Category Archive for ‘influences’

The New Sword and Sorcery

Posted on January 14th, 2010 in influences, opinion

The cover for Swords and Dark Magic, an anthology in which I’ve got a story coming out in June next year. You’ll note the sub-title, “The New Sword and Sorcery”. The editors – Lou Anders (who publishes the First Law in the US, among many other things) and Jonathan Strahan – perceived something of a new flourishing of sword and sorcery of late, or perhaps an ascendance of sword and sorcery influences within chunky fantasy, and so they decided to produce an anthology that aimed to present in one volume stories from some of the established masters of the subgenre with some from the newer pipsqueaks and impostors such as myself. Looking at the writers involved (Steven Erikson, Glen Cook, Gene Wolfe, James Enge, C.J. Cherryh, K. J. Parker, Garth Nix, Michael Moorcock, Tim Lebbon, Robert Silverberg, Greg Keyes, Michael Shea, Scott Lynch, Tanith Lee, Caitlin R Kiernan, Bill Willingham, and some idiot called Joe Abercrombie) it would seem they’ve succeeded admirably.

I’m delighted to have a story included in such heavyweight company, of course, but it begs a question that I’ve been thinking about a little bit ever since. Not as much as, “ow, my neck hurts,” or, “man, my house is cold,” but a bit.

Do I write Sword and Sorcery?

Well do I, punk? When I started writing, I probably wouldn’t have said so. I’d have said I write important mainstream literary books that plumb the depths of the human condition, and just so happen to include a few wizards, a magic tower or two, and a whole lot of swords. A ha ha! Of course I wouldn’t have said that, that would’ve been absurd. I’d have said I write epic fantasy. Important epic fantasy that plumbs the depth of the human condition.

The fantasy that I read growing up – those books that I’d consider my early influences – are really much more from the epic school. The grandaddy himself, of course, and the wellspring from which the subgenre flows – David Eddings. But also the writers from that great tradition of core 80s epic fantasy who were so influenced by him, like Weiss and Hickman, Michael Scott Rohan and JRR Tolkein. Le Guin’s Earthsea was another, though I always saw that as being somehow in a slightly different category – maybe because they were so much shorter and more focused, or maybe because they had such a distinct feel. The only guy I really read who one would say is in the tradition of sword and sorcery was Michael Moorcock – mainly Elric and Corum – but, on the whole, no doubt, when it came to my fantasy I liked it epic. That feeling was only cemented when later, in the 90s, after I’d largely stopped reading fantasy, I came upon George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones and was blown away by seeing a lot of things I felt had been missing from the genre so surprisingly and ruthlessly expressed.

So (and prepare yourself to cringe) up until I started taking my own writing seriously, until after The Blade Itself was published, even, I’d never read any Howard (though I frequently watched Conan the Barbarian as a boy). I’d never read any Fritz Leiber (though my Dad had some of his scifi on the special scifi shelf, the one down behind the sofa). I’d never even heard of Jack Vance. Oh, the horror.

Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories featuring swashbuckling rogues Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (which I thoroughly advise you to read because in the main they’re still hugely enjoyable) epitomise Sword and Sorcery for me. They were written over a few decades, but the earlier ones are roughly contemporary with Lord of the Rings, and reading them now they feel like the road not travelled by commercial fantasy in the 80s and early 90s. In a sense (and within the confines of being adventure stories within a medievalish setting featuring magic and swords) they are the opposite of Tolkien. Vivid, murky, self-serving characters in brief, focused, small-scale stories in decidedly seedy, smelly, lawless, gritty settings – what might be called ‘low’ fantasy rather than ‘high’. Character and action are emphasised over rigorous worldbuilding. Above all they have a sense of humour, a sense of fun, a sense of not taking it all too seriously.

It feels to me now as if Sword and Sorcery was on the heavy retreat in the eighties, at least in significant written form, crushed under an avalanche of Tolkien-cloning world-build-a-thons and moral absolutes in big, chunky, epic form (though I daresay it was still flourishing in dank and seedy corners unknown to the front of the bookstore). But where it was hugely influential, I now realise, was in the development of Role Playing Games. Short, focused stories about small groups of seedy, wisecracking characters out for themselves were custom made for the format. Adventures and campaigns of that type are vastly easier to run than epic confrontations of good against evil with casts of thousands. Having read Vance, Lieber and Howard now I can see their thumbprints are all over Dungeons and Dragons, and of course the influence of Dungeons and Dragons on roleplaying, both of the dice and paper variety and later of the computerised variety, is profound.

It’s interesting (albeit probably not terribly surprising) that so many fantasy authors were role-players in their day. Looking at that list above I know that Scott Lynch published supplements in his time, and Steven Erikson’s world is based on one developed for role-playing. I’d be shocked if a lot of the other contributors didn’t have a few strange-looking dice at the back of a cupboard somewhere. Now I’d imagine most of them have long been familiar with writers like Howard and Leiber, but for me the Sword and Sorcery came circuitously, via roleplaying games, fused with Tolkien and the epic stuff he inspired, and led (seasoned by thousands of other non-fantasy book, film, and gaming influences) to the bastard offspring which is my work. Looking at what I produce now (and especially at Best Served Cold), I feel it has as much in common, at heart, with Leiber as it does with Tolkien.

So do I write Sword and Sorcery? Yeah, I guess, kinda. The New Sword and Sorcery, maybe?

Inspirations for Best Served Cold

Posted on August 10th, 2009 in influences

Wishing I’d release another trilogy? Great news, everyone, I have! A trilogy of guest blog posts, that is, at’s omnivoracious, on the subjects of my inspirations for Best Served Cold. Stating one’s inspirations is a messy and difficult business, a bit like trying to talk about the events that made you what you are as a person. You always have to oversimplify and make the process seem a great deal more mechanical than it is. Often hard to really say why things turn out the way they do. Still, here they are:

Point Blank, Lee Marvin, and Revenge.

Machiavelli and Renaissance Italy.

The Condottieri.

Enjoy responsibly.

What’s Dungeons and Dragons?

Posted on July 28th, 2009 in games, influences

So an interesting thing happened to me the other day. Well, probably not THAT interesting, of itself, but it got me thinking. Some of our new neighbours came round for a drink, brought their son with them, who I’d guess is about 10 or 11 years old. I forget exactly how it came up, but he was talking about what he was in to (guitar playing and xbox, mainly) and I said something like, oh, you know, all I did at your age was play dungeons and dragons. I was prepared for various responses, such as, “dungeons and dragons sucks ass, man, what I like is getting girls PREGNANT”, or, “dungeons and dragons, that’s WEAK! I’m into KNIFE CRIME.” I was not, however, prepared for what he actually did, which was to give me this baffled look and say:

“What’s Dungeons and Dragons?”

Oh, the horror. I was massively into role-playing games as a kid, in fact it was probably my main leisure activity between the ages of about 10 and 14. Alright, 9 and 16. Alright, 8 and 18. Some D&D;, early on, then later a lot of MERP (Middle Earth Role Play, noobs) and some Runequest, along with sundry others, and, as a GM (gamesmaster, noobs), Warhammer Fantasy Role Play. All this stuff was a big influence on me, in fact it might be fair to say that fantasy filtered through the lens of roleplaying in the form of endless rather cheesy supplements and adventures was as big an influence as actual written fantasy fiction. Gamesmastering, in particular, has an awful lot in common with storytelling of the fictional sort. It certainly did in my games, where characters were barely presented with the illusion of choice, let alone actual choice.

It’s probably not much of a revelation to observe that many of today’s leading writers of fantasy share my deep roots in RPGs. Off the top of my head I believe (and forgive my ignorance if I’m wrong) that the worlds in which Ray Feist and Steven Erikson write were both originally gaming worlds. Scott Lynch wrote roleplaying supplements before selling a novel. I do not doubt that many more, if not most, of today’s fantasy writers have more than a passing acquaintance with a d20.

Now I guess I’d always assumed that dice and paper roleplaying would gradually wither as computer-based roleplaying games became more and more immersive and effective. But on my recent trip to Scandinavia, where I visited a good few very impressive F&SF; bookshops, I was assured that some areas of the old RPG scene are still in rude commercial health. I’m now wondering, though, whether a lot of that stuff gets bought by old soldiers like me, and Scott Lynch, and Ray Feist, wanting to read them while having a poo to see where the games have gone, rather than actually to run them in a proper session with, like, actual players (they always were the most irritating part of RPGs anyway, weren’t they, though?).

My neighbours question of “what’s D&D;?” certainly implies RPGs have nothing like the wide cultural purchase they used to. In my day, there were plenty of kids who wouldn’t have touched them with a shitty stick. Who’d have played sports, or played in the garden, or gone out on their bikes or some other Chaotic Evil activity instead. Who’d have thrown stones at kids who played D&D;, stole their glasses and laughed when blood came out of their heads. But even if they hated, scorned, and secretly feared it, they knew what it was.

I guess my train of thought creakily goes in this direction – if dice and paper roleplaying dies out, what will be the equivalent influences on the next generation of fantasy writers? Video game equivalents seem the obvious thing. World of Warcraft and the like. Now far be it from me to bemoan the influence of computer games, as I’ve been a keen fan my whole life, though not necessarily of the online variety. But there’s a world of difference between the imaginative effort of summoning up a world and characters out of one’s own head (not to mention the social effort of dealing with other players) and a computer-based world where the detail is already coded and can be viewed from every angle (not to mention that the social involvement rarely goes further than OMG YOU ******* NOOB PUSH THE ******* BUTTON YOU ******* NOOB **** **** NOOB **** DO YOU WANT TO BUY A SWORD?). Undoubtedly, playing computer based RPGs is just an awful lot more passive than having to gamesmaster yourself.

I find that idea oddly worrying. Well, not in a – OH MY GOD WITHIN SIX MONTHS WE’LL ALL BE LIVING LIKE IN CORMACK MCCARTHY’S THE ROAD IF WE’RE ALIVE AT ALL – sort of a way, but a bit worrying nonetheless. The creativity you need to gamesmaster is a useful step on the way to the creativity you need to write. Without GMing myself, I’m not sure I’d ever have thought about the possibility of taking the next step and trying to write fiction. I daresay there’s nothing one can do about it – except to hope that the computer generated fantasy worlds that replace RPGs are as clever and innovative as they can be, rather than the rather ill-conceived smorgasbord of cliches we often get served up (I’m looking at you, Oblivion). And hey, there are an awful lot of other ways for writers to find their creativity (like reading other people’s books, for instance).

But still. Can I shed just a little tear for The Keep on the Borderlands? Can YOU?

Am I Genre Enough?

Posted on July 23rd, 2008 in influences, opinion

By heavens, the entire blog-o-verse has been ON FIRE with discussion of my reading habits and I didn’t even realise until just now!

Well, perhaps I’m being a touch over-dramatic (what, me?) Not the entire blog-o-verse, just a couple of bits of it. And not really on fire, just smouldering very slightly. And not really MY reading habits, David Bilsborough’s.

But my name has been mentioned, and it’s been a while since I offended anyone with my ignorance on genre issues, so I thought I’d try and flog a few more copies of my books for kindling. There are a few discussions around relating to the question of – “should writers of fantasy also be readers of fantasy? Or perhaps even fans of fantasy?” The story so far…


You sure about all that?

Let’s all think carefully about this, shall we?

Here’s what we think.

And us.


I think we can agree that if David Bilsborough’s aim was to win friends in the internet fantasy community then his comments were misjudged. I have a feeling that might not have been his aim. I actually have a kind of wierd respect for his loopy honesty. A bit like the respect one might feel watching a man set his head on fire for a laugh. Anyway, for better or worse, I am one of these writers of fantasy who say they don’t really read much fantasy (these days, at least), and so can’t help feeling implicated in the debate. I thought I’d take a run at explaining what I’ve read, why I don’t read fantasy now, and why, furthermore, I don’t think it’s that important that I should. I’m not offended. I’m not on some kind of self-justifying rant. That’s just so not me. I’m just exploring the issues. Some background then…

Am I a fantasy fan? I guess it all depends on your definition. Certainly, as a kid I was hugely into Tolkien and read the Lord of the Rings every year. I loved Wizard of Earthsea too, some Lloyd Alexander, some Michael Moorcock. As well as a whole load of other fiction, poetry, and blah, blah, blah. I was massively into dice-based RPGs as a boy and a pasty youth with dodgy hair, read White Dwarf a lot, devoured vast quantities of supplements for such games, wrote a few adventures of my own – D&D;, MERP, and Warhammer mostly (still rate the Warhammer world and campaigns very highly). I read a lot of fantasy in the 80s as well, though now I realise it was mostly of a pretty commercial epic-fantasy-series type: Eddings, Dragonlance, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Summer Tree, Michael Scott Rohan’s Winter of the World, and many more I’ve forgotten, I’m sure, as well as a fair bit of classic sci-fi from my Dad’s collection with the groovy 70s covers. But more literary stuff like Vance, Leiber, Gene Wolfe and so on I was totally unaware of the existence of, if I’m honest. I don’t feel I was part of fandom, as it were, no community, to speak of, to turn me on to things, apart from the five or six guys I played RPGs with, who were about as clueless of the broad field of fantasy as me, I guess.

Some time around 20 I pretty much stopped reading fantasy. Moved away from home and the old RPG group went their separate ways. No huge decision to cast it aside in disgust – in fact I never stopped turning over some of my own ideas for an epic fantasy that would eventually become the germs of The First Law – but I just got into other things. Street Fighter II, mainly. In the seven or eight years following, up to the point I started seriously trying to write my own stuff, the only fantasy I read was Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (the first three books, at that time), which had a pretty strong effect on me, as I’ve mentioned before. I got much more into reading non-fiction, history in particular, as well as still a whole range of general fiction from classics to contemporary stuff.

Now, once I was getting near finishing a first draft of my first book, it did occur to me that it might be a good idea to get a vague sense of the state of the market. So I asked, in one of those bookshops they used to have, about what was big in fantasy these days, and I got given: Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (read the first three, nice enough, but my world was not rocked), R.A. Salvatore’s The Demon Awakens (didn’t work for me), and Steven Erikson’s Memories of Ice (realised it was half way through a series, resolved to get the first one, got totally sidetracked as always). I must confess that, when going through the process of gathering rejections, I did worry that my stuff might be a bit too dark, a bit too off-beat, a bit too violent and sweary for the market. Unbeknownst to me, since Martin the market had shifted to leave me firmly in the commercial middle ground. Since being published, I have of course taken some interest in what else is out there. I’ve read a few things my publisher have passed my way. I’ve peered into a fair few others to get a notion of the kind of styles some folks are writing in, but it’s a fact I can’t deny that I don’t read much fantasy these days. I’m not proud of it, that’s true, but I’m not ashamed either.

I guess the bottom line is that I’m relatively well-versed in fantasy of a certain rather limited type and a certain rather limited era, but I’m by no means steeped in the broad sweep of the genre. I’m sure some fantasy readers would look at the influences I’ve spoken of and say, “wow, that stuff’s all really old and, like, kinda … hokey.” To that I can only shrug my shoulders and say, “well, the proof’s in the pudding, and my pudding is FRAKKING ACE” [warning – depends on who you ask, actual pudding may differ from pudding advertised].

Or perhaps I would shrug my shoulders and say, “well, the genre may be packed with interesting, adult work of the last dozen years and, indeed, before. But one can’t pretend that it isn’t still bestrid by Tolkien in the popular consciousness, more than ever since the films. Plus everyone’s still well aware of all that old stuff even if they’re pretending no one does it any more, and on the borders of the genre and beyond, popular culture is still riddled with a slightly cheesy impression of fantasy involving elves, dwarves, magic swords, and etc. which is further reinforced by millions and millions and millions of people playing fantasy MMORPGs which (often) are based on a slightly cheesy impression of fantasy.”

Or I might shrug and say, “there’s still loads of folks for whom fantasy stopped in 1989 and just want David Eddings with much bitchier characters occasionally shitting themselves. I fill that hole.” So am I fan of fantasy? Certainly there’s a lot I love about the genre, and it all depends on your definition, but there seems to be a bit of an implication of unquestioning love about the word ‘fan’, of blindness to any shortcoming or chance of development, maybe? I recently read a bit of an interview with Jacqueline Carey that I could literally have written myself, if I was a better writer:

“For my part, I grew up reading fantasy and loving the sheer escapism and the sense of wonder it evoked; and yet, as I grew older, I found myself craving fantasy that was a little more grounded in plausible reality, a little m
ore visceral, possessed of a bit more intellectual substance and an adult emotional sensibility. I wanted work that made me think and feel in addition to entertaining me. I suspect that’s true of others, too. Like many writers, I write the books I want to read. Thankfully, it seems there’s a large audience that feels the same way that we do.”

It certainly do. Where was I? Ah, yes.

Part of the problem I have with the whole notion of being “a fan of the genre,” or having “contempt for the genre,” or “a rejection of the genre itself,” is that implicit in the phrases seems to be the idea that fantasy is a huge homogenous blob that you’re either for or against, and that there’s a sharp line between us, defending fortress fantasy to the death, and them, in the dangerous mainstream. “Do not cross the fence after dark, my boy, there be dragons. They hate us out there beyond the fence. Stay here in the village, and marry your sister. Stay here forever.” I’m grandstanding of course, but, you know, is this your first time here? I see that there’s sometimes a value in simplifying, saying a reader, or a writer, or a book is one thing or the other, but I’m just not sure the world is really like that. I would imagine that pretty much everyone who reads at all will have read some fantasy at some point – Tolkien or Lewis, Rowling or Pullman, if we can count those last two as fantasy since things are much hazier in YA land. Similarly there will be many readers who dip into the fantastic here or there, or did at one time but have got out of the habit, or never used to but do now. Not fans, per se, just, you know, readers. Furthermore, even those (I think relatively few) who would consider themselves die-hard fans and read little else will all have different tastes and profiles of reading. Some might dig new wierd. Some might hate it but love epic with a passion. Some might like the paranormal romance, with the crop tops and the back tattoos. Or ye olde schoole classicks of ye genre. Pass me another Dunsany, my boy, this one’s gone out. My point is, there’s no fixed profile for what qualifies you as in or out, as knowing enough or not. No one’s read everything. For my part as a writer, I’ll take every reader I can get without prejudice. Die hard epic fantasy fan? You’re in. Read Dragonlance once? You’re in too. I’m here by mistake, can’t read? Pull up a chair.

Where was I again? Ah yes.

So why don’t I read much fantasy now? Well, you may be horrified to learn that I don’t read that much at all these days, and what I do read is mostly non-fiction, because a lot of the time I used to spend reading – train journeys, morning commutes and so on – I now spend writing, or at least revising my own work. I find reading fiction can be a bit distracting from the writing, and that’s especially true of my own genre – other people’s work draws me in a certain direction, dilutes my own voice a bit, and since I’ve constantly got deadlines I don’t want to miss I lack downtime where I might catch up with this or that. Purely my personal experience. But mostly I don’t read fantasy just because, well, I kind of like what I’ve produced with the ingredients I’ve already got, and don’t particularly feel the need to change the formula. Maybe in time I will, but at the moment, for why? It’s also worth noting that there are all kinds of places you can find ideas outside of books. TV and film are full of great writing. Computer games less so, but plenty of ideas still. And then there’s, you know, life. Nothing wrong with adding a sprinkling of newer, edgier stuff from outside a genre or even a given medium to the tried and tested classics within it to produce the familiar with a twist. In fact I’d argue that approach can lead to some of the most impressive work. Not mine, of course. But Unforgiven, anyone? James Ellroy? Tarantino?

Ultimately, there are as many approaches to writing fantasy (or anything else) as there are authors. Everyone’s going to have their own balance of influences, books and otherwise, their own styles and voices, themes and concerns. Many writers of fantasy are most definitely big fans – GRRM and Scott Lynch spring to mind from my own experience – but still very clearly have their own approach. Others aren’t necessarily fans. My perception is that Richard Morgan, for example, has an approach to fantasy not dissimilar to mine – a range of fantasy influences from way back when accompanied by a whole battery of his own concerns and style refined in writing SF. It hasn’t stopped him writing what I think is a very original and interesting fantasy novel. I guess my point is you can be a fan and write derivative shit or brilliantly original magic with a unique voice. You can be more of an outsider and effortlessly fuse the familiar with ingenious outside influences, or, again, write derivative shit. To be fair, that’s what most people polled seem to say on this issue. The proof is all in the pudding. I guess my feeling would be similar to the one I have towards worldbuilding. My taste, as a writer, is toward a light hand on the world, but this being (supposedly) the genre of infinite ideas, there is ample room for other approaches, and god bless those who do the opposite well.

There does seem to be a frequently expressed opinion that you need to read a certain amount within the genre so you know the form, and avoid repeating the already overdone, and I can see where they’re coming from, but to me that seems to miss the fundamental point that the first feature of a good writer is that they should have some individuality of voice, style, approach that is unique to them, and that renders any character or situation, be they ne’er so hackneyed, new and interesting (at least for some readers, nothing works for everyone, you know). Others seem to feel a more personal sense of slight, that not reading their genre somehow constitutes an offence. Perhaps I’m straw-manning now, but as far as somehow having contempt for the genre goes, the implication that by not reading it religiously you’re somehow standing sneering to one side or whining at the letterbox of the mainstream to be let in, well, if I hated epic fantasies it would have been a pretty strange decision to spend three years of my life writing one with no guarantee I’d ever make a single penny out of it.

Take that, you straw bastard! Now who’s tough?

Influences, Ideas, and A Game of Thrones

Posted on February 16th, 2008 in influences, news

You lucky people! There’s a positive onslaught of content here at the moment. There’s an article by me in the latest SFX (no. 167, I think, with that cheerleader from Heroes looking sensitive yet spunky on the front) about George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones, a book which I daresay needs little introduction for the majority of you. It’s one of their book club pieces, in which a well-respected author of today looks back on a classic of the distant (or in this case pretty current) past. Clearly they’d run out of well-respected authors, because they asked me if I’d like to do it.

I can’t quote the piece here, obviously, since I sold it to SFX for an embarrasingly massive quantity of money that may have approached 10,000 pence. But in essence I talk about the book’s great importance in the dark and seedy side of epic fantasy, leading on from stuff like Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and Elric, and how Martin’s work seems to have spawned a whole subsection of ‘gritty’, realistic epic fantasy. What I didn’t really talk about in the article was the book’s (and the series’) importance to ME, and the development of my own work. Of course I didn’t talk about that. That would’ve been arrogant and self-indulgent, and you all know I’m just not like that.

That’s why I’m doing it here.

A little background. As a kid I was very into the Lord of the Rings, and read it every year for a while. Wizard of Earthsea also had a strong effect on me. So did Michael Moorcock (particularly Corum and all the crazy names). I watched Conan the Barbarian many times more than is healthy for a teenage boy (there’s boobs in it, and I’m not just talking about Schwarzenegger’s). I started playing an awful lot of roleplaying games around this time, and with supplements from that, early fantasy-styled computer games such as Dungeon Master, Bloodwych, and Legend, cracking through a load of Dragonlance, and David Eddings first two series (or are they the same series with different covers?) I probably glutted myself on the cheesier end of the fantasy spectrum. Nothing wrong with cheese, you understand, as long as you get some fibre in your diet at the same time. But it did appear (and apologies to any of the glaring exceptions, because I lay no claim to being immensely well read in the genre) there wasn’t a lot of fibre to be had in epic fantasy as the eighties turned into the nineties.

So I more or less stopped reading it in my late teens. No grand decision to fling it aside in dismay, just I went to college and got into other things. You know. Luge. International money-laundering. Semi-professional knife throwing. Russian roulette. And Street Fighter II, of course. During long walks after midnight at around this time, I was still thinking about some of the ideas I’d had earlier, as a reader and a gamer, for world and storyline of an epic fantasy, and characters like Bayaz and Logen Ninefingers were named and gradually taking shape in my mind. In the summer after finishing college (so about 13 years ago, now), with time on my hands, I started writing a book very similar to the one that would finally become The Blade Itself as an exercise to improve my touch-typing. I say similar, because it lacked key elements of the later approach. It was a much more straight-up epic fantasy, cheesier effort, without the sideways, world-weary self-awareness, or most of the laughs. Without Inquisitor Glokta at all, incidentally, who was much the most recent character to emerge. It was, in short, not very good. I’m sure if I read any of it now I would vomit with embarrasment. In fact, I may have vomited a little bit just now thinking about it.

Anyway, I moved to London (summer of ’94?) and had other things on my mind – cokroaches, flatmates on the borders of sanity, and so forth, started working and pretty much shelved any plans to write. I started reading a lot of history around this time – Shelby Foote, John Keegan, Alan Clark etc. and had more or less no interest in fantasy. Then someone prevailed upon me to give Game of Thrones a go. Yeah, yeah, I thought, whatever. It blew my doors off.

A Game of Thrones, and its sequels, seemed to bring to epic fantasy a huge amount of what I felt it had been desperately missing. There was relatively little debt to Tolkein (not that there’s anything wrong with debt to Tolkein, it’s just there’s a shit-load of it around already). Martin’s world was low on magic, low on romanticism, high on realism, very high on ruthlessness. There was no lame-ass, two-dimensional battle of good and evil. There were no lame-ass, two-dimensional characters. It was an (more or less) entirely human world, with man-made evils, very much like ours. The series was recognisably fantasy, it had enough that was familiar, but it was groundbreaking (at least for me) in all kinds of ways. Above all, the books were extremely unpredictable, especially in a genre where readers have come to expect the intensely predictable. Suddenly, from knowing what was going to happen from the first page and always being right, you found yourself with no idea who’d die next. Sudden main character deaths have become almost de rigeur in the genre since then, or at least in the grittier corners of it, but A Game of Thrones was profoundly shocking when I first read it, and fundamentally changed my notions about what could be done with epic fantasy.

It was also interesting from a technical standpoint – Martin uses the third person limited approach, as it’s called, with the events always narrated from “inside the head”, if you like, of one of the main characters. All the action is seen powerfully close up, coloured by the personality of the narrator. For me, fantasy went suddenly from being all about the huge, the spectacular, the sweeping wide shot (following on from Tolkein’s approach) to being about the experience of individuals. You feel the sweat, the pain, the fear, the blood, you understand the motivations. You see how no-one is a villain in their own mind, even if they are in everyone else’s. The great achievement of Martin’s books, for me, is that they cover vast, epic, immense events, but never lose that sense of tight involvement with the characters. It wasn’t a new approach in wider fiction – I guess Tolstoy was doing something similar in War and Peace – but it was the first time I’d seen it applied so rigorously and effectively in fantasy, and it seems now to have become pretty much the standard method of narration in the genre.

I must confess I haven’t read A Feast for Crows yet. I’m waiting on the next and will probably read them both together. Though there was still a load of brilliant stuff in the third book, A Storm of Swords, it seemed more spread out than A Game of Thrones had been. I know a lot of readers love that sense of scale, but I was frustrated by the apparent loss of focus – the adding and divergence of the points of view, the steady increase in the simple spine size of the books without a matching growth in overall narrative movement. The books seemed to get fatter, if you like, but not taller. The story expanded sideways but shrunk lengthways. Maybe I’d been expecting a trilogy, or maybe I was just disappointed as it became clearer and clearer there’d be no final resolution any time soon. Probably there was an element of diminishing returns, in that the first book was, for me, so smack-mouth amazing that it was near impossible to turn me upside down in the same way afterwards. They were great, don’t get me wrong, just not as great. I imagine I’m not the only one who’s keen to see whether Martin can pull it all together in the long run…

Looking at my own (insignificant) development as a writer, if I may be pretentious enough to do so (mmmmmm … yeah, I think I can be that pretentious). Between that earlier, suckier effort at writing an epic fantasy, back in ’93, and the much m
ore successful effort (at least in my opinion) in ’02, what changed? Well, I grew up considerably, for one thing, experienced working life and broader horizons, and learned to take everything a bit less seriously. I read a lot of history, which I think gives the books a much more convincing texture, if you like, than they otherwise would have had. I read a fair bit of heavyweight literature – the sort of thing one boasts about at dinner parties – Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Bulgakov, Dickens, Trollope and Sterne and blah, blah, blah which definitely improved my technical reach (as pathetic as I’m sure some people think it remains). I read quite a bit of noir and crime, particularly James Elroy, which taught me some good lessons about hard-hitting prose and twisty plotting. I worked as a documentary editor which gave me some understanding of how to construct a narrative, of how to streamline and cut down (says the writer of enormous 200,000 word books, but hey, I like to think they’re pretty tight). I watched a lot of interesting films, including Tarantino’s stuff (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction had strong effects on me), John Woo and manga, the list is endless (well, not actually endless, but bloody long). TV changed, I think, in this period, starting to throw up some really interesting series which were shifting media in general in a more realistic, complicated, ruthless direction – stuff like the Sopranos, the Shield, 24 (at least to begin with), Band of Brothers, and later Deadwood, Nip/Tuck and the Wire (man I love the Wire) – a movement that seems to be creeping into SF TV now with shows like Heroes and Battlestar Galactica. All of that settled on me as well, I’m sure, and I think my approach to action writing probably owes more to what I’ve watched than what I’ve read.

So there’s an awful lot of different stuff in the pot, as I’m sure there is for every author, and most of it from outside the genre. But in terms of influences from written fantasy, between ’93 and ’02, Game of Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire in general) is definitely the outstanding (if not the only significant) one. I doubt The First Law would look quite the way it does without my having read those books. Hell, maybe I wouldn’t even have written it at all.