The gateway to high fantasy
GEORGE R.R. Martin’s mega-bestselling “A Dance with Dragons’’ is this summer’s savior of the perpetually endangered book business. The four previous novels in the series, collectively entitled “A Song of Ice and Fire,’’ are also selling briskly, helped along by HBO’s adaptation of the first volume, “A Game of Thrones.’’ A series of thick fantasy novels with surprising crossover appeal, a timely screen adaptation, customers storming bookstores to snap up every copy . . . this probably reminds you of something. The magic words “a Harry Potter for everyone’’ were spoken by a bookstore owner in Iowa City. He meant “for adults’’: Martin’s imaginary realm brims over with bloody mayhem, copious sex, nastily intricate politics, an enormous cast of flawed and grasping characters, and layers of filth that lend an authentic feel to its knights, spells, and dragons. These are satisfyingly textured historical novels about a made-up place and time.
Good for the book business, and good for Martin, a longshoreman’s son from Bayonne, New Jersey, who with his beard and squat build resembles an axe-wielding character painted by the brothers Hildebrandt, the noted fantasy illustrators. Martin’s a world-class plotter, and he displays a patience in developing characters and story lines that his peers, not only in fantasy but in more genteel literary genres, would do well to learn from. But it’s not like fantasy begins and ends with him. Frequent comparisons to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings’’ trilogy typically position Martin’s books as a realistic American alternative to the Oxford don’s high-flown epic style, and that’s a fair comparison, but the genre doesn’t begin and end with Tolkien, either.
So here’s hoping that Martin’s bestselling books will serve as a gateway drug, bringing fresh readers to potent stuff that’s less well-known. Think of high fantasy, the subgenre of fantasy that combines archaic derring-do and magic with geopolitics on a fate-of-the-world scale, as composed of two separate strands. One is the idealized heroic strand, exemplified by “Lord of the Rings,’’ in which a great deal of really noble hiking leads up to a clash between good and evil. The other is the noir/pulp strand, exemplified by Robert E. Howard’s smokingly gory Conan stories, which employs a messier psychological palette - lust, greed, fear, hate, revenge, hunger for power - and eschews sharp moral distinctions in favor of a general intimacy with darkness.
Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire’’ tends more toward the skull-crunching, crotch-grabbing noir/pulp strand, but it has just enough affinity with the pomp of the idealized heroic strand to lead curious readers in that direction as well. If you like the grandiose jockeying for thrones in Martin’s novels, then try E. R. Eddison’s “The Worm Ouroboros,’’ perhaps the greatest of all the idealized heroic fantasies, which tells its bigger-than-life tale in language far more seamlessly elegant than Tolkien’s. Or read Roger Zelazny’s Amber books, or Michael Moorcock’s Elric and Corum stories; both authors trippily extend the struggle for dominion across many possible worlds into a full-blown cosmology.
If Martin’s marriage of base impulses to heroic deeds appeals to you, then try the Lyonesse trilogy by Jack Vance, one of Martin’s literary heroes. Vance is the unrivaled master of fantastic irony; the lower his characters’ motives, the more comically refined their diction.
If you like the earthiness of Martin’s storytelling - his characters have bodies that convincingly ache and lust and hunger - then you might like Joe Abercrombie’s horror-inflected noir fantasies, especially his latest, “The Heroes,’’ a mud- and blood-splattered account of a battle in which everybody loses.
And don’t forget Howard’s Conan stories, and those of other pulp writers of yore, notably C. L. Moore’s lush Jirel of Joiry stories, and, though they’re not strictly high fantasy, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series and Harold Lamb’s recently reissued tales of Cossacks, crusaders, and Mongols.
Martin’s a strong craftsman who deserves his success, but it would be a shame if this summer of glory for high fantasy - thanks also to “Thor,’’ the blockbuster movie starring the most high-fantasy of comic-book superheroes - didn’t also lead a new cohort of readers deeper into the genre’s riches.
Carlo Rotella is director of American Studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.