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A Clash of Kings, and other fantasy ramblings

May 4, 2012

I’m reading a lot of fantasy recently. I’m doing this because, as some of you are no doubt aware, I’m taking another crack at “the novel” this summer. The novel, obviously, being a terrifying, monolithic form. I’ve written in it before–a couple times–but have never been even remotely satisfied with the results. I’ve tried a sort of noirish modern fantasy novel (which I like in theory, and might want to revisit, someday) and an urban fantasy novel, but neither really clicked with me. This time, I’m trying something a little different, a little more political, with a more modern setting.

Not so much inspired by George R.R.R.R.R. Martin as by my history studying World War One, but it makes a fine segue.

If I have a problem with George R.R. Martin, it’s that it always feels like something is happening. Let me explain: it feels like real life rather than a story. Something is always happening, but nothing is ever a story. It’s just the lives of characters.

This makes it fun to read, but it also makes it a soap opera: everyone’s just doing their lives. No one really has an “arc” to them. It’s a book about bad stuff happening, which is fun to read but doesn’t really have a point. That’s the thing I miss the most reading it: A Clash of Kings was just there. It was a book that added to the narrative Martin was telling, rather than telling us a good story in and of itself. That’s my big problem with it.

For instance, each Star Wars film (the good ones) tells its own story while building a master narrative. There’s saga-long narratives–Luke and Vader–but each individual arc has its own stories. Clash of Kings has its own individual arcs–Theon being a little asshole, Stannis falling apart–but neither is resolved, and every other story is just a piece of a story. It’s because of the structure: each character, by the end, will probably have their own 500 page book arc. These are pages 100-200 of those arcs. Nothing happens.

It’s a structure I like, though. It’s a structure I am probably, reluctantly, aping. It’s what I’m most nervous about: as you build a world, you see all your influences coming through in it, and you’re terrified of going too close to one of them. Martin is kind of the opposite: he’s not a big influence (except in that his books showed me, “This thing you like: people will buy it”) but I feel like an outsider could look at my prospective novel and say, “He took the ideas of Game of Thrones, moved them to an analogue of 1910, added a lot more weird shit, and did Game of Thrones again.” I don’t know how ludicrous that sounds, because I’ve not written it yet. But I keep pushing it away from that.

It’s tricky. The “main” character, who’s called Esme in my head but probably will end up with a different name, is this complicated, extremely proficient character who’s also being rendered obsolete by society at an extremely young age. She knows all this stuff about history, which is tricky because I’m having to build up a whole history to great detail: she doesn’t just know that someone invaded the city she’s in, she knows exactly who, exactly how they did it, and it informs her every action. She’s taking parts from myself, of course, but also from other fictional characters who have inspired me, like every character in the novel is, and it’s hard to balance who I want her to be with what I can’t let her be (someone else). It’s important she strikes the right note because she’s the centerpiece character of the novel: she’s not more important than everyone else, but her fingers are on every pie, so to speak. She’s one of the few characters who has an intense opinion about everything that happens, not just a throwaway one. Everything will connect, of course, but she has the most complete vision, and I’ve got to figure out how to let her have that without being a “cheap” character.

In a lot of ways, I’m drawing inspiration from my favorite series, the Wizard of Earthsea books. I recently reread (between A Clash of Kings and recently starting the “other” modern fantasy series, Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind) my favorite book in the series (by far, really) The Tombs of Atuan, and I spent the whole of its 145 pages (seriously!) marveling at how downright flawless it is. If you demanded me nominate one book, ever, as my favorite, this is it. This is the one. It is the book I could reread every month. As far as I’m concerned, it’s perfect.

Whereas the first book in the series hasn’t aged particularly well–it’s still good, but the story, a boy finds he’s a wizard, is impatient, wakes great evil, becomes wise, and quells it, it’s quite the brilliance it used to be–Atuan is better than ever. It takes a strong character, said wizard, places him in a position of weakness, and instead tells the story of a girl forced to serve great evil. It’s an interesting novel because it carries the theme of the books–Ged fighting against the impossible evil–and breaks it down from a new light. It gives it perspective. And as a book, it’s rarely triumphant. It’s basically a quiet man fighting against evil represented in a woman held under evil’s sway, and she wins, not he. He does remarkably little of substance in the book, but his presence makes a difference. It builds up the previous book, and establishes for the future, while telling its own independent story.

It’s an influence I’m not shying away from. I tug away from the aggressive noise of Game of Thrones, and am sticking to the genteel horror of Atuan, as well as the rugged emptiness of Hemingway and the impulse of heroism in fantasy in general. I’m taking my own life influence, too: smart characters living in a world moving too fast for its own good, barreling towards destruction, watching decades-old social structures come crashing down. In essence, I’m writing fantasy because it allows me to address everything I’m concerned with in my writing: I’m making a world I have to have, to tell the stories I have to tell.

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