When I was eighteen, I stopped reading epic fantasy for a while. It was Robert Jordan’s fault, if you must know.
I had just finished my final exams at High School in my own, lackluster fashion, and I had planned to sit around and read a few books over the following months, before the marks came back. It wasn’t the only thing I’d planned to do – fucking round with my friends was going to occupy most of it – but you know, it was a plan. It seemed like a thing. I’d gotten a few of the Jordan books as gifts earlier, and I thought I’d spend a few weeks reading through The Eye of the World and the couple others I had. I made it half way through before I gave up on. I put it down simply because I’d seen it before. It wasn’t until years later that I realised that Jordan had used Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as a template, and had in fact, lifted pretty heavily from it. At the time, I just put it down, put it away, and went and did other things. I don’t know that I read much of anything, then, but I remember that when I started buying books again, I was buying things other than epic fantasy.
I didn’t read it again for a while. Mostly, I had read a lot of it growing up, the books ranging from bad to good, and I was ready for something different. I still liked the genre, but I was itching for something a bit new. I also wanted to be a writer and I figured I had to be wider read. It is a big world out there and I hadn’t read much of it. So I read different things. It’s not a terribly unusual story. In fact, it isn’t even a controversial one (unless you decide to look at this as ‘Robert Jordan Made Me Leave Fantasy’, which is funny, but I can’t even tell you if those are good or bad books nowadays). But I came back, first with a few authors I had always liked, and then, about a decade and some later, after I had handed in my doctorate, I sat around and read the first four books of A Song of Ice and Fire. I remember sitting in my backyard in the last bits of sun and reading it and totally enjoying the fact that it had nothing to do with my thesis. I could probably have read menus with the same enjoyment, but after I finished them, I decided I’d try to find a few more that I’d like. If I remember right, I ended up reading Steve Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen.
But there is about a decade of epic fantasy books that I’ve missed. I went out into the wilderness. I saw what I saw, and when I came back, a whole lotta shit had changed. It didn’t really bother me – I mean, the amount of books I haven’t read is amazingly huge – but then, somewhere a few years back, I wrote an epic fantasy novel. I’ve said before that it was at a bad time in my career (a word that deserves quote marks, I assure you) and I didn’t really think much beyond that I’d write a book for the kid in me and the adult in me and see what came out. Now, here I am, a guy with epic fantasy novels to his name, each one bigger than the next, and each one big enough to be used as a weapon against a poor and unsuspecting person… and I figure, well, I ought to keep up with what’s what in the genre. I like it, after all. In fact, I tell myself it’s work (truthfully, I tell myself that all reading is work related, which it is) and it makes me chuckle to think that reading epic fantasy is a work related task.
(It’s a good job, in case you’re wondering.)
So, I’ve been reading bits and pieces here and there. I read Robin Hobb’s first Fitz book, Assassin’s Apprentice, last week, and was struck by how old school it felt, twenty years after it first appeared. In the sea of dark, gritty, sardonic, whatever books, Hobb’s first book, which has a melancholy voice throughout it, felt downright innocent. It’s not a bad book, mind you, though I thought the pacing was off a bit – but it wasn’t Hobb’s first novel, and it felt quite accomplished, really. But it is strange to look at it, and then to look at some of the fantasy books being published now, and to see it very much as an older school of book, even though it was published around the same time as Martin’s A Game of Thrones. You could argue that Martin’s book is the harbinger of the new fantasy, in which no one is safe, and a darker, more adult world can be found. It isn’t like either book is the first, or the last, to do what they do, but I found them to be an interesting counterbalance to each other (and who knows, maybe Hobb’s books become like that as they go on).
At any rate, it’s interesting to go back, to read these things I missed. Some that I haven’t liked I think the younger me would have, but the older me, who likes fine prose and ambition – to touch upon that stupid argument still going on in the scene as a whole – in either themes, world building, or just plain craft, hasn’t. It’s interesting, also, to see how the authors of my youth have held onto their place, or their audience, or how they have slipped away. Some moved to different genres, different names, and some stopped writing (or being published). There’s no real reason, either, for some of it. It’s simply that new generations of readers came along for new authors, and some took the old ones as well, and some don’t. Oh, sure, buried within that is a lot to unpack about the support of certain authors, and the demographic of readers, and all of that is important, but it’s not necessarily what I am about right now. I’m simply looking and finding and reading and it’s good and bad and all of that in between and outside.
It’s an interesting journey. It’s an interesting gig. It makes you reflect on what you’re doing, where you think you’re going, and what you think it will all look like a decade from now.