Friday, December 18, 2020

The doorstopper fantasy

 The Lord of the Rings is no doubt a long read and well worth the time, but compared to the “doorstopper” multi-volume fantasies that followed it, it’s positively compact. Indeed, LOTR was drafted as a single long novel, and then published in three volumes, a choice with a strong tradition in the case of the triple-decker novels of earlier Victorian publishing. But, at some point in the 70s and 80s the trilogy became the pattern, and then commercial fantasy developed the even more substantial series format, which gave us behemoths like The Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones. These doorstopper fantasies, of significant mass and length, well exceed LOTR in word-counts and represent several intriguing challenges and questions.

I’m minded of this because my shelter-in-place COVID-19 reading has included Tad William’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, both a trilogy and one of the better exemplars of the doorstopper series. William’s certainly wrote at length, introducing multiple character threads and alternately cultivating and subtly defying genre conventions, but at least MS&T came to a satisfying ending. I still remember overhearing Robert Jordan being pressed as to when The Wheel of Time would end by a Christchurch bookstore owner during a visit. As I recall, he gave a firm “we’ll see” in answer, and sadly died before his series was finished. George R. R. Martin, on the other hand, has attracted the scorn and concern of fans for not yet completing Game of Thrones, and yet I think the more interesting question is how will he finish his own sequence when the script writers of the TV series have already preempted his choices.

The trilogy format certainly offers some advantages. The three book sequence frames and encourages a beginning, middle, and end structure, offering the clarity of exposition, development, and conclusion, rising tension, and similar desiderata. And a wide range of authors have made good use of the scope of multiple story threads to develop tension and suspense. And perhaps the more complex the fantasy, and more complex the fictional world, the more need for development and explanation.

But issues of completion aside, the doorstopper has encouraged and even enabled some weaknesses, perhaps the worst of which was bloated storylines with more long-winded development for development’s sake and seemingly interminable politicking and journeying. Even Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn drags in the middle volume, shifting and transferring characters back and forth across Osten Ard like an over-cautious chess player advancing and retreating pieces in the mid-game before the end-game becomes apparent. But worse than pacing, I think, was the proliferation of shallow minor characters and ancillary story-lines. The main reason I dropped GoT and the sprawling, interminable Malazan Book of the Fallen was the ever expanding cast of characters, which made a focal point, much less a protagonist, impossible to settle on. 

And yet the fantasy trilogy trilogy, with its open horizons, its richness of texture, its sustained evocation of a world, remains compelling. Perhaps there are ways to adapt and develop the three part structure; to make the long journey an adventure, to provide authentic scope for characters to emerge, and to make the imaginary world dense and strange again. 

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