I believe I first heard about George R. R. Martin’s fantasy saga in response to a posts I had written on fantasy fiction. I had begun the first book earlier this month and today am well into the second, A Clash of Kings, likely certain to finish before the week is out.
More than any other writer of fantasy I have read since I was a child, reading and re-reading and re-re-reading Tolkien, loving Terry Brooks and devouring Stephen Donaldson, Martin has crafted a series which avoids the pitfalls* of much fantasy fiction. And he’s a really good writer to boot, with some sentences as well crafted as those in literary fiction. While the prose of most fantasy writers is serviceable, relating the facts of the tale and details of the imagined realm, in language that is clear enough for our understanding, Martin writes in a flowing — and sometimes even musical — manner.
Yes, he does occasionally include a clunky sentence of two, but these stand out because they are so rare.
And we believe his characters. He has transported individuals that we see in contemporary life to this realm of his imagination, clearly crafted after serious study of castles and chivalry in the late Middle Ages. Had our readers — and the books’ other fans — told me Martin’s Song was less a story of a quest and more a kind of War of the Roses set in a fantastic landscape, I likely wouldn’t have read it.
But pick it up I did. And I can hardly put it down. This is not the type of fantasy fiction I typically enjoy, more Ivanhoe in medieval England than Aragorn in Middle Earth. And I was longing for a quest against a Dark Lord with delusions of grandeur and a desire for omnipotence. This series, at least so far, gives us something entirely different. And to its credit, it lacks the overdependence on magic which seems to drive, if not define, all too much fantasy fiction.
Much as I enjoy this new series, I disagree with our reader who lamented that this series “probably outdoes even” Tolkien. And while, to be sure, both are works of fantasy fiction set in a a medieval landscape, as far as narrative structure goes, you can’t really compare the two. In Martin’s opus, there are a number of plot lines, instead of one overarching quest.
Martin’s books read more like historical fiction set in a fantastic landscape while Tolkien’s are more akin to myth. That said, there are other similarities, notably the appreciation each writers gives to stories and story-telling. Each have imagined a historical — and mythic — background to their realm. Both are good stories, but in entirely different ways.
As I continue my journey through Martin’s series, I find much wisdom in his tale, particularly in how the individual characters face their particular challenges, but is this story, I wonder, as wise as is Tolkien’s trilogy, Tolstoy’s novels and Homer’s epics?
That question is not rhetorical, but very real. The answer will only come in reading the series and discovering just where he’s taking us.
More on this anon. Much more, I hope.
*I identified them in this post:
- Narrative flow lacking because author didn’t know where he was going when he started writing, wasn’t clear what the quest would be and what conflicts would arise.
- Too much magic
- Too little history
- Lame names.