain tribes, and the Dothraki?  Aren’t they all just brutal, murderous barbarians?  What’s the point of having all of them in the series at the same time?

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Day 7: An underrated book

Everyone who’s read Lord Foul’s Bane has a strong opinion about it.  Sometimes the opinion is negative; sometimes it’s positive.  At least on the internet it seems that negatives outnumber positives.  As for me, my opinion is positive.

Lord Foul’s Bane is about a main character, Thomas Covenant, who is unique in all of fiction.  Covenant is a leper, abandoned by his wife and outcast by society, living alone.  (In Pennsylvania, if I recall correctly.)  Then he is whisked away to a fantasy land known simply as “the Land”.  There he encounters a variety of fantasy archetypes: wizards, warriors, soldiers, giants, and the villainous Lord Foul, whose hoard of malicious creatures threatens to overwhelm all else and destroy the land’s beauty.

So far so ordinary, in high fantasy terms.  The what differentiates this book from all others in the field is Covenant’s establishment as a living, breathing, in-depth character.  Covenant’s entire life revolves around his disease and his need for constant vigilance regarding his health.  Hence, when he arrives in the Land he first suspects that his own sanity has deserted him.  All future events are shaped by his own need to not succumb to the supposed hallucination.  However, the natural goodness and beauty of the Land eventually act on him, breaking through the psychological barriers that he has set up for his own defense.  The ending of this book leaves the character arc still unfinished, and two sequels are needed before the triumphant conclusion.

With that said, Lord Foul’s Bane is not only about the character.  It is a big, messy novel, filled with traveling, exotic buildings and locations, fights, battles, and massive actin sequences.  In the fantasy genre, few can compete with Donaldson’s action scenes or his sense of scale.  Indeed, one of the things that the naysayers tend to dislike about the series is that everything is larger than life, from the landscapes to the fights to the personalities.  Even the names are more style than realism: Lord Foul, Drool Rockworm, Mount Thunder, Black River, and so forth.  What makes it okay, in my view, is that the whole set-up and sweep of the novel is such fulfillment of everything that fantasy can be, that only archetypes would fit properly within it.

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