Let me state from the outset that I like both authors and greatly enjoyed their respective works. I’m also going to keep this fairly brief – I’m more interested in hearing others talk about why they find these two to be so great so I can respond in kind. (Some spoilers ahead for those unfamiliar with Martin)
But for the life of me, I cannot fathom why they have garnered such raving praise. It is, for the most part, entirely unwarranted. Let’s start with Rothfuss. He is the author, for those that don’t know, of the book ‘The Name of the Wind’ which is essentially about a legendary figure who lives and runs a bar in some abysmal nothing-town, in which he is naught but a tavern owner. A Chronicler arrives and convinces Kvothe to recount his tale and so we are swept into this “making of the legend” narrative.
It is written in first person, with interesting, fresh descriptions and a generally swift pace that occasionally lags. And it is has received ridiculous praise. I just don’t get why — the story itself isn’t original, and that’s fine, I for one have always been more interested in characters and yet, I feel like I’ve come across and read a thousand Kvothe’s and even the world, to some extent, has very little that is new or interesting. Even the magic system, the process of “naming” to gain power has been seen elsewhere, notably in David Eddings Belgariad series, and the prequel, Belgarath the Sorcerer.
The lesser magic in Rothfuss series, from memory something called “sympathy” (?) is also a process that’s been seen before although I can’t quite recall where as of this very second, perhaps in the Tamir Triad by Lynn Flewelling. The where isn’t quite important, the fact is, it’s all been done before. Add to this the lyrical descriptions — which most seem to love — of Kvothe’s musical ability and lute playing and I shake my head, as nothing in any realm of the written word, can surpass Janny Wurts when it comes to heavenly descriptions of music, music magic, and bards. So even here, I find him coming a little short.
Don’t misunderstand me. I really enjoyed the book – it’s easy to read, highly entertaining and immersive to a great degree, it just doesn’t deserve the acclaim it has received, in my opinion. Personally, I think for most people it’s the style in which it’s written — first person — that forms a large portion of why they love the book, in their eyes it recasts some familiar ground in a fresh light which is great but that’s already happened for most readers thanks to the brilliance of Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy which remains the best written first-person adult fantasy series in existence and indeed, one of the best written fantasy series period.
But that’s enough of that, for now. Let’s turn our eyes to the greater weight of George. R. R. Martin’s popular but incomplete A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) series. It’s been a while since I read this book – (I recently began a re-read) – but I remembered a fair bit of it, and the rest came along quickly enough. That I remembered anything at all is testament to some of the great writing therein, given I live and breathe epic fantasy and have done so for years now.
I didn’t get far in the series, initially, I don’t think but I can’t remember why. I decided to pick it up again for two reasons: the first being that HBO is making a pilot episode for a potential series based off of it and the second is because I continually keep coming across references to this as “the best ever”, such as in this list Best Fantasy Books.
It’s rated number one. I came across this list not too long ago and for the most part, I think the man has got it right, or as near to right as you can come, in terms of selection at least, but not in placement although there are some notable absences.
I think ‘A Game of Thrones’ and the series at large is really good. It’s great, even. The best? No. It’s quite an old style of writing, quite quaint in some ways. Compared to the style and form of fantasy that has been coming out in the past five years, compared to the current wave shall we say, it comes off as a little stilted. (Sorry to be repetitive about the aspects of old and new styles, but emphasis must be placed here especially in direct oppositions).
Having said that, there’s something to be said for the calm, measured pace of the older epics – and it bears mentioning here that Martin’s novels are not actually that old, first printed in 1996 or 98 I believe, but the style is nevertheless reminiscent of much older texts – that immerse you so thoroughly into their world that you can see not just every individual cobblestone, but feel them beneath your feet.
The greatest thing about Martin’s work is that he combines the strengths of both styles – the world is grim and dark, as are the characters and each goes through some genuine pain; what’s more, he’s not afraid to lop off the heads of a heap of characters and yet, the manner in which he writes is still the same as that “high-fair-or soft” fantasy. Again, the dialogue is the difference; it’s not quite Shakespearean but its leaning toward that. It jars a little.
Mostly, you can say that were this to be an alternate version of a society based in the Middle Ages, Martin would come closest to accurately representing it, so far as we know it. But that’s not what fantasy is about. And mostly, I found myself squirming whenever a woman spoke. Stilted dialogue. I didn’t like it, but at least he was consistent. For a while anyway – I’ve re-read up until book 3, which is where I’ve stopped (for financial purposes) and this is where I stopped last time, I believe so I’m yet to go further. The consistency I just mentioned becomes a problem as the series goes on because, essentially, it fades. Certain elements change to a great degree and I can’t tell you how much that irritated me.
First, dialogue. I mentioned that it felt stilted and almost antiquated at times, but I praised the consistency – he stuck to his guns in what he imagined was an accurate portrayal of speech in a medieval-style setting. Good for him. That is, until, ‘fuck’ began to creep in all over the place. The first time I saw it, I was literally shocked (ha). It had no place in the world, in the dialogue, it didn’t feel organic and the moment (which escapes me right now) was nothing of consequence so it’s not as though this was a deliberate placement intended to shock you at the right time.
It was so jarring it took me right out of the story and for some reason I felt cheated, felt like he’d done something hypocritical — and he hadn’t, not really, it’s not as though he set out parameters he was going to follow at the outset, but it did take away one of the strengths of his writing — the (previously) unfailing consistency of his world-building. And I feel as though you shouldn’t change the game-plan mid-way, not like this, if it was something planned from the outset okay but it just felt slip-shod and had no purpose.
Initially, there’s almost no magic whatsoever – we have a glimpse in the opening chapter, a tiny idea of it, but almost nothing from then on for over a book. And I really enjoyed the character-based storytelling, the lack of magic was a strength. The chilling hints of creatures in the forest that were beginning to kill again, the way in which we’re introduced to the legends and disregard now held for those tales and the wonderful way the crumbling Wall is a metaphor for that — all of these things are fantastic and all of these things are ruined, are lessened slowly by the random magic creeping in. And the nature of the world is such that it’s set up to be something that once existed, but doesn’t any more and an example of this is in the skulls of dragons that adorn the king’s throne room — knowledge that such once existed, but certainty that it doesn’t any more.
Which is why the creatures, the hint of ye old things come back to life (with the advent of Winter) was particularly cool but the random elements of magic that grew and grew (in the red lady, the random criminal-mage-dude-who-came-from-fucking-nowhere-with-his-awesome-abilities-but-which-couldn’t-save-him-from-getting-caught-to-begin-with-and-thus-left-him-at-the-convenient-disposal-of-the-Stark-girl, in Brandon’s sight, the green mage, etc etc) and it got to the point, for me, where it became improbable that in a world with such a startling and refreshing lack of magic and in which the (once) existence of dragons was dealt with in the manner with which we deal with dinosaurs, that so much would suddenly begin to occur.
It was epitomised, for me, with the birth of three new dragons – that for me, signalised such a dramatic change from the first two books, it was almost as though he was writing two different series. And suddenly, there is no consistency to praise and in a series praised for its central tenet of realism, there is a random and completely different change in style as regards language and in the proliferation of sorcerous elements. It irritated me no end. I will say, on a parting note, that it can never be good for any series praised above all for the killing of characters.
In conclusion: both authors are quite good but they are by no means as great as they are made out to be. Certainly, in Martin’s case, not the best, though there’s a lot to admire. Although it must also be acknowledged that the “best” is always going to be something highly subjective.