Tag Archives: Lord of the Rings

Big Books

I’ve been encountering something here lately that—to me, anyway—is a bit strange: People think I write big books.

Really? My debut novel, Spree, is a bit longer than I like at 106,000+ words. Startup, due out in June, is currently (it’s undergoing some revision, so the word count will likely bump up a bit) at 90,000+—the ideal length for a crime novel, as far as I’m concerned.

lotr singleI think my books are about average length, maybe even a little short. But you’ve got to keep in mind I cut my teeth on big books. For instance, The Lord of the Rings probably totals close to half a million words, split among three books. But you’ve got to keep in mind that JRR Tolkien originally wrote it as one volume divided into six “books.” His publisher was the one who decided—probably rightly—to divide it up into the trilogy we know today, or so I’ve read. Professor Tolkien never really liked it that way, and, if you’ve got the money to drop on it, you can buy hardback editions that put it in one volume.

But even Professor Tolkien’s “kids’ book,” The Hobbit, is just over 95,000 words long.

And look at Stephen King, a writer famous for producing big doorstops. My two favorite books of his—The Stand (especially the Original and Uncut Edition) and It—are huge. The Stand clocks in at approximately 464,000 words, and I can only find page counts for It, but rest assured it’s almost as big. I’ve read both books more than once, and enjoyed them every time.

Then there’s the Harry Potter series. The first three books aren’t bad, but Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has to be close to as big as the first three put together. goblet of fireAnd let’s not even get started on The Order of the Phoenix. These, too, are kids’ books. And lots of kids read them. Probably more than once.

Now we can argue that some of these are wasted space. I certainly believe the Stephanie Meyer books are—sorry if you’re a fan—and they’re not exactly Louis L’Amour westerns (a writer who was, for most of his career, on the opposite end of the spectrum from the above-mentioned authors, word-count wise). There are folks who don’t like Stephen King, and I’d have to agree with them on some of his later books, but if you criticize The Stand or It, I’ll hit you with one (just kidding; that would be assault with a deadly weapon).

I say: What’s wrong with big books? They’re like a big meal: lots to enjoy there.

I have to admit that my tolerance for long novels has gone down in recent years. I think part of it is switching to reading so many crime novels, which have lower word counts. And it may be that I’m discovering so many books I want to read that I don’t want to take too long on any one of them.

The-Stand-Book-CoverBut I still have a reverence for those huge tomes from my childhood, and I guess I’ll go ahead and keep writing my “big” books.

After all, if you’re gonna tell a story, why not tell all of it (that’s said with tongue firmly in cheek, by the way)?



I’m not sure what it is about the onset of autumn that makes me want to read fantasy, especially the variety in which the characters are off on some quest or other. I suspect it’s because it was the beginning of the school year when I was first introduced to The Hobbit, and back then we started school later in the year than they do now. So, when the fire was first lit, the desire to travel to other worlds was first instilled in me, it was late summer/early fall, and I’ve come to associate that with fantasy.

Whatever the reason, when the air takes that turn, when the first autumn rains start falling and the nights get brisker, when the first leaves begin to turn (they’re already turning on the sumac here in Arkansas, bright red beacons amidst all the deep green), when that dusty, musty scent permeates everything, I want to curl up and follow someone on a Grand Quest.

That probably at least partly explains why I decided to pick up The Hobbit and read it again after all these years. And I may well read LOTR as well, though I’ve read it more recently (back when the movies were coming out).

I was thinking about all this today—September 24, just a couple days after Hobbit Day, Bilbo and Frodo’s shared birthday—and it made me wonder how I satisfied this longing when I was young. Fantasy was hard to come by here in Arkansas back then, at least in the rural part I lived in. I can remember discovering The Sword of Shannara around the time it came out via the Science Fiction

Cover of "The Sword of Shannara"

Book Club (SFBC) and just devouring it. Going along on the adventure with Shea and Flick Ohmsford, leaving Shady Vale in a quest to acquire the Sword of Shannara and defeat the Warlock Lord, discovering dwarves and elves in a setting entirely different from Middle-earth—and yet so hauntingly familiar at the same time—was pure joy for me.

I didn’t care that it followed the LOTR formula so closely. So what? It was a new world, with new characters—not only Shea and Flick, but the wizard Allanon, a dark, possibly dangerous man who made Gandalf somewhat meek in comparison. Then there was Menion Leah, a friend of Shea’s, who always reminded me somewhat of Han Solo. Later, we meet Panamon Creel, highwayman, and his partner-in-crime, the Rock Troll Keltset. We also meet Balinor, son of the King of Callahorn, who works with Allanon much the way Aragorn worked with Gandalf.

I could go on and on, but I won’t. If you’ve never read The Sword of Shannara and love good epic fantasy in the old-school tradition, pick it up. Author Terry Brooks wove an entire history in which you eventually learn—as I suspected when I first read Sword—that the Four Lands are actually part of post-apocalyptic Earth. I haven’t read any of the other Shannara books—and he has plenty by now—but I’d like to catch up, because he goes back and fills in the history with different Shannara story arcs as well as his series Word and Void.

At any rate, just as Frodo and Sam separate from the Fellowship and go to Mordor alone in LOTR, Shea splits from the party and ends up journeying with Panamon Creel to the Northland and the home of the Warlock Lord, where he ultimately defeats the arch-enemy. Here’s where the differences are, because Frodo never had to meet Sauron face to face, while Shea has to use the Sword of Shannara for its purpose: to wield it in battle against the Warlock Lord.

Another difference is that there aren’t any characters like Panamon Creel and Keltset in LOTR. I’m not sure Tolkien would have included a highwayman in his cast. Not noble enough.

Cover of "The Elfstones of Shannara: (#2)...

But the overall picture is the same, and maybe that’s why I was never able to read the second book he came out with, The Elfstones of Shannara. I wanted another Epic Quest, and Elfstones didn’t seem to be shaping up that way. Now, if you go back and look at the chronological order they should be read in (as opposed to the publication order), Elfstones is part of another series entirely, even though it concerns descendants of Shea Ohmsford.

At any rate, The Sword of Shannara definitely helped me get through the paucity of good epic fantasy, though I read it in summertime. I can distinctly remember sitting in the shade of late afternoon in the yard, reading my huge hardback SFBC edition with cover and interior illustrations by The Brothers Hildebrant (I could probably come close to an entire post about their work, I loved it so much). I read much slower in those days, and so could spend a month or more getting through one of these big books, enjoying every minute of it.

Depiction of the quest party for the novel The...

Depiction of the quest party for the novel The Sword of Shannara (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, I think The Hobbit probably helped the most. As I mentioned in my last post, I read it so much I got burned out on it, and that by the time I was in my middle teens. So I must have read it almost every year until I couldn’t take it anymore.

So now here we are again. The first day of autumn was this past weekend. The crickets are chirping, leaves are turning on the sumac to tease us about the coming season. The air is changing, the nights are cooler, the days pleasant.

And I have this desire to visit faraway lands, to see distant vistas under a bright sun or silvery moon, to hear tales told by the campfire of olden times. I want to watch while characters creep down underground passages or tread as quietly as possible down forest trails. Elves. Hobbits. Orcs. Wizards. And who knows what else I might encounter around the next bend in the trail or curve of the tunnel? What might be lurking in the ruins of that old castle?

And am I really hearing the faint slap of bare feet behind us? Did I really see eyes glowing far back on the trail, or am I imagining things?

Let’s turn the page and find out.


Tolkien's Cover Designs for the First Edition ...

Tolkien’s Cover Designs for the First Edition of The Lord of the Rings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

High Fantasy

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.