Two weeks ago, I finished A Dance with Dragons, the latest tome in George R. R. Martin’s high fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, more commonly known as Game of Thrones to viewers of the HBO show. As a writer and a reader, Martin’s series was a game changer for me. Set in the mythic kingdom of Westeros, Game of Thrones is a massive yarn, told from multiple points of view, that recounts on a grand and bloody scale the political struggle among the seven kingdoms for supremacy and the Iron Throne.
Game of Thrones features a huge cast of characters with unusual and, often, confusingly similar names. The story is intricate, gripping, layered, vast in scope and detail, and unrelentingly dark. The saga is far from over. Mr. Martin, I suspect, has numerous years and volumes ahead of him if he hopes to finish what he’s started. Some readers speculate that the story is so huge, so massive and complex with so many dangling plot threads told from so many POVs that the story’s gotten away from Martin, and he’ll never live long enough to finish the damn thing. After all, the first book opens with the admonition that Winter is coming; five books later, it’s barely begun to snow.
Doesn’t matter; whether he finishes it or not, Martin has changed the way I think about fantasy and writing. I cut my teeth on The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Game of Thrones is Tolkien on crack, a cynical (some say nihilistic), pessimistic, the-world-is-a-really-crappy-place-and-we’re-all-going-to-die-and-it’s-going-to-be-ugly Tolkien. Game of Thrones is dirty and dark, grim and gritty, brutal, violent, Machiavellian and nightmarish. The good guys don’t win—at least so far. In fact, a lot of the time, the good guys are downright dumber than dirt. Which brings me to another point: as a writer, Martin’s lack of remorse astonishes me. He has NO problem killing his characters. Nope. Nada. The dude is merciless. I remember once, as I was reading, thinking, He’s not going to . . . Surely he’s not really going to . . . OMG, he did.
I closed the book with a shudder, marveling at his ability to dispatch his little darlings. And death is the least of the horrors that await his unlucky characters. There truly are things worse than death at the hands of George R.R. Martin. Ask Theon Greyjoy, if you don’t believe me.
Fast forward a week. Having finished Game of Thrones, I decided to revisit The Belgariad, an old-fashioned epic fantasy about a young farm boy who embarks upon a quest to recover a powerful talisman before an evil, batshit crazy god can use it to subjugate the world and make things pretty much suck for everyone. There are wizards and warriors, monsters and magic, supernatural battles and medieval warfare. The series features an ensemble cast of likeable characters, including Garion, the boy wonder/chosen one, and his stalwart companions on the quest: Belgarath, a powerful sorcerer; Polgara, Belgarath’s beautiful and equally powerful daughter; Silk, the Guide; Barak, the Dreadful Bear; Durnik, a simple blacksmith; Hettar the Horse Lord; and Mandorallen, the Knight Protector. Oh, and Ce’nedra, the Queen of the World and the Bride of Light. Want to guess whom she ends up marrying?
The Belgariad is a very different kind of story from Game of Thrones. Full of wry humor and sparkling dialogue (and LOTS of adverbs, something I noticed as a writer that I didn’t notice the first time I read it), Eddings’ voice reminds me of Georgette Heyer’s, if Ms. Heyer wrote sword and sorcery fantasy. The story is mostly told from the POV of Garion, the boy, and we travel with him, watching him come into his powers and mature into a man, a hero, and a king. It’s predictable and fun, comfortable and cozy. And, yes, maybe even a little clichéd, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, in my opinion. The Belgariad uses tried and true fantasy tropes to tell an engaging and entertaining story. There are no surprises at the end. The good guys win and there’s a HEA.
So, I guess you could say I like beer, whether it’s light or dark. It just depends upon my mood.
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