If you cast a wide net across my book list, you’re bound to come back with some controversial books: Wheel of Time, Way of Kings, or Game of Thrones (less controversial in the post-HBO era, I suppose). And I’m not going to lie, when people ask me why they should read these books, I sometimes struggle.
It’s not that these books aren’t good, but they have certain qualities which can make them…unpalatable. And these qualities come out immediately if you talk to anybody about these series. It starts off simple; you ask them about the books and they say ‘oh, it’s like Lord of the Rings, but‘ (oh, not everything is actually like Lord of the Rings, but if you’re explaining a fantasy novel to somebody who doesn’t know fantasy, that’s a pretty good starting place, but then the list of ‘but’s starts to grow longer and longer until you’re not even sure the book is fantasy anymore).
And they start getting excited, they say:
unlike Tolkien, the author really gets you in the heads of more characters! You see, Tolkien was more concerned with his mythology than his story, and it really shows in his narrative sometimes, where he gets distracted by the details of something you just don’t care about and all of a sudden you’ve read 50 pages of Tom Bombadil!
well, there aren’t really any elves or dwarves or magic or anything it’s more like a medieval world, and it’s all about how humans are pretty much inherently awful. It’s more a court intrigue novel, come to think of it, and it’s mostly about how court members try to accrue power by fucking or killing their family.
well, book 1 is basically a Lord of the Rings rip-off, but the twist at the end is that nobody really knows what they need to do to defeat the Dark One, and what they just accomplished was just the beginning, and unlike with Lord of the Rings, which ends with the characters irreparably damaged by their ordeals (you can really see the influence of WWI on Tolkien’s writing!), these characters go on to fill the shoes they need to, and their identities fundamentally change, and there’s a conflict within the characters where they try to keep their old identities, but they need to fill the role that’s necessary, and they try to find that point of balance.
It’s just a ridiculously epic universe, and unlike Tolkien, the characters don’t even know each other; they each give glimpses into entirely different worlds, and it really sets up the scope for future books!’
At this point, you should start to note a slightly manic look in their eyes, but their description sounds good enough so far, so you decide to keep listening. Don’t try to back away or disengage; once a fan of these series’ starts to go on about why they’re awesome, they pretty much won’t stop until they’ve spent all of their energy. Here is where it takes a turn for the worse:
Ok, well, but then the author starts following characters that you don’t really care about, or maybe you did care about them, but they can’t really rejoin the story yet, so they have some boring inconsequential adventures that you don’t even care about — I mean, why do we need an anthropology tour of their world through the eyes of one character! We literally wouldn’t encounter all of these civilizations otherwise, and they won’t be relevant otherwise, it just seems silly!
And the characters, sure, they’re growing, but he just spends SO MUCH TIME developing that you start to think ‘holy crap, grow up already! Yeah, life sucks for you, but at least you’re not an NPC who just gets killed randomly!’
And seriously, how many times is the author going to bait us into thinking that the protagonist is fighting the big bad, when really it’s just another minion pretending! I mean, something named ‘The Dark One’ isn’t just going to be some dude, right? We’re not fooled, so why are the characters?
And ok, the author has this annoying tendency to describe things in too much detail, and it’s cool at first, when it sets the tone of things, but how many times do we need to hear about the way the sunlight ripples through the leaves, or how the orange mountains loom in the distance for FIFTEEN PAGES — I mean, if he’d just skipped all that shit and written the plot, maybe he wouldn’t have DIED before he FINISHED THE BOOKS —
And at this point, you’re starting to wonder if maybe you should slink away, because they don’t seem to even realize whether or not you’re there, they’re just ranting to the air, but you really want to know what it is they do like about the books, so you let them continue.
but I mean, yeah, the descriptions are pretty good and he has a very vivid command of language, he just sometimes forgets to move the plot along for like 2 books because he has so many characters that they can only have like 2 scenes per book…unless he splits the characters up so only half of them are in every other book…that’s a little frustrating, but then you get a whole book of [insert favorite character] and it is FANTASTIC and —
ok, it’s hard to explain, but it’s a little like Stockholm Syndrome. You like some of the characters; you like them a lot, and you really want things to turn out alright for them, and they get some small victory and you think ‘[insert favorite character here], things are looking up for you!’ and then the author takes it away from you, and makes 10 bad things happen to them and then shifts away to another character! NOBODY CARES ABOUT DAENERYS, GO BACK TO MATRIM BLOODY CAUTHON YOU BLOODY FOOL!* And so you’re hanging on every word because you’re invested with some of the characters so deeply, and it’s like —
Anyway, so why do people read these books? I think I have an idea. There’s this one famous experiment that showed that birds could be trained to hit a button if it gave them food every time, but they could also be trained to hit it if it only gave them food sometimes! And in the latter case, when the button stopped giving them food, they hit the button for even longer in the latter case? Well it’s sort of like that. If you know you’re going to get payoff with every book, and then you don’t, you sort of just give up, right? That’s why nobody reads past book 2 of Dune, because book 1 is so great, and book 2 is so mind-blowingly terrible that you just think ‘nope, this author is done for’. Well with Wheel of Time, it’s more like the book starts kind of boring, but then it ramps up into awesomeness and your brain associates the boring build-up with the payoff, so the next time you hit a boring part, it’s not at all boring because you’re tingling with anticipation, and when it ramps up into awesomeness, you get the reward again. So what happens when you hit a long boring patch (book 4 of GoT or books 10/11 of WoT)? Your brain just keeps thinking ‘THIS IS ABOUT TO GET SO AWESOME YOU HAVE NO IDEA’, and the longer it takes, the bigger the psychological reward when it finally does happen
And all of that energy has to go somewhere, so it goes into frustration:
why Daenerys! Go back to Matrim! MATRIM!
And that’s why when you try to explain why you love the book to somebody, it comes across a bit like this:
And so it’s AWESOME, and Taim’s all “Kneel before the Lord Dragon, or you will be knelt”, and it just gives you the shivers — ok, but can I talk about something for a moment? Screw Robert Jordan. He knew he was dying! Why didn’t he just finish, or at least not write books 10 and 11! Nobody likes those! NOBODY! Ok, there are some good parts in them I guess, but at least maybe shorten them and condense them into one book? They’re the same book anyway, and half of it is just action shots of people reacting to the awesome shit Rand did in book 9, but why couldn’t there have been anything awesome in 10/11?
And god help you if you ever get two fans in the same place, because they’ll get sidetracked going “OMG RAND! I CAN’T BELIEVE HE –” and they glance sidelong at you, “– you know, did that thing he did that was FUCKING AWESOME” and they’re friend’s all “…which thing?” And they’re like “you know, the big one”, and they both chuckle evilly, and you feel a little bit awkward, like the exchange you just watched was a bit too intimate for your liking.
But let me let you in on a little secret. We don’t hate those things, not really. It’s sort of like when you complain about an ex and say “and she would just always want to cuddle”, and what you’re really thinking is “WHY DON’T WE CUDDLE ANYMORE? IT’S BECAUSE SHE DOESN’T LOVE ME! *ablublublublu*”. Things that annoy you are still better than things that bore you, because they at least make you feel something, and isn’t that the point of literature?
*Yeah, I know, different series’, but nobody’s chapters are as dull as Daenerys’ (Game of Thrones) or as satisfying as Matrim Cauthon’s (Wheel of Time)