Despite the fact that I have stopped posting chapters of Horse Tamer, I remain intent on writing the complete novel. Although it has to take a back-seat to finishing Princess of Fire, I’ve started re-orienting the existing text to my revised start-point and my grimmer vision of Mankin. I expect this will be as much a labor of love as the posted chapters were.
Writing Horse Tamer got me to thinking about my fantasy influences, and I realized that some of the best deserve to be called out and honored, especially as younger readers might not be familiar with some of them. Considering how picky I am with my genre reading, it’s also worth noting the books I go back to, over and over again, for inspiration, or which influenced me at an early age.
In no particular order, here are five of my favorite fantasy books–
The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien– naturally. This is the ur-work of modern fantasy. Both fantasy and sword and sorcery existed before Tolkien– William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End was published in 1896, and Robert E. Howard created Conan the Barbarian twenty years before Tolkien completed LOTR. Tolkien’s work, however, has defined the genre for the last two generations.
I definitely fall into the camp of those who assert that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is, taken together (as it was originally meant to be), the most influential novel of the Twentieth Century. It powerfully encapsulates our culture’s growing realization that modern society was not the paradise its propagandists said it was– and suggests a remedy– not a bucolic retreat into medievalism, of which some critics accuse the trilogy, but a regaining of a sense of our dependent inter-relationship, both with each other and with nature. In one sense, the Lord of the Rings is the first ecological cautionary tale, published years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In another, it was a vanguard of the counter-culture. In yet another, it is a profound anti-war tale.
The Blue Hawk, by Peter Dickinson — an example of a rare type of fantasy I admire and aspire to write. These are fantasy stories with little or no magic. Other examples would probably include the Gormenghast trilogy, Watership Down, and Shardik. Personally, I dislike magic– to me, it’s a cop-out, and usually takes me away from the kind of setting I really enjoy– the sort that focuses on human relationships and struggles, while set in partly or wholly imaginary worlds. There is considerable debate whether these sort of stories are actually mannerpunk, steampunk or sci-fi; for me the debate is almost meaningless, precisely because genre boundaries on the whole are growing increasingly meaningless.
In the book Dickinson creates a world that is refreshingly not medieval, but rather a re-working of Egyptian or Sumerian culture and history. The young priest Tron intervenes in a ceremony and becomes entangled in a political struggle that at first appears to be merely between the kingdom’s priestly caste and the nobility, who want to break out the strait-jacket the priests have placed on the kingdom– but which in the end is revealed to be a story of gods and their purposes. I love the story, and the atmosphere Dickinson creates, of desert temples, winding rivers, highland peasants, shadowed struggles between priestly and royal factions, and of a place and time far removed from ours. More fantasy needs to be written like this.
The Doomfarers of Coramonde, by Brian Daley. Another story that blurs the boundary between sci-fi and fantasy, it revolves around the discovery of a portal leading from the mundane Earth to a fantasy world. The first half of the story involves a US Army armored cavalry APC in Vietnam that is pulled into the fantasy universe to help defeat a dragon. Inevitably, complications ensue. The second half involves the APC commander, who returns to Coramonde to help the rightful prince Springbuck regain his throne.
This book captured my imagination in large part because I read it while I was still in the Army, in an actual armored cavalry regiment, so I was immediately able to relate to the APC crew, their weapons and attitudes, and their profound sense of dislocation at finding themselves in a different world. Brian Daley was a Vietnam veteran, and he brought a great deal of authenticity to the story. The book was an important milestone for me, in terms of how it presented realistic characters and dialogue, even in a fantastic setting.
Unfortunately, Daley passed away in 1996 from cancer, far too soon.
The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold. This story has become one of my personal favorites, the sort where you read the book until it falls apart. Set in a fantasy world modeled on Reconquista Iberia, it tells the tale of the breaking of a curse that has haunted the royal house of Chalion. Its protagonist, Lupe dy Cazaril, is a rare example of a good character– honorable, honest and dedicated to those he serves– who is not boring. Bujold redeems Cazaril’s straight-arrow qualities by presenting him also as deeply-wounded, humble, self-deprecating and sometimes blundering. I’m the sort who needs characters I can root for in his books and movies, and Cazaril is just the sort of sympathetic character I latch on to.
Bujold also does something else in this book I deeply appreciate– instead of utilizing magic, she has constructed a detailed theology revolving around five deities who, to the characters in the story, are not theoretical at all, but participants in the action, with their own agendas (what the gods want, in fact, is a major plot-point). This allows Bujold to talk about a number of issues– faith, surrender to God, duty, miracles– that might be difficult to handle otherwise.
A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin (aka, Game of Thrones, which is technically the title of only the first book in the series). Since these books are still being written, the jury is not yet completely in as to just how effective the story will be as a whole when it is finished. For one thing, I am personally scratching my head as to how Martin is supposed to wrap up everything in just two more books– there are so many threads and loose-ends, it feels to me as if he needs three or four. Of course, that may be the difference between me and a literary genius.
Because, despite the incomplete nature of the series, it’s clear to me that A Song of Ice and Fire is a work of genius. It has re-defined the fantasy genre, away from the Lord of the Rings template toward something dark, gritty and more sensual. In fact, A Song of Ice and Fire is seen by some as the prime and most successful example of the “grimdark” sub-genre, which is itself a reaction to Tolkien’s work. Of course, as was the case with Tolkien, most of Martin’s imitators cannot match his power.
The power of Martin’s writing lies largely in his refusal to flinch away from the hard realities of life, and particularly life in a medieval setting. It’s often hard to read his work, but for me that resonates– it reads like history, and anyone who reads history knows the first requirement of a historian is a strong stomach. There is no idealization of the human condition in Martin’s work– he fully comprehends the basic fact that people are selfish, false, treacherous, violent and power-hungry. They use power to hurt, and rape as a weapon of war. Good people die for no reason, and too often the wrong prospers. Westeros is the power-obsessed Middle Ages re-written in a modern idiom.
The saving grace in all this darkness is a handful of characters- Brienne of Tarth, Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Davos Seaworth, Daenerys Targaryen, among others– who you come to root for, because they preserve in themselves some aspect of hope and integrity. None of them are perfect– Tyrion, for example, is a completely mixed bag of lust and square-dealing– and you have to steel yourself for the possibility that someone you love is going to get it, as Martin has no compunction about killing off characters. But that just illustrates his narrative honesty.
Martin’s ability to create nuanced characters is another major contributor to his power. Good, bad, in-between, they are all three-dimensional and believable. I find myself liking amoral self-servers like Bronn the sellsword, because he has a pragmatic honesty and a sense of humor, and even Cersei Lannister is revealed, beneath her vicious exterior, as a fearful and wounded woman who loves her children. How Martin manages this while creating a cast that may dwarf that of War and Peace is an opaque mystery to me.
I hope that Martin can, in the end, wrap up his epic in a way that resolves all the threads. Writing a genuinely epic fantasy is tough, but resolving it in a satisfactory manner is probably the toughest part of all. Off the top of my head about the only author I can think of who actually accomplished the feat was Tolkien. But among modern authors, Martin is probably the one person who can do it.
It suddenly seems almost sacrilegious to mention my faltering and simple-minded effort with Horse Tamer in the same breath with these works. What inspires you frequently also creates a sense of futility– I know my stories will never match the grace and power of these books. But the inspiration also creates the desire to honor your sources with your own effort. Sometime after I complete Princess of Fire and before I start Princess of Stars, I intend to finish Horse Tamer.
And then I guess we’ll just see what happens.