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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.

 

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Quick Review: The Cold Commands by Richard K. Morgan

Maybe I made the mistake of wanting to read The Steel Remains again before reading its sequel, The Cold Commands. Then again, maybe The Cold Commands is not that good of a book.

We are talking about a trilogy. The name of the series is A Land Fit for Heroes. Now, The Steel Remains made for a pretty excellent standalone novel. It did not need a sequel. But fantasy lives and dies by the series, so there needs to be two more books to make the traditional trilogy.

My problem with The Cold Commands is that it is filler. And repetitious filler at that. The blurbs talk about the Ilwrack Changeling. Well, he does not appear in this volume. All that is accomplished is a messed up set up for the journey to find his Ghost Isle and the Kiriath city that serves as a sentry post.

What is accomplished in this volume? Every single protagonist does the exact same damn thing they did in book one. And the Dwenda are up to the same tricks.

While the elements that made The Steel Remains excellent are present in The Cold Commands, there is not enough to take away from the realization that so much of this middle book is filler that could easily have been cut.

This is a shame. I wanted to like this books, but I just cannot bring myself to. Instead, all that remains is bitter disappointment that this novel could have been better.

Random Musings on the State of Fantasy

My critical juices have been flowing recently (thanks in large part to Black Gate Magazine and The Night Bazaar websites). So, I’m going to unleash a few hundred words of my musings about what I believe when it comes to fantasy as a genre.

I believe in experimentation. Why limit oneself to the old standby, the stereotype Fantastika Medieval shell world that has been the typical setting since before Tolkien? Okay, it is likely that instead of the Medieval Shell, we’ll be seeing the Classical Greek Shell, the Babylonian Shell, the Caliphate Shell, the Shogunate Shell, ad infinitum with the stench of exploitation added in.

What I mean by Shell, or stereotype, is that the worlds often used by commercial fantasy, the endless rehashes of Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons, etc. very often seem to come from past fantasies. Tolkien was a professor, extremely knowledgeable about Medieval Northern European literature. I’ve read some of his academic work, and he is quite brilliant. Tolkien had the background knowledge to create Middle Earth. Now, those who followed him, his clones and their clones, do they have as much knowledge about the equivalent historical period? I would doubt it.

And that’s the point. You see, there needs to be some knowledge, some research involved to make it work. It cannot be just a continued rehashing, a copying, of the same stereotype devoid of what it is. It becomes an empty shell for the same empty kind of story. As Kameron Hurley states in her essay “Garbage In, Garbage Out, and All That:”

“When it comes to creating new people and new worlds, you’re only as good as what you take in. So if all you read are Tolkien knock- offs and endless re-runs of Saved by the Bell, well, it’s highly likely that your fiction is going to sound a lot like a watered- down Tolkien rip-off populated by 20th century teens. Garbage in, garbage out, and all that.” (17 August 2011 Night Bazaar)

I couldn’t agree more with her statement. So much of fantasy seems to be endless repetitions of Tolkien xeroxes or RPG game sessions without any research or knowledge. This brings me to Matthew David Surridge and Sean Stiennon’s posts on Black Gate. They seem to be arguing that the way to go is to focus more heavily on making the medieval world as “realistic” as possible. What they mean by that is, I think, focus in on one frame of time, say the Wars of the Roses, and explore the mindsets, the technologies, the way of life, etc. of the period and go from there. This approach is a must if the work at hand is a work of historical fantasy, but would a work set in a secondary world be too hampered by such a strong binding to Earth’s history?

Yes and no, I think. The key is, I think, to be aware of the history, the psychology, etc. and apply it to a new world. And depending on how the writer wishes to proceed, how closely the work follows Earth history. There are dangers in being both too narrow and too loose.

When I first read Sean’s post, I was troubled, and still am, by the implication that the writer has to follow, be bound, by the period of their inspiration. While some readers welcome this new devotion to verisimilitude, there is undoubtedly a limit on the potentials for expression inherent in this argument.

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a fine, if not the finest, example of what is called for, but where would that leave works like Mieville’s Bas-Lag series, Morgan’s The Steel Remains, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Howard’s Hyborian Age, and (equally close to my heart) Kishimoto’s Naruto and Mashima’s Fairy Tail? Non of these works are completely bound by specific time periods. But they all work magnificently at combining different temporal, cultural, and civilizational influences into fantastik wholes. Should these works be denigrated in favor of “realist” fantasy?

I argue no, one can have both. But it takes a skilled writer, imaginative mind, and willingness to do the research to make it work, whether it is historical fantasy, secondary historical, or sheer crazy goodness. That is what I believe.

Three Reviews

I have three reviews to get through: 1. The Green Hornet 2. Nights in Villjamur and 3. Firefly.

The Green Hornet (2011, dir. Michel Gondry) is a disappointment to say the least. The movie itself is okay, if you ignore the plot holes or plot idiocies (take you pick).

What most crystalizes the problems in this movie is Seth Rogen. He simply fails at portraying Britt Reid. What he plays is a gregarious buffoon pretending to be a hero. Yes, by the end of the movie, he gets over his daddy issues and becomes a much better super hero. But having to go through an hour and thirty five minutes of Rogen’s roaring juvenile antics is too much.

The bright point of the film is Jay Chou, who does a good job as Kato. While the character has to be goofy to match the silliness of the film, I think that Chou manages to hint at the absurdities within the film.

The plot itself is rather tiresome, though it does not rehash the murdered parent casus that many super heroes go through, but wait, it does! The sudden reveal is interesting, but should have come earlier. But then, there wouldn’t be the joke.

The saving grace of the film is really the action sequences, the thrill and comedy of explosions and fighting. One can almost forgive the  film its flaws because of the action sequences. But almost.

And the racial, class, and homoerotic tensions between Reid and Kato make for at times funny, troubling, and annoying moments. Kato really should have beaten the crap out of Reid given all of the indignities that he had to endure. And don’t even get me started on the “not-a-gay” joke that peppers the film.

In the end, The Green Hornet, is ultimately a forgettable blockbuster.

Nights in Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton is honestly even more disappointing than The Green Hornet. I had been looking forward to reading this book, and am bitterly disappointed at how it turns out. Newton attempts to marry the New Weird style of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag with a more traditional epic narrative. In this way, elements of Nights in Villjamur  are reminiscent of Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains. But Nights lacks both Mieville’s imagination and the raw emotional power of Morgan’s grittiness. Instead, what you have is a rather standard epic fantasy.

I will admit that part of the reason I wanted to read the novel is because of the inclusion of a gay protagonist (although not the lead) named Brynd. His story is done rather well, and I can agree that he is one of two well realized characters (the other being Randur). But the rest of the cast are rather dull.

The plot is confused and varied. Where Newton fails, I think, is that he does not have a clear focus, despite the fact that all of the plot lines are connected. Perhaps that could be because the over all plot is so over used. Who hasn’t seen an evil chancellor plot to overthrow the legitimate royal family? And in this case, did he really need to? There is such a thing as the Glorious Revolution. . .

The world itself is well done, the approaching Ice Age is an interesting concept, and the design of Villjamur the city is interesting. Pity the world is hampered by the plot.

Firefly, Joss Whedon’s cult classic, is an amazing series. The marriage of the western with space opera, of action with light comedy, is very well managed, although for some, perhaps off putting. I have come to admire this series greatly. However, I am not certain that it could have maintained itself had it had more of a chance.

My problem is the film Serenity. While the film is great in its own right, there are numerous problems that do not quite connect with the series itself. Simon and River are integrated into the crew, but in the film, their place is more tenuous. It really does not connect well, I think. However, does the film really indicate how the series (had it continued) would progress? I don’t know.

Anyway, the acting is generally pretty good, by science fiction television standards. Summer Glau’s one liners are well delivered, Gina Torres is amazing, and Jewel Stait is delightful.

There is not much bad I can say about the series. Watching it over the past week has been a delight.

That’s three reviews down. I am still disappointed about Nights in Villjamur, but I may come back to it later. Don’t know if my opinion will change however.  My next post will cover Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and maybe John Keegan’s A History of Warfare. 

A Brief Review of The Steel Remains By Richard K. Morgan

To continue my series of brief reviews, this time I’m taking on Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains. The Steel Remains is, at its heart, about the aftermath of a Great Epic War fought between a Last Alliance of Human nations and a race called the Kiriath (a more science fictional take on Elves) against a reptilianesque race called the Scaled Folk. The three protagonists won glory from the war, but feel that what they fought for has become a lie. For Ringil “Gil” Eskiath, he has become a tourist attraction in a hovel near his greatest victory, for Egar the Dragonbane, he has become the leader of his steppe clan, and for Archeth, she feels frustration at being in the court of an inferior emperor.

On the whole, I both really like this novel and dislike it. I’ll start with its strong points and then tackle the problems.

The best part of the narrative, in my opinion, is the writing. I like that Morgan utilizes contemporary speech for his characters rather than relying on cliched medievalisms or archaic English. This makes the narrative pop and speed along where otherwise, it would inevitably bog down. I also like the style that Morgan uses. Limitting the point of view to just five characters (Ringil, Archeth, Egar, Poltar, and Grace-of-Heaven), Morgan does not get bogged down and tells an effective tale.

I also like his deployment of non normative characters even as they fill in the archetypal role. Ringil Eskiath is gay in a world where being gay means that you are likely to be executed in a very horrific manner. He is a noble, a brusier, a not-so noble aristocratic warrior. He also acts as a gaze object. Archeth is a lesbian and half Kiriath. She is perhaps the coolest character out of the three protagonists. Egar is the most typical, being what you would expect from a steppe nomad. But he is attracted to civilization and wishes to return to it.

I also like his usage of science fictional tropes in a fantasy setting, but still keeping it Epic Fantasy. There are explanations for what the Kiriath and the Dwenda do, but it is far beyond the Human characters’ ability to understand.

My biggest beef with the narrative is that while Ringil and Archeth make sense as protagonists and fit seemlessly into the Coming Epic Struggle, Egar does not fit so smoothly. Egar, a very interesting character, only gets about less than ten chapters. Ringil gets (or stars/ features in) over half the chapters with Egar and Archeth sharing the other half every other second chapter (until the climax where Gil and Archeth switch off). And I’m not counting the two chapters that Poltar gets out of Egar’s section. To me, it feels arbitrary that Egar joins in the First Skirmish (it is in fact Deus Ex Machina).

Another problem I have with the narrative is the relationship (spoiler alert!) between Ringil and Seethlaw (the book’s main antagonist). Even though we are not told how long they travel to Ennishmin, their relationship (which is sexual) does not get much exploration. I don’t know if this is Morgan being okay with gay sex but unsure about gay relationships, or if this is more to do with Ringil’s character and a miscue in Seethlaw’s characterization.

Another issue, a somewhat minor one, is that there is a mild case of Trilogyitis. While the novel has a nice climax, the cliffhanger is a little weird and I would have liked to see more done with Egar’s problems back home.

In all, I enjoyed this novel and plan to buy it when I get around to it. The Steel Remains is not for everyone. There is a lot of violence, sex, and non heteronormativity. If you desire one of the crop of New Epic Fantasy, this is the novel for you. Be aware, there are two more novels to come, so you may want to wait for the end of the series. Or you could always reread.