"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Women, Epic Fantasy and George RR Martin

Who'd've thought -- just days after my celebration over the positive review for EOLYN from Publishers Weekly, I find my hackles raised over a rather scathing commentary on the life's work of one of my heroes, George RR Martin.

The New York Times published its review of HBO’s new miniseries A Game of Thrones this week. The HBO production is based on the first book of George RR Martin’s classic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.

The review, written by Ginia Bellafante, is more than a little acerbic.  She criticizes not only the HBO series, but Martin’s work and epic fantasy in general, lumping all of it into a single category of “boy fiction” that would never appeal to any self-respecting, well-read woman. From her review:

'While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first.'

Now, I haven’t seen the TV series yet (HBO will premier its rendition of A Game of Thrones tomorrow evening), so I can’t speak to whether the HBO’s interpretation of Martin’s work will leave me similarly indignant. But I am one of those “women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s”, and I must take issue with the statement that his work, and especially Tolkien’s work, is anything less than marvelous – and certainly, The Hobbit is well worth reading before picking up the latest from Lorrie Moore. (Who may be an excellent author, but frankly I had to google Moore’s name after reading Bellafante's review because I’d never heard of her…)

That’s not to say I am insensitive the relative absence of female characters in Tokien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, back when I first read Tolkien’s work, it was the perception that women didn’t have much of a place in the sagas of Middle Earth that planted one of the first seeds for my own novel Eolyn. (I talked about this a few months back in my post “Why Eolyn?” ) But that does not make Tolkien’s work any less engaging, or his prose any less powerful.

I have been reminded lately of the immortal quality of Tolkien’s words by listening to the audio book Children of Hurin, part of his unfinished tales. The appeal of Tolkien's stories isn’t just about orcs and elves and dwarves (though I find all of those elements very appealing). It’s the eloquence of his prose that captures this reader’s attention; the vivid imagery, the heartbreaking and very human conflicts, the ability to paint complex characters (male and female) with a few master strokes. As good as Moore or any other author of contemporary fiction may be, when predicting whose name will be more widely recognized fifty or a hundred years down the road, I am still putting my money on Tolkien.

Martin in A Song of Ice and Fire, unlike Tolkien in Lord of the Rings, does have female characters that play formidable roles throughout the first three books of the series. (I haven’t gotten to book four yet; and book five is slated for release sometime this summer.) To be fair, the women in Martin's world are still outnumbered by the men. But they are very important and very vivid. The eight-year-old daughter of Eddard Stark, Arya, is quite possibly one of the best female characters I’ve read in any genre.

Many of Martin’s female characters have qualities I don’t like; but then again, so do many of the male characters. They are all complex and flawed, all deeply steeped in the social structure of their world, driven by events and motivations often they themselves don’t understand.

The society Martin developed to write his tale of the Seven Kingdoms is among the most elaborate and well-crafted I have come across in all my years of reading. His work is not, as Bellafante claims, “boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half”.  It is story telling at its very best.

To read more about how George RR Martin inspired me during the writing of EOLYN, please visit the May 30, 2010 post "My Brush with Greatness".