Someone raised a stink last week when I reported on the death of fantasy author Robert Jordan in a Newswire post on this here website. Apparently, I was being crass and unfeeling by pointing out how frustrating Jordan's twelve-book, now-unfinished opus The Wheel Of Time had become to many of its readers. Of course, Jordan was a beloved kinda guy, and it makes sense that someone would jump to his defense. For my part, I meant no disrespect to the dead. But I would've been derelict in my duty as some crank on the Internet if I hadn't pointed out the commonly held belief that Jordan had been steadily slipping since The Wheel Of Time's first installment, The Eye Of The World–as if a title like The Wheel Of Time shouldn't have immediately tipped readers off that they were in for years of treading water and recycled plots. That Jordan, what a joker.
Personally, I never made it very far into The Wheel Of Time. In fact, the series almost put me off fantasy novels altogether–not that it would've been the first time. But as usual, I'm getting ahead of myself…
Most nerds (at least those who grew up in the pre-Final Fantasy era such as myself) got into the whole fantasy thing via The Lord Of The Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. Me, I had a harsher crash course. My Uncle Mike, rest his soul, was a crazy, lost, post-hippie kinda character (think Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces), and when I was a little kid in the '70s he'd pop into town every once in a while to catch up on some sleep and raid the fridge at my grandparents' house. He kept a drawer for himself in their guest room, and while staying there one weekend I came across a musty, dog-eared paperback among his socks and boxers. It was Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson. I'll never forget that cover: so lurid, so alien, so goddamn creepy.
I'd always been a voracious reader–the kind of kid who'd pore over every word on his box of cereal in the morning (apologies to Chris Van Allsburg)–so I wandered blissfully naïve into the pages of Bane. At the age of 8 I learned what leprosy was. Graphically. To this day, I don't remember much about the particulars of the plot (besides the big shockers), but the sensation of playing voyeur to another world, a savagely primitive and sublimely arcane one, struck a chord with the part of me that couldn't–and can't and doesn't want to–deal with reality very well.
Then, of course, I got into The Lord Of The Rings and Dungeons & Dragons like everyone else. But around the age of 11, I received a present that would forever cement my love of fantasy: a recently published paperback titled Pawn Of Prophecy.
The book, written by a newcomer to the genre named David Eddings, followed a simple, orphaned farmboy named Garion whose destiny as a powerful champion was slowly revealed alongside the dark secret of his lineage. Even then, I knew it was the same basic "Chosen One" story as Star Wars, but I loved it for the same reason I loved Star Wars: Despite its otherworldliness, I could identify with it, and Eddings was a master at etching vivid, distinct characters full of substance and emotion and motivations that made sense. I devoured each new book in that whole Belgariad series, as well as its five-book sequel The Mallorean. That was the first time I ever became disappointed in a writer, too: As The Mallorean crept along repetitiously, the characters themselves acknowledged to each other that the events of their lives felt like they were being rehashed. "It's the cyclical nature of prophecy," was the book's cheeky excuse. Like Jordan, Eddings is a real ontological wiseguy.
Of course, far more mature concerns like punk rock and comic books (okay, and girls) drew me away from fantasy novels as I got into my 20s, and by the late '90s I was laughing at a roommate who was trying to get me to read some new kids' book called Harry Potter. The way I saw it, J.K. Rowling was writing the exact same story George Lucas, David Eddings, and a thousand others had. I wasn't buying that whole Joseph Campbell shtick: I wanted something original and fresh in my fantasy, and I believed then that the genre had become unable to produce that freshness. So I kicked back with my secondhand volumes of Céline and Borges and pretended to be smart. In fact, I was miserable: Once an unquenchable bibliophile who would load his backpack with Piers Anthony and Roger Zelazny novels at the public library every week, I was crawling through maybe three or four "intellectual" books a year. I could hold my own in some bullshit coffeeshop argument, but I was bored fucking stiff of the written word.
Unlike many great and wise people I know, I never did get into Harry Potter–consider me one of those "love the movies, will never read the books" poseurs–but Rowling did help catalyze one of my recent mid-30s revelations: I'm not cool anymore, I will never be cool again, and so I might as well regress to dorky adolescence. Emboldened by a growing bald spot and the cultural acceptance of a certain teenage wizard, I checked out Jordan's The Wheel Of Time, which is often held up (by folks far more forgiving and patient) as a benchmark for great fantasy. It quickly squandered my interest: The action was limp, the plot dragged, the characters were colorless, and it just didn't zap me with that sense of weirdness and wonder I craved. I was let down, but I didn't give up. Judging books by their Belgariad-esque covers, I suffered through some really bad Michael Stackpole crap. I even tried to get into Eddings' later books like The Redemption Of Althalus and The Dreamers, which were proof that the aging author was degenerating from self-parody into a parody of self-parody.
Then I stumbled onto some good stuff: Steven Erikson's The Malazan Book Of The Fallen. Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Scott Lynch's Locke Lamora books. China Miéville's Bas-Lag books. Patrick Rothfuss' The Name Of The Wind. And, of course, George R.R. Martin's seven-volume epic A Song Of Ice And Fire.
I'm just finishing up A Game Of Thrones, Ice And Fire's first installment. Yes, I'm blown away and utterly hooked. And yet I can't just sit back and enjoy it; I feel compelled to pick apart exactly why this series works for me. It certainly has its flaws. Martin likes to jump over huge chunks of the narrative, and a massive war is being fought without enough of a sense of scope. But for working in a genre that lamely pats itself on the back every time a writer creates "a strong female character"–yup, it's still relatively rare in fantasy–Martin knows how to imbue characters of all kinds with plenty of guts, complexity, and depth. (I'll try to overlook his slobbering infatuation with older men having sex with teenage girls. Oh, right, it's not him–it's just the mores of the world he created. How reassuring.)
The best thing about Ice And Fire, though, is its escape from the very paradigm that got me into fantasy in the first place: the Chosen One archetype. Buffy writer Jane Espenson posted a blog on The New Republic's website last month that was basically a call for more Chosen One stories in the vein of Harry Potter and all those that preceded it. That, Espenson claims, is the only way for fantasy to draw outside readers and continue to thrive. I say it's series like Martin's that give fledgling fantasy fans–and crusty ones like me–a reason to stick with the genre for life. Like Rowling's followers do with Harry Potter, I reread The Belgariad every couple of years, and it's like visiting with old friends–but I can't empathize with Garion the befuddled farmboy anymore. Martin's web of politics, betrayal, family obligations, and hazy morality, however, is something adults struggle with all the time. There's still plenty of escapism mixed in with all the harsh reality, and that's the key. Fantasy by nature is a conservative literary genre–I'll save the rant against Anglo-Saxon ethnocentricity for another blog–but it's the slim progressive streak that keeps true artists like Martin and Miéville either refining Tolkien's gestalt or using it as something to radically rebel against.
As for me, I'm sitting here staring at the next three volumes of Ice And Fire–each pushing or exceeding 1000 pages–and adding up all the fresh air and exercise and social interaction I'll be missing out on in the coming months. Ah, what the hell. As the books' noble family The Starks is so fond of saying, "Winter is coming."