Monday, November 20, 2006

Doorstopper fantasy . . . how The Monk was weaned

One of J.R.R. Tolkien's regrets after finishing The Lord of the Rings is that he thought the book might be too short. After nearly 1100 pages, Tolkien still believed that more could be done, and that more tale could be told. And there's little doubt he was right. But he was also entirely correct to put his focus where he did and ensure that even the smaller story he wrote would be complete, direct, well-written and manageable.

Thus, The Lord of the Rings is a classic.

And as the Tolkien literary progeny have demonstrated, it will remain so precisely because there is no competition for the crown.

The Monk has read what William Thompson of Sci-Fi calls "Doorstopper" fantasy (because the books are big enough to be doorstoppers) for years. Brooks' first Shannara series, both Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Belgariad, the Mallorean, Wheel of Time, Song of Ice and Fire, Sword of Truth, Memory Sorrow & Thorn, and the recent Canadian contributions: The Prince of Nothing and the Malazan Book of the Fallen. And all of these tomes, aside from the Covenants, have one thing in common -- at some point, the author loses control of the narrative.

For instance, the Shannara series started as pure Tolkien derivative, became a mess in its sequels, and the repeated building upon the fragile foundation of the Shannara world (now about 12+ books and counting) is a bit much. Tad Williams' Memory Sorrow and Thorn burgeoned so much that the concluding volume of the trilogy was 50% of the story! Compare that to Return of the King, the shortest volume by far in the Lord of the Rings. And then there's Goodkind whose first 2 books could have been the whole series . . . except he wanted to say more, in greater detail, and with even more Ayn-Randian theory to put on the pages.

Sadly, the faults have been most apparent in the men who came closest to becoming true heirs of Tolkien: David Eddings, George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan. Eddings wrote one fine tale, the Belgariad, then mucked up his whole creation by attaching the weak sequel, the Mallorean. Thereafter, he relied on name recognition to write more novels in the same vein as the first lot.

Jordan was the next KING of fantasy after book one of The Wheel of Time and its follow-up rocked the genre. Five books into the series, Jordan was still going strong. Then he became enamored of hearing his own literary voice, the story stopped, the heroes began wandering in the wilderness and from book 7 through book 10 little of value happened -- 3200+ pages of text, only 200 of which had importance. Meanwhile, in the middle of the project he essentially took a year and a half to perpetuate his own myth by collaborating on a Wheel of Time encyclopedia.

Supposedly Jordan will end this mess soon, and I'm hoping for a smash-bang ending after the super start. Book 12 is due in 2008 and Jordan has said he will end the series in that volume if his publisher needs to print it at 2000 pages hardbound. Yipes. And good luck to Jordan in accomplishing his task -- with all the story threads and the man's own ill-health affecting his ability to complete the tale, he has much difficult work ahead.

As Jordan faltered, Martin soared. A Game of Thrones shook up the genre in 1998, the action-packed Clash of Kings added to the excellent work, and A Storm of Swords contained shock after shock. Those three books came out in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Then nothing.

First, Martin considered writing book four as if five years had passed since book three ended. But he couldn't because of all the chaos in the story. Then he had to rewrite, backtrack, reconfigure and . . . Five years later, Martin published PART of book four as "A Feast for Crows".

Book 4-A was due in 2006, but Martin only writes from home and did so much publicity for AFfC that he got WAY behind. Now he'll update his progress in January 2007. Meanwhile the narrative is getting broader and shallower -- more people to keep track of and fewer things happening. Whereas books 1-3 were amongst the best in the field, the series is now so far from Martin's core story that who knows what will happen.

This is sad in its way -- like the tower of Babel in modern fiction, attempting to create these grand genre edifices that come crashing down among the author. Even Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen threatens to collapse on its own weight -- although he has not only stuck to his script better than any of the others AND is the best at ensuring constant production (book 7 of 10 comes out on schedule next year and he's already writing book 8), the most recent entry, The Bonehunters, had much more slash-and-bash to fill up the pages instead of plot development or story arc. Then again, book 5 was the best of the lot, so Erikson deserves a pass at this point.

Erikson's tale really DOES encompass the history of a whole world, there is a lot of content in the series. Jordan's contains only a little more story than Tolkien, in about 6 times the length. Martin's tale is like a sponge (the animal) -- lots of layers and surface area, but the weight and depth is not commensurate with the size.

So The Monk now tends to avoid most fantasy fiction, which is too bad in a way. After all, I hear there are many good authors out there (Farland, Hobb, Irvine). But no one has learned the lesson of the master -- keep them wanting more, not keep them wishing for the next installment.

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