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George R.R. Martin

Musings

World-Changing Writing

October 18, 2017

What is it that truly marks a writer as being successful? Is a successful writer one who is making a living exclusively through their writing, as I’ve tried to do for so many years? Are you a successful writer when you’ve hit the New York Times bestseller list? When you’ve optioned a book to Hollywood? When you’ve written what is considered a classic novel? There’s no wrong answer to this question, I think. It’s subjective. Some writers consider themselves to be a success when they’ve managed to publish a short story in an obscure online literary magazine for the first time. There are many different kinds of writers, and we all have different goals…some of us are much more ambitious than others.

There are some authors, though, who literally change the world through their writing. These are authors who are runaway success stories; they’re superstars. They’ve made it, regardless of what milestones one uses to define such things. One such author who I want to talk about today is George R.R. Martin. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series, better known by the title Game of Thrones, as in the long-running show on H.B.O., first appeared on my radar perhaps seven or eight years ago. I knew he was a fantasy writer, and that he was well known, but I hadn’t actually picked up one of his books before. The first several novels in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series had been New York Times bestsellers, but I don’t think I understood just how good this guy was. I saw the first season of Game of Thrones by pirating it online. I wasn’t exactly making a ton of money at the time, and I wasn’t about to add H.B.O. to my cable package. I couldn’t afford that sort of luxury, but there was so much buzz around this show that I felt like I had to check it out somehow. I knew that Sean Bean was in it, an actor I much admired. A big-budget fantasy series geared toward adult viewers, and one that was sure to feature plenty of sex and violence, since it was on a premium channel? Count me in.

The show was engrossing, spellbinding, better even than I’d thought it would be. And so it went from there…I found the entire “Song of Ice and Fire” series at secondhand bookstores, and caught up with what had become, in truth, a cultural event. Martin’s writing was probably the best fantasy I’d ever read, with the exception of Tolkien. It’s hard to say who’s better, between the two…I guess I would just say that their writing styles are very different, so it’s hard to compare the two. Tolkien is “high fantasy,” his prose more flowery. Martin’s writing has a more modern feel to it. One thing that the two share, though, is the ability to create unforgettable characters, characters about whom the reader grows to care. They’re both master storytellers, the difference being, I think, that Tolkien belongs to another era. Martin is getting up there in years, but he’s still alive and producing, and able to see the effect his creation, the Seven Kingdoms, is having on society. I would hope that he’s proud of his accomplishments.

Game of Thrones is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen on television. It’s production values are fantastic, which is unsurprising, considering it’s literally the most expensive show that’s ever been produced. It’s unparalleled in its time, just as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad were in theirs. It’s must-see T.V., it’s groundbreaking…call it what you want, there’s never been anything else like it on the small screen. The books, meanwhile, have had an equal impact. Martin’s creation, the Seven Kingdoms, seems to be the world in which his literary talents truly flowered, and I know this, because I’ve read some of his earlier sci-fi and horror efforts now, and they show promise, but it’s nothing like his fantasy. Just as Terry Pratchett created the “Diskworld,” and did his best work there, just as Brian Jacques created “Redwall,” and felt most at home there, so to did Martin devise the Seven Kingdoms, and, as a reader, I’m thankful he did. Lots of people are. Literally millions have read his books, and millions more have seen Game of Thrones.

That’s what I’m talking about when I mean real success as a writer. There’s a certain pinnacle that can be reached where the language of the books you’ve created has leaked into the popular vernacular. If you’re into Game of Thrones, you know the significance of the phrase “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” You know all about the Red Wedding. You know that “winter is coming,” you know about “bending the knee,” and you know how important it is to hold the Iron Throne. If you’re reading this and you’re lost by now, then you’re behind the times, good reader. Trust my literary recommendation, here…pick up the first novel of the “Song of Ice and Fire” cycle. You don’t have to be into the fantasy genre. If you’re a fan of just good writing, period, you’re going to appreciate these books. I won’t say millions of people can’t be wrong, because look at the success of the Fifty Shades of Gray series, or look who’s currently in the White House. But here’s one time that they got it right. George R.R. Martin is a master. His success is well-earned. Become a citizen of the Seven Kingdoms. Bend the knee.

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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