I’m really enjoying listening to the audiobook version of Joe Abercrombie‘s The Heroes at the moment. I actually signed up for an Audible subscription as I tend to walk about an hour a day to and from work and I thought that it would be a good use of my time – that way I can probably listen to another book or two every month as well as the physical copy that I’m reading.
Seems to be working out quite well. The Heroes is about 21 hours long so quite long for an audiobook, but it’s really well narrated by Michael Page – some really good character voices really bring the story alive, although I’m sure reading it would as well, but you can’t always tell how different the experience would be.
Enough said about that, now about the book itself and why I’m liking it. Well I think partly its the humour – I have actually laughed out loud a few times while listening to it, so probably looked like a complete idiot as I was walking through the streets of London. Also it’s a great subject and probably one that Abercrombie was dying to write about I imagine as I think a lot of men do – basically here we have in great detail the story about a battle – the lead-up, the characters who will take part etc. So far I have only listened to a few hours, and it looks like we’re about to have an initial skirmish between two scouting parties. I think this is a really interesting representation of what war and battle is like – random events escalating to lead to other events, not really in the control of the opposing commanders – see War and Peace for another really good interpretation of this.
I guess this is a boy’s own book in a way – most boy’s being interested in battles after all. And for that it’s great fun and the kind of book that I’m sure a lot of boys/men would love to read or write. Me included.
And I’m not planning to denigrate George RR Martin at all in this post – I’m just pointing out why he’s not as Tolkienesque as some who like to use broad-brush generalizations may say – see http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1129596,00.html for instance. This article actually points out that Martin is different from Tolkien, but the tag does seem to have stuck somewhat.
Some similarities first:
- R. R. – something in the initials perhaps suggests the comparison?
- Masters of Epic Fantasy – although Tolkien really invented the epic fantasy genre, while George RR Martin to some extent reinvents it
- The pseudo-Medieval setting – see above
And I would say that is about as far as it goes. Why?
- Tolkien’s morality is more black and white than Martin’s. There are complicated characters in Tolkien – Frodo, Gollum, Boromir, Sam – they all have doubts and flaws, but in Martin’s work there are perhaps rougher characters, such as Tyrion and Jaime, who are villains, yet we end up on their side.
- Tolkien would have been appalled at the vulgarity of Martin – there’s way too much sex and gore. Tolkien was a strict Catholic and his morality comes through in his writing. Martin sees the reality of life, while Tolkien compartmentalizes evil into more easily distinguishable boxes – orcs and balrogs.
- Martin can write from a woman’s point of view, while Tolkien’s women are more like ladies from a medieval romance – beautiful and unobtainable, or in the case of Galadriel a powerful yet benevolent sorceress
- Tolkien wrote for the love of the language and mythology that he created and the writing was a by-product. In fact you could argue that he only wrote LOTR because of the unexpected success of The Hobbit. Martin is a professional writer and his epic fantasy books do not form a continuum with his earlier novels, whereas Tolkien only wrote about the myth and legend of Middle Earth.
- Although based on the mythology of our own world, Tolkien’s Middle Earth is remarkably original. Sure there are the men of Harad who are like Saracen’s, but otherwise the standard displacement of medieval geography into a fantasy setting is not what Tolkien did. Modern writers tend to take the short-cut though of having wild-men coming from somewhere like Scotland, sophisticated and deceitful men coming from somewhere like the Middle East etc etc. The comparisons with history are often very blunt and hardly fantastical.
- Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has, I believe, a more powerful narrative thrust than Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice. The story of The Lord of the Rings is in essence a simple one – to stop Sauron by destroying the Ring. A Song of Fire and Ice is much more complex and is based apparently on Martin’s own reading of the War of the Roses, a less heroic time one could rarely find.
All this begs the question as to whether Tolkien and Martin are actually doing the same thing. Is Epic Fantasy defined by the morality and heroism of its participants or by the scope of its action. Martin’s work certainly has scope and grand scale, but are his characters heroic? I would say yes, and like Tolkien its the “smaller” characters who are the most heroic, such as Arya and Bran, Frodo and Sam.
Not everyone, and very possibly no-one ever again, wants to devote their whole life to a created mythology in the same way as Tolkien did, that is certainly an act of love rather than a way to a writing career. Yet we are lucky to have a master-craftsman such as George RR Martin
to prove that Epic Fantasy today can be a mature and well-written genre.
Readers of this blog might like to know that the serial that I edit, Alt Hist, has just published it’s second issue. Full details can be found at http://althistfiction.com/current-issue/, where you will find previews of each story. You can buy Alt Hist in eBook format and printed format.
Here are some more details:
Alt Hist is the new magazine of historical fiction and alternate history. The second issue features eight new stories and also three book reviews. From ancient Egypt to World War I, and the death of Abraham Lincoln, there is something for every fan of historical fiction in Alt Hist Issue 2.
Stories featured in Alt Hist Issue 2:
‘Long Nights in Languedoc’ by Andrew Knighton
‘The Apollo Mission’ by David X. Wiggin
‘Son of Flanders’ by William Knight
‘In Cappadocia’ by AshleyRose Sullivan
‘The Orchid Hunters’ by Priya Sharma
‘Death in Theatre’ by Jessica Wilson
‘The Scarab of Thutmose’ by Anna Sykora
‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’ by N. K. Pulley
And reviews of:
Historical Fiction Writing: a practical guide and tool-kit by Myfanwy Cook
Ruso and the River of Darkness by R. S. Downie
Rome Burning by Sophia McDougall