I love reading Jen's blog, and really enjoyed 'The Copper Promise' too (go and read it), so was chuffed to bits when a cheeky request for a guest blog was met with a 'Yay!' (really, it was)
If there's one thing I've found out this week it's that I'm better at asking for guest posts than I am at saying what should go in them. Lucky for me then that everyone has come up with great posts of their own; posts like this one (coming with its own map, a first for this blog)...
The Road There and Back Again
I do like a book with a map at the front. It’s a fantasy fan thing, I guess. I was once lightly teased on a coach trip because the book I was reading had a map in it, but I think they are rather lovely things – little snatches of imaginary worlds, briefly pinned down to paper. It’s pleasing to think that if you were deposited there, transported via a magical storm or a wilful piece of furniture, that you could even navigate your way to safety, avoiding the parts marked “abandon ye all hope” and “spiders here”.
With this in mind, I wanted to share with you a piece of my own personal fantasy map, a guide to the journey that has taken me from a small child endlessly colouring in dragons with felt-tip pens, to a writer banging out fantasy novels of her own.
At the Sign of the Prancing Pony
This is a weird thing to admit, but when I was very small I don’t think I really understood books. I was an excellent reader, always at the top of the reading group, but in truth I was just processing words. I never really felt connected to the book I was reading; they were just exercises to be completed, and if I didn’t really comprehend what was happening it didn’t matter. I vividly remember reading several books in junior school and having no clear idea what they were about, despite being able to read and understand each word. Weird kid.
I remember picking up The Lord of the Rings at the library because it was famous, and because it was fat. “Aha,” I thought. “This will be a challenge. Look at all these words to process! I will process the shit out of ‘em.” (That’s probably not exactly what I thought – I was ten years old and convinced the monsters under my bed would eat me if I swore).
LOTR was really the start of books for me. For the first time I was truly transported by a novel; I remember reading it while on a caravan holiday with my family, and in my head I was more in Hobbiton than Dymchurch. I went with Frodo and Aragorn to another world, and it was a place I wanted to see more of.
It’s perhaps a little easy to be dismissive of Tolkien now, partly because it can feel old-fashioned – Crom knows these days I prefer my books with a touch more sex and violence – and partly because it has been copied ad-nauseam (when I mentioned I was writing a blog on fantasy, a friend suggested “Why don’t you ask why fantasy hasn’t moved on since Tolkien?” – I don’t agree, which is why I’m not talking about that. I can be slippery sometimes) but it’s clear that LOTR and The Hobbit are often a gateway drug to the larger world of Fantasy, along with D&D, and there’s a good reason for that. Middle-earth is a complete world, and so many of the books I was reading as a kid were about children travelling from our world to another, and then, disappointingly, back again. I was in the middle of reading the Narnia series when I picked up LOTR; once I’d seen Rivendell I never went back through the wardrobe again. Hobbiton was the start of my adventure, just as it was for Bilbo and Frodo, and so the Shire sits at the bottom of my map, awaiting the long trek north.
When You’re Tired of Ankh-Morpork…
The Discworld books are so close to me that I almost can’t separate them from myself. Does that make sense? After all, didn’t I grow up in Ankh-Morpork? (I’m half convinced that my great love of London is partly born of its fictional shadow-sister) Wasn’t Nanny Ogg an aunt of mine? Didn’t I take holidays on the Chalk? Sometimes it feels like I did, and that Sir Terry Pratchett’s books have been with me all my life. The Discworld is famously a satire of Fantasy, but when I started reading it, it simply was Fantasy. It was dragons and wizards and witches and wild, dangerous magic, and yeah, it was all very funny, but that’s as it should be – I’m sure the Discworld books contributed to my need for human fantasy; that is to say, fantasy where the characters aren’t all po-faced and spouting thee’s and thou’s. People are funny, even when things are going wrong; it’s what makes them so brilliant.
It wasn’t until relatively recently that I started reading the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories by Fritz Leiber and realised where all that stuff came from; the Thieves Guild, the dodgy taverns. Pratchett may have started off gently lampooning the genre, but in the end the Discworld became the centre of it, for me at least, and consequently Ankh-Morpork sits at the very heart of my own fantasy map.
A City Unconvinced By Gravity
We skip forward now. A line of red dots marches across the map, and as we zip past the wildly differing landscapes we take in such sights as Derry and Castle Rock (never really human places, don’t you believe it), and the doom-laden city of Lud on the edge of Mid-World. We see the crumbling mansion of the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair in the distance (a terrible, dimly lit place), and onwards through the Six Duchies to the stalwart fortress of the Drenai empire, until we reach somewhere altogether… different. In short, reading Perdido Street Station by China Mieville was like being smacked upside the head with a giant mallet made of drugs. I have a thing for weird cities (you may have noticed) and New Crobuzon was the Weird City. I read it just as I was starting to take writing a little more seriously, and it showed me that fantasy can be anything; that the language of dreams is infinite. It took what I thought I knew and stuffed it full of dreamshit, and so New Crobuzon crouches at the gateway to new and unexplored territories.
I am the Watcher on the Walls
I first picked up a copy of A Game of Thrones a couple of years ago, just before they announced a TV series was going into production. At the time I was feeling a little jaded about Fantasy as a genre, having read a number of books that felt rather cold, the characters quite distant. At the same time I was in the midst of a full-blown obsession with the video game Dragon Age: Origins. If you are unaware of this prince of RPGs, it’s a game that gathers up traditional fantasy and gives it a sexy little cuddle; the story is great, the characters become your best mates, and there’s an extraordinary amount of depth. I was looking for the novel equivalent of that, and while A Game of Thrones is definitely nothing like Dragon Age, it did have characters that ripped my heart out and trampled on the juices.
A Song of Ice and Fire is fantasy given a thick coating of meaty-flavoured realism, and the magic, when it does appear, is dangerous and unpredictable. This was the human fantasy I’d been looking for; people make bad decisions (come on, Ned, you twat), they do terrible things to each other, and they have sex, and they argue and bleed and eat, just like real people. Almost all the characters are morally dodgy and George R.R Martin continually turns you on your head – the essentially good characters do terrible things, like the honourable Catelyn Stark treating her step-son like an unexpected turd in her cereal, and the horrendous bastards end up being your favourite characters (I’m looking at you, Jaime Lannister). The series’ most iconic figure must be Tyrion, and aside from him always having the very best lines and generally outwitting everyone else, I think he represents the books’ whole ethos: for your traditional fantasy hero he’s the wrong shape, and he’s aligned with the most evil family in the book, but Tyrion is a wonderful collision of sharp wit, scheming cleverness and a genuinely good heart underneath it all. Ask anyone who’s read ASOIAF, and Tyrion will either be their favourite character or at least in the top three, and we’re not even sure if he’s supposed to be a goodie or not. This is a long way from Tolkien. And so are we. The winding road north has taken us through lands dangerous and startling, and now we’re heading up into the frozen wastes. Who knows what we could meet up there? So let’s fill our pockets with lembas bread, oil our best swords, and head deeper into fantasy country.