25th October 2011 - Ben Sweeney
Ben Sweeney from our Charing Cross Road shop notes that writers of fantasy fiction rarely have any qualms about killing off major characters
I'm dying to read the final instalment of A Song Of Fire and Ice. But I have to admit, for a long-time reader of fantasy fiction, I only started to read it after the success of the HBO series brought it to my attention. So, I'm still only halfway through the first book, A Game of Thrones.
I can barely put it down though. Very few authors have the genius to produce a consistently engaging page-turner, and at roughly a thousand pages per book, that's no mean feat for Mr Martin (I assume from reviews that he continues this style throughout the series). There is something in his writing that is fascinating. Perhaps it is the casual way in which the dark aspects of humanity are used for character and as plot devices to propel you towards the end.
The setting is a fantasy world where the fantasy has been driven away, leaving a medieval system of squabbling noble families. Squabbling sounds flippant, but that is just what they do, only with knives and swords ornamenting the use of raised voices and fists. Our hopeful heroes make as many mistakes as their enemies, and their enemies are able to transform into our hopeful heroes.
I can't wait to get to the end and find out what happens, how it all resolves.
At the same time, I want it to last forever. This really is a conflict of emotions. It can't possibly last forever, not at the speed with which Mr Martin kills off characters. I fear that the characters I am reading for might not be around in fifty pages, let alone the 5000 pages of the series.
Right at the beginning of A Game of Thrones, one of the most instantly loveable, and hugely significant, characters is thrown to his death, and that's what first pulled me to the edge of my seat. Mr Martin had so carefully made me feel strongly for this character, only to make me feel the deathly impact more when it hits. That's when I realized that this author has no qualms playing my heart strings.
But that's what we expect from our fantasy authors, right? We expect a world that shares the same emotional depth as our own.
As with the Middle-Earth of Tolkien, another master of the good literary death. Middle Earth and Martin's Seven Kingdoms share many of the same high-fantasy tropes, but Tolkien goes to such lengths to paint a picture of his world that it can take a long time to realise that a lot of the first book bares little relevance on the central plot other than to make you fall in love with the characters. It is not until the ultimate of father-figures has plunged to his death that you realize Tolkien is not just being earnest with his story, he's being deadly serious.
J K Rowling was not satisfied to pluck your heart strings just once with the death of Sirius Black, but to do it again with Dumbledore at the same time in the next book. That's two - two! - of the best characters from the series. There was no doubt in the last book that she's perfectly able to echo Conan Doyle and have the fall of the evil Voldemort only be possible in the fall of the good Harry.
It's the most powerful thing you could do to a character, and, done right, it's the most dreadful thing you could do to your reader. And yet, we love it. If someone dies in the right way, we'll stick around for more.
Fantasy books are horrible. They really are.
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Tolkien, J. R. R.