The World Builders: The Heirs of the Kingdom

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In this five-part mini-series, entitled “The World Builders,” I list the seven authors I believe have changed how we perceive the fantasy genre and explain the rationale behind each choice. Agree? Disagree? I would love to hear your input in the comments! :)

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3) George R. R. Martin
published “Dying of the Light” in 1977

George R. R. Martin has recently enjoyed a spike in popularity thanks to the HBO production of his epic fantasy series, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Before the televised adaptation, his works lingered in relative obscurity, but he has always been remembered among die-hard fans for his ruthless slaying of beloved characters and his seeming inability to meet deadlines for new book releases.

A Song of Ice and Fire Hardcover by Jemimus, on Flickr (CC Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

What many people don’t realize is that Martin was churning out works of speculative fiction long before the scene of direwolves in the summer snow came to him one day in 1991. Of all the authors who have attempted the creation of a secondary world akin to Middle-earth, only George R. R. Martin has even come close, in my opinion. Yet I hesitate to christen him “the American Tolkien” as some have done. As Martin himself has said, his style and Tolkien’s are apples and oranges. While Tolkien favored high language and eucatastrophic endings, Martin prefers gritty realism and tragedy.

That’s what won him a place on this list. Martin is the guy who made it okay to cuss and piss and fuck in a fantasy novel—excuse my language. Before Martin, most fantasies left us wondering whether Gandalf the Grey ever went to the bathroom, or whether Arwen’s existence meant that Elrond actually had sex with someone. Martin goes well beyond that, of course. In his books you’ll find incest, rape, torture, child marriage, gore, rape, demonic rituals, explicit sex scenes, every profanity you can imagine, and did I mention rape? But rather than come across as crass or sensationalistic, Martin’s fearless realism plunges us headlong into his world. When we read the tales of Westeros, we are there.

In his own words:

Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end.

4) Guy Gavriel Kay
published “The Fionavar Tapestry” trilogy 1984-1986

It takes real skill to build a world up from nothing but scattered ideas, and it takes a work of genius to meld real-world history and fantasy into one seamless creation. That is exactly what Guy Gavriel Kay has achieved with his historical fantasy novels, set in richly imagined analogues of medieval Italy and Tang-dynasty China and Constantinople.

“Hold on now!” you may be saying. “George R. R. Martin’s Westeros is strongly inspired by medieval England during the War of the Roses. Why does Guy Gavriel Kay get all the credit for incorporating historical-era influences?”

Here’s the thing: Martin painted the world of Westeros masterfully, to be sure—and he went a long way toward discrediting fantasy authors who draw on similar historical eras for inspiration without doing their homework—but the idea of a fantasy set against a pseudo-medieval-European backdrop was nothing new.

Kay takes his reader by the hand and says, “Let me show you something you’ve never seen,” and within the first couple of pages he transports the reader to another land, one not limited to the fields-and-forests and the feudal monarchies of medieval Europe. I feel I can speak on Kay’s skill here with some authority, for—having traveled to China personally—I recognized that country immediately upon opening up “Under Heaven,” which is set in ancient China during the Tang dynasty. The illusion goes deeper than mere scenery; Kay weaves the Chinese culture into the threads of the narrative itself, into the very structure of his sentences, until the novel practically oozes CHINA.

The effect is magical; the immersion, total. That is why Kay makes the list.

Here is a little glimpse at a passage from “Under Heaven”:

There is a rustling sound. A lean cleric of the Path, an alchemist, appears beside the throne bearing a jade and jewelled cup upon a round golden tray. The emperor, his eyes never leaving the dancer, whose eyes never leave his, drinks the elixir prescribed him for this hour. She will take hers later.

He might never need his tomb. He might live with her forever, eating golden peaches in pavilions of sandalwood, surrounded by tended lacquer trees and bamboo groves, gardens of chrysanthemums beside ponds with lilies and lotus flowers floating in them, drifting amid lanterns and fireflies like memories of mortality.

5) Robert Jordan
published “The Eye of the World” in 1990

Robert Jordan by Jeanne Collins, on Wikimedia Commons (CC Attribution 3.0 Unported)

Robert Jordan, born James O. Rigney Jr., passed away in 2007 before he could complete his magnum opus, “The Wheel of Time” series. At that time, he’d already published 11 books in the series, not one of them less than 600 pages, and a few topping 1,000 pages. For true followers of fantasy, Robert Jordan is something of a running joke, and fans shamelessly spoof “The Wheel of Time” in web comics and fan art. After Jordan’s death, his family chose Brandon Sanderson to complete the series based on notes that Jordan left behind. Sanderson has added three novels to the monstrous saga, and the final installment, “A Memory of Light,” is scheduled for release in January 2013.

I have to confess—I have never read any of Robert Jordan’s books. (I own almost all of them but haven’t found the time for them.) Why include him in this list, then, if I’ve never read him? Because Jordan’s influence on the genre is just that powerful—you don’t need to have read “The Wheel of Time” to feel the tremors of its impact.

Here is an excerpt from the 1996 New York Times Book Review of Jordan’s works:

In his saga, “The Wheel of Time,” which began with “The Eye of the World” in 1990 and continued, most recently, with the seventh volume, “The Crown of Swords,” which made it onto The New York Times best-seller list as soon as it was published last summer, Mr. Jordan has come to dominate the world Tolkien began to reveal. Five million copies of Mr. Jordan’s books have been sold.

Mr. Jordan has created a universe so detailed that elaborate commentaries have developed on the Internet, news groups debate the fates of characters, sites on the World Wide Web attempt to foretell events looming in the promised eighth, ninth and tenth volume of this series. Even a reader with literary pretensions can be swept up in Mr. Jordan’s narrative of magic, prophecy and battle.

“The World Builders” Mini-Series

Part 1: 7 Authors Who Changed How We Perceive Fantasy

Part 2: Reawakening a Genre

Part 3: The Heirs of the Kingdom

Part 4: Wizardry and Vampires

Part 5: Unto the Horizon

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