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June 28, 2017

Hello Darkness, my old friend

by Ross Kitson

Having just watched the official trailer for the impending season of Game of Thrones I joined the masses with an almighty squeeee. Plenty of soundbites, plenty of slow character shots, then fast cuts of incredible looking battle scenes and, of course, dragons.

It’s a testament to both the quality of the original story, the script adaptation of it, and the superb mix of acting and special effects that has made the series a phenomenon. I came into the book series relatively late, in 2008 when I was catching up on my fantasy reading prior to writing my own saga. At this stage, four books had been released, and I devoured them in quick succession—ebbing on the somewhat lacklustre fourth book, which I’m glad to say was succeeded in 2011 by the excellent ‘A Dance with Dragons.’ As books, they are every bit as gripping as the TV series, albeit with subtly different plotlines, and greater depth (as you’d expect). And, in the genre of fantasy literature, they had a not dissimilar impact to the TV series—namely reinvigorating a sense of maturity into the fantasy market.

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My own feeling is that this is a welcome thing. It brought fantasy from the whimsical realms of Middle Earth (and I’m the hugest fan of Tolkien, and indeed the film versions of his works) into a far more visceral reality. This so-called Dark Fantasy (synonymous with ‘gritty’ and ‘grimdark’) encouraged mature topics ranging from incest, murder, abuse, and violence to anti-heroes and abrupt character deaths. There’s no doubt that Martin aims for a sort of magical realism in his work—the fantastic elements (such as dragons, magic, the White Walkers, resurrection) are played down in preference to a story which feels heavily influenced by historical fiction. Lest we wince at the gory and ghoulish acts within Game of Thrones, we can find parallels with almost all of the acts in real history. Back in the Middle Ages torture, poison, murder, and genocide were the brutal way of monarchs many of whom acted like glorified crime bosses. And there’s a funny thing: if we regard our fantasy fiction as rather twee and na├»ve, much of our historical fiction over the last few decades has been similarly romantic and diluted.

Yet all that has changed now. Martin’s literary influence inspired a cohort of darker fantasy writers: Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Lev Grossman, and Daniel Abraham amongst many. The tone of novels is far murkier, the blurring between hero and villain much less distinct. Yet although George RR Martin’s work has achieved prominence and is widely credited for the big shake-up in fantasy literature, Martin is the first to admit that others paved the way for the modern era. Beyond the classic fantasy authors influencing Martin (Leiber, Zelazny, Moorcock, Howard, Le Guin) there were definite precursors to his work, a number of which have gained a boost in attention in recent years. To me, Stephen Donaldson, Tad Williams, Glen Cook, and Robert Jordan are the stand out authors providing a modern fantasy platform to precede Martin’s ongoing series. My personal absolute favourite is Steven Erikson’s incredible ten book epic The Malazan Book of the Fallen which adds a complexity to the fantasy genre, and a brutal humour, that outshines George RR Martin not least because Erikson actually finished his series!

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The Game of Thrones effect has in my eyes crept into TV production on many levels. The welcome element is that projects that wouldn’t have seen light previously are getting the go ahead, and the boost to niche companies such as HBO and AMC  has, in turn, emboldened Netflix and Amazon Prime to invest in quality television, bringing up standards to cinematic levels. Yet on the flipside, it seems every project has to have a dark undertone, a push on the levels of violence for a given rating, a gritty subtext. I was joyous when I saw Shannara Chronicles was being made, and woefully disappointed by the end result of beautiful actors, sporadic excessive violence, and attempts to make the classic LOTR-derived plot all gritty and angsty. I wait with baited breath for the Amber Chronicles, and knowing the Kingkiller Chronicles, and The Wheel of Time are lurking in pre-production makes this fanboy nervous.

Ultimately it boils down to what you want from your fantasy literature and series. Whereas I do enjoy the reading of darker styles of fantasy, in some ways it misses the mark. Often the darker style is focused on grey-area characters and upping the maturity with violence, horror, and sexual content. Yet one of the main draws of fantasy for me, and similarly science-fiction, is the ability to use the genre to consider larger philosophical and existential topics, embedded within the genre. I find the topics of destiny, higher purpose, religion and persecution, the nature of good and evil, and of heroism, drive me to read more fantasy-sci-fi than if they were presented in an academic text. For these topics, I've veered towards the astonishing China Melville, but not forgetting simpler works of fantasy like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials… also due a TV series!!!

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I worry, as do many fantasy fans, that the success of Game of Thrones may not be as readily replicated as producers think. The balance between the source material written, after all, by an author who made his living for many years in TV, and the acting/production/ script, may yet prove to be unique—a perfect coincidence of a public eager for something new and visceral that pushed the limits of acceptable viewing, and a tantalising unpredictable plot replete with character demise.

I’ll be watching eagerly.

Ross Kitson is a doctor, occasional blogger, full-time geek, and sporadic author of fantasy and YA sci-fi. Connect with Ross on Twitter.

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