Friday, April 22, 2011

Epic Fantasy Revisited

I read A Game of Thrones, and I am in the midst of reading the rest of the series, even though I suppose I should save these 20-hour tomes for my next flights across the Pacific. Still, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I get The New York Times, and sometimes when I’m bored of reading the real journalists I find myself on the Arts page, and I see this review (of the new mini-series I didn't know existed) "A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms". It is less than helpful. For a complete run-down of that, see (first) Slate's even less helpful article "Quasi-Medieval, Dragon-Ridden Fantasy Crap" and (then) Salon's rebuttal "Slate, New York Times to fantasy buffs: Grow up". I'm not really interested in arguing with self-elected Literary Types, who are pretty much a straw-man of themselves at this point, but I still think it's important to make sure that the work they're shutting out is, in fact, not full of suck. There's another reason, too, and it's a better one:

Epic Fantasy! (the obligatory picture)
I don't like Epic Fantasy

...but I believe in giving things a fair shot. I'm one of those people who likes The Hobbit but doesn't like Lord of the Rings, and a quick trawl of those whose literary opinions I value told me that "A Game of Thrones" should be a fair shot for giving the genre another try. I was not disappointed, but I still don't gravitate toward epic fantasy personally. This is not a statement of quality, this is a statement of what waves I focus my limited reading time towards in a sea of quality. (Note that the mini-series might still suck, I suppose. I haven't seen it yet.)

So, why don't I like Epic Fantasy? Here's my reasons, in rough order of importance to me, the reader.

They're so long! I mean, a good story is a good story, no matter how long. But sometimes it's too long. I like that little thrill of accomplishment when I finish reading something and can imagine what happens next. A lot of this is tone, as well. There's a big pile of description and general world-building which I'm not really all that interested in slogging through. (I still do, but that's not the point.) I don't have that much time for reading, and in epic fantasy, one book is never enough. To cite my specific primary source, the ending to A Game of Thrones, awesome though it was, was not technically an ending for any of the characters (except the obvious). Which brings me to the next point.

Number of Characters
There's so many characters! Which is not bad in and of itself, but it either dilutes my focus or annoys me. I tend to focus on characters when I read, and so I like strong characterization, but when there are a bunch of strong characters I'll tend to focus on a few...or I'll get annoyed when they're not around. I understand that purpose of having a bunch of strong viewpoint characters to the series (Anyone Can Die), but...well, while reading the first book I found myself waiting for the chapters with Jon or Daenerys or Tyrion at the top, and sometimes slogging through the rest while so waiting. (The second book has been better for me, then.) Anyways, that brings us to the third point.

I'm getting the feeling, nearing the end of the second book, that I could just read every chapter titled "Jon" and "Daenerys" and I'd have two perfectly enjoyable stand-alone Fantasy books. (Yes, yes, I'm sure it all comes together later. Probably?) I like stories with a couple of characters doing stuff that matters to them. Whenever I see a fantasy map, I immediately look to the places where nothing seems to be happening, and wonder what's happening there, to those guys. I like to call myself an Edge Reader, in this regard for the small picture over the big picture. People are more important than...

The final qualm I have is that I'm reading a whole invented history. This may just come from my background in political science, but I don't even have enough time on my hands to read all of actual history...which might actually come in useful one day. I read speculative fiction (Fantasy, Science Fiction et al) for one reason: Great Stories, and those are built on Ideas, not Facts. Characters, not Family Trees. It's all fine and good (and it is quite fine and good, in this case) to read an invented war between a bunch of houses over a kingdom, but I'd be better served to read about The Wars of the Roses if I want facts and families. But for ideas and characters, stories have history beat every time.

What I'll Steal
Still, I would be remiss if I didn't take all the good stuff from Epic Fantasy. Strong, but clear, characterization, esp. strict limited viewpoint characterization. One of the best features of A Game of Thrones is that nobody really knows what the hell is going on at any given moment, but they have to do something anyways. It would be cheating if the readers got any more hints than they do. On the flip side, it's important that readers know who the hell the viewpoint character is, starting with their name, so if I ever write a book with a bunch of character, I'll steal A Game of Thrones method (Margaret Atwood does this too, as I recall) of heading each chapter with the name of the viewpoint character.

So, conclusion-wise: A Game of Thrones is Good, and I'll read the whole series, because that's what I do. I'll probably end up writing an epic fantasy at some point, just to say I can do it.

But not today.
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