Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Grimdark Fatigue

WARNING: The following blog post contains massive spoilers for last night's Game of Thrones finale. If you've neither read the books nor seen the show, you may wish to skip this week.

SECONDARY WARNING: I did very much enjoy the final episode, "The Children." It's marvelously crafted, expertly acted and (with a few little missteps – here's looking at you, Harryhausen skeletons) I don't necessarily know how else you could better represent the events of the book, the events that conclude A Storm of Swords.

Never before have I required a break from Game of Thrones this badly. The television show, mind – watching the show has really, really ignited my desire to re-read the actual novels. After watching the Season Four finale, I'm just emotionally drained, head-to-toe.

Watching the fantasy pendulum swing has been an interesting experience, growing up immersed in the genre. When I was a child in the 90s, "grimdark" fantasy world was just blossoming in the Song of Ice and Fire series, a series I was much too young for. No, I grew up reading Brian Jacques, R.A. Salvatore and, of course, Tolkien, where fantasy was pulpy, mythical and formulaic.

As I grew older, Ice & Fire grew in popularity and the aesthetic of a gritty, realer, more authentic fantasy experience grew on me like a fungus. Much of my early writing and D&D – particularly the story that would eventually become Cutthroat Ragtime – was influenced heavily by Martin, Lynch and Abercrombie's wave of gross, vile and profanity spattered fiction. These were shocking, brutal world, ripe with murder, rape and institutional cruelty. Ice & Fire, particularly, thrives from floating between tragedy after tragedy for its characters.

While I'd openly admit that A Storm of Swords is probably the best book in the series, I remember reading the thing to be an absolute slog. Everything was becoming bleaker and more hopeless and more desperate for the few remaining characters that struggled through the narrative. Thinking about all that happens in the book – Jamie's hand, Mormont's death, the Unsullied, Tyrion and Sansa's wedding, the Red Wedding, Joffrey's death, Tyrion's trial, Jorah's banishment, the Mountain versus the Red Viper, Lysa Arryn's death, the battle at the Wall, Tywin's death, the Hound's death, Shae's death – it's kind of ridiculous.

In the show, however, all of these events climax much, much more rapidly. There's no padding in between them. You slalom between shocking twist to shocking twist and, while all the scenes in and of themselves, are compelling and well-executed, you begin to be weighed down beneath the sheer tragedy and blood and gore of everything.

This also doesn't take into account the show's obsession with the more violent, sexual or scatological aspects of Martin's narrative. Westeros is a violent, cruel and disgusting place – absolutely it is, but it's also a world of wonder and complexity and nuance and all too often, the show chooses only to highlight what's mean or gross or raunchy about the world. There's a way to show texture without being vulgar and Martin does this expertly in the books; you want a good afternoon? Go fuck around this place for an hour or two. Actually, start someplace random, say, here, and in one hour, see where you end up. It's never, ever boring.

That's what I love about the books. The sex and shit and guts enhance that, but it's the goddamn depth that's what make those books so great. The depth of character, the depth of world, the depth of storytelling.

What I need now, from my fantasy, is a little more fun, a little more joy and a little more positivity, weirdly. I've spoken in this vein before and, ironically, the place I'm getting the most of that is from Scott Lynch, another pee, vomit and penis-laden fantasist. The missus and I are re-reading The Republic of Thieves and several of the play-within-a-play stuff was like a balm to our shellshocked consciences following the GoT season finale.

Also, it's maybe a good thing that my NaNo this year is a young adult fantasy epic about talking gorillas. Yeah, you heard me.

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