April 14, 2011

Winter Is Coming

Growing up I read a little bit of fantasy. Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain were a favorite. But I was more drawn towards science fiction. I completely skipped out on Tolkien (the most important Tolkien-related think in my life is Marillion, for crying out loud), for example. Even Dune, which reads more as fantasy than sci-fi to me, didn’t make much of an impact. I don’t know if it was that I perceived sci-fi as being more “realistic” or if I just had an aversion to magic and tales of great quests.

That’s change over the past few years, as I’ve dug into the work of a couple of writers who made me rethink what fantasy was and what a writer could do with it. One of them is Neil Gaiman, a name I knew of (he wrote the best season five episode of Babylon 5, for instance), but whose stuff I hadn’t really read until the girlfriend gave me a volume of Sandman for my birthday. He’s brilliant, interesting, and usually funny (although often in dark ways). But that’s not who I want to focus on.

The other writer is George R.R. Martin, a prolific guy most well known for his expansive (and ongoing) series A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s epic fantasy, all right, but not the kind Disney makes cartoons out of. As Andrew Leonard put it at Salon:
Martin's fantasy saga demands a literary classification almost all its own -- call it, for better or worse, realist fantasy.

'A Song of Ice And Fire' is to normal fantasy what 'The Wire' was to typical cops-and-robbers drama, packed with grit, complexity and flawed human beings making their way through a corrupt and intimidating world. Heroes die, villains triumph, peasants and slaves suffer horribly and knights are as likely to be plate-metal-encased thugs and hoodlums as they are noble icons of chivalry. Loosely modeled on a medieval-era England ravaged by the Wars of the Roses, Martin's world does not gloss over the starvation, rape and murder that follow in the wake of war. The class stratification and brute injustice of feudal society screams out of nearly every page.

* * *

His characters -- male and female -- are among the most fully realized in all fantasy. Heroes may die -- major protagonists, even! -- but there's still plenty of heroism. There are also moments of great drama and magic -- as well as horror -- that require entire volumes to set up, and unload upon the reader with all the power of two tournament mail-clad lancers crashing into each other.
I love the comparison with The Wire. As odd as it sounds, “realist” and “fantasy” can work together. Martin’s example has encouraged me to try and work in a similar realm (so to speak), but we’ll have to see how those efforts pay off down the road.

The point of all this is not just to pimp Martin – although that’s OK – but to point out that the HBO series based upon Martin’s series, Game of Thrones, kicks off this Sunday (previews and much else here).

If you’ve ever thought that fantasy is just silly fairy tales fit mostly for kids and those stuck in permanent adolescence, I urge you to give it a shot. It’s only an hour (and five minutes, apparently) of your life. The only danger is you’ll get hooked!

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