Sunday, September 30, 2007

Musical Chairs

A big shout-out to Andrew for recently giving me A Game of Thrones. He's been encouraging me for several years now to try out George R. R. Martin, but it's been sharing space with the other 100 or so books that I need to read, so he took matters into his own hands by gifting me the book. I blew through it and was really pleased... it's definitely up there in the pantheon of modern fantasy fiction.

I think I feel a semi-autobiographical musing coming on...

Fantasy was, hands-down, my favorite genre when growing up. I remember going to see a Children's Theater production of The Hobbit, and being utterly entranced by the book. I read and loved all of The Chronicles of Narnia; The Silver Chair was probably my favorite. I even struggled mightily with The Lord of the Rings at far too young of an age, and returned to the series three times before finally finishing it.

Early on, a lot of the fantasy I read was Christian fiction. In addition to the Chronicles of Narnia, I read Stephen Lawhead's books (the Dragon King trilogy, and later on his King Arthur cycle), Frank Peretti (who had some young-adult stories in addition to his more popular supernatural thrillers), and some other series whose names escape me at the moment. There was also a fair amount of juvenile fiction that I read and enjoyed, including the Prydain chronicles (Lloyd Alexander). Pretty much all the fantasy I enjoyed was post-Tolkien; I read some L. Frank Baum and George MacDonald, but just couldn't get into it.

I had a voracious appetite for reading in general, and fantasy in particular. Once I found something I enjoyed I would scarf up everything that I could. It probably shouldn't be surprising, then, that I eventually found that I had exhausted my immediate library of fantasy, and started searching abroad in order to get my fix. That meant heading deeper into the realms of adult fiction.

Honestly, one of the series I remember most clearly was David Eddings' Belgariad. Looking back, I'm pretty sure that those books weren't very good, but at the time I just ate them up. I even dressed up as Garion for Halloween one year (fourth grade, maybe?), complete with a blue cape and a plastic sword. I tiptoed into some of the Mallorrean, but my mother, who was pacing the series, censored the second through fourth books. Later on I tried some of Eddings' other books, and while they didn't grab me as strongly, I still enjoyed them... I remember being so excited when reading The Diamond Throne that I literally could not sleep, so I ended up staying awake for hours, reading it by the dim glow of my night-light. Ahh... obsession is fun.

In parallel with all that, I was also a big fan of the Lone Wolf books. I didn't have much expendable income growing up, but most of what I had went to getting those paperback game books. Some of my most vivid imagination was driven by that series. I would walk through the trees by Neil Park, and imagine that I was Lone Wolf; resting my hand on an invisible sword, I envisioned running through the hills, covering myself with a cloak to shield against prying Giak eyes, and rescuing villagers from the onslaught of the Darklords. Later on, they started writing novelized forms of these adventure books. I enjoyed them, but found them much darker than the games... even the covers looked incredibly grim, and the sense of death and destruction loomed over everything.

At some point, I ran across Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant Chronicles. Those were good books, but boy, were they ever a hard read. That's probably the first true "adult" fantasy I ever read, and the emotional content of the books was hard to ignore. Thomas is such an incredibly broken man, and his quest so overwhelmingly hopeless, that I couldn't derive the escapist joy that I usually get from fantasy. I kept reading, though, because of the powerful content and compelling characters.

At one point or another, I've read much of the blockbuster fantasy. Terry Brooks' Shannara kept me satisfied for a while, and Raymond Feist's various Midkemia books were fun as well. (Interesting note on that last one - I actually started reading those books after reading about "Betrayal at Krondor," the Sierra-developed RPG set in Feist's universe. I wouldn't actually get to play the game for many years.)

Oh, and how can I forget Thieves' World? Once again, I get the feeling that the books aren't that good, but I was delighted by the fully constructed world that they created, the soap opera-style plots that could span many authors and books, and the sheer breadth of content. I still think that the underlying idea was fascinating, and would love to see it resurrected, either in print or another medium. In keeping with the collaborative impetus behind Thieves' World, it's been the direct basis for at least two of my adventure games (neither completed), as well as an influence behind my huge fantasy system, and arguably influential in the creation of The Item (my memory's a little fuzzy on that last part). Also, Shadowspawn was a big influence on me, and I appropriated that handle for a few years.

OK, I have to stop now, there's just too many early influences to list them all...

The field started narrowing down while I was in junior high, and got even more manageable after leaving high school. Some of this was the inevitable result of becoming a busier person, with less time to spend enjoying books. Of the time I could still devote to reading, I was increasingly coming to enjoy other books, either in other genres or just straight-up literature. More and more I was getting my fantasy through gaming and not through reading.

That said, I kept going strong. I rediscovered my love of Tolkien, and at some point I stepped into the Wheel of Time. I still can't remember what exactly kicked me off on that... I think the seventh book had already been released by the time I started. As usual, once I was hooked I was in for everything, and I just delighted in that series. In general, I tend to enjoy things when they're more complex, more involved, have a larger world, and have more mystery. On all these points, Jordan excelled. Even more than reading about Rand's journeys, I enjoyed the complex political workings of Randland; organizations like the Whitecloaks and the Seanchan didn't map neatly onto a "Good versus Evil" axis, even in a world with an Ultimate Evil. I adopted the series and coasted on it for several years, eagerly awaiting each book as it came out.

All that came to an end, of course. Robert Jordan recently passed away and I don't want to speak ill of the dead. I'll say that the promise of the early books failed to be realized in the later ones. On a personal front, I came to realize that while I loved things that were large and complex, largeness and complexity are attributes, not virtues in their own sake.

While I've picked up the odd fantasy novel here and there, I really haven't dived into any series since giving up on the Wheel of Time. (My philosophy on that, after having been particularly disappointed in one book, was that I would wait until the series finally finished, and then ask people if it was worth it to read to the end.) All that to say, A Song of Fire and Ice is the first major fantasy series I've started in about a decade, though I have ample history with the genre.

So how does it stack up?


Quite well! These days, I tend to value things for being original even more than for the excitement of their content, and while AGoT falls neatly into the fantasy genre, it doesn't feel like a cookie-cutter story at all. For starters, the feeling of the book is much more medieval than traditional fantasy. I don't think the word "magic" is even mentioned until about four hundred pages in, and even then it's in the context of people wondering whether magic still exists. You do, however, have a really well-realized system of patronage, lords and bannermen, and a really realistic idea of how things fit together. Not "He's King because he found the magic sword," but "This person claimed the throne because he had the closest claim by birth; however, this other person comes from a much wealthier family, and so is able to strongly influence the king." That kind of believable political background for a fantasy novel is rare; Jordan was better than most at it, but even he occasionally fell into the Eddings trap of "Oh, this is the land where everyone is really crafty! And this is the country where everyone rides a horse! And this is the land where everyone is a religious zealot!"

Martin does a great job with the plot. Often times this felt more like a mystery than a fantasy novel. You get some feeling early on for who is "good" or "bad," but there is an awful lot of uncertainty, and much of the tension in the novel derives from trying to figure out who is up to what. Actually, there are multiple layers: you, as the reader, are trying to anticipate the future course of events; at the same time, though, each chapter is a third-person limited narrator tied to a specific character, and no one character knows as much as the reader does. So you will often run across a character who is thinking, "Man, I can't wait until Person X gets here!" and you think, "Oh, no! They don't know yet that Person X was caught in an ambush and won't ever get there!" I really like this structure, because it keeps the suspense strong while also making it clear that the author is very much in charge of what's happening. In a way, the reader just becomes another one of his pawns.

There are a lot of dichotomies set up in this first book, and it will be interesting to see how they play out over the rest of the series. The big divisions are between north and south, between nature and civilization, wildness and refinement, clear danger and hidden enemies. You have a tension between what is lawful and what is right. There is a line between children and adults, but already that is starting to be blurred. One of the major divisions in the first book is the classic clash between pragmatism and idealism. What's especially fun is the feeling that, as the plot continues, our feelings on some of these issues may begin to shift. Sure, we dislike absolute power, but what if it's the only thing that stands between us and our annihilation? What's fun about fantasy is the way that that can be an actual concern, and not just an abstract debate.

The characters are a high point of the novel. They are interesting, unique, and affect each other in involving ways. My favorite character in the early part of the book was Jon; later on, it shifted towards Eddard and, oddly, Tyrion. The non-main characters are often just as interesting as those whose names lead the chapters. I'm particularly drawn in by the intrigues of the outsized personalities at court. Littlefinger and the Spider and those dastardly Lannisters move in an intricate dance, and watching Robert's situation carries a dreadful fascination. It's also remarkable to have a book where so many significant characters are children, and actually see them grow and mature throughout the novel.

All in all, this has been really enjoyable, though honestly it's hard to "review" at this point. These sorts of things build on themselves to create their own force and energy, and I won't be able to properly appreciate each piece until I can finally see the whole. That said, I've enjoyed the scenery so far, and am looking forward to continuing the journey.

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