Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Rich, Bold Flavor of Full-bodied Storytelling

My recent blog entry on the precipitous decline in quality of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time has me wondering about those moments when a series of books, or a television show, or a film franchise, take that almost inevitable plummet from something we once loved to something that, at best, earns our disinterest, and, at worst, irritates us with how unabashedly its potential was squandered.

The contemporary pop culture vernacular calls these moments “jumping the shark.” This is an idiom whose meaning has expanded and evolved over the years, but it’s always boiled down to being a convenient shorthand for those moments in a franchise that mark the point-of-no-return from when it was great, to when it was not. For those who are not literate in the language of pop culture, “jumping the shark” refers specifically to that infamous episode of the sitcom Happy Days when Fonzie, on water skis, jumps over a shark, definitively marking the point where the writers had run out of ideas and were relying on gimmicks.

But when has something truly jumped the shark, and when has it simply veered into a new but perfectly valid direction that leaves some of its audience behind?

Some claim that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was never the same after Buffy and crew graduated from high school. True, it never was the same, but different doesn’t always equate to worse. Moving Buffy from high school to college, and then from college into the “real world,” allowed Whedon and company to explore other avenues of the show’s metaphorical nature. If monsters and vampires could be metaphors for the turmoils of high school, why couldn’t the show deliver similar metaphors for the confusion and pressures of higher education, or the scary, sobering realities of the responsibilities of adulthood? The arrival of Buffy’s sister Dawn was not a cheap plot twist to introduce a new character, but a clever use of the show’s mystical mythos and magical setting to force Buffy into a parental role. Pairing up Buffy with Spike was not a cynical move to have Buffy romantically involved with yet another vampire, but rather a logical character progression to illustrate how far Buffy had fallen into depression and self-loathing.

Battlestar Galactica didn’t jump the shark when its second season cliffhanger was followed by a four month story gap. It was simply a bold move to shake up the status quo and send the story into new directions. (Though the whole “final five” rigmarole might be a different matter.)

The Chronicles of Riddick was not a bad movie simply because it wasn’t trying to recreate Pitch Black. Say what you want about the quality of the film, but it would have been a mistake to simply emulate the original.

Tales from Watership Down does not fail as a sequel to Watership Down because it doesn’t live up to the epic nature of its predecessor. Quite the opposite. It succeeds because it doesn’t even attempt to capture the same scope and breadth of the original novel.

Unless a story gets completely gutted of its essential traits that made it stand out as something special in the first place, shouldn’t our first instinct be curiosity about where the story is going, rather than a knee-jerk dismissal of anything that doesn’t fit our comfortable status quo? Rather than being bitter about creative change, maybe we should consider the possibility that the creators are simply bold enough to try something new rather than cynically driving a property into the ground through stagnation.

You may prefer that brand of tea that you’ve become accustomed to, but maybe you’ll end up enjoying that mug of thick, hot coffee as well.


The Wheel of Time Keeps on Turning (or How I Was Broken by the Wheel of Pain)

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Young Conan is prepared for a decade of torture reading Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.

There’s no denying it, I’m a complete fanboy when it comes to fantasy literature. I’m the kind of gormless sucker who can enjoy just about anything with swords and spells, wands and witches, knights and maidens, or dragons and demons. If it’s fantasy, I can usually buy into it. I love all the tropes and cliches of fantasy. A good story and strong characters and striking prose are why I fall in love with some books, but the trappings of fantasy are always an irresistible draw.

As long as I know what I’m getting into, I can even enjoy the very worst kinds of Dungeons and Dragons novels. You may know the kind of books I’m talking about; the ones that have no seeming sense of story progression or coherency, but instead read like the random adventures of smart-assed D&D players cobbled together into something that’s supposed to be readable, where most of the dialogue sounds like wisecracks that are probably only funny once everyone around the game table has had a couple beers

But that’s fine. A twinkie may be garbage food, but it’s still delicious.

Point being, when a work of fantasy aggressively aggravates me, I tend to become a bit dismayed. I am, after all, such a damned forgiving reader when it comes to the genre.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, my two favorite, actively working fantasy writers were Tad Williams and Robert Jordan. Williams’ trilogy Memory Sorrow and Thorn and Jordan’s series The Wheel of Time both had a vibrancy and breadth of immersive detail that I hadn’t been encountering of late in the fantasy I’d been reading, and they were both populated with a wide variety of distinct and engaging personalities. Following the maturation of young characters such as Simon, Rand, Mat, and Perrin was in turns frustrating, heartbreaking, and inspiring, and it was all wonderfully textured with clashing personalities and the dichotomy between these young heroes and their older, more experienced counterparts.

The climax of Memory Sorrow and Thorn fell a bit flat. It all seemed to wrap up a bit too neatly and easily, and the twist was predictable. But the journey up until then had been so enthralling that a bit of a letdown at the end was, at worst, a minor flaw.

The climax of The Wheel of Time

Well, I don’t actually know. I’ve never been able to get there.

I was first reading the books as they saw print, eagerly awaiting each new volume. The first book, The Eye of the World, was a blatant and deliberate riff on Tolkien, but I was hooked by Jordan’s world, his characters, his magic system and they way it was reflected in his societies and gender relations. The second and third books were great reads, with Jordan feeling free to abandon his emulation of Tolkien. The fourth and fifth books were entertaining enough, though they were starting to feel more like separate adventures rather than progressions of the overall story. The sixth book, Lord of Chaos, felt like a book where not much happened. Hundreds of pages going nowhere, salvaged only by a gripping and cathartic climax. It was the seventh book, A Crown of Swords, that broke me. I got about halfway through, wondered why I was still reading, and never picked the book back up.

A couple years ago I decided to give the series another go with a marathon read of the entire series, the plan being to be ready for the releases of the final post-humous volumes. Maybe I had missed something the first time around. I managed to get a couple chapters into the sixth book before giving up again.

I chalk my failure to get even halfway through this immense, fourteen book series to a couple factors.

1. Boredom: The early books, even though they were dense with minutiae and loaded with dozens of characters, always seemed to be actively moving the story forward. Rand was always moving one step closer to madness and one step closer to his ultimate destiny. The characters were always learning and growing, and new revelations were always being made. But as the books progressed, they became more and more weighed down with filler and pointless diversions. It was like Jordan, having created such a well-developed world, was happy to use his world and characters as an all-purpose plug that he could jack into the socket of any new fantasy story about quests for magical artifacts. Nothing carried any import, because nothing was really happening.

2. Characterization: I could have lived with the characters becoming somewhat stagnant. If you continue to steadily grow and evolve the characters over such a long span of books, you risk ending up with characters who bear no resemblance to themselves. But it’s terribly frustrating when this stagnation leads to the characters becoming cartoonish caricatures of themselves. Rounded, complex characters were suddenly being presented as flat and stale, defined only by their most distinctive trait and their inability to get along with the opposite sex. Rand was angry and a bit crazy, Mat the consummate smart-ass and contrarian, Perrin the slow, methodical thinker. None of them understood women, as the reader was constantly being reminded. The women fared even worse, coming across as spiteful, ridiculously myopic harridans. What had once been an engaging fantasy epic with interesting character dynamics was now reading like a bad parody about the battle between the sexes.

Both points, of course, are simply symptoms of the real problem with The Wheel of Time, which is that the Wheel kept turning, and turning, and turning, until it had worn such a smooth, deep groove that it couldn’t gain any more traction, so it was left to pointlessly spin, spin away. It’s tough enough to maintain quality, keep things fresh, and meet expectations within a single story or novel. Forget about trying to pull it off with fourteen 900 page novels.

I do feel a bit guilty about my inability to finish Jordan’s magnum opus. Even though I’m no longer a fan, it always bothered me that Jordan passed away before he could finish the series, and as a result I feel a bit dirty even now when I criticize his work. I hope his fans were pleased with the work that Brandon Sanderson did to turn Jordan’s extensive notes into the series’ three final volumes. They deserve a good payoff after the loyalty and patience they graced Jordan with, and Jordan deserved to have his story be complete.


The Nitty on the Gritty

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Fantasy fiction has experienced a shift in mood and tone over the last couple decades. Or people’s perceptions of fantasy fiction have shifted. As a genre, fantasy used to be stereotyped as fluffy, fairy tale tinted stories of rainbows and unicorns, where evil always fails and good always triumphs. Now, popular fantasy tends to be viewed as dark, gritty, bloody, brutal, and unforgiving, and it’s easy to point to certain fantasy novels and writers as examples of this descent into grit and grime.

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (A Game of Thrones if you’re referring to the first book or the television show) has an upsettingly high body account among its large cast of main characters.

Joe Abercrombie is often mentioned in the same breath as the bloodthirsty Martin.

Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen strives to be so grim and gritty that it feels as though the entire world is covered in dead deserts and unforgiving wastelands.

Patrick Rothfuss’ anti-hero Kvothe from The Name of the Wind is responsible for the heinous assassination of the King and the war that followed. So much potential for going over-the-top with guilt, angst, and pathos, but Kvothe is too much of a cold bastard for that.

Other fantasy writers such as R. Scott Bakker, K.J. Parker, Matthew Stover, Scott Lynch, David Anthony Durham, Mark Lawrence, and Brent Weeks are frequently landing on lists of dark and gritty fantasy. The writers that I usually see recommended among fantasy fans are those who are known for writing dark, gritty, and “realistic” fantasy.

The first time I consciously noted this trend towards the grim and gruesome, and the shift from simplistic tales of good versus evil to stories of moral relativism, was with Glen Cook’s The Chronicles of the Black Company. (Thank you, Brandon, for convincing me to read these books those many, many years ago.) I remember the pleasant shock of seemingly long-term characters being bumped off not only within the first book, but within the first several pages. The absence of a distinct demarcation between good and evil felt like a much-needed departure from and reinvention of beloved but tired fantasy tropes. Telling the story from the point-of-view of a rag-tag, oft-sidelined group of mercenaries instead of the central movers and shakers was a stroke of humanizing genius.

I’m not the only one who has noticed and remarked on the seminal nature of Glen Cook’s military epic. Do a search for The Black Company, and chances are that any reviews you find will comment on how Glen Cook was one of the first, if not the first, to trade in magical glamour for mercenary grit. There’s no doubt that the books were influential. The impact that they had on Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is instantly apparent in Erikson’s character and place names, and their influence becomes more concrete and vital as Erikson’s novels progress.

But thinking back on all the fantasy novels and stories I enjoyed as a child, teenager, and young adult, I’m not at all convinced that Cook’s reputation for helping to pave the way for dark and gritty fantasy is deserved. I’m not even convinced that the fantasy genre’s reputation for becoming darker and grittier is deserved.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is often touted as being a prime example of how twee and simplistic the fantasy genre is capable of being. It’s often criticized for being a shallow, glossy adventure tale of Good and Light overcoming Evil and Darkness, but let’s not forget the creepiness of Smeagol’s demented spiral into despair and his pathetic addiction, or that Frodo fails his final test. Let’s not ignore that the epic’s overarching and ever present theme is about the long, grueling march of mortality and the inevitability of death and the end of all things. Good triumphs over evil, but our halfling heroes are unable to protect their home from the loss of innocence. Magic is fading from the world forever. Of all the fantasy stories I’ve read, this one is still the saddest. It was published 30 years before The Black Company.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan is an amoral thief and warrior in a world where life is cheap and violence rules. He has no qualms with dealing death and destruction, and is not a hero, but simply an adept survivor. The first Conan story was published 52 years before The Black Company.

Titus Groan, the first book in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, is about a city oppressed with dense and unfathomable tradition, which is populated with self-serving, monstrous individuals and pathetic, demented wretches. It was published 28 years before The Black Company.

The most popular incarnation of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion is the albino Elric of Melnibone. This self-loathing wizard and warrior wields the magical sword Stormbringer, which feeds on the souls of those it slays. Elric’s story culminates with Elric losing all that he holds dear, with Stormbringer feeding on his best friend before turning itself on Elric. The first Elric story was published 23 years before The Black Company.

Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are about a spiteful, lonely man suffering from leprosy who finds himself in a magical land that heals him of his terrible disease. One of his first actions in this world is to rape a young woman who had befriended him. His sense of guilt and his leprosy driven habits of survival cause him to angrily, stubbornly, and steadfastly deny the reality of the world he now finds himself in. Many readers find Thomas Covenant to be a loathsome, irredeemable character. Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in the series, was published 7 years before The Black Company.

There are many other examples of pre-Black Company fantasy stories with dark tones, disturbing ideas, or shocking events. Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Barrie’s Peter Pan, Asprin’s and Abbey’s Thieves’ World, Alexander’s The Prydain Chronicles, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber, Gardner’s Grendel

Look back even further, to the true progenitors of the fantasy genre such as Shakespeare, fairy tales, fables, myths, religion, Greek drama, epic poetry, and it becomes readily apparent that darkness and fantasy are true bedfellows. Fantasy stories of today are playing in the same heaps of grime and grit and violence that Oedipus was crawling through when he murdered his father, slept with his mother, and stabbed out his own eyes.

So, when someone declares that they love A Game of Thrones because it’s not typical fantasy, just remember that there are old versions of Sleeping Beauty where she was not awoken with a kiss, but by the suckling of her newborn twins, the result of her being raped while laying in an enchanted sleep. That’s sick.

And Cinderella’s step-sisters sliced off parts of their own feet in order to fit into the slipper. That’s twisted.

By the way, please read Glen Cook’s The Chronicles of the Black Company if you already haven’t. It’s reputation as being groundbreaking in tone and mood might be overstated, but they’re well worth the read, in no small part to Cook’s deft use of first person, his engaging cast of colorful characters, his bizarre creatures and frightening, ancient wizards, and his sense humanity.

The series contains the following books:

1. The Black Company

2. Shadows Linger

3. The White Rose

4. The Silver Spike

5. Shadow Games

6. Dreams of Steel

7. Bleak Seasons

8. She is the Darkness

9. Water Sleeps

10. Soldiers Live


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