A Rant of Hot and Cold

I don’t like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. I remember fully reading A Game of Thrones and being impressed that it wasn’t the usual dreck that I read. Which consisted mostly of the old Tor Conan pastiches. This was ten years ago. Then, about 2o03, I picked up A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords. I skimmed those two novels. And I was not impressed. Now, almost a decade later, I have no desire to go back and give them another look. Why?

My problem with ASoIaF is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. At first, the historic-political elements of the novels are balanced by the high/ epic fantasy elements. But as the series gains in popularity and the series has to be approaching its conclusion (if there are still to be seven novels), the stronger fantasy elements seem to be thrust into the back seat. And the game for that damned Iron Throne takes center stage. (As an aside, I also think the series is too bloated).

The series, when advertised for the HBO adaptation, is described as The Sopranos meets The Lord of the Rings. Am I the only one who goes ugh? Am I the only one who really does not want this kind of fantasy?

I think I shall start calling the school of fantasy that has developed around Martin the historicist school of fantasy. Or just historicist fantasy. Now what is this new genre? Well, it is a constructed world fantasy that utilizes history as inspiration and the basis for world building. It is separate from historical fantasy in that it does not take place on Earth.

And I really don’t like this type of fantasy. If I wanted to read fantastical visions of history, I’d read historical fantasy. Or I would actually read a history book. Which would be more entertaining.

What I want is fantasy not history. I want myth not realism. Often, verisimilitude and the suspension of disbelief is brought up in critical discussions of fantasy. Maybe I just have an easier time of accepting the world building, but I could give a crap if a writer inserts bales of hay or gets the weaponry wrong or neglects religion. I don’t care. Is the story good? Can I see it in my mind’s eye?

This brings me to the grimdark fantasy. I’m honestly not very interested in them, either. I did enjoy reading Morgan’s The Steel Remains and liked Polansky’s Low Town far more than I thought I would. But Bakker, Abercrombie, etc.? No, thank you.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of darkness in what I read. But, I like that darkness mixed with almost an equal measure of light. I want joy with sadness; I want hope with despair. I don’t want a continual parade of despair and horror.

I guess what I’m yearning for is a rediscovery of the fantastic, of pushing the boundaries of the imagination out from what we have.

Will I ever write a historicist fantasy? Maybe. But if I do, I want to do it right. I want to write the type of story that I would enjoy.


Posted on June 20, 2012, in Books and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. What I want is fantasy not history. I want myth not realism.

    How can the two be separated? I mostly gave up fantasy because so much of it has no anchor in anything concrete. That’s not to say you have to base it on real history, but if your fantasy world is medieval-esque, how is it going to work without a realistic foundation? When I was younger I liked Raymond Feist books, but they’re an example of bad fantasy because he mixes so much together that don’t mix. There was a TV series in the 80s called “Connections” where historian James Burke examined the connection between different technological discoveries – you can’t have this, without that, which gives rise to this, etc. In Feist, you had Nelson-era ships but a society that lacked the knowledge and related advances that went with that. A lot of fantasy reminds me a bit of that old He-Man cartoon where they have lasers and aircraft but also magic and a feudal society.

    That’s not to say I find GRRM’s novels flawless. They have a lot of the purple prose you find in almost all fantasy. Also, one of the things that made his work refreshing – his willingness to kill off major characters – has no become as predicable as other novels where you have no doubt at all which characters will live until the end. Still, it’s a hell of a lot better than Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, or Raymond Feist. I do like that he’s not a slave to the history, though, he’s departed from it quite a bit in many ways. Otherwise, it’s predictable unless you’re totally unfamiliar with any medieval history – and if you are, I’m not sure why you’d be interested in the first place. Those people I can see disliking his work. Those are the people I doubt would ever choose instead to pick up a history book, who would not find it more interesting.

    P.S. You should in future avoid stock review lingo like dreck. Simply because words like that have been overused.

    • Hey, I like He-Man! The anachronistic stew is awesome, in my personal opinion.
      Without question, I think fantasy needs to be grounded in consistency, which does actually entail doing one’s research. But I don’t think that fantasy should be enslaved to history. Otherwise, why bother?
      Take He-Man. From your comment, I take it you find the world building laughable. For me, I’m interested in exploring how this world can come to be. Did Eternia suffer a descent from a more advanced period? Is the technology a result of Horde invasion?

      • I liked He-Man when I was five, but it doesn’t hold up. I admit to having a bit of a soft spot for the show even now, but that’s due to it having been a part of my childhood. I wouldn’t have time for it if I’d been born later. The only fun there is in it now is the unashamed crappiness of the animation and the unashamedly ridiculous stories. They just didn’t care back then. It’s part of the continued appeal for me of shows like Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Thundercats. Just how little they cared. The idea of a world where advanced technology and magic co-exist is an interesting one but you can’t expect a half-hour toy commercial to do much with that – nothing very interesting or, certainly, nothing very consistent. The idea could be explored elsewhere, though.

        I wouldn’t say that GRRM’s work is enslaved to history. Obviously, it couldn’t be just due to the presence of dragons and magic, but it’s not just a thinly veiled account of the English Civil War with dragons and magic, the historical figures thinly veiled. He’s used the real history as a framework but departed from it quite a lot, and grounds things by having all the dirty little details that go with them. The rats and the dogs. Or like Tony Robinson said in “The Worst Jobs in History” that history isn’t just the deeds of great men but the story of a lot of ordinary people doing a lot of really bad jobs. GRRM has that. It might not be to everyone’s taste, of course, but for me for fantasy to work, if it’s to be set in a medieval like world, you’ve got to have that “grittiness.”

        That said, it can be overdone and GRRM is in danger of doing that. I didn’t enjoy his last book that much for that very reason. The TV show is probably worse, though, in that they’ve added in a lot more gratuitous sex, if not violence, that wasn’t in the book. (An interesting thing about TV nudity, though – it seems like it’s okay to show breasts, but nothing below the equator, and of course it’s not equal opportunity. Not that I particularly want to see a lot of full-frontal male nudity.)

  2. Franc Evan Dandoy

    When I read fantasy, I want myth and not realism, or the so-called “real” brutalities portrayed by Mr. Martin. Mr. Martin took away the reasons I read fantasy, which is to envision a better world than what we have. If I want realism, I’d rather watch the news.

  3. I think it would be more appropriate to say that A Song of Ice and Fire and its ilk takes inspiration from historical novels of a certain streak rather than actual history, especially Dorothy Dunnett. The “grimdark” thing was already happening in historical fiction long before fantasy authors made it a thing, and the debt the latter owe to the former is obvious, right down to some of the stranger interpretations of the middle ages that pop up again and again.

    Martin was pretty successful marrying the styles & conventions of both genres together, but I seem to like ASOIAF a bit more than you do. The fantasy elements have started becoming more prominent in the series, presumably because the fight for the Iron Throne simmered down after A Storm of Swords (most of the main contenders are kind of dead).

    Further regarding grimadark: the endless parade of villainy found in Abercrombie is just as cartoonish as the supposed black/white morality it’s set against. It’s really unappealing, and alarmingly, the “realism” argument is used too often to justify the copious amounts of gratuitous rape, torture and humiliation of female characters in modern fantasy. At least in Martin the brutality is fairly equal between the genders.

    • So, the Martin school is based (or inspired) more by specific schools of historical fiction than actual history? Oh my. Well, that could explain a lot!
      I don’t read historical fiction. If I want history, I’ll go read a history book. I often find them far more interesting and entertaining than a lot of fiction these days.
      And I agree with you on the grimdark. Seriously, some of the scenes in those books are just ridiculous!

      • I tend to agree about most mainstream historical fiction. I read quite a bit of it in high school because, um, it was an easy source of guilt-free porn (not the main reason, but looking back I think it was a significant one).

      • I don’t read historical fiction. If I want history, I’ll go read a history book.

        This seems like a narrow-minded view to me. I love history but I love good historical fiction too. When it’s done well it can really bring to an historical period to life – e.g. Patrick O’Brian’s 20 book Aubrey Maturin series, or Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy.

        In the same way that it can be worth it to see the movie version of a book you’ve read, it’s not a waste of time to read a novel about a particular historical period instead of just reading a history book about that period. The example of O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series is a good one because although I’ve enjoyed reading about the Napoleonic Wars it’s still very interesting and entertaining to read novel set at that time. And, of course, one of the greatest novels of all time, War and Peace, is historical fiction – Tolstoy wasn’t alive at the time of the events he’s fictionalized. Yet, is it a worthless read, a waste of time? By your reasoning, just read about that war instead of a novel set during that war.

    • If you’re going to set a fantasy story in a medieval world, how can it be done without depictions of rape, torture, and humiliation? Being an even more male-dominated world than our own, and one in which even fewer people had even more power and the vast majority (including most men) had almost none, it’s going to be less than equal too. I’d prefer the realism rather than a sanitized, Disneyfied fantasy, which seems pretty lazy. It’s too easy to romanticize things. Chivalry never existed except in poems. In SCA they often describe it as the Middle Ages without all the many unpleasant aspects. That’s a different kind of fantasy and not a very interesting one.

      • In fantasy, you can choose to include or leave out whatever realities of the actual Middle Ages you want. I don’t feel Tolkien’s works are diminished by his decision to tone down the realism, and I find Martin less appealing partly because of his inclusion of harsh medieval realities. While I would be turned off by a story that was too light and fluffy, I believe there is plenty of room for a middle ground between Disney and A Song of Ice and Fire. What’s most important is the internal consistency of the world, moreso than how authentically grimdark it actually is.

        Of course, this is entirely a matter of personal taste.
        For myself, I’ve become tired of the trend towards dark and gritty fantasy at the expense of what came before – I’m reminded of Brandon Sanderson’s statement that he started a series recently that was specifically intended to be more traditional because of the sheer amount of grimdark now. I also dislike how realism is used to justify extreme violence, especially, as one comment pointed out above, towards women, or to escape criticism that the writer is making poor creative choices.

        • I’m a little tired of the grimdark. It’s just as easy as doing it too light. To be fair, Tolkien based his fantasy on epic poetry where the nobility usually was noble – like Beowulf. GRRM is more realistic, to a point – but after a while that can be predictable, and he has his weaknesses as a writer too. There is probably room for the light and fluffy, too. It all depends on the talent of the writer.

          • That’s an excellent point – what will ultimately make or break a story, regardless of the genre, is the talent of the writer.

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