Category Archives: A Song of Ice and Fire

Here I give my personal interpretation of an argument about Malazan that is again given a different explanation, as well ramble on general considerations about what happens to very big book series that are written across many years. It’s once again converted from a forum discussion.

“GOTMism” is a term being used when the plot in “Gardens of the Moon” is not completely coherent with the story told in the rest of the series. Often readers explain these problems as “retcons” and motivate them with the gap of years between the writing of the first book in the series and the rest. Including the idea Erikson improved as a writer. I was never totally persuaded by these explanations and over time I built my own explanation that seems to me more logical and complete. One aspect, for example, is that I read “This River Awakens”, written before GotM final version, and I found prose of a quality than in my opinion substantially exceed that of GotM. So the idea of Erikson “massively improved as a writer” didn’t go quite well with the fact his first book is so absolutely excellent. Yet you still can feel a significant improvement going from GotM to the following, Deadhouse Gates. The writing does improve. The other aspect of why the retcon idea isn’t exhaustive is that events weren’t simply incoherent with how the plot was explained later on, they remained incoherent even when examined in isolation. Some stuff in GotM doesn’t make a lot of sense even when you consider just GotM as a context. So it’s not just a case that can be written of as a “change of mind” on the part of the writer.

So my explanation is different, I think the Malazan series went through different stages, as it happens with oversize, ambitious projects, and you can see those effects directly in the books.

Here I try to mix a forum post where I wrote my interpretation and explanation of what usually appears as an inconsistency, leading to some overall considerations on how the whole series is written and is shaped, and how it evolved.

Tayschrenn: Can someone remind me what is was that he did in the battle of Pale, revealed in MoI, that showed that he wasn’t actually trying to kill Malazans/Bridgeburners as previously suspected?

It’s a retcon, really. I think the excuse was that he thought the tunnels were safe but it could be classified as a GotM-ism.

That’s too much a tangle of plot for a completely satisfying explanation, but not really a retcon. The thing “mostly” makes sense, but it’s still rough and poorly executed. Lots of those characters swap positions behind the scenes and their motivations aren’t well explained.

I think I was able to give it an overall sketchy explanation in the Tor re-read, and that explanation was later confirmed by Erikson. Though I don’t remember exactly how it worked.

Tayschrenn’s position changes with the arrival of the adjunct (soon after the siege), so you see the contradiction of the character because there was an actual change of tasks. The Bridgeburners DID plan to replace Laseen on the throne with Whiskeyjack, so initially it was true that Laseen was against them and gave Tayschrenn the order to continue the purge. Those purges (that were actually triggered by Paran, indirectly) were required by Laseen to seize control, since her rule was of course not legitimate and pretty much no one in the army was loyal to her. They were all loyal to the previous emperor. Only later Laseen realized she couldn’t fight against the whole empire, and had instead to try winning their favors. She’s very paranoid, but not a fool.

It’s then Dujek that later tries to convince Wiskeyjack that Tayschrenn is not an enemy. So he might have been half lying for pragmatic reasons, or maybe it was Tayschrenn that managed to convince Dujek (who himself didn’t know of the Bridgeburners plan to replace Laseen).

My logic is Kalam’s plan was to replace Laseen with Whiskeyjack. That’s why one of the pebble was supposed to open a portal and bring over both Quick Ben and Whiskeyjack. But at that point the Bridgeburners on Genabackis side were in a deep mess with the Crippled God and Kalam too was in deep trouble and had to use both the pebbles before reaching Laseen (and Laseen wasn’t even there because she tricked Kalam). So during both MoI and DG the situation evolved so much that the plan couldn’t happen anymore.

The only tiny hook for this explanation is the very last two pages of Gardens of the Moon (and the general theme of Dune-like “plans within plans within plans” that is QB’s mantra, essentially, being always one step ahead). Go back and reread them. That plan is never mentioned again because it was just between Quick Ben and Kalam (since Whiskeyjack would never agree to send a squad to kill Laseen and claim the throne, their idea was to do everything on their own and then just toss the throne in Whiskyjack’s lap so that he couldn’t turn down the offer at that point, the empire without a ruler would be such a mess that WJ’s honor would have tied him to the throne as a sense of responsibility), and because its conditions change so much during DG that basically it only remains implicit. We only know Kalam was there to kill Laseen, and then decided not to for the reasons explained in the book. It’s only logical, but not explicitly told, that the plan couldn’t stop there. They had to have an idea about who should replace Laseen on the throne, and WJ, with the crippled leg and everything, made the perfect candidate. He was ready to become a leader instead of just a soldier.

It’s kind of weak storytelling when such an important sub-plot that drives most of the story through one book is so poorly referenced (the whole plan is implicit). But it’s a symptom of how Erikson worked: he already had the story in his mind, so it makes sense to him when he writes, but sometime he has a poor sense of what important information he didn’t pass to the reader. Scenes (and motivations) he knows happened between characters but that never directly appear in the book. That’s the actual big problem of GOTM: Erikson knows the story so well because he had it all so long in his mind that he consequently has a very poor grasp of what is there and what is missing in the actual books. What he wrote about is only a part of what he knows, and while writing he often lost track of what would be the exclusive reader’s perception. GOTM is like 30% stuff that happens in the actual book and 70% behind the scenes that is only tangentially referenced or completely missing. The rest of the series instead is built more and more directly on the stuff in the actual books (original material), and less behind the scenes (the world and history they built before the idea of the book series happened).

This does affect the quality of the book and contributes to lots of perceived problems. Including problems with characterization as you have so many characters with their own pre-existing history and yet a very quick and partial presentation that bypasses almost completely their motivations and personality (what drives 90% of other books). There’s a very perceivable lack of context. That presentation is too sparse, too weak, ultimately leading to a sense of plot moving without a clear logic. Stuff that just happens for no reason, and no emotional impact because you can’t actually engage with it.

*BUT* I don’t think this happens as just a direct consequence of Erikson suddenly becoming a better writer. I think this happens because of structural reasons on how the books are written. GotM was a book conceived to be based on a pre-existing world with its already established rich history. It was not a world built FOR a book series, it was a world converted to one. GotM moved from being a game-world to a movie script and only in its last stage it transformed into a book. A world invented for other reasons, crammed into a book. That means Erikson had to select what scenes to write about, what leave as background, and how. Some stuff is in, most of it is left out. This context changes as the series progresses, from the second book onward Erikson follows a clear outline, but the bulk of the material he works with becomes increasingly original, created and controlled specifically for the book. If GotM is an “adaptation”, as it happens when a movie is converted to a novel, the rest of the series is work conceived specifically as a book series.

The first few books are based on such a tangle of plot and behind the scenes, that are instead explicit in Erikson’s mind since it’s the bulk he worked and played on for such a long time, and the result is that lots of stuff is poorly explained or not given enough importance even if it moves important plots. As the series progresses we see progressively less pre-existing material, and so there’s also progressively less reliance on stuff that happens behind the scenes and that Erikson gives for granted even if IT IS NOT.

And that’s why, while GotM suffers because of those reasons, it also has that unique flavor of “pre-existing history” and in medias res story that the rest of the series tends to lose. You gain something but you lose something too. The story you read in the following books is the bulk of what’s needed, of what does exist. There’s less a sense of a vaster world that lives on. And of course this happens for practical reasons. When Erikson started writing he had this big world already built and established, he only had to cherry pick what to write about. A majority of scenes already existing that only had to be “adapted” on the page. But as the series progresses he relies more on original material, ideas that go directly in the writing. With a fast release pacing for every book he obviously didn’t have time for off-the-book worldbuilding, so what you read in the books becomes almost the totality of the “canon” of this fictional world. It goes all in. If GotM is a slice of a big story/world existing in Erikson’s mind, from DG onward Erikson pours all of his creativity directly on the page, there’s not anymore as much stuff that is left out.

It’s interesting because while Erikson gives up to the idea of continuosly building a world off the page and settles for just the bland illusion of it, instead GRRM, being more of an obsessive perfectionist, never gives up. But at the same time, as already discussed, he had a growing sense of frustration wasting hours of work on world-building off the page, taking away actual work on the book writing itself. And his “solution” was instead of broadening the scope (book 4 onward) to include all that side-material right into the book series. And we know the results. If Malazan gives up on some of that complexity, ASOIAF instead embraces it, and chokes on it. If Malazan “converges”, ASOIAF explodes out and we can argue whether or not Martin will ever be able to draw it all back neatly enough.

No solution is actually “better” than the other, but you can see how one has to deal with the pragmatic troubles of building a really big series.

I finished reading this after more than A YEAR, but that’s what happens when I read way too many books in parallel, drop them for a few months to pick them up later.

Here I only wanted to comment a particular aspect of how the series got a bit off the rails, accordingly to most(?) fans. For sure something went wrong since Martin didn’t release the following book for many years, and when he did he promised the next would be out within one year… when it didn’t come out for another six. This triggered a lot of discussions about readers’ “entitlement”, but it’s pretty obvious something went wrong regardless of what readers think.

Keeping my own glacial pace I now finished this third book, the one that the fans loved the most. For me the first has been the best book by a good margin, the second one was good but not as good, and when I started reading this third I felt quite underwhelmed. There are very good chapters even in this third book, especially Sansa, Jaime and Tyrion (in this order), but in general I couldn’t understand what in this book was supposed to push it well above the previous two. This continued up to page 700 or so (1100 total in the paperback I read).

There’s not a big convergence in the book, or a single turning point, but I agree the last 400 pages are in a different category. Instead of reaching some overall plot culmination what happens is that every major PoV reaches a turning point in its own self-contained story (there are repercussions from one to the other, but often it happens indirectly). What Martin did was about aligning these story-lines that, even if kept well separated and following their own trajectories, they all reach the highest tension is a rather quick succession. So these last 400 pages are intense because of the speed the plot picks up, because there are so many deaths, and because they are really well organized as a whole, without feeling jammed forcefully. The story has a very different intensity compared to the first half of the book.

But one aspect I noticed is that this is different from simply reaching some culmination of a plot as you would expect. This isn’t merely a good book ending, the function is different, and I think it’s this function that has then created the problems the series has with book 4 & 5. These parallel stories reach their culmination, often with well executed (if a bit trite) plot twists, but in particular to “reposition” all the major characters. I mean it’s not a plot trajectory, it’s about set-up a brand new state. In fact some of these end-of-book set-ups (what comes after the respective plot twists) are even quite bad, bordering fanfiction (because they are a bit too forced and mostly fanservice, see Jon’s “election”).

What happens is completely different from the good finales and plot twists you see at the end of book 1 and 2, that’s what I mean. The first two books have their own satisfying culminations but it was just that. In this case instead book 3 almost wipes the board clean because these major characters all end up in a novel position. It’s no more a journey, it’s a definite new beginning. Less about what is left behind and more about the blank, undiscovered state ahead. The same story continues, of course, but all the premises have been changed, all these characters have been uprooted from their familiar places and roles, and each pushed into a totally new context. Also in the other two books this was the most relevant (and effective) plot mechanic: the balance and familiarity is radically upset. But this time there are less immediate concerns and dangers, it’s not a twist that sends characters directly into action same as every previous book finale was setting up the stage for the next. This time the blank state is dominant across all the story-lines, all of them being expertly juggled to reach this coordination.

What I observed in this third book finale matches what I read about Martin’s original plan. That was about creating a few years gap, after book three, so that the story would continue with characters starting well into their new lives. It seems evident that this is how the ending of book 3 was written. The new set-ups are so radical that the attention of the reader is not on the immediate tomorrow. It’s a starting point meant to eventually build up to a different context, and that was where the fourth book was meant to pick up.

I imagine Martin went on with that plan but, because of what it required, it’s not like he could publish the third book and then start writing the next as he would usually do. He needed to painstakingly track what happened in those “hidden” years between the books. Martin said this himself, he said he figured that the amount of work plotting those years wouldn’t be that different from the amount of work actually showing them in a book. Again, I imagined he tried sticking to his plan, but all the added work to set up the new world must have meant he made little actual progress in the book writing. I imagined that months passed and he grew frustrated and at some point he gave up. He might have felt as if he needed to actually produce those pages that would go into the book itself, rather than just “worldbuilding” the hidden gap. That gap of the plot turned into a necessary gap in the production. Taking too long not being able to resume writing because he was still assembling the pieces needed. He probably got anxious about that and might have felt like he needed something to get back on track.

How do you get back on track? By going back to what you always did. I’m just imagining how things might have gone, it’s just speculation, but I think that after having struggled to write the story between the books he eventually gave up because it required way too much work. He felt the pressure of writing the book itself, and in the end the only immediate solution was to fall back to what he always did. That meant that he had to scrap the jump forward in the story and follow through with the events right after book three.

That’s my interpretation of “what went wrong”. I think that it was Martin’s own self-consciousness about taking too long that paradoxically made things worse. He felt he needed to start writing new pages, but that required building what happened in the gap, so he had to remove the gap to minimize all that work, but that consequently presented its own issues, as the plot would need to be wrestled and adapted to the new plan. The story was not structured this way, and even if some readers think Martin eventually did an excellent job, it’s still likely far from ideal. This type of mid-series re-planning might work if you can go back and adapt the whole thing, but it’s obvious to me that the third book was written for a different goal, and that going in a completely new direction still exacts a not irrelevant toll on the whole.

I imagine it as a self-feeding anxiety that made Martin sacrifice his initial plan to fix the problems he had in writing what came next, but in the end this didn’t actually help because the following two books still took a very long time, and still upset that balance in the original plan.

At first he stuck to the plan following the way, he got anxious because it was taking a too long time, so he decided to take a shortcut, only to realize the shortcut made things even worse. It’s probably the pressure he felt that was the primary cause of the delays.

We, the fans, messed it up. (Indirectly, for the most part, of course.)

Out there there might be an alternative timeline where Martin stuck to the original plan. It is likely that that version has an edge over what we got/will get.

(The removal of the timeline gap was done to deal with the tribulations that came up while writing the fourth book, meant as a solution and a fix, but it also messes up with the way book three itself is written, because book three explicitly builds toward that timeline gap. It requires it. It’s not just what comes after that is upset, but also what comes before.)

I have Fall of Light and will start very soon, I’m now back reading the final part of The Bonehunters, as well the last 300 pages of A Dance with Dragons. It makes for a nice and interesting contrast.

These last few days there has been at least a little noise about R. Scott Bakker. The new book is imminent (July) (actually only the first half of the first book, something that makes me very upset) but the first reviews are coming out as well as sample chapters that, in Bakker’s case, are always enough for plenty of discussion and speculations.

But my attention was caught by a specific aspect that I consider very interesting. What’s the “EAMD bullshit”? Here’s a quote:

Ever Are Men Deceived. It’s shorthand for the psychobabble that Bakker tends to get into in the middle of, like, random sentences. The crossed-out part above is an example. You have a woman running around desperately trying to find her young son in the middle of her enemy storming the gates and a full-blown riot. So…naturally she reflects on how prior knowledge influences actions and guides the course of events

This is the pertinent quote he gives (the italics are not Bakker’s):

Our knowledge commands us, though our conceit claims otherwise. It drives our decisions and so harnesses our deeds—as surely as any cane or lash. She knew well the grievous fate of little princes in times of revolt and overthrow. The fact that her husband’s Empire crashed down about her was but one more goad to find her son.

And here’s how he comments it:

Esmenet’s chapter would be amazing if he could just stop talking about the EAMD bullshit every other sentence. She’s panicking, she’s crying, and then she’d thinking that ya know, everyone is controlled by what came before and the history of their world and blah blah blah.

Seriously, edit that shit out. The first paragraph here is totally unneeded, at least the two sentences. It robs the story of the drama and panic that Esme has in the moment. She’s a parent. She’s not thinking about how knowledge command us. She’s thinking that in sieges and revolts princes die.

That’s it. That’s her motivation. We don’t need more than that. We don’t need to jump from point to point. Just that mantra – in sieges and revolts princes die.

Well, there’s indeed a noticeable slip into third person. That’s why it would be interesting to discuss it with the writers themselves, not even just Bakker.

These days we are used, especially in fantasy, to this “third person limited” perspective, and it happens that when some structure is universally used it becomes canon. People get used to the canon and if you suddenly don’t respect it then you’re doing something wrong, or giving a feeling of wrongness to the reader. In this case I wonder, is that simply a slip, a stylistic quirk or vice, or a *deliberate* slip?

I use to think at this third person limited point of view as a bird that alights on the shoulder of a character and speaks for him. But sometimes it’s the bird talking, you just don’t notice. Or the bird can alight from that shoulder and land somewhere else. A meta-structure. Self-awareness? Erikson in the eighth Malazan book uses Kruppe, a character in the book, as a framing device. Commentary. It’s one further loop of that voice, another lens that bends the light of the story.

As a reader, the more you play with this, the more you have my attention. Writing about writing. It’s not a slip, a mistake, it’s grasping the structure itself.

David Foster Wallace in a short story titled “Mister Squishy”, part of the “Oblivion” collection, has a sudden shift, mid-sentence, in the middle of the story, from third person to first. It’s one of the biggest chills I ever got while reading a story. Only then you realize the story was always told in first person. Of course that’s deliberate, if a bit gimmicky. It’s part of the experimentation, playing with the rules to obtain an effect. Or just put the reader off balance by failing to conform to certain expectations. It’s a sense of vertigo, and it can be very powerful.

It might be asking Bakker too much to actually play even more explicitly and deliberately with structure, and drag the point of view breaks even more as a plot point. It still might be just a slip, or simply a measured consideration, where the effect and the message were considered more important than submitting to a rigorous structure.

Martin is absolute king, in my reading experience, of dealing with this third person limited. Better than everyone else by far. There are still “slips”, for example in descriptions, but they are always “transparent” for the reader, so you can never catch the bird talking, it’s always the character. Martin never actually slips, never wanders off.

Bakker might be seen as having this voice driving a point, using characters as metaphors. Erikson? I’m not even sure and I’ll observe with more attention. Erikson deliberately breaks structure even if usually sticks to third person limited as the norm. I remember at least one case where in a single scene the bird jumps shoulders. Maybe Erikson just doesn’t give much authority to the rule of the structure and, if the story is better serviced that way, he makes exceptions without hesitation.

“Stop the EAMD bullshit” is a mantra that works perfectly well for Erikson too, after all. That’s what I often read in forums (“I wanted to see more action. If I wanted unlikely philosophical conversations I would read Dostoevsky.”). Yet that’s why I read these books. Because they just don’t repeat and conform to the rest of the genre. Wouldn’t it just be more carefully hidden and unaddressed sleight of hands? I want those voices. I treasure that self-awareness, those layers of commentary that bend the angle, that disrupt the natural flow. Sometimes you have to break this habit of just slipping into stories, of immersion. Sometime breaking the immersion you very carefully built might even be the point. Show a deceit, seize that structure. But, of course, the higher you aim, the higher the risk. You might even slip and it makes for a clumsy fall. Part of the deal? Accept it.

There was an “official” update about the status of book 6 in the Song of Ice and Fire series (one interesting aspect is that I found the news through the standard media, as GRRM now “ranks” as relevant news for the general public):

I have to admit that when I read it I felt very sympathetic with him. I’m definitely not one of those who pretends to “supervise” and correct someone else’s writing process, pretending to know better. So I have no reason to believe GRRM isn’t honest when he says he’s doing his best to write the book. Yet when I finished reading I still felt like there was a missing piece, and the more I thought about it, the more disappointed I was about that “honest” report, because there’s a way to look at it that isn’t honest at all, and that has nothing to do with “writing speed”, which is the only point GRRM directly addressed.

The incoherence is wholly contained in this quote:

My publishers and I have been cognizant of these concerns, of course. We discussed some of them last spring, as the fifth season of the HBO series was winding down, and came up with a plan. We all wanted book six of A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE to come out before season six of the HBO show aired. Assuming the show would return in early April, that meant THE WINDS OF WINTER had to be published before the end of March, at the latest.


Look, I never thought the series could possibly catch up with the books, but it has. The show moved faster than I anticipated and I moved more slowly. There were other factors too, but that was the main one. Given where we are, inevitably, there will be certain plot twists and reveals in season six of GAME OF THRONES that have not yet happened in the books. For years my readers have been ahead of the viewers. This year, for some things, the reverse will be true. How you want to handle that… hey, that’s up to you.

It seems that GRRM’s main concern was that for the first time the series would be ahead of the books, and it will spoil them. He said they were “cognizant” of this, and so made “a plan” to release the next book just in time, to avoid the spoilers.

But let’s say that instead Martin was successful and he had announced the very opposite: that he delivered the book and it was going to come out just BEFORE the show. Exactly as “planned”.

Don’t you see that it’s all completely pointless and misleading? This other scenario is one that cannot work. It’s an excuse. It cannot work because even if book 6 is out just in time to avoid spoilers, then the problem is just delayed to next year and the following. By then the TV series will be over, and it WILL have spoiled the actual finale, because if it was hard for him to match the end-of-the-year deadline, for sure he can’t even believe for a second he can write the actual final book in less than two years.

So how can you honestly tell me you and your publisher made a “plan” to avoid spoilers when you fail to address the REAL issue ahead? Spoilers for book 6 are a much lesser issue than spoilers for the actual ending. As if this whole plan was just something to throw in the eyes of the fans to distract them from actually giving hints of the REAL intent.

Because my concern is that all this was done deliberately to pave the way for something else entirely. So, ok, the book is delayed and fans will have to come to terms with this and the possibility of having the books spoiled (in the age of internet you can decide: you can be spoiled by watching the series, or you can be spoiled by inadvertently reading some random twat). Then book 6 comes out at some point, and the TV series concludes shortly after. What happens next? This leaves GRRM in the position of deciding what to do as the TV series already closed and while he’s about to start book 7. He will plausibly think that in order to make the books stand on their own, the more divergent the ending of the book series will be from the TV series, the better. In fact it’s this very idea that he is already encouraging in this last update. At that point it’s just the perfect occasion to announce that, nope, book 7 won’t be the final one. That “the story grew in the telling”, and that since now the series is behind him, then he can write another interim book in order to better set up a different kind of finale that branches out even more radically from the TV series and that will please everyone, solving whatever issue the fans will have with the the way the TV series ended.

And that’s the part that annoys me. Because you can absolutely say that writing speed is not something you can directly control as long you aim for a certain quality, and you cannot so simply “will it” to go faster. But it’s instead within a writer’s deliberation the choice of how many books to write a story. You cannot write faster, okay, but you can definitely decide to make the story and plot advance faster or slower. That’s a writing choice. So I feel different if not only the books are continuously delayed, that’s understandable, but when that’s matched by the series “expanding” further and sprawl across more books than intended, so that when the book comes out, after 6 years or so, it also covered much less plot than originally intended. That’s from my point of view one step too far. It weakens the trust that is put as the premise between author and reader about an ambitious plan that stretches out for many years.

But these are just my own speculations. The point stands that the “plan” he described is a false, incoherent one. Maybe there isn’t any “hidden” plan, and maybe he doesn’t even want to admit to himself what’s happening and he prefers to be delusional (“I never thought the series could possibly catch up with the books”). But this still exposes a more important point: that he has no idea how he can complete this thing. He has no plan about a plausible end within a plausible timeframe on which the fans could invest some trust. And so there are these two alternative I see: one is the terrible plan I described above, the other is instead a complete lack of awareness GRRM has. As if he just decided to simply avoid thinking about it.

When he speaks about this GRRM always decides to defend himself by saying he can’t simply write faster, but he does this while failing to address the other aspect, the one he’s actually fully responsible of: having a plan for bringing this thing to a satisfying end. Knowing how many books are left. Knowing how things have to be set up in this penultimate 6th book so he’s in the position to actually write the finale in book 7.

Well, that’s an oxymoron. Article on the New Yorker:

Even Jon Snow, who, as several characters reminded us, has a pretty face and a sympathetic backstory, isn’t enough to provide all the human intrigue in a scene with seven million undead C.G.I. assholes.

“Game of Thrones,” which is part fantasy, is also mostly a drama, and those of us who are there for the drama, White Walker Army, and for the comedy, such as it is, rate you very low on the emotional-realism scale. We dread your appearance not just because you threaten Jon Snow and his cohorts but because you threaten to drag the show we love further into a realm that we find tedious. As a friend texted me recently, “It’s turning into a video game.”

The reaction I saw to this was about the attack on the genre elements of the show, that a part of the public certainly likes very much, but I’m not interested specifically on that aspect today.

I also believe, and have written a few times, that the more ASoIaF moves away from the political backstabbing and toward its more fantastic elements, the more it actually loses its shine and appeal. It’s not so much because I personally dislike fantasy in my novels (obviously), but because Martin’s skills don’t seem to be there. He’s good at writing the other stuff. So the series seems more on a downward trend not because of its sprawl, but because its direction (ice and fire) is less brilliant and inspired than its core (game of thrones).

I felt something similar when I was reading Erikson’s “Memories of Ice” the third book, also specifically about another zombie army. I could see what the author was trying to do, but I simply did not think it could be achieved. It would be a failure, for reasons that are similar to those expressed in that New Yorker article. Yet Erikson managed to pull it off by resorting to a certain “trick”. And it worked! It was brilliant and it managed to achieve that ambition I thought simply not possible.

Martin is not done, so we all have to wait to see if he pulls it off, or even WHAT he’s trying to pull off. But I think he has a more traditional interpretation of fantasy and that he’s not interested in digging deep. It’s just a layer. But because of this, there’s the risk of disappointment when the reveals will kind of fizzle out, or will look like dry CGI.

The TV show had the merit of pulling in the general public, but to a lot of them the “fantasy” in it still feels tacked on. Something they tolerate more than something they enjoy.

I’m at about 140 pages into Martin’s A Storm of Swords and once again wondering about the causes of its popularity. I know that this third book is considered by far the best in the series, and that I have to expect things slowing down quite a bit in the next two books, so my expectations here are set very high, maybe that’s why I’ve found those first 140 pages not as the best prelude to the best book. The plot is stuck at the end of the previous book, and Martin needs all those 140 pages merely to go through each PoV to make a summary and set a new starting point.

That’s how you can write a huge 1000+ pages book and still give the impression that not much happened. The structure is rather simple, you have an average of 10-15 pages for each chapter/PoV and it takes about 150 pages to return to one. In the end this produces a 1000 pages book where a single PoV has about 100 pages of available space to tell its story, and 100 pages is the bare minimum to show some development, especially with the kind of detail that Martin writes in. That’s the formula to write these epic sized fantasy books. Just an high number of PoVs, fragmenting the story, but also offering that big breadth one expects precisely from this genre.

My question is why Martin and Jordan series were able to reach a huge popularity and the answer I offer is that both do something similar but from two different angles. I think the keyword is “accessibility”. Martin is popular because his series is what you can easily recommend to all sort of readers. That’s why it’s successful: because it’s a genre novel accessible (and written for) all kinds of readers. You don’t need to be a “genre” reader to engage with Martin story, and so this series can tap into the large audience of general readers.

Whereas Jordan retains a similar level of accessibility. His series also taps directly onto a huge pool of readers: all kinds of adolescent readers. The Wheel of Time has the power to engage all sort of “younger” readers. It’s like a LotR where uncool, clumsy Hobbits are replaced by young future heroes destined to conquer and change the world, becoming celebrities. Because of how it’s built, its strength is about tapping onto a certain audience, in a specific age-range but regardless of whether they are “readers” or not. Or even genre readers. The WoT can convert someone, making him a “reader” in the first place, and a “genre” reader as consequence. It does so because it offers characters and themes that appeal directly to that age-range, it’s the call of the adventure and the writer taking the reader’s hand, offering one of the most immersive and engaging experiences. It’s the stuff younger readers dream about, and it fully embraces it. It gives them the time of their life.

That’s why I used that distinction between “adult” and “young” fantasy. Martin’s series can be seen as representing “adult fantasy” that is extremely popular and successful because it can CONVERT adult readers into “genre” readers. On the other hand Jordan’s series is also hugely popular and successful because it converts readers, but in this case it’s more carefully aimed at an age range. What ASoIaF does for a more adult public, the WoT does for younger readers, recruiting them into “genre”. In both cases, these two series can rise so much in popularity because they draw from a huge pool of readers that aren’t limited by “genre”, and that’s why I’m putting the focus on “accessibility” and “conversion”.

There’s finally another element that plays an important role in all this. It’s usually the writer’s job to engage the reader and make him “care”, keep him reading and turning the pages. But I think this is an illusory description because it overestimates (and romanticizes) the writer’s power and ultimate goal. I think in the best case the writer can only work on the illusion of directing and manipulating the reader’s interest, while it’s probably more correct to say that the writer merely taps and rejuvenates interests that have always been there, with the reader. Like suppressed memories that seem to resurface unbidden. It’s a much more subtle touch, and far less powerful. More sleight of hand than magic.

So why is this sharing of interests important in the case of popularity of these series? Because it’s the real hook that makes possible to reach for that huge pool of readers. Think to Martin’s series. Or even “Fantasy” in general. The common response you get from non-genre readers is: why should I care? Why a normal adult guy who has more immediate concerns should waste hours of his life reading “fantasies”? That’s why the common answer is about conflating Fantasy with “escapism”. It’s the most immediate reaction. But this is also the key to interpret how Martin’s series can be so hugely successful at engaging readers who usually “do not care” about Fantasy. What’s the First Mover in Martin’s series? Family. If you think about it, that’s the whole core. That’s where his series sets its roots. That’s the link to readers who aren’t normally genre readers or have zero interest in reading genre fiction. Its strongest theme is immediately familiar. All the priorities of each characters are simply defined by where he’s born, that will then also define what place he’ll have in the Big Game. Martin has an archetypal grasp on what everyone cares about, and so the possibility to connect with all readers. The first generalized hook that powers the series is about family concerns, mothers worrying about their children. It’s universal even if it’s encased in “fantasy”, and it can immediately engage readers because of its familiarity. The “adult” aspect is merely related to a style. Martin’s series is built on PoVs and these PoVs are selected on a wide range. It’s “adult” because it requires to shift these projections, have interest in this wider range of perspectives, in their breadth and diversity. Adolescents are usually more narrow-minded and self-absorbed to care about what happens outside of themselves (and the WoT reflects this). Then Martin builds the structure of his game by giving voice to different sides, creating contradicting feelings in the readers since there’s not a privileged side the reader can be on (though this is mostly a well crafted illusion).

Compare all this to Jordan and you see why I brought up the “young” angle. The WoT targets younger readers exactly because it selects its PoVs within the narrower range of its expected audience. It more immediately offers PoVs that the reader can recognize and identify with, offering themes that are strong specifically for that audience. And then it at least tries to follow those readers as they get older, by trying to broadening the range of the story. So the WoT is the ideal journey, recruiting and converting “young adults” into faithful readers, and then trying to walk with them into their adult age. That gives enough universal power to explain the popularity.

Now consider Tolkien. In this case Tolkien wasn’t writing for a pool of readers already waiting in potential. He just chased his own interests. This is important because “The Lord of the Rings” isn’t an “accessible” book at all, and so this seem to break the pattern I described above. It’s true. LotR is actually way more “niche” and less accessible than both ASoIaF and WoT. It’s far less easy to pick up and enjoy. And it’s also not a book that easily converts readers that do not have a specific interest in the genre. So why it’s still so hugely popular? Just because it came first? I don’t think so. The reason why Tolkien remains so popular while not being accessible is, the way I see it, because there’s a huge cultural push that overcomes Tolkien’s accessibility issues. His world is now part of mass culture, and being so it means EVERYONE is exposed to it. There’s pressure that comes from general culture that goes in Tolkien’s direction, and so all kinds of readers are pushed in this direction. Works like The Silmarillion are still extremely popular if you consider how nigh inaccessible the book would normally be, impossible to sell commercially. But this happens solely because there’s a general culture push that makes readers overcome those barriers.

Consider Malazan. Malazan, compared to ASoIaF, isn’t easy to recommend at all. It has humongous accessibility issues. This is usually blamed on the “medias res” style of the first book, but I think it’s a wrong angle. The problem with Malazan accessibility is that it’s much harder for a new reader to care about. It takes maybe two chapter in ASoIaF for the reader to figure out what it is about. One chapter in the WoT. Only the Prologue in LotR to set the style. With Malazan the reader feels like hiding in the shadow and chasing after someone on his own obscure agenda. Erikson doesn’t take the reader’s hand and gently leads him on the journey. There are no immediate rewards. You just follow with your own determination, if you want.

Why should a clueless reader care? What’s the big motivation that makes someone pick up a so huge series and overall commitment? But that’s just one aspect. Another crucial one is that all Malazan qualities generate big contradictions. The first book already presents things on a scale that dwarfs most other fantasy series, pulling out all the stops. Then by the time one reaches the third book that scale grew EXPONENTIALLY to levels that are utterly unimaginable. Just unprecedented and with no parallels. And yet, this is counterbalanced by another side that’s deeper, serious and incredibly ambitious. Giving the idea of something that takes itself very “seriously”. This creates different angles that can explode into a strong contradiction. On one side you have readers who engage with the most overt aspects of the series, the breakneck pace of the plot, the insane power levels, great battle and big scale spectacular stuff. The more mindless fun and shiny stuff on the surface, if you want. And then there are readers who instead find all that childish genre reading and instead expect something more “adult” in ASoIaF style. Ideally, one would say that Malazan is a distillation of the best of both worlds, and then even goes its own way to achieve something completely new. But far more commonly readers come with their own set of expectations and what happens is that the average reader is killed in the crossfire of contradictions. “Adult” readers can barely suffer through few pages without branding it as nigh incomprehensible childish fantasy gibberish, while those who are in for the “fun” and immediate pay off felt bogged down later on when the story reveals a depth and requires the reader to engage with more than just the surface. This ends up giving a general and immediate picture of having the WORST of both worlds. It wants to be serious and pretentious, while instead being juvenile and terribly chaotic and rambling. A puzzle that can’t be assembled.

How could Malazan be more successful? Why should the average reader care? It’s definitely NOT aimed to readers who aren’t already “genre” readers. You could maybe picture some serious-looking university professor reading a copy of Martin’s series, but could you imagine him reading Malazan? You need to be part of that inner genre group to even be a potential reader. This already makes the pool of potential readers exponentially smaller. It’s already a niche with a niche interest. And then you can imagine where potential readers come from. Maybe they read on some forum some readers who say how Malazan is so much better (it’s rare, but it happens), and so they approach Malazan expecting something that can compare to ASoIaF. And are immediately turned off by how “genre” Malazan is. Ultimately it engages with a number of themes that aren’t exactly that broad in appeal. There’s very little of those immediate and familiar feelings that give ASoIaF its strength. Malazan is less a traditional narration sprinkled here and there with fantasy elements, the way ASoIaF is. It grasps and deliver what the epic genre is, and why its powerful. It knows where it comes from, and has no identity crisis, or narcissistic pretenses of being appreciated by “everyone”. But then it requires a reader with a very open mind, who can take the challenge of the big commitment and that doesn’t ultimately jumps to conclusion because the book betrayed this or that expectation. The wider the range of interests, the more chances to appreciate Malazan in all its aspects. But this really ends up producing readers who are me, you and a few others. You have to have already developed an interest on that stuff, and the open mind to fully enjoy the “young” and “adult” parts without the feel that they clash horribly with each other.

Finally R. Scott Bakker. He suffers even worse from what I described about Malazan. Even more you have to share the writer’s interest on those specific themes and angles he brings up. Even more his series is precisely aimed, with a very strong thematic focus. This focus is nowhere what you expect to reach a general public, the same as you don’t expect the general public to read his blog because of the content he puts in it. It’s simply stuff not planned or meant to tap onto a big pool of potential readers. If it becomes popular it’s simply because it’s so unique and exceptional that it becomes easily recognized, and so not swallowed in mediocrity.

But what happens then? That lots of readers, all kinds of readers, hear good things and so try Bakker’s books. If they don’t have a serious interest in those themes Bakker offers then they end up noticing just the violence. The violence becomes the point. The edginess, grittiness and all those things that are today negatively branded as “grimdark” as well epitomizing all the problems about misogyny and whatnot. This produces an overall hideous image of Bakker’s series. Seen right now on a forum: “It’s an endless parade of fantasy name salad combined with massive ruminations and internal monologues.” And that’s a positive side. Otherwise it becomes an accusation directly to Bakker of being an horrible human being. Why does all this happen? I think because once you “remove” that deep layer that Bakker engages directly (and it happens whenever a reader “doesn’t care” about that stuff) then only the violence and the ugly remain. They become the one aspect monopolizing the attention, without understanding that all that is built IN SUPPORT of the rest. One element observed in isolation from everything else, and the result is readers who end up feeling offended by what they are reading.

All this to say that it’s all a matter of aims. How big is the pool of readers you try to reach. And matters of “quality” don’t even prominently come up. Only huge cultural pushes can overcome a narrow aim, like in the case of Tolkien. Another example is Neal Stephenson. He also has a very narrow target, writing for those who must already have a serious interest in the things he deals with. Yet he can be so successful because the kind of “geekdom” that makes his public nowadays is so common and widespread that it also became a “general public”, creating a cultural push that isn’t so far from what I described about Tolkien. It’s a wider movement of general culture that makes niche themes become more widely shared.

But I think that at least for the foreseeable future the very big splashes of success (here I think even about the Harry Potter, Twilight or Hunger Games) will come from traditional and familiar narratives sprinkled by “genre” elements. Ending up with a broadening of the genre, indeed, but also reducing the genre to innocuous window dressing. That’s always the risk when some smaller cultural movement is swallowed whole by the mass culture…

I wrote a further clarification about what I intend with DEM and their use in A Clash of Kings, so I’ll repost it here. It’s an attempt to explain what I personally like and why, as well trying to describe something objectively. But it’s not some kind of absolute judgement, just a personal reaction.

Magic isn’t always DEM. If a wizard has the fireball spell and uses it consistently, it’s not a DEM. But if a wizard suddenly has a brand new spell that is used to resolve a situation and is revealed right in that moment, that feels like a DEM. The writer is using the unpredictability of magic to come up with a convenient trick for the situation at hand. That’s why it feels sloppy, because it’s the writer giving his characters something specifically designed for that moment. It’s god coming into the world and making changes. It feels like a cheat and manipulation.

But, if the wizard has the fireball spell and the party only meets groups of goblins, then the wizard is transformed into a DEM-like character. Whenever they meet a group of goblins no one has to do anything at all because the wizard has the fireball spell that completely annihilates the goblins, again and again. The character becomes a DEM because it holds a power, within the specific frame, that is overblown and not kept in check. Like Khellus in PON (*). It disrupt what the story established up to that point. And that’s why I called Melisandre a DEM-like power. In that context she’s the ONLY one not to follow the rules, and the only one to have a kind of power that disrupts the fabric of the story.

Imho the problem in ACOK is that at high level the story is almost completely independent from the decisions of chapter PoVs (that instead drove the plot in book 1). They are powerless because the events are “steered” precisely through the use of those tricks. It happens at key points: Renly’s campaign, Stannis’ campaign, Blackwater, and Jon. That comprises the WHOLE plot frame of the book (minus Daenerys, but Daenerys is essentially idling for the whole book).

The characters who have power of choice and action (Theon, Arya, Catelyn) are essentially dealing with their own small space with relatively small impact on the outside. While others are passive bystanders or observers (Davos, Sansa, Bran). You could make an exception with Theon, who has some impact and is virtually untouched by DEM. In fact it’s the most consistent and genuine part of the book.

In book 1 magic has no influence on plot (the exception is the end of Daenerys PoV), but in book 2 magic grasps the most important threads of the plot and, through that strategic use, controls *everything*.

Since I do believe that Martin writes much better the realistic character drama than he writes magic, this sudden change of balance in book 2 makes me say that I didn’t like it as much as the first. But I also wouldn’t say it’s a bad book. It’s not. It’s really strong, gripping and entertaining to read. Just not on par with the first.

* I deliberately mention Bakker’s Prince of Nothing even if it seems to run counter to my argument. I like PON. You can write a story around or about a DEM if that’s your goal. But it’s very tricky and you need to be self-aware. Scott Bakker is. Erikson does this a lot, and he does it very well too. My point is that I personally believe that Martin writes good, realistic character drama but isn’t as good writing magic or meta-fictional types of layers. ASOIAF qualities, and Martin’s, are elsewhere (**).

** And yet I’m always more interesed to read Martin when he writes this specifically (Daenerys, Bran, a bit of Jon). I want to see if he can come up with something creative and that feels inspired. But I’m usually underwhelmed.