Saturday, August 25, 2012

On Revisiting Classics: The changing (or not) face of epic fantasy.

Because I'm feeling lazy, I'm re-posting my guest post from Never Too Fond of Books. Which if you havent checked out you should. I'm gonna be a regular contributer there.

Like many people, J.R.R. Tolkin was my introduction to adult fiction. I had been reading for a really long time, but up until the point when my father gave me his old copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, my favorite books were the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C Wrede (still some of my favorite books to this day). The thing is, way back fourteen years ago, when I first read Tolkin I loved it. I was totally engrossed in the story, and I think I finished all three books plus some of the appendices in two weeks.

Then I went on to some other fantasy novels. Like Raymond E Feist Rift War Saga/Serpent War Saga, which became my favorite books through high school and the beginning of college. In college I found myself more surrounded by literary novels. Margret Atwood, the Secret History by Donna Taft, Catch 22, found their way onto my bookshelf and into my heart. Of course I can't forget Harry Potter, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norwell, Neil Gaiman and the wide variety of Historical Fiction I found myself reading. Yet I always called myself a fan of Fantasy.

After college my literary interests continued to span a broad range of topics. I picked up Christopher Moore for the first time (and there is a great picture of us somewhere). Continued to read anything by some of my favorite writers I could find, and what was suggested to me by others; how I first heard of Hunger Games, among others. And I discovered a lot of writers that I'd quite happily avoid forever (George RR Martin, C.S Freeman)

It wasn't until I read Brian Sandersons  Mistborn series, which started out really entertaining and took a turn to the why am I reading this. And  Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, which reminded me why I love Fantasy novels (and the English language) in the first place. That I decided to go back to my roots (and I'm not talking about a road trip to Georgia). Earlier this year I re-read the Rift War and the Serpent War Saga. I re-read the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. And I just started re-reading the Lord of the Rings.
What I can say (and at this point your probably wondering what's the point) is that I'm surprised. See, between the last time that I read the Lord of the Rings, probably sometime before the Fellowship Movie came out, and now, I've read a lot of other Fiction, and a lot of time has passed. And a great deal of the Lord of the Rings books feel like info dumps, and eons of text  which is full of interesting descriptions but lacks anything resembling pace, and very little dialogue, while the dialogue that's there feels like it's from another time. Which frankly it is.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of going to a summer time tradition in the DC area, called Jazz in the Garden (it's exactly what it sounds like) with Michael and Robin Sullivan. Now if you're wondering why those names sound familiar it's probably because Michael is the author of the Riyria Revelations Trilogy recently published by Orbit, and Robin, his wife, runs Ridan a small independent publishing company. If you ever want to have an idea what or where the publishing world is going, I wouldn't over estimate a pitcher of Sangria this couple, and sitting back and shutting up. At this particular occasion Robin and Michael were arguing over a fantasy book Robin liked and wanted to pick up. Michael didn't.

Michaels complaints had nothing to do with the plot, but everything to do with the writing. (And I really wish I remembered the title of the book in question). His theory (or at least my drunken understanding of his theory) is that as readers we deserve more than a good story, with a good plot. We need to enjoy the reading of the story, the writing of the story, the journey, as much as the story itself. That in a way, epic fantasy novels have become stagnated in the 1950's.

To be honest I'm not sure what I think about this. When I read books like The Black Sun Rising, or When True Night Falls by C.S. Friedman, where the world is more important than the characters, and I have to slog through hundreds of pages of world building and info dumps. Or Brian Sandersons Mistborn (which I will say Michael liked, although he didn't read the entire series) which starts out by working the world building into the story, but doesn't stop when the reader gets it (he is a classic example of beating us over the head with a magic system), I feel like agreeing with Michael. Other notorious culprits are R.A. Salvatore, Tad Williams, and George RR Martin (no offence intended to any of those authors), and books which I will not name which read basically like glorified Tolkin fan fic.

Now I'm not intending to imply that authors of epic fantasy are too lazy to write well, I'm merely attempting to point out a trend in the genre (or wondering out loud if one exists like love triangles in YA fiction). And wondering if the reason epic fantasy hasn't changed is because the writers fall into such a niche market that the readers practically demand pages upon pages of archaic prose that their mind warps to reading. Or it could be that epic fantasy remains a niche market because writers write this way, and are fans of their own genre in which other writers write this way, and change has become practically impossible because we are so stuck on what has been done before us.  But then I come back to authors like Rothfuss who I've filed his books on my bookshelf under literary fiction vs epic fantasy because the writing is just too good. Or to some degree Sanderson, who if you read just one book on its own doesn't appear to have the classic epic fantasy flaws. And I wonder, are we breaking the cycle?

I also wonder if the reason YA novels, and thriller novels (or fast paced urban fantasy novels like Kevin Hearne or Jaye Wells) are so popular because they are easier to read, and perhaps if epic fantasy will change some of the way it tells a story will it no longer become a niche market, and if that happens, will it still be epic fantasy? And if that does happen, is it a good thing?

As you can tell, I wonder a lot. I hope you enjoyed my first guest post. Sorry it was so long. 

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