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Musings

Fantasy Heavyweights and Pretenders (Part 2)

March 20, 2016

Hello again. This week is the second installment of my fantasy author critique. Last time I talked about some very fine members of the pantheon, and here’s a few more noteworthy ones, and my thoughts on each.

Ursula K. Le Guin: is best known for her Earthsea books, about wizards who attempt to master control of the elements. There’s also dragons, and evil magicians whose efforts try to stop those of their good and well-meaning counterparts, who seek to preserve the balance of nature. It’s fairly familiar territory; what I like about Le Guin is that her prose is very sparse and clean, measured and controlled. It’s a good study of using little to say much. When she writes about the sea, a focal point of her novels, you understand its majesty and power, and her protagonists are well fleshed out, fully realized. It’s a shame she didn’t write more; I think there are five Earthsea novels, if I’m not mistaken. I’ve read two so far, but I’m on the lookout for the others. This is an author worth reading.

R.A. Salvatore: best known for his creation of the dark elves, and Drizzt do’ Urden, a drow, a male dark elf who goes against the inherently bloodthirsty tendencies of his people, and tries to use his formidable fighting and killing abilities for good. Salvatore has written something like twenty novels, and was most prominent throughout the nineties and the early 2000’s. He wrote for Tor Fantasy, part of the flood of Dungeons and Dragons novels that came out when the game was at its most popular. A lot of the D and D novels of that period range from decent to utter crap. Salvatore was cranking his books out as quickly as many of the other writers who were getting published, but his prose and creativity was a cut above the rest. It’s not on the level of Tolkien or Martin, and never will be, but it’s still enjoyable in a “junk food fantasy” kind of way, good to kill time, if not to marvel at the skill of the craft or the complexity of the narrative structure.

Salvatore is creative, no question; where he trips himself up sometimes is his trying to describe, in too great of detail, what is happening in the combat scenes. You want a clear description of what is happening, but here’s a guy who gets a little too bogged down in the minutia of the sword fighting techniques, punching, kicking, etc. It gets a little tedious at times. He would be better served concentrating on an overall impression of what he’s trying to convey. Still, a minor critique, that should not dissuade you from discovering Drizzt, Wulfgar, Regis, and the other members of this band that show up at some point in most of his stories.

Michael Moorcock: best known for his creation of Elric, a wraith-like warrior-king who has a sentient, magical sword. My father got me a collection of Elric stories, my introduction to Moorcock, and I was eagerly looking forward to checking him out, as he was a favorite of  my dad as a young man, and I know that Moorcock is well respected and much discussed in fantasy circles. I have to say that I was pretty disappointed with the dubious skills of this particular author. Elric is an interesting creation, no question, a tortured, decadent wanderer whose enemies, when they are vanquished, are essentially fed to the sentient sword that is his constant companion. I thought that Moorcock’s prose, though, is severely lacking in polish. Whether it’s the dialogue, the description of character or setting, or the battles and adventures that Elric gets himself into, this strikes me as poor stuff, a pale, weak telling of a world that never becomes fully realized. Moorcock may be well known and well liked, but I have to say that I just didn’t see it.

What’s especially ironic about that is that I also happened to read an article by Moorcock at one point, where he’s very critical of Tolkien, and talks about how little he thinks of a writer who, in my personal opinion, is his better in every conceivable way. Moorcock didn’t like the style of Tolkien’s prose, of which I think very highly, while Moorcock’s prose, by comparison, is about on the level to me of many of those Dungeons and Dragons writers who were published by the dozens in the nineties. Look, we all have our own ideas of what makes good writing. Moorcock can think what he likes of Tolkien, and I can think what I like about Moorcock. But the characters and world created by Tolkien burn strongly in my mind, and always will. I’ve read of their adventures dozens of times. By comparison, I doubt that I would ever want to give Moorcock and his Elric saga so much as a second glance. That’s just truth.

Robert Jordan: the late Robert Jordan is best known for his interminable Wheel of Time series. I think there were originally slated to be twelve novels, and he died before he quite got to the end. No great loss, in my opinion. I got started reading Jordan at a friend’s recommendation in college, got through about five exhausting novels, and just couldn’t take it any more. Rand al’ Thor, the Dragon Reborn, is the protagonist of this series, along with a grab-bag of friends, and then there’s a shadowy power at work, like there usually is in fantasy, and various minions serving that power. In many respects this is just typical fantasy, with decent prose and dialogue. The problem I kept running into with Jordan is just that his world becomes completely sprawling before very long. There are just too many minor characters and situations to keep track of, to the point that it became a chore to keep up with it all, and I wasn’t enjoying the series; I found that I no longer cared what happened to Rand and his friends, meaning the author had lost me as a reader.

Jordan is an example of what happens when you have a writer who creates a world as gargantuan as that occupied by the multitude of players in Game of Thrones, but the characters and situations aren’t compelling enough to hold your interest. What George R.R. Martin was able to do, Jordan attempted, and failed, in my opinion. Just can’t in good conscience recommend this guy.

So that’s it for now, my take on just a handful of the hundreds of fantasy authors out there. I love the genre, and will continue to read it, I’m sure, as long as I live. Let me know if you agree or disagree with my opinions, and let me know some of your favorites. I’m always happy to discover new writers, and new worlds. More soon, faithful readers.

Musings

Fantasy Heavyweights and Pretenders (Part 1)

March 6, 2016

I’ve always loved the fantasy genre. Every since reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a young boy (and then rereading them, again and again), I’ve been captivated by it. Since my early introduction to Tolkien, I’ve gone on to read countless other fantasy novels, some of them “high fantasy,” some tinged with sci-fi elements, some of them memorable, worthy of places of honor on my bookshelf, some of them so bad that it’s a wonder the authors were ever able to get them in print. Today I’ll be looking at a few popular authors and series, and giving my opinion of them. They’re listed in order of my favorites to those of which I think the least.

J.R.R. Tolkien: I seriously doubt that anyone would be capable of knocking the champion off the top of the heap for me. The only one who has ever come close is George R.R. Martin. Tolkien is the be all and end all of fantasy writers, as far as I’m concerned, and I know that there are many who feel the same way. Part of what makes Tolkien so special for me is how few books he actually wrote. He pretty much just has The Hobbit and the Rings trilogy, and, as for his other efforts, The Silmarillion, I feel, should be largely ignored, just because the writing style is completely different; it’s almost like the Bible according to Tolkien, the mythos of Middle Earth written of without the attention to detail and character development, and with much less dialogue, than appears in his more beloved efforts.

The four novels that comprise Tolkien’s largest contributions to literature are some of my favorite books, period, of any genre. I care about the characters and their exploits much more than I do about almost all the living, breathing humans that are out and about in the real world, and I have envisioned myself going on their quests with them more times than I can count. Tolkien was able to make that world live for me more than any other author I have ever known, and when I die, if we all get our customized version of heaven, it would look pretty much like the Shire for me.

George R.R. Martin: the Game of Thrones creator seems to be kind of a miserable person in real life, but no matter. Lots of great authors are. And make no mistake about it, Martin is a great author, second, I think, only to Tolkien. His sprawling world is well realized, with all of the political intrigue that makes up the “game of thrones” the royals and would-be royals play with one another described in such a way that the reader is enraptured rather than bored, as would probably happen with a less talented writer. The quality of the prose is excellent, the dialogue is top-notch, and indeed, all the elements of style are handled masterfully. Memorable characters abound, like the Hound, the Mountain, the Imp, and all the Starks and Lannisters.

The only caution with Martin is this: when one creates a world so vast, one runs the risk of having simply too many characters and plot threads. Martin walks a fine line with this, where some other authors, who I will mention later, simply shoot over that line to the point that there are so many characters and locations to keep track of that it becomes one immense muddle. There’s a lot to keep straight in Game of Thrones, what with all the different factions and minor characters, but it is a testament to Martin’s skill that the reader wants to. That has made this series a success with me, and with so many other readers.

Terry Brooks: Brooks is best known for his Shannara series, a vast epic that deals with druids, talismans, and magical powers. It was recently made into a series on MTV called The Shannara Chronicles. I was able to tolerate about five minutes of it before I had to turn it off. It seems like MTV decided to make it a fantasy version of one of those insufferable teenage-geared, angst-ridden melodramas, like Twilight or The Hunger Games. Needless to say, the actual books aren’t anything like that. They deal with most of the typical swords and sorcerers tropes, but the quality of the prose is excellent, the characters are well fleshed out, the villains are appropriately sinister…in short, these books do well everything that fantasy is all about, if not quite at the same level of the true titans of the genre.

One of the things that I appreciate about Brooks is that he has had a long and prolific career, sort of the opposite of Tolkien. With Tolkien you have the Hobbit and the Rings trilogy, and they are to be savored and pored over, because, like I said before, that’s just about all Tolkien wrote that is worthwhile. At last count, there were something like twenty novels by Brooks dealing with the characters introduced in the early Shannara adventures, and then picking things up with the next generation, and the next, and the next. I’ve read five or six of them now, and it seems that the author has managed to keep up the quality of the series over a period of roughly four decades, no easy thing to do. I have no doubt that I’ll continue seeking out other books in this long-running series, and I was glad to have stumbled upon Mr. Brooks when I chanced to find one of his novels at a library book sale last year.

Next time I will talk about some other fantasy authors of note, including Ursula K. Le Guin, R.A. Salvatore, and Michael Moorcock. Be sure to check out the the first book of of my own Rogue fantasy series, available now absolutely free on Juke Pop Serials.

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