Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dudes On a Hike (My Problem with Fantasy Novels)

A few months ago, my wife and I started watching Game of Thrones. What amused me about it at the time is that it took her weeks to agree to watch it with me, despite the fact that she’s much more of a fantasy reader than I am.

We’re talking about the woman who insisted that we go and see Return of the King in the theater on opening weekend, despite the long lines, long running time, and other obligations.

But I digress.

We started watching Game of Thrones, and midway through the first season, my wife remarked that she really wanted to read the books. Amazon was running a deal, four books, twenty bucks. So we became the proud owners of the first four books in the series.

This brought us to the next hurdle: Reading four massive, massive books.

It wasn’t until the box of books was actually staring me in the face that I remembered something sort of critical: I’m not much of a fantasy reader.

A friend of mine once gave my wife and I six fantasy books for Christmas. Two series worth, with a shared character. He thought I’d blow through them, as I’m a fairly speedy reader. In the end, I read one series, and it took me the better part of a year.

When a totally different friend asked me why it took me so long, I told him my Fundamental Theory of Fantasy: Sooner or later, the book(s) turn into the story of a bunch of dudes on a hike.

To be fair, I was basing this theory on two major series. The one I had just barely managed to read, the The Lord of the Rings, which is a lot of fun the watch and super, super, super boring to take in through my eyeballs.

(This ties into my Lord of the Rings theory, which is this: Everyone who loves the series either encountered it for the first time when they were 12 or 13, OR, high on weed. Maybe both, but that theory depresses me, so I hope it’s not the case.)

I’m knee-deep in Games of Thrones: The Text Version now, and I’m enjoying it, but dangit if the book isn’t mostly about dudes going on hikes.

However, I’ve been discussing the series with a buddy who is now somewhere in the middle of book three, and getting frustrated that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of forward movement.

And so, based on what I know of the series, and what I know of fantasy in general, I came up with this theory:

Most fantasy is like watching two really funny guys play a bad game of pool.

The object of pool, of course, is to get the balls into the holes. That’s it. But with a fantasy series, you have to watch a pool game where the players keep screwing up.

Bob is supposed to go to Loompaland. Instead, he gets involved in a land war in Legoland. He has one goal (get to Loompaland, ball in the hole) and he keeps missing the hole over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Now, the guys playing the game are top flight comedians, so every time they miss, they do something entertaining. But after a while, you just want to see a ball go into a hole, and see Bob GET TO LOOMPALAND, ALREADY.

That was, more-or-less, where I ended the metaphor, but the more I think about it, the farther I think it carries.

Fantasy authors, for example, love inserting extraneous details and background stories into their books. If you like those stories, they’re like a little present the author gives the reader every twenty pages or so.

If you don’t like those kinds of details, it’s like the author is pulling out your teeth with a heroin-crazed Chihuahua.

Subsequently, if you enjoy reading all the songs in Lord of the Rings, you’ll be a happy, happy person. But if all they do is grate on your nerves, you’re in for a slog.

Does some epic fantasy avoid this trap? Harry Potter almost does, until it gets into the seventh book and becomes Harry Potter and the Extraordinarily Long Camping Trip. And really, I think the Harry Potter story does have a similar problem, inasmuch as Harry’s Job is to top Voldemort, which he fails at six books in a row.

But at least there’s not much walking.


  1. But considering how famous and acclaimed Lord of the Rings and all the Harry Potter books are, surely you'll admit this is your subjective opinion. Your LOTR theory is false. I read them for the first time just a few months ago and loved them. I doubt I'm the only one. The writing is terrific and the plot is rich. It's just that you're not into fantasy.

    1. Actually, I recently stated the Wise Man’s Fear (the second novel in the Killinger Chronicles) was my favorite book of the last year.

      I suspect I enjoyed it more than most fantasy because it actually recognized that there are times when the walking just gets old. There’s a bit in the middle that could have taken up literally hundreds of pages, when all you wanted was for the character to get from point A to point B. And the main character says, essentially, “I went from here to here, and had many adventures.” I think it takes four or five pages.

      It’s kind of brilliant and hilarious. Because the walking was not the point. The point was, he had to get from point A to point B.

      On the opposite spectrum, there’s a massive battle in The Lord of the Rings. The one where the Ents attack. When the book “arrives” there, the battle is over. And we get maybe a page of description.

      The book spent more time talking about the Ents talking about maybe going to battle than it did on the actual battle itself.

      What I’m saying is, Wise Man’s Fear skipped the walking to get to the story. Rings skipped the story to get back to the walking…

      And for what it's worth, I realize the books are much-loved. There's a great story in there. I know because they shucked a lot of descriptions of trees and turned them into movies.

  2. LOL! I laughed reeeeally hard reading this. And I totally agree with you. Most fantasy books do have a lot of walking and subplots. The ironic thing is, well, that I write fantasy. And I read it all the time. I love when I find a story that doesn't involve a trek across the known world.

    Thanks for sharing :D