When you start getting into genres, sometimes you can find yourself quickly becpming overwhelmed. For instance, if you look into modern speculative fiction—the term I use to group sf and fantasy together—you’ll find several categories. In sf, you’ll come across military sf, space opera, hard sf, near space (i.e., set in our solar system), cyberpunk, and God knows how many I’m not even aware of.
Fantasy is the same way. There’s military fantasy, urban fantasy, magic realism, high fantasy, and, again, God knows what else.
If you’re familiar with both fields, you’ll see parallels. Military fantasy and sf are both pretty obvious. Cyberpunk and urban fantasy are rough equivalents. Space opera and high fantasy share many traits.
It’s high fantasy that I want to talk about.
It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that I like high fantasy. This subgenre, along with its cousin space opera, tends to share a large canvas and multiple characters. The Lord of the Rings is high fantasy, as are the Deryni books by Katherine Kurtz and, a series that HBO has turned into, well, a series. The author of the books calls it A Song of Ice and Fire. HBO calls it Game of Thrones, which is more or less the title of the first book in the series.
If you haven’t seen/read it, the series is set in the Seven Kingdoms, and the Game of Thrones is the main plot line. It’s the same thing as the Great Game that was—maybe still is—played in Europe among its royalty. Jockeying for power, they hatch plots and counterplots against one another, always attempting to gain the upper hand. No character can trust another and, by extension, you as the reader aren’t always fully aware of what’s going on. That’s done to keep you turning the pages.
A Song of Ice and Fire—of which I’ve read the first three books, if I remember right—adds another dimension: author George RR Martin isn’t above killing off characters once you come to care about them. Ned Stark, one of the main characters in Book I, A Game of Thrones, is killed something like a third or halfway into the story, leaving you going, “WTF?” I heard an interview with Mr. Martin a few months back in which he said he likes doing that because it’ll keep the suspense high. If you never know whether or not Character A is going to live through the whole thing, you’ll stay on the edge of you seat, turning the pages to find out.
I love these things. Trying to follow the twisting plots, hoping to divine just exactly what one character is trying to do to another, damn near takes a flowchart when it’s done right, and this series is definitely done right—both the show and the books. The production quality on the show is first-rate, and it’s good to get visual pictures of some of these characters—and even more important, in some cases, to hear their names pronounced. And, since Mr. Martin is an executive producer on the show, I have faith that the names are being pronounced as he intended, though I’m sure that most of them are English/Celtic/Gaelic in nature.
Watching these shows has me itching to read the books again, and even to find other high fantasy to read. High fantasy usually isn’t so much about the magical aspect of things as much as straight fantasy (if there is such a thing anymore) can be. In fact, I’m not sure if there are any exotic races in A Song of Ice and Fire—all the characters are human. There are magical things going on, of course. For instance, there used to be dragons in the world, but they’ve pretty much disappeared. You learn quickly, though, that there are a couple of characters hauling three dragon eggs around with them, waiting for the right time to hatch them. So, there are some mythical-type creatures, but even the dreaded Wildings are just humans who have lost a lot of their “civilized” traits—though, in honesty, that’s a matter of opinion. They have goals, too, and they plot to achieve them. They just tend to dress in animal skins and not have the same social niceties as the rest of the world.
Besides the plots, figuring out who’s good and who’s bad is something I enjoy about these stories, and Mr. Martin excels here, too. Not only are you kept turnin the pages wondering who’s going to die next, you also wonder what each character is going to pull next. Characters who just spent the last three chapters giving our hero hell might suddenly change colors and do something to help, and you’re never sure just why. Is it because it suits their own plans? Or was it a chance to do something—gasp!—good in among all this treachery? Maybe it was both. Or something else entirely that won’t reveal itself for 300 pages (these books are pretty big).
Another series that I tried reading was The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. This is also a popular series that deals with all kinds of plots and counterplots and adds in messianic story lines and the roles the main good guy/bad guy play throughout time. And, of course, we are now around to the final battle, the final turn of the Wheel.
At first, I loved these books. They’re rich in detail, and the different cultures are very distinct. As the characters go from one country to another, they encounter wildly different customs, some of which put them in great danger from time to time (of course). This kind of world-building is why I’ve never felt I was very apt at fantasy—I can’t come up with all these details. I think it’s partly because I’m too lazy to try, but there’s also trying to work them into the story without it sounding like some kind of lecture. Though I’ve been exposed to this kind of thing since I first read The Hobbit almost forty years ago, I just don’t seem to have the knack for doing it myself.
I still enjoy reading it, though. The problem I had with The Wheel of Time was that, after a while, I got tired of the Battle of the Sexes that was constantly going on. I realize that it’s a legitimate thing, but I felt that Mr. Jordan overdid it—at least he did for me. It seemed like every time I turned around, women and men were both of the opinion that the world would be a lot better place if only members of the opposite sex would get some sense. Realistic? Yes. But I don’t want beat over the head with it.
I also don’t want to read twelve books that average 600+ pages apiece—and most are close to 1000, as I remember—and have to deal with a stupid Battle of the Sexes every few pages while the world is falling apart around the characters. I finally gave up around Book IV or V because I found myself practically yelling, “Will you people just fucking talk to one another and get over yourselves?”
I’ve never gone back.
Mr. Martin doesn’t have some irritating theme like this in his books. I’d have to say that the most irritating thing is that he came out with the first three books—or maybe it was four, I don’t remember anymore—in relatively short order. But then he took ten years to come out with the latest one. In the same abovementioned interview, he said that he believed fans would appreciate it more if he took ten years to get it right than taking two years and putting out a piece of crap. Valid point but…ten years is still a long time to wait. Add in that Robert Jordan died before finishing his series, and there is the worry that Mr. Martin could kick off before his is completed.
So, anyway, if you like complicated plots and watching characters do their level best to stab one another in the back—along with a few good guys who genuinely want to see something positive happen in the world—check out some high fantasy. And, just because I became frustrated with The Wheel of Time doesn’t mean you won’t like it. There were lots of good things about that series. I just couldn’t overcome my objection the Battle of the Sexes thing. For me, it seemed so trivial and petty beside everything else that was happening.
And check out the Game of Thrones series if you don’t want to read these books—they are thick books, after all, and not everybody likes those.
Just keep in mind that if you read/watch Mr. Martin’s series, don’t get too terribly upset if your favorite character dies—or worse.