What should I read after Game of Thrones?–a conversation on fantasy

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Brian Mann: Monday 1:47 pm

So let’s say you’re someone who discovered by way of “Game of Thrones” that modern fantasy is actually a grown-up genre, capable of swimming in the same literary waters as the best spy or mystery novels?

“What, you mean it’s not all hairy-footed Hobbits and Narnia lions sermonizing and Harry Potter quidditching?”

Exactly. And it hasn’t been for a long time.

True enough, the fantasy ghetto got pretty grim there for a while, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, when publishers subsisted on gag-me Tolkien-esque tropes and adolescent “I’m a wizard!” wish fulfillment.

But for a long while now, a lot of really great authors have been pushing fantasy back into the deep end of the pool.  There has even been a new embrace of what critics are describing as “gritty” fantasy.

That is, stories in which there may be magic and imaginary creatures.  But the good guys aren’t always quite so good as Gandalf and the bad guys have motives that are more complicated than Evil!  Pure evil!

It’s also a kind of story-telling — reader beware — in which grown-up things happen.  Nice characters die.  People have sex.  Sometimes the violence is really, well, violent.

Heroic quests are undertaken that wind up failing spectacularly.

One other wrinkle is that, unlike that earlier generation of fantasy, these books have powerful and fully realized women characters.

In other words, there’s a whole shelf full of great books more like “Game of Thrones” than “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.”

So if you want more of what you got with the Starks and the Lannisters, here are three other imaginary worlds ripe for dipping into.

The First Law series by Joe Abercrombie.  This British author has written six volumes so far describing the political and military intrigue of an early Renaissance-like nation known as the Union, which is regularly besieged by Viking-like barbarians from the North and a Persian-style civilization from the South.  Abercrombie is a smart, literate, and spectacularly fun writer.  His most compelling character is a crippled torturer with a decidedly complicated (but very real) moral compass.  If you like Tyrion Lannister, you’ll love Sand dan Glokta.

The Prince of Nothing cycle by R. Scott Bakker.   The Canadian has created a brutal, frightening imagined world in which an awesomely powerful but amoral monk wages war against the kind of Dark Lord that is actually scary.  Caught in the maelstrom of this “great trial” are a dozen utterly vivid characters, including a former prostitute who rises to be an Empress.  There are five books so far.  If you think Daenerys Targaryen is compelling, check out Esmenet.

The Earthsea cycle by Ursula Le Guin.  A lot of people remember the compelling story of Ged in “A Wizard of Earthsea” from high school.  And it’s true that Le Guin was one of the few truly great fantasy writers to make a living during the dreary period of the genre.  But it turns out she kept writing and her characters grew up, suffering the complex indignities of middle- and old age while still exploring a magical world inspired as much by the Tao te Ching as by Tolkein.  Five novels and a collection of short stories so far.   If you love George R.R. Martin’s dragons, you’ll find Le Guin’s treatment of these imaginary beasts even more complex.

There’s a lot more out there, to be sure, from China Mieville’s slightly eery, melancholy “New Crozubon” sequence, to the military intrigue of Steven Erikson’s “The Malazan Book of the Fallen” novels and Glen Cooks “The Black Company” tales.

There are also some gems from the bad old days of fantasy, including “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever” by Stephen Donaldson and Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun” cycle that are well worth dusting off.

So if you’ve reached the end of the latest Thrones novel, and can’t wait for the next episode of the HBO series, you’re in luck.  There are whole worlds of sharply written, textured, and grown-up fantasy waiting for you.

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Dale Hobson, Monday 2:22 pm

RoadmarksGreat recommendations. But I have to disagree with your relative dispraise of 70s and 80s fantasy, compared to today. Aside from the exceptions you note, there was a lot of grown-up fare about. I would include Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series, and his standalone offerings like “Lord of Light,” or “Roadmarks.” Also the middle-era Darkover books by Marion Zimmer Bradley (before they became an industrial effort of relentless moralizing). They were among the first books to really succeed at making a hybrid of sci-fi and fantasy elements. Kirk Mitchell had a great alternate history series set in a contemporary Roman Empire, and lots of other good stuff came out then.

There was certainly plenty of Tolkeinesque dreck as you point out—there are many hours of my life that I will never get back again–but it was no worse than the current flood of teen vampire/werewolf/S&M dreck. The 70s and 80s actually saw some good offerings in the vampire fantasy sub-genre—from Chelsea Quinn Yabro (starting with “Hotel Transylvania” in 1978) and Fred Saberhagen (“Dominion” in 1982 was a favorite.)

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Brian Mann, Monday 3:09 pm

summertree1And there were clearly some good things in that era, including Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry which came out in the 80s.

But I think, Dale, you need to say a lot more to convince fans of meaningful fantasy that the Tolkien-derivative, adolescent-targeted, and increasingly ghetto-ized publishing culture of that era wasn’t more or less as I’ve described.

There are, after all, reasons (other than snobbery) that the literary world mostly turned its back on the genre…

I’ll also note that I did point to three writers from that era worth rediscovering (LeGuin, Donaldson and Wolfe)…

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Dale Hobson, Monday 3:20 pm

Absolutely agree on Guy Gavriel Kay. And the exceptions you noted to your rule were all ones I would have included. But I think there is always a temptation to look back on certain periods, when publishers rushed bad books into print to ride the coattails of a huge success, as a fallow era. My point is that most eras in publishing , including today, are just like that. Serious, grown-up readable works are the exception in genre fiction of any era. It may be easier to avoid poor offerings now than it was then, because the systems of online review and recommendation tend to filter out the worst examples, before we get seduced by a back cover blurb by someone we respect.

As an example, we think of the thirties and forties as the golden era of the detective novel. But the Hammetts and the Wolfes and the Chandlers were the blessed exceptions in the world of pay-by-word pulp magazines. Sci-fi of the forties and fifties—another “golden age” that was dominated (in quantity) by crud.

As for critical reception of 70s and 80s fantasy—I recall that it was all dismissed as young-adult fare then, regardless of quality, and so beyond the pale of serious literary interest. The other bookend to that critical disinterest was the rise of the totally uncritical world of fanzines. Since that time, I don’t really think the fiction has  improved, so much as the world-view of critics has changed to become more inclusive of work from all genres.

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Brian Mann, Monday 3:33 pm

No, I disagree with you.  (Not saying I’m right, just saying that I’ve studied this and thought about it, and see it VERY differently.)

I think genre fiction goes through periods when really horrid things happen.  There are trends, often for commercial reasons, that a type of popular art form can go really sour.

Comics, for example, had a desperate fallow period after some of the edgier, more literary stuff was killed off by the Code.  Now comics are back again and people are doing great things with them.

Same thing with fantasy, IMO.  For a couple of decades there, I think the dominant zeitgiest in fantasy was as follows:

a) this is kid’s (or more accurately, boy’s) literature – even “good” writers tended to have young male protagonists.  the grand and grown-up themes of fantasy once explored by milton, carroll, homer, etc., were more or less abandoned.
b) this is all about wish fulfillment, with young weak protagonists turning out to be powerful.  young people solve problems, old people create them.  orphans everywhere…
c) racist tropes are endemic – dark skin “orcish” savages pitted against light skinned civilized “elvish” types
d) really awful, undergraduate college humor and clumsy attempts to incorporate modern themes or seventies era philosophy
e) an adolescent reliance on constant violence that is not portrayed as violence
f) an utter absence of human sexuality, meaningful relationships and (to a stunning degree) a lack of meaningful female characters
g) just really, really poor writing…really.  even some of the guys we remember as good are pretty b-grade.  zelazny for example is pretty hard for me to read these days.

Meanwhile, at present — and long before George RR Martin’s success — we saw an explosion of grown-up writers who I think rescued the genre from these trenches..

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Dale Hobson, Monday 4:30 pm

I think there are down times that can cause a reader some despair; I just don’t think that they apply to 20 years—a whole generation—of writers and publishers. And I think that “really horrid things” happen continually in all areas of publishing–at least 90% of everything sucks, or so I find. The difference comes when the wrong 10% (according to one’s view) is the most popular/profitable.

I will concede that really bad writers sold a really big pile of books throughout the 70s and 80s. I just don’t share your view that the situation is substantially different now. Many of the flaws you list as endemic in 70s and 80s fantasy still prevail on the bookshelves, and some new sins mark the most popular threads of current fantasy:

  • A conflation of violence and sexuality
  • A great contraction in the number of publishers, creating a higher bar to access for new authors
  • A tendency to write longer than the material can support. The more successful the writer—the greater the pressure to “go long”
  • Endless “franchises” at the expense of solid standalone stories
  • Subcontracting series out to other “co-authors” to bulk up the output, or to continue the brand after the death of the original creator

In my view, fantasy writing is constantly descending into the trenches through bad writing and publishing practices while simultaneously being rescued from the trenches by good storytellers. Each era may have a signature  combination of flaws and virtues, but the mix of good and bad is somewhat constant.

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Dale Hobson, Tuesday 3:38 pm

Brian and I will continue our debate above. Feel free to cast “asparagus” at either or both of us in a comment below. How’s your fantasy life?