One of the reasons why I love reading is because the experience and interpretation of the books we read is different to everyone who reads them. We may read the same words, but we will feel differently about them. It is based on the human experience. We are all different people, so of course we store and sift through the input of data into our systems in unique ways.
Another thing that I’m finding interesting with regards to reading is how differently I interpret or enjoy things over time. Books that I loved years ago are books that I can hardly get through now. Not in all cases, of course, but in some. There are aspects of literature that I never thought of before but drive me absolutely batty now. That’s probably a side effect of reviewing. I read books differently and notice the details a bit more, but the point was driven home this month by my read of A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin. Years ago I couldn’t get enough of this series. This month, I could hardly force myself to finish this book. Things change, I guess.
The fact is, A Dance With Dragons is a solid installment into an epic fantasy series that has become a cornerstone in the genre, but it did almost nothing for me personally. When I really sit back to think about it, I’m realizing that I’m starting to struggle more and more with epic fantasy. While there are some series that I still love (Malazan Book of the Fallen, for example) there are so many more that I struggle to get through. It isn’t epic fantasy’s fault. In fact, I’d say it is probably a sign that epic fantasy is doing it right and I’m just weird for not appreciating what they are doing.
Years and years ago I loved epic fantasy because I loved all the details. I loved the huge worlds and reading a five-page dissertation on how someone makes camp at night. I enjoyed the battles with the cringe-worthy points. In many respects, I still do, but I’m finding that my old age is making me less tolerant toward them. There’s a balance between details and story that epic fantasy needs to strike, and when the books don’t strike that balance right, I really struggle with getting through them. That’s what I found out with A Dance With Dragons, and that’s also why I gave up on The Wheel of Time series. Sometimes authors seem to know when to cut the details and move on with the story, and others get so mired in the world that the details overwhelm the story and my brain eventually gets exhausted and turns off.
I’m noticing this pet peeve of mine more and more often now. For example, if your book is full of entire chapters where people do nothing more than think and travel up a river – (including all the details of said travel, like when people wake up and when they pee off a boat – over and over again) I’m done. I get exhausted with that. There’s a balance, and the author hasn’t struck it right. However, that’s also part of why reading is so much fun for me. For every book I say that about, there will be a handful of readers who love the book because of those details that seem overwhelming to me.
No matter how I personally feel about it, these fans of details do have a good point in their arguments. The details in epic fantasy make it feel more epic and more real. It’s nice to know when that your protagonist and antagonist have to take a break from all the fighting to do something so human as pee. It’s interesting to know that the tedious boat trip to me is also tedious to the characters on that boat. While I may have stopped appreciating those details over time, epic fantasy is telling the story of a bunch of characters, and sometimes their lives are detail filled and boring. Sometimes it involves a lot of moving and very little action. Sometimes all that moving around demands a lot of introspection and thought on the character’s part. Those lovers of detail tend to say that the details make the characters real, and I agree with them.
Epic fantasy is an interesting genre to read and it must be a very difficult one to write. The “epic” in the genre title means that it is huge in scope. There has to be a story there, but the breadth and depth of it can be as sprawling as the author wants. While I do get tired of series and books getting mired in details, and I feel like those details, while interesting, can hinder the plot, I can also see where the lovers of details are coming from. Knowing you are reading a book about people who have to battle uncertainty, pack their bags to travel vast distances, or pee occasionally makes readers feel more invested in those characters and the story. They are human, they are like you and me, and those details prove it. They are interesting and round out the story nicely. Details can make readers feel invested in what is happening. They can make the “epic” feel so much more “epic.”
I don’t hate epic fantasy. In fact, Malazan Book of the Fallen is one of my most favorite series in the history of ever and I would argue that it doesn’t get much more epic than that. There is a lot of traveling and a lot of military action that goes on. The world is gigantic both in terms of geography and history. However, where I’d argue that this series is different from some others out there that I may or may not have mentioned earlier in this post is that Erikson never really overwhelmed the story with details. There were never vast swaths of his books where nothing happened but making camp or thinking about how shitty life is. He balanced those moments well with plot development, character development, action or any number of other things.
For me, epic fantasy is all about the balance between the details and the plot. I have to hand it to authors, because in my mind epic fantasy or (again, my opinion here) its space opera equivalent must be the two hardest genres to write. It has to be difficult to write a story and include all those details authors know their readers want but also progress the plot at the same time. I can’t fault them for getting mired in the details, or even overlooking them sometimes. They are writing epic stuff, and while this may seem like the most impressive bitch-fest ever, the truth is, I don’t write the genre because I don’t think I have the head for it. I’m not smart enough. However, what really makes the “epic” work in epic fantasy is the balance between details and story. When an author strikes that balance right, I tend to love those books. When the balance is skewed more toward one pole or the other, I lose interest pretty fast.
So now you’re saying something like, “Hey Sarah, that’s fascinating, but what is the point of all of this?” The answer? I’m not really sure. I guess I’m interested in striking up a discussion. That’s the other thing I love about reading. We might not all see eye to eye, but your opinions and insights into the genre I love so much really broadens my horizons and makes me look at things differently. So, weigh in. Do you like the details or do you hate them? When is it “too much” or “too little”?