fantasy

It’s Like a Harry Potter Book Where Everybody Dies

The Call - Peadar Ó Guilín

The title of this post is taken directly from a 2017 interview with author Peadar Ó Guilín, and the book he is describing is his own YA fantasy novel, The Call.

Now, I’d never normally use the writer’s own self-promoting words to describe a book but this time it just felt right.  This book does give one a sense of the community building and adolescent bonding from the Rowling books… but in a much, much darker world.

Despite not reading all that much in the YA genre, I’m no stranger to Peadar’s writing.  Some years ago, I had read his novel The Inferior, and had found it to be brilliant, possibly even miscast as YA, because it had, in my opinion, a much broader appeal…  But it should have given me fair warning: Ó Guilín does not pull his punches when he creates a world.  The starting conditions from The Inferior were, to put it lightly, stark.  The brilliance came from building a sympathetic storyline and lovable character born of the starkness.

If anything, the world of The Call is even darker.  Its protagonists are surrounded by enemies they can’t fight or even see most of the time… but when they do, it’s alone, without friends, on the enemy’s turf, on the enemy’s terms.  Most will die… and this is what is expected.  Survival comes out of ensuring that the number of dead is as small as possible.

I don’t want to give spoilers here, so I’ll limit myself to saying that the academy setting of the novel does make it much more similar to the Harry Potter books than Peadar’s earlier works, and it also makes it much more YA in feel.  This one is definitely, squarely aimed at the target and, from watching the adolescents I know (my wife has a couple of older kids from an earlier marriage), this is exactly the kind of book they can sink their teeth into.

YA dark fantasy is hard to do, but Peadar manages to create the perfect sense of dread and doom, a fear that sticks with you.  And he does it without resorting to any cheap tricks–you come away frightened because the situation is so awful, not because someone sticks an eyeball on a pencil.

And yet, as with The Inferior, the characters attempt to bring brightness to the dark world, even playing against a stacked deck.

So this is a winner (as evidenced by the award nominations it has received), and I recommend it wholeheartedly.  In fact, it’s so well done that I’d say only young adults should read it.  We older adults are not prepared to see kids struggling against such horrific odds.  And I hear the sequel is ever darker… gulp!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is a comic fantasy tale set in Ancient Greece, The Malakiad.

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The First Love Never Dies Away Completely

When it comes to reading, the writers most responsible for my passion are probably Enid Blyton and the composite figure who went by the name of Franklin W. Dixon.  As a seven- to nine-year-old living in Zürich, a place where it got dark at a ridiculously early hour in winter, I would voraciously devour any age-appropriate mystery books in the school library – see number 5 on this list.

Interestingly enough, I also had my first brush with science fiction and fantasy literature by reading The White Mountains… but it didn’t seem to have stuck.

Another Fine Myth by Robert Asprin

I owe my love of the SFF genre, and my writing career, to someone unexpected: Robert Asprin.  He was quite big in the 1980s, and one day, randomly waiting for my mother to finish buying stuff at a Kroger at age ten or eleven, I picked up Another Fine Myth from the rack, probably because I liked the cover of the Ace paperback.

I was hooked.

Forever.

Yes, this isn’t mainstream fantasy.  It’s the equivalent of H2G2 for fantasy.  But, they are still the benchmark for laugh out loud comedy in the genre.  Just as the H2G2 books haven’t been surpassed by anyone for sheer comedy in SF, these are still the benchmark for fantasy (I’m also a huge Discworld fan, but those usually put the story before the comedy and just feel a bit less jokey to me).

Such is the power of those early Asprin books that I am still reading them today.  Asprin died in 2008, the year Myth-Fortunes (the latest one I’ve read) was published, so I’m assuming that this collaboration with Jody-Lynn Nye was the last he participated in.

Myth Fortunes by Robert Asprin and Jody Lynn Nye

To be completely honest, the final few books in the series have lost a little of Asprin’s original silliness; I suppose dilution is unavoidable when working with a collaborator.  On the plus side, without Nye, one can never be certain that the new myth books would have been written t all.  Asprin certainly had a long period when he wasn’t writing any more of them.

I’m just thankful we have the new Myths at all.  The cast of characters certainly doesn’t miss out by being less comedic, and the storyline–probably due to Nye’s influence–has taken some very interesting and unexpected turns.

I rate the early ones better, of course, but that might be just because Asprin had a blank canvas to work from, and he could put his characters in whatever situation he felt like without going against a firmly established vein.  The structure of the later books, and fully rounded characters puts a few constraints on doing that in the current iterations.

That doesn’t mean the new ones are bad; they aren’t.  In fact, they’re very good.  And Myth-Fortunes is a solid effort that appears to put many of the story arcs on new tracks… so now I need to read the next one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a short story writer and novelist.  His comic fantasy book The Malakiad isn’t as well known as Asprin’s, but he thinks it’s just as good (and he loves the cover).  Check out the print version here, and the Kindle ebook over here.

Advancing the Middle-Earth Story

The War of the Ring - JRR Tolkien - Christopher Tolkien

I’ve been reading the History of Middle-Earth series for a few years now – and have recently read The War of the Ring.  As I mentioned before, it’s a fascinating look into the thinking and process that went into the most influential modern fantasy work.

Today, everyone in the fantasy genre is defined by Tolkien.  Most obvious are books like the Wheel of Time or the Shannara series which in greater or lesser measure build on the Tolkien formula (the Brooks books do so more transparently, but almost every quest-based, journey-of-the-hero fantasy series does so in greater or lesser measure).

The rest of the genre, of course, is desperately trying to break away from the Tolkien tradition.  They hate high fantasy with a passion, either for silly “political” reasons (it is western-based and non-inclusive) or for more understandable artistic reasons; when a writer says they dislike the subgenre because the characters, far from acting like real people, fit into the roles that legend assigns them, makes a valid point.  But even those who break with the tradition do so self-consciously, always trying to define the exact limits of the shadow of the colossus they’re trying to escape.

And for people outside the genre, fantasy is essentially synonymous with Tolkien.

Yeah, I think understanding what went into creating this giant is worthwhile.  But more than just an academic pursuit for writers, it’s also a fascinating one.

As I mentioned earlier, the true, grinding world-building went into the Silmarillion.  This project was Tolkien’s passion, a labor of love that he knew would likely never see the light of day.  Dismayed as he was by the lack of an English mythology (Romans and 1066 saw to its destruction), he set out to create one from scratch.

From short texts and poems set in this mythology grew the story and world that we love today… but it grew in layers that would make an onion feel inadequate.  A lot of the fun of the History of ME books comes precisely from reading Christopher Tolkien’s descriptions of the scraps of paper his father used to compose the original drafts.  One comes to have a great admiration for the editor’s work in this case.  Actually it became the world we met in The Silmarillion.

So when he decided to write a children’s book, The Hobbit, he simply (what a deceptive word, that “simply”) layered it over what he’d already spent decades building.

And LotR built on that, another layer to the cake.

This particular installment deals with the destruction of Isengard, and comes, as should be evident, at a time when many of the bones of the mythology were already in place.  It is in near-final form, and reads very smoothly, unlike some of the early texts which were intentionally written in an archaic style.  As always, the true fanatics will love mining the text for differences with the final version while less-obsessed readers will enjoy revisiting the world and reading about how Tolkien built his masterpiece, as revealed by Christopher.

I can’t really recommend this series to everyone, of course.  But I will happily do so to writers who enjoy a window into another writer’s craft and also to OCD fanatics.  It is an effort, but it does have its rewards.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His novel The Malakiad, far from trying to escape Tolkien’s shadow, would likely make Tolkien attempt to disavow the fantasy genre.  Also, it’s a very funny book.  You can check it out here.

Like George R. R. Martin but with Rabbits

Yet another fantasy series gets discussed today, and yet another series that I’ve been bringing along since early adolescence.

As an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy in English living in Buenos Aires as a teen, there wasn’t always as much variety as you might expect from a typical bookstore in the US.  There were usually a few books in English, and, if one was lucky, one or two would be genre books.

That situation was exacerbated when on summer holiday in Uruguay. Punta del Este in the early nineties was the place to be in you liked electronic music or enjoyed rubbing shoulders with the highest element of the upper crust, but it wasn’t exactly a bibliophile’s paradise.  I guess no place on Earth is perfect.

But there was a bookstore, and over the years I bought a number of books there that I might not have purchased if there had been a better selection.  Sometimes they were real turkeys (Spinrad’s Russian Spring comes to mind), and sometimes they were the beginning of a lifelong read (it was here that I first encountered the Deverry series).

Marlfox by Brian Jacques

The last genre book sitting on the shelf that summer was a strange item which had a mouse with a sword on its cover: Brian Jacques Mossflower.  I had serious misgivings about this thing… it wasn’t really the kind of book I would normally have approached.  Despite being about 400 pages long, it seemed more like something for kids than for a teen who didn’t know enough about the world to understand that he wasn’t cool and worldly.

So I read it and… It wasn’t half bad.  In fact, I found it spectacularly refreshing.  You see, Jacques, liberated by the fact that his characters were assorted rodents and other small mammals, massacred more of his dramatis personae than anyone I had been exposed to at the time.  Only recently did George R. R. Martin dare to do it at the same scale with human characters.

Well, maybe not at the same scale.  Martin is in a league of his own regarding character killing (although he seems to have calmed down remarkably in recent books) but Jacques is by no means sugar coated.  While you could pretty much bet that the young mouse who found an ancient sword somewhere was going to survive and thrive, some of the other good guys were usually toast.  And Jacques also took time to build up the motivations and personalities of the bad guys so that, when they inevitably perished in the epic bloodbath that ends each book, one would feel for them.

Since then, this series has been on the changeup / back burner list.  I buy the next installment every once in a while and end up reading one of these every couple of years or so.  I’ve gotten as far as Marlfox, which is pretty much par for the course: a fun read which doesn’t necessarily break any new ground, but which entertains with action and suspense.  Perfect for when you’ve been reading the classics and need a break.

Also, nice wholesome old-school violence for those who think their pre-teens and young teens are getting a little obsessed with vampire sex.  Young readers need balance, after all.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose latest novel is a fantasy romp set in ancient Greece entitled The Malakiad.

Action Packed Medieval Fantasy

There are a lot of fantasy series out there, and I seem to be reading each and every single one of them.  Each has something that makes them attractive – my writeups tend to focus on what that is, and I’ve enjoyed each in its own way.

Perhaps the nicest thing about a series is that sense of being reunited with old friends when you crack a new book open.  It’s a comfortable feeling, perfect for readers who don’t always want to be challenged, and who enjoy stories that take a loooong while to tell.

At the Gates of Darkness by Raymond E. Feist

Of course, some of these series demand more from the reader, while some give more pure entertainment and joy.  Topping the list for the second quality is Raymond E. Feist’s long-running Riftwar series.

I started reading these books when I was about fourteen years old… and have loved them ever since.  They are among the few thick books that require almost no effort from the reader.  They grab you by the arm and take you for a ride.   Time flies by almost imperceptibly, and so do the books themselves.

Critics, of course, will say that the reason for this is twofold.  First, that I am an uncritical reader and, secondly, that Feist is not a good writer.

They are wrong, as critics usually are, especially postmodern critics, on both counts.  I am a very discerning reader who reads widely across a number of genres (just flip through the posts on this site for random examples).  The problem is that I define a good book as one that does what it sets out to do and does it well.  Critics define it as a book that meets their particular literary / political / sociological pet peeve.  This is why critics are made fun of.

The other place they are wrong is in calling Feist a bad writer for his smooth, fast-paced, uncluttered, prose.  Every time I read a critic bashing a writer for transparency, I always suspect that this is a critic who tried to write clearly and failed.  This wouldn’t surprise me in the least.  As a writer, I have nothing but respect for my peers who can drag you along almost against your will.  The men and women who cause you to finish a book before you realize it are masters of the craft–even if their chosen milieu is more popular fiction than high literary expression.

So, if you’d like a good ride, you can do much worse than to pick up a Feist volume (my advice–start with Magician.  The one pictured above just happens to be the most recent one I’ve read).  And then turn off your inner critic and enjoy the journey.

 

Gustavo Bondoni also writes fantasy.  His book The Malakiad was published in 2018.  It’s both funny and poignant.  OK.  It’s not poignant, but it is funny as hell, as befits a book whose main character is called Kopulus.

 

 

Contributor Copies Continued

Unlike many authors, I read every single contributor’s copy I am sent.  Why, you ask?  For many reasons.  The first and most obvious is that It helps me keep up with what’s happening in those corners of the genre that I frequent.

In a less pleasant vein, I sometimes find that the places that published my work might not be up to the expected standards–which means I won’t sub there again.  Or, conversely, the other stories might be so good that I feel like a third grader walking taking that stroll with Virgil and Dante… completely out of my depth.  I always send my best stories to people who make me feel that way.

So I get a lot more than just reading pleasure from this practice–it’s professionally useful, too.

It’s nice to have a serious-sounding excuse to read more stories, isn’t it?

Anyway, before this digression gets overly long (yes, I know it’s already too late for that), today’s post deals with a couple of contributor’s copies from a couple of years ago (never said I was fast, did I?).

51HG-GZoCfL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Visions III: Inside the Kuiper Belt is one of those anthos that did the Dante thing to me.  To be completely honest, I didn’t like the cover art, so wasn’t expecting too much from the stories inside.  And then, one after another, they all turned out to be absolutely brilliant.  Every one of them was a space adventure that was both well written and entertaining, a combination which, as anyone who’s picked up a Year’s Best antho lately can attest, is getting as rare as three dollar bills.  Better still, middle-class guilt and political concerns are nearly completely absent.  What joy in this day and age!

Not only do I recommend this anthology wholeheartedly, but I also put my money where my mouth was and sent the editors stories for two more anthos in this series, both of which are sitting in my TBR pile, and both of which I am looking forward to anxiously!  Go out and get one, you won’t regret it.

Strangely Funny 3

Strangely Funny III is a different animal altogether.  Humor can often be hit-or-miss, but this series takes the risk and handles it well.  Of course, there are a few stories that don’t quite work for me, but most of them do really well in both telling their story and getting some laughs – admirable goals both!

The stories skew towards horror and the humor sometimes tends to the ghoulish over the slapstick (or combines both).  Not something I’d normally pick up at a bookstore, but definitely a genre it’s good to be familiar with – especially since I have been known to write humor every once in a while.

So yes, I’ll keep reading my contributor copies, and let the cutsheet bandits to do their own thing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Siege is for those who think they’d enjoy Visions III, and The Malakiad for those who think Strangely Funny would be more their cup of tea.  He aims to please!

The Strange Case of David Eddings

The Younger Gods by David and Leigh Eddings

I recently finished reading The Younger Gods, the final book in David Eddings‘ final series (he died in 2009).

I’d really hate for my first post about David Eddings to be a review of The Younger Gods or, for that matter, of any of the books in his Dreamers series.  He deserves better than that–I’ve spent many hours reading excellent books by Eddings in other series.  So let’s celebrate the man’s career first and maybe speak of what the hell happened later.

Like a lot of authors, Eddings began with a couple of standalone novels (one good, one absolutely awful) before finding his niche in the heroic fantasy genre where his slightly offbeat but excellent series, The Belgariad, The Malloreon, The Elenium and The Tamuli were staples of the eighties and nineties.  These series have fun plots, characters with attitude and entertaining villains.

They’re classic Euro-centric fantasy tropes where the effort is expended in making them fun instead of going for the forced diversity and defying of expectations that runs so many more modern works in the genre.  They are fun, and critics, especially 21st century critics will hate them.  These are excellent books that do what they set out to do.  Recommended.  Eddings, on the strentgh of these four series, deserves all the success he had.

So far so good.  But then something strange happened.

At about the same time as he began sharing the writing credit for the books with his wife Leigh, Eddings work began to get… strange.

Instead of writing a new series, or continuations of the same series, Mr and Mrs Eddings began to write the same books from a slightly different point of view. The tone also changed, from normal prose interspersed with a kind of smart-alecky, cynical tone with some sticky-sweet characters thrown in for spice like raisins in a strudel, it turned into a cutesy saccharine form of utter idiocy which I would normally associate more with elderly women in pink sweatsuits than with anything pretending to be a heroic fantasy.  I won’t even try to speculate as to what caused this, as I have no data other than the fact that it began to occur when credit was shared, but according to Eddings, he’d always collaborated with his wife, so that probably means nothing.

But why they thought we’d like to read the entire story of the Belgariad and the Malloreon again, written from the POV of two different characters who both clearly share the exact same personality (moronic and cutesy-wootsie) is a mystery to me but this is what happened in Polgara the Sorceress and Belgarath the Sorcerer.

Worse as to come.  Some genius somewhere decided to combine the cutesy style with the repetition in a new series, and thus was born The Dreamers.  Now, if you can stomach the constant use of the words “dear one” or the phrase “now give me a hug”, the first book isn’t a complete loss.  Eddings could still write an interesting plot.  But it goes downhill from there.  The second book spends an eternity retelling the first, and then the plot is pretty much the exact same thing with the details slightly changed.  Ditto books three and four.  And since the bad guys are set against both the good guys and the freaking gods, there is never much doubt about the final outcome.

What happened?  Was it Leigh?  A set of seriously misguided editors at Del Rey and Warner Books?  Sheer senility?  Or was Eddings making subtle fun of us and trying to see just how idiotic readers could be?  I suppose we’ll never know.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.  If you ignore any of the later books, and concentrate on the four good series, you’ll have a bunch of good reading to thank me for.

But if the word “Leigh” appears anywhere on the cover, run like the devil himself is after you…

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a work of fantasy called The Malakiad.  It isn’t cutesy in the least (quite the opposite, in fact; it pokes fun at absolutely everything).  If enough of you buy it, he may be able to convince the publisher to turn it into the first of a series.

When the Anthologist Gets it Wrong

Before Martin H. Greenburg died in 2011, Gardner Dozois had a tradition of dismissing his anthologies (usually filled with major genre writers) as “pleasant but minor”.  In general terms, I disagree with Mr. Dozois because I found Greenbergs antho’s to be both entertaining and solid.  Whenever I gought one, I knew that great writers were going to take me on a fun ride.

However, I’ve got to give the nod to Dozois if he happened to make any snide remarks about the book Olympus, edited by Greenberg and Bruce D. Arthurs.

Olympus - Martin H Greenberg and Bruce D Arthurs

This one is pleasant enough, and a reasonably entertaining read, too, but it truly is minor in the most Dozoisian use of the word, and it isn’t 100% the fault of the anthologists.  Greenberg and Arthurs got together a stronglineup of writers–Friesner, Watt-Evans, De Lint, Huff, Michelle West–and asked for tales based on Greek mythology.

The writers, I feel, fell on their faces.  Sitting here looking over the stories, I think what may have gone wrong is that the book was published in 1998, when the fantasy genre was in the midst of the urban-fantasy doldrums.  Stoies about Greek gods set in 1980s-style cities with late 90s morality are just unmemorable.  Comptently written by a raft of professional writers, but not very noteworthy.

The best, in my opinion was “To Hades and Back” by Karen Haber, mainly because it goes the full 80s rockstar route.

Anyway, there are better Greenberg anthos out there.  Perhaps finding one of those is the best bet.

 

About the blogger: Gustavo Bondoni, apart from reading everything he can get his hands on, is also a novelist.  His latest book, The Malakiad, is a hugely entertaining take on the Greek heroic era.  He doesn’t want to say it’s better than the book reviewed above, but…  Paperback here, Kindle edition here.

The Fascination with Lost Worlds

In the late 19th and early 20th century, European maps still had large swathes of terrain marked as unknown.  The siren call of these blank spaces led to some of the greatest explorations known to man and sparked the imaginations of countless young and not-so-young readers.

Writers, of course were quick to fill in the blanks that real-life explorers were leaving.  It was a time when one felt that anything could be found in those spaces, from an advanced civilization, to Prester John’s people to Shangri-La.  Readers couldn’t get enough of it, and some truly talented people took up the challenge of revealing what lay behind tropical jungles, Asian mountains, African deserts and Antartic ice.  Perhaps the most recognizable today are Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, H. P. Lovecraft and, of course, most famous of all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Each of these men gave the genre their particular spin (especially Lovecraft in At the Mountains of Madness).  Haggard was the great doyen of the genre, and Burroughs was perhaps better known for Tarzan (which we discuss here) and Barsoom, but all three were inspired by the same terra incognitas.

The Lost WOrld and Other Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Conan Doyle used his fame to create what is arguably the purest form of the lost world story, however, and my recent reading of The Lost World and Other Stories (essentially the complete Professor Challenger tales) is what inspired me to write about the sub-genre here.

The first thing we need to understand is that, while they may seem to us to be Fantasy stories today, these books were very firmly planted in Science Fiction convention when they were written.  Even At the Mountains of Madness was more akin to a modern SF story than the usual Lovecraftian horror piece.  These writers, while poring over their incomplete maps were asking the central question of science fiction – “What if?” – and attempting to answer it in the most plausible way while telling a gripping story.

Professor Challenger himself is an interesting character.  A rough-around-the-edges, unapologetic genius who is loathe to suffer fools – or anyone else really – he is the driving force behind the discovery of a world of prehistoric creatures (and both uncivilized natives and under-evolved proto-humans) on a plateau in South America in what is almost the standard recipe for Lost World tales.

The science fictional purity is lost in later Challenger stories as the protagonist (and Conan Doyle himself) become lost in their attempts to put a scientific frame around the period’s craze for spiritualism.  In my opinion, these are the weaker books, but perhaps, like so many others, I am tainted by my modern views.

That last brings us neatly to the central point of any discussion about lost world stories.  While they certainly had a golden age, that era passed as the gaps in those maps steadily got filled in with the names of villages and rivers and mountains.  The need to suspend disbelief became too great and people, more sophisticated now, moved on to newer things.

Worse, modern reevaluation has cast many of these explorers as little more than land-and-resource-grabbing colonial exploiters.

My response to this is twofold.  I am saddened by the fact that I will never be able to feel (as an adult, at least) the wonder that must have been common for educated people who understood that those blank spaces existed, and there was actually something there… and wouldn’t it be nice to imagine that that something was a wonderful something?

But even with a modern education, I still enjoy these romps into the supposed unknown, and my sadness is heightened by the knowledge that very few really good Lost World type books are published each year.  It’s a loss to readers everywhere, but it’s logical and follows the market.

Finally, it becomes necessary to address the whole revisionist thing.  No one will pretend that the scramble for Africa didn’t happen (or was in any way positive for the people already living there) but I am of the opinion that classic literature needs to be evaluated within the mores of the times, and that any attempt to apply a post-colonial prism is a waste of time and space in academic journals which could much better be used for praising my own books (or panning them – all is well as long as they spell my name right).

Our obsession with judging the past by our standards and rewriting it to suit our tastes has been particularly cruel to this brand of literature.  The fact that it still survives to be enjoyed today by those with the open minds needed to do so is a testament to how much fun it was in the first place.  And “The Lost World” is as good a place to start as any other (although my own personal favorites are the Haggard books).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an award-winning Argentine novelist.  He is the author of Siege, a well-received far future tale of survival and determination.

The Fantasy Series Elephant in the Room

Readers of this blog have probably read my recent posts on large fantasy series and enjoyed them but, at the same time, they’ve been asking themselves the question: “These are all very good series, but what about the big one?  Why are you avoiding tackling that one?”

Depending on who one talks to, there are only two possible definitions of “the big one” in this context.  The first group are what I call the genre traditionalists, and they’re talking about Papa Tolkien.  The Lord of the Rings, after all, was the series that started the modern popularity of doorstop fantasy books.

This first group will likely be satisfied by the fact that I’ve been commenting on the History of Middle Earth series, so that leaves the other big one.  The one on HBO that your friend who would never pick up a fantasy book for any reason keeps pestering you about.  The one that has become a central part of popular culture.

Yes, that one.

Cersei and jaime Lannister

What the rest of the world calls A Game of Thrones is known to long-time fantasy readers as A Song of Ice and Fire.

I’ve been reading it since long before the TV show started and you will not be surprised to learn that I have an opinion which, having recently finished reading A Dance with Dragons, I will foist upon you.

A little background first.  I started reading this series in the early 2000s because I had recently started reading both the Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth and was enjoying both.  I knew that George R. R. Martin’s series was supposed to be the one that completed what was then the holy trinity (having read them all, my opinion is that The Sword of Truth, though certainly good, is a step beneath the other two).

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

So I read A Game of Thrones and was immediately hooked.  Here was a writer who created a brutal world in which the weak didn’t somehow overcome – the weak were prey to the strong, just like in real life.  And no character, no matter how beloved, was safe.  Martin wasn’t killing off token main characters for emotional effect–he was going through characters that were supposed to be critical at a spectacular rate.

I put down that first book in disbelief.  There were conventions in fantasy.  The assistant pig-herder was supposed to overcome incredible odds to become the king o the land.  In this series, though, Martin, had he written an assistant pig-herder, would have had the poor lad run into a large knight having a bad day, who would have eviscerated him and left him for the birds to peck on while still barely alive.  So much for that trope.  Had the pig herder been a young girl, he might have had the knight kill all her family and then sell her into slavery on the next boat, never to be heard from again.

That lack of sentimentality meant that you had to keep reading.  Though the author might not have feelings for his characters, the reader most definitely did.  We wanted to know whether the ones we like survive.  And in many cases, they didn’t.  Stronger characters did, even if they were less likable.

Another thing that makes this series attractive is that the author isn’t trying to be the morality police.  Whether you are a noble soul who wants the best for others or a despicable rapist who rules through terror makes no difference at all in your odds of survival.  In fact, the second character might live longer, as he is clearly a stronger man more suited to that particular jungle.  Again, just like in real life.

In hindsight a series that sets aside conventions about what can be written about and what can’t and who can and cannot die is a no-brainer.  People can use this to escape a culture that insists on punishing people according to its modern morality and see a realistic depiction of a medieval society.  Can you imagine a character in this one prissily saying: “please leave aside your toxic masculinity”?  The mountain would cleave him or her in two without even stopping to discuss it, and that is so refreshing, it’s hard to put into words.

Another advantage is that this can’t be imitated.  The whole point and differentiator of ASoIaF is that it defied conventions.  That’s what earned it the massive readership is enjoys.  Anyone coming after this will elicit shrugs and accusations of being derivative.

Also, there’s a second reason we only need one of these: while it’s fun to escape from the overly protective nature of today’s society for a while, too much realism can also be a downer.  Those conventions in fantasy exist for a reason: people like them and it’s fun and comfortable to know the rules and to read about how the good guys, in the end, will win the day and most of the beloved characters will be there to see it.

As for A Dance with Dragons, my feeling is that, over the last couple of books, I see Martin softening a bit.  He’s letting characters survive stuff that would have killed them in the earlier installments.  That may have been his plan from the outset, or he may be reacting to pressure from fans of the series… or, and one can hope, he’s planning some kind of massive bloodbath at the end.

Whatever the reason, I only have one favor to ask: can someone please feed that annoying dwarf to one of the dragons?  Thanks!

 

Gustavo Bondoni has recently been named a finalist in the Jim Baen Memorial Award, which has him truly excited.  He is also the author of Siege, a well-received space opera novel about human survival in extremis.