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

10 comments

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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?

 

  1. I can’t call myself a specialist in this genre, but my daughter, who’s an avid reader of such novels, recommended the first two of a trilogy by Patrick Rothfus – the Kingkiller Chronicles – the third of which is eagerly awaited. I read them and found them pretty darned good, and passed them along to a business neighbor who’s also now a devoted Rothfussian (just made that up).

  2. Brian Mann says:

    Golden Compass definitely qualifies as part of the great new wave of fantasy.

    It fits into this discussion in an interesting way because Pullman expressly describes his novels as an attack on religion but also on a period of fantasy writing that he abhorred.

    He is particularly hostile to what he views as Narnia-CS Lewis notions about childhood innocence and faith.

    I thought the Golden Compass series sort of fell apart at the end, becoming a bit polemic, and not very compelling as a story.

    If you liked Pullman’s series, be sure to check out the “Chrestomanci” series by Diana Wynne Jones.

    –Brian

  3. Ellen Rocco says:

    Does the Golden Compass trilogy qualify? I listened to these books in the car on a long trip about 10 years ago. What startled me was the outright attack on organized religion. Topical in a surprising way. Hadn’t actually read much sci fi or fantasy since the Asimov-Clarke immersion of the ’60s and ’70s…aside from the obvious classics read with my son when he was growing up.

    Like Peter, I’m more inclined to mystery/detective stuff when I’m looking for a break from heavier reading. But, at this point in my life, I have zero patience for mediocre writing. I’m pretty much willing to read anything that’s well written, but I now discard books after a few pages if the writing is not up to snuff–and I do so totally guilt-free. Used to be once I started a book I felt compelled to finish; then I moved to giving any writer at least 50 pages; and, now, well, I’m brutal.

  4. After a long time away from Fantasy, I am returning. Although “Dune” is usually considered Sci-Fi, I find it closer to the fantasy I love (Tolkien, Zalazney, Gormenghast, etc.). Frank Herbert’s son, Brian, has continued to write books set in that space with Kevin Anderson, initially using Frank’s original notes for his next book. While they don’t capture that feeling of an infinite cultural milieu that Frank created, they are still enjoyable.

    I also want to put in a plug for cyber punks William Gibson and Melissa Scott (thanks Dale!) and steam punks, Neal Stephenson and Bruce Stirling. While written in a more contemporary culture, these authors appeal to the same part of me that Tolkien, Zalazney, McKillip and Le Guin did. As a fan of historical fiction, Stephenson’s works that starts in the 1600′s with “The Baroque Cycle” and extends into the present with “Cryptonomicon” was particularly appealing. And his “Snowcrash” is eerily predictive of our current state of affairs.

    • Ellen B says:

      Yes, cyberpunk is exciting in a way that medieval fantasies can’t quite match. Another great: Orson Scott Card’s Ender series. Ender’s Game changed the way I thought about warfare, childhood and politics. The only thing missing is sex!

  5. V. Burnett says:

    If you like LeGuin, you should try Barbara Hambly. She was writing about complicated (not sparkling) Vampires before they were hip and her Darwath series has some real Lovecraftian horror going on.

  6. Game of Thrones is one of my younger son’s favorite book(s). I tried it but didnt get very far – although I am really enjoying the miniseries via Netflix. China Mieville is his other favorite author. I got pretty far with one of his – dont remember which, but ultimately didnt quite finish. I must admit I prefer the spy and mystery novels.

  7. Lucy Martin says:

    Brian, thanks for the good news, and all the specific suggestions!

    I’m a library fan, so I’ll try hunting them down there first.

  8. Brian Mann says:

    Your husband actually has tons of choices, particularly in Canada where sci-fi sections are usually fairly robust.

    (Indigo-Chapters does a great job, by way of example.)

    For the kind of sci-fi you’re talking about, Ian M. Banks is hugely fun, a literary author who writes really interesting crunchy sci-fi.

    Here are some others who’ve moved into the Aasimov-Clarke corner of the genre with gusto — sort of in the vein of harder sci-fi with a bit of social observation and a seasoning of space opera.

    Octavia Butler, Dan Simmons, Kim Stanley Robinson, Vernor Vinge, Alastair Reynolds, Allen Steele.

    I also want to particularly recommend Robert Charles Wilson, who has great hard sciency ideas that come wrapped in adventure stories.

    Finally, let me recommend a really cool, weird “first contact” novel called “Blind Sight” by Peter Watts.

    Watts gives a sense for what it might actually be like (i.e. really, really scary) trying to communicate across the gulf of cultural misunderstandings that would exist between two different species.

    Watts’ novel actually lost out in the 2006 Hugo awards to Wilson’s novel “Spin.”

    The bottom line is that smart, literate sci fi is booming.

    And to continue the vein of my conversation/debate with Dale, I actually think a lot of these guys are much better writers than most of the guys who defined the Aasimov-Heinlein-Clarke era.

    So your husband is in for some real treats.

    -Brian

  9. Lucy Martin says:

    Interesting discussion!

    Can’t say much that’s useful since the last fantasy I read and liked was Roger Zelazny’s Amber series (Which seemed remarkably funny and original at the time.)

    No, I write with a complaint and an appeal. My husband has less time to spend in libraries than I do. He loves old-school science fiction: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, etc. Well, he’s pretty much read all that and fresh output by dead authors is disappointingly scarce.

    When I try find similar stuff for him, it’s all crowded out … by works of fantasy! (Sci-fi and fantasy are frequently lumped together.)

    Is sci-fi dead? Killed/supplanted by fantasy?

    Every now and then I find sci-fi looking books with jacket blurbs that boast “the logical successor to Asimov” etc. I bring them home only to hear a lot of grumbling: “No way is this as good! They don’t even understand what makes good sci-fi!”

    I lean toward historical fiction and mysteries myself, so I could use some help on this.

    Who writes good sci-fi these days? What titles would please someone who thinks 2001 is one of the greatest movies ever made?

    Sorry to hijack a discussion on fantasy, but it’s fair turn about because fantasy hijacked the sci-fi shelf!