September 20, 2009

Why I'm not buying A Dance With Dragons (immediately, anyway)

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at September 20, 2009 5:56 PM

Jo Walton at Tor has been blogging about George R. R. Martin's fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. The blog posts start with this one, which is a pretty good description of the series for those of you who haven't read it. I recommend the books, but I also recommend waiting until he actually finishes the series (which could be far in the future, when we're all reading it on our retinal implants while waiting for the mechanic to finish changing the oil in our jetpacks).

Indeed, these were the books that led me to adopt a general policy of not reading any fantasy (or sci-fi) series which had yet to conclude. I had already given up on Robert Jordan, but that's because his books were getting progressively worse. In Martin's case, that wasn't the problem (although A Feast for Crows was a bit disappointing), but the lack of closure at the end of each one, followed by a multi-year wait during which I'd forget important details of the complicated plot, was getting annoying. It became clear that the series would be a much better experience if I could read it all the way to completion in one go. So I'm waiting until I can do that.

Series bloat seems to be endemic in fantasy, for which I mainly blame Tolkien: everyone seems to think they need to write at least a trilogy. But some of my favorite fantasy novels are standalone: Perdido Street Station, The Lies of Locke Lamora. Lately I've been seeking out more like those and avoiding epic series unless I know it's finished. (Which has led me to read less fantasy and more sci-fi, where I tend to find less of a serial tendency.)

Again, it's not that I don't like epic series, it's just that they're more satisfying when I don't have to wait for the next volume. Books of this type, at least the good ones, compel the reader to keep turning the pages and devouring the storyline, and because there's no resolution at the end of each volume, that desire to keep reading persists but is frustrated. Jo Walton talks a bit about this quality:

Firstly, they have a very high "I-want-to-read-it" quotient. This "IWantToReadItosity" is hard to explain, is utterly subjective and is entirely separate from whether a book is actually good. Who can say why Robert Heinlein and Georgette Heyer and Zenna Henderson have it for me and Herman Hesse and Aldous Huxley don't, despite the fact that Hesse and Huxley are major world writers? I'll happily acknowledge that The Glass Bead Game is a better book than Job: A Comedy of Justice, but nevertheless, Job has that IWantToReadItosity, and if you left me in a room with both books and nothing else, it would be Job I'd start first.

Now even within genre this is something that varies a lot between people. The Wheel of Time books don't have it for me, I've read Eye of the World and I didn't care enough to pick up the others. Ditto Harry Potter, where I've read the first three. These are books that have IWantToReadItosity for millions of people, but not for me. The Song of Ice and Fire books do, though, they grab me by the throat. This isn't to say they're gripping in the conventional sense--though they are--because IWantToReadItosity isn't necessarily to do with plot or characters or any of the ways we conventionally divide up literature. It's got to do with whether and how much you want to read it. You know the question "Would you rather read your book or go out with your friends?" Books have IWantToReadItosity if you'd rather read them. There are books I enjoy that I can still happily put down to do something else. A Game of Thrones is eight hundred pages long, and I've read it six times, but even so, every time I put the bookmark in, I put it in reluctantly.

I was thinking a bit about her comment that IWantToReadItosity (we need a better name for this) is separate from whether a book is actually good. And certainly it's easy to think of really terrible books that have it (The Da Vinci Code, for example), and great books that don't (much of what we were assigned in high school). In fact, there's a strain of thought that Great Literature should be difficult and challenging, and therefore shouldn't have IWantToReadItosity. I don't think that's true, though. It's not that the two qualities are anticorrelated, they are just orthogonal. I even came up with a diagram to illustrate this:

Which is not to say that Haruki Murakami is a better writer than Melville, just that reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a different experience from reading Moby-Dick. (And Wind-Up Bird really is difficult, just not because of entire chapters dedicated to the details of the whaling industry.) However, it is to say that these guys are both better writers than Ayn Rand, because she's pretty bad.

Discussion is open: what books in the literary canon have IWantToReadItosity? And what are some standalone fantasy novels or completed series I should read?

Tags: Books

This is an incredibly tough nut to crack. For openers, to earn a place in the "literary canon" (the definition of which is itself open to debate), a book has to have been around long enough to be considered enduring and to have been subjected to substantial scholarly criticism and analysis. So almost by definition it (and its structure and prose) belongs to an era that modern readers find hard to access and relate to. This detracts from its IWTRI value for most people.

And yet there is astoundingly well written literature that is hard to put down and compelling- DEPENDING ON INDIVIDUAL TASTE. I've read BLOOD MERIDIAN and ALL THE PRETTY HORSES probably half a dozen times each, just for the beauty of the prose. (I've read all of McCarthy at least twice for that same reason.) And yet I know people who would abandon the enterprise before the end of the first chapter. It is all so very subjective.

Still, I would list FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (Hemingway), THE SOUND AND THE FURY (Faulkner), THE POWER AND THE GLORY (Greene), and, more recently, THE MAGUS (Fowles), THE OLD GRINGO (Fuentes) and THE ENGLISH PATIENT (Ondaatje) as having IWTRI despite the superior quality of the writing and the treatment of more advanced themes. There are doubtless others and I reserve the right to add to the list.

(And thank you SO MUCH for not placing me anywhere in your frickin' chart.)

Posted by: JSpur | September 20, 2009 7:30 PM

Here is one stab at a sort of literary canon, although it is biased in favor of recent literature. Try not to throw up over the "Reader's List."

There are other versions of the "literary canon" available online that stretch back to Plato, etc., but from the standpoint of IWTRI you can pretty much forget them, for the reasons noted in the first paragraph of my initial post.

Posted by: JSpur | September 20, 2009 7:34 PM

For me, the classic works that I haven't yet read (or have read and therefore place in this category) that top my IWantToReadItosity would be Catch-22, Orwell, Vonnegut, and Salinger.

Which is very illustrative of me as a person, I think.

Posted by: Josh | September 20, 2009 10:18 PM

Also I'd like to read some Upton Sinclair sometime, but I keep forgetting to look into it.

Posted by: Josh | September 20, 2009 10:27 PM

There's a sequel to _Lies of Locke Lamora_---_Red Seas Under Red Skies_.

I believe it's supposed to be a series of 7.

Posted by: Wren | September 21, 2009 3:01 AM

Wren: I've read Red Seas Under Red Skies. What I mean by "standalone" is that the conflicts in the book were largely resolved in the end, so that one doesn't need to read the sequel just to continue the story. Instead, the sequel was new adventures with the same characters.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | September 21, 2009 10:38 AM

Like you, I can't get into much epic-series-fantasy anymore because it's all the same. I don't mind a multi-volume book. I mind a multi-volume book that's like The Seeker-- a mind-numbingly awful tromp through the same re-hashed plots, tropes, with arch-types so obvious they might as well call them "The Helper Agent" instead of the unpronounceable name that the author stuck them with. I'm now turning more toward steampunk, which at least is something new and has a gritty edge to it that I like.

I'm also still a fan of zombies. I can recommend Monster Island by David Wellington (which you can read online for free-- I found it via Wil Wheaton's blog), but found some parts of it less than excellent.

I'll try anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, but especially Tigana, but I couldn't get through Sailing to Sarantium.

Jonathan Strange and Dr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke-- wonderful, standalone novel about our world, with magic. It's huge, but I listened to the audiobook.

The Bartameus series, which is about our world, with magic, and demons. It's a young adult series, so I give it some slack (that's the trick to enjoying Harry Potter, too-- there's much to love in HP, but you have to remember that it's a series for children and teens).

Also YA, Garth Nix's Abhorsen series is absolutely marvelous. I listened to the audiobooks, which are read by Tim Curry, and they rock.

Naomi Novik's Tremeraire series. It's a series (up to the 4th book now), but each book stands on its own. About a navy captain and his dragon, during the Napoleonic wars. It's what I wish Eregon could have been like.

Also, I really LOVE Brandon Sanderson, who is also completing Robert Jordan's series. He writes series fantasy (notably the Mistborn series, which vaguely reminded me of Locke Lamora when I read it), but has also written stand-alone stuff. Highly recommended: Elantris.

Stephen King's Dark Tower series (which is complete). 7 books, epic world, epic journey. All tropes are taken, turned sideways, and beaten until they scream. Follow up with Lisey's Story and Duma Key (which aren't part of the DT canon, but feel like it)-- in these 9 books is an intense view of what it means to be a creator and storyteller like King. I'd add The Stand if you want another meaty book to envelope you.

If you haven't read it yet, Life of Pi by Yann Martel is a lovely and wonderful book-- it's my "desert island" novel (the one book I'd want with me if I were stranded on a deserted island). It's not fantasy, except in the questions it asks.

One of the things I do when I go to sci fi conventions is ask the booksellers what the good new author/series/title is to buy. That's how I found Naomi Novik, who really blew me away with her originality.

Posted by: Stephanie | September 21, 2009 10:53 AM

Mistborn and Temeraire - heartily seconded, excellent stuff! I'm glad Tor picked Sanderson to finish Jordan's series, otherwise I might never have read Mistborn.

I've been picking up recommendations by reading Tor (especially Walton's posts, though I strongly disagree with her and your fondness for Martin's series) and Scalzi's Big Idea posts. Daniel Abraham's Long Price quartet (Shadow in Summer is book 1) is quite nice so far. I've only read the first three, but the fourth is out, it's just been checked out every time I go to the library. Very original setting and magic system, and as Walton observed in her blog posts about it book three (An Autumn War) is fantastic for shades of gray and making both sides of a really nasty conflict look like plausible good guys and villains at once.

Another one I liked is C. C. Finlay's Patriot Witch. He has two sequels out, so I think it may be a complete trilogy. The library doesn't even seem to have books two and three so I'll grab those next time I place an Amazon order. It's sort of Temeraire-ish in the sense of taking early modern history (American Revolution in this case) and adding a fantasy twist. Unlike Novik's dragons, Finlay keeps the fantasy elements subtle so that the historical results actually occur.

Butcher's Codex Alera is arguably the best new fantasy I've read in years (right up there with Temeraire and Mistborn). The series will be complete with the next book, I'm guessing next year sometime.

And then there's the whole urban fantasy can of worms that's so big these days...

On classic IWTRI: Dumas tends to be pretty good for that. I got bogged down in Twenty Years After, but that may have been because I kept comparing it to Brust's Five Hundred Years After. Dim high school memories suggest that Ivanhoe and Catch-22 are decent for IWTRI as well. But nothing can compete with the IWTRI of mind candy books like David Weber, etc. Goodbye sleep, hello exploding spaceships!

Posted by: Justin | September 21, 2009 2:55 PM

As to Dan Brown and literary merit, please see:

Posted by: JSpur | September 21, 2009 5:42 PM

We definitely need to come up with a (or remember the) word for “IWantToReadItosity”. It makes me think of all the baseball announcers who like to talk about "StickToItiveness" instead of "perseverance". Yuck.

Several of the Weis/Hickman books have done this for me. (By the way, I highly recommend their 7-part Death Gate Cycle. The first book is very hard to slog through, though it's necessary to set things up. Things really pick up and become awesome starting with book 2.)

Back in the day (7th grade), I remember reading Shogun in a week. By my standards, that is lightning fast, and I just couldn't put it down. Noble House, too. Those are single books that are just epic.

Posted by: Mason Porter | September 21, 2009 5:46 PM

I like "IWantToReadItosity" -- it has a nice ring to it. In this category, for me, is Connie Willis -- I have not yet been disappointed in any of her books.
Admittedly, I don't read much fantasy or sci-fi. One relatively recent book I enjoyed, that is sort of a fantasy and has tremendous IWTRI, is The Yiddish Policeman's Union, by Michael Chabon. I actually listened to that in CD, and the guy who reads it is amazing. I am looking forward to reading more of Chabon's works.
An author I never grow tired of is Nevil Shute. His books are pretty much over 50 years old, well-written, mostly straight fiction, though In the Wet was a little more fantasical. For me, always lots of IWTRI.
I agree with JSpur, though, that tastes can vary so much!

Posted by: Susan Schaeffer | September 21, 2009 10:44 PM

Here's some recent reads I found very compelling, though note that I'm pretty bad as far as picking literary canon, being essentially canon-deaf.

The City & The City - China Mieville. I expect you've read this already, but if not... it's a story with a wonderful setting that's strange enough to make my eyes cross trying to track the language needed to explain it, but I couldn't put it down - and then it all started to make sense (eyes uncrossed) and it was excellent.

_The Atrocity Archives_ and _The Jennifer Morgue_ - Charles Stross. Cthulu meets Office Space, in a wacky action comedy blockbuster! Or maybe it should be Cthulu meets the IT sector. I'm not sure. Regardless, after reading most of Stross I realized I hadn't read these books. Big Mistake! I have now fixed that problem, and you (AG) should definitely try these if you haven't yet. :)

Consider Phlebas - Iain M. Banks. I only recently started reading books by this author, and it's a real joy to find he's got over 20 years worth of books I can pick up, all of which have been excellent. This one is considered the first of many with the same general galactic setting, but I found them easy to read out of order. My favorite of the four I've read is _The Player of Games_. His books have intriguing plots and well developed characters - though be warned, he is not afraid to kill them off if it helps move the story along. (Also, if you read _Matter_, be aware that the Epilogue occurs /after/ the Appendix. I was about to kill someone because of the way that story ended.)

WWW: Wake - Robert J. Sawyer. Takes a simple question - "what if while trying to give sight to a blind girl, she actually got the ability to visualize the WWW instead?" and then runs with it to places I'd never have guessed. Very well written characters.

Fractions + Divisions - Ken Macleod (MacLeod? it's not distinguishable by his book covers). These are two books, each containing two stories (the four stories as a whole are called the Fall Revolution series)... they're all in the same setting with vastly different time frames and ideas, about revolutions, anarchy and communities.

I also second the recommendation for Tor's website, and Scalzi's Big Ideas posts. I've been picking up most of the Big Ideas books if they sounded interesting and they have all been worth it.

Posted by: Zifnab | September 22, 2009 3:47 AM

Zifnab: You and I are clearly on the same wavelength, the last two books I read are Use of Weapons by Banks (one of the best things I've read in a while), and The Jennifer Morgue (loved it). Use of Weapons is the only Banks novel I've read, but having done so the rest of the Culture books are now on my list.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | September 22, 2009 9:03 AM

I bought The Atrocity Archives on recommendation from Justin (I think it was Justin?), but it's currently sitting in my bookshelf. I'll read it eventually. :) The WWW sounds like an interesting premise. Right now, I started reading a collection of Borges fiction and essays, though I think I will just read a couple of stories before starting another novel. Then I'll gradually read some of these things in between novels.

Posted by: Mason Porter | September 22, 2009 11:47 AM
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