Monday, October 15, 2007


Book Report

It's Monday, the day that I spent talking about books I've read, instead of working on the books I should be writing.

As I've mentioned a few times in the last few weeks, I've been reading the first installment in George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Usually a novel takes me anywhere from a day or two, to possibly a week, to finish. It took me exactly three weeks to read A Game of Thrones, and that's reading at least thirty minutes a day, as well as a few extended periods at night when Allison worked late. This is a big book, and it's a dense one, too. And it's the shortest of the series to date, by far.

George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones

Now, I'm coming pretty late to the party on this one, which was first published in 1996. For years I've been hearing about how great this book was. I think that Bill Willingham was the first person I knew who'd read it, but over the years I've gotten in from all corners, including most recently Jude Feldman of Borderlands Books.

I've never been one much for epic fantasy. I've only spent time reading widely in the subgenre twice, once for a span of a few years in high school, and then again for a time in my mid-twenties. In high school I didn't have particularly discriminating tastes, and so would read things I found in my school and public libraries, in used books stores, and recommended to me by friends. As a result, aside from a fair amount of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion stuff that I found in the school library, most of the fantasy I read was tied to movies, or related to or inspired by rpgs. A lot of stuff by Alan Dean Foster, an alarming number of Dragonlance novels, the gamers-in-fantasy-land novels of Joel Rosenberg. Then in my mid-twenties I went through a bit of self-education on the genre, but in that instance I started reading with "taproot" texts--James Branch Cabell, George MacDonald, Arthur Machen--and then working my way forward through the high points of the fantasy genre, stopping along the way at Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, JRR Tolkien, Moorcock again, Ursula K. Leguin, et cetera. The only recently published fantasy I read at the time was urban fantasy, with stacks of Charles de Lint, Midori Snyder, Jane Yolen, and folks like that.

As a result, I've never actually read much epic fantasy written during my lifetime, and particularly not in high school when it seems a lot of other readers did. I was in college by the time Robert Jordan started his fantasy series, and I think Terry Brooks had only published the first two-thirds of his initial fantasy trilogy by the time I started high school. What I did read in high school, though, and even moreso in college, was the science fiction of George RR Martin. I picked up the first of the Wild Cards shared world anthologies within a week or two of it hitting the stands in mass-market paperback, and was immediately hooked. That volume and those that followed affected my brain in ways I probably still don't fully realize. From there I discovered Martin's short-story collections (have previously seen his stuff in the pages of Analog, to which I subscribed at the time). Then in college I found Armageddon Rag (the best book on the 60s and popular music I've yet read) and Fevre Dream (one of, if not the best vampire book I've read) in the shelves of the Undergraduate Library at the University of Texas. It was right around then, as I understand it, that Martin went to work in television, and aside from the ongoing installments in the Wild Cards series, his name didn't often appear in the new releases sections of bookstores.

Having never developed much of an affinity for epic fantasy, then, when Willingham started telling me about this new entry in the field by GRRM, I was conflicted. I was definitely interested in anything Martin did, but the prospect of diving into a fat fantasy novel, which was itself only the first installment in a longer series, was a little offputting. Still, I flagged it mentally as something to consider, and then went on reading other things. As time went on, more and more people praised "A Song of Ice and Fire" to the rafters, and I started getting little bits and pieces of the plot through osmosis. This was a fantasy at a human level, with real grit, and terrifically effective battle scenes. There was magic, but it was at the margins, with the focus of the attention being on real men and women who find themselves at a turning point in history.

I'm not sure what finally made me crack. It was a confluence of events that culminated a month ago in the sudden realization that I had to read this series, or at least the first installment. Because I've got this rule, you see, about only reading the first installments of series that haven't yet been completed, and I've got loads of books on my To Read pile. So three and a half weeks ago, right before leaving town for FenCon, I stopped in at B&N and picked up a copy of A Game of Thrones. That this B&N with its painfully limited selected had each of the four installments in the series in every available format--mmpb, tpb, and hc--was an interesting sign. (And that by last week they'd sold out of all of them when I came back for the second installment sold volumes, but more on that in a moment.) And then, sitting in the hotel bar that weekend, I started in on the story.

I was immediately hooked.

I've been toying with the idea of writing an epic fantasy for the last few years. Only recently have I begun to think about what I might actually write. For a long time, instead, I thought about what an epic fantasy should be, and in my admittedly limited experience so seldom was. I had a list of requirements, things that I thought should be included, things that should be avoided. All of this was the product of my self-education in my mid-twenties, which I approached with the rigor of a graduate level course, complete with syllabus and reading list, which as I've said only ran through the late sixties, perhaps verging a bit into the mid- to late-seventies. So far all I knew the "perfect epic fantasy" had been written in the last twenty or so years and I just hadn't read it yet.

Well, it seems to me that I've found it, and that George RR Martin has written it. A Game of Thrones is a damned-near-perfect book, and ticks off nearly ever item on my list of what an epic fantasy should do, and avoids every item on the should not list. The writing itself is skillful, deceptively simple, and worthy of careful study. And the level of invention is little short of staggering. The characters are well-drawn and nuanced, and the tantalizing glimpses we're given of the history and of the rest of the world make the reader hungry for more.

I finally finished reading the novel on Friday, a few hours after sending off to Solaris the first third of Three Unbroken, about which more later. This morning I begin work on my Star Trek novel in earnest. And sitting in the living room next to my chair is a copy of A Clash of Kings, the second installment in the series. Because even with my rule about unfinished series, even considering that it took me three weeks to read the shortest installment of the four books in print, when I read the last hundred or so pages on Friday afternoon, so much that I read was 100% kick-ass, so completely mind-bogglingly brilliant, that I couldn't wait to start reading the next book. On my way to pick up Georgia from preschool I took a long detour, visited two HPBs and two B&Ns looking for a copy of the book, and then this weekend found time to read the first couple of chapters. At the rate I'm going, I'm going to be reading nothing for pleasure but "A Song of Ice and Fire" until late this year, perhaps even early next year. And then I'll join the legion of readers hungrily waiting the next installment in the series. But honestly, at this point, I can't help myself.

So really, not recommended to anyone, unless you want to read what may be the perfect epic fantasy, and you have loads of time to commit to reading it. In which case this comes highly, highly recommended.


I only started this series fairly recently myself -- it was probably two years ago or so. I'm now all caught up and DYING for the next one, which is not fun! But yes, I had always idly thought, "Hey, I should check those books out," and then once I did they turned me into a slobbering fangirl mess muttering, "I forgot books can be like this."

My one problem with the series, which you may or may not find as you continue reading, is that it's a bit TOO unrelentingly miserable. I really believe you have to periodically have increments of feel-good payoff for your characters, and GRRM just...never does. I find that frustrating, and sometimes downright offputting. But not enough to make me stop reading.
I've had this very book on my bookshelf since 1998 or so. Never read it, since I picked it up about the time the whole fantasy genre was going cold for me and I was focusing more on various forms of SF. But my father in law just gave me his copies of the series a few weeks back, telling me I need to read them. Our tastes don't always mesh, but I've heard so much good stuff about these books...
"My one problem with the series, which you may or may not find as you continue reading, is that it's a bit TOO unrelentingly miserable."

Ah-ha! It's the fantasy equivalent of Battlestar Galactica!
Jayme -- ha! But at least on BSG they occasionally get to laugh or have a victory or sometimes even have teh sex, you know? Although, come to think of it, I DO find a lot of crossover between BSG fans and GRRM fans...!
I don't know, Jen, I'm only fifty or so pages into the second book, but it seems like there's a bit of humor every now and again. Perhaps not lightness, since the misery is pretty unrelenting, but Tyrion at least gets a few nice barbs in every now and again, and a good joke can balance a fair amount of grimness. But I certainly take your point. The lack of modulation of tone was what originally soured me on ER, just the unrelenting awfulness of it all. I'll have to wait and see how I feel after another three books, but so far the level of invention and the what-happens-next is just so high and so engaging that I'm not really bothered yet about that aspect of it.

If you haven't checked it out, Jayme, I highly recommend it. Really, really spectacular stuff.
I've been resisting reading this for a couple years now; I've been reluctant to read another big fantasy series after the disappointment that The Wheel of Time series turned into. However, I've heard so many good things about Martin's series and now you're another voice in the chorus. Think I'll have to give in.
I've never tried the Jordan series, myself. I was reading John Barth and Paul Auster and Richard Brautigan almost exclusively when it first came out, and by the time I started reading fantasy again a few years later readers had already started complaining about the bloat. I've been tempted to pick up and read the first book at least, though, to see how it was put together.
I probably won't ever read this, since I've given up on epic fantasy in general, and try to avoid getting sucked into long series well after they are started.

I will agree with Chris's comments on Martin's Armageddon Rag and Fevre Dream (especially Fevre Dream)
I need to go back and reread both of those, I think, having not read either of them since college, the better part of twenty years ago. Parts of Armageddon Rag have really stuck with me over the years, though. Fevre Dream I remember loving, but at this remove I only retain a fairly vague impression of the overall plot, remembering mostly a few beautifully done scenes, and the overall feel of the thing. Just this last weekend I found a second-hand copy of Tuf Voyaging, which I'm looking forward to diving into, having only read those stories that appeared in Analog in the mid-80s, never having read it them all together.
Keep an eye out for another 1,400 pages of George R.R. Martin goodness when Bantam Spectra publishes the two-volume "Dreamsongs" retrospective this month and next. Most of his best stories are reprinted therein, plus some rarities and lots of juicy commentary.
Thanks for the tip, Michael! I'll add it to my list.
I've read both Armageddon Rag and Fevre Dream for the first time recently, so they're still pretty fresh.

I actually like Fevre Dream best (even though I'm not a huge vampire novel fan), mainly because as good as Armageddon is, it's a bit heavy on the magical wonder of the 60's, which I don't buy into as much as some. Still, it's a great read.

My to be read pile is just too big for me to start digging into the epic fantasy field.

So...when do we hear more about Three Unbroken? :)
I'm hoping to be able to announce more substantial details about Three Unbroken in the next few weeks. The short version is that it's a Celestial Empire novel revolving around the war between the Chinese and the Aztecs on Mars, which will be serialized online over the course of a few months.
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