In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews an early example of ‘gritty’ epic fantasy
It was the late, great Terry Pratchett who observed that most modern fantasy is just rearranging the furniture in Tolkien’s attic. And many innovations within the genre have tended to use the same tropes, character types, or plot structures, and either rewrite them from within or poke fun at them (as Pratchett himself did in the early Discworld books). So the quest gets subverted, the avenging hero never gets the chance to achieve his revenge, the handsome prince turns out to be a nasty piece of work and the deformed magician is the good guy, and so on.
I’ve always been sceptical, for this reason, of those who make grand claims for A Song of Ice and Fire as being a series which breaks truly new ground. Martin does what he does very well, but he is not as much of an innovator as, say, Jack Vance or Tim Powers or even, in fact, Joe Abercrombie (whose work owes something to Martin). Jon Snow, the illegitimate outsider in the Stark clan, turns out to be a prince after all (so far, so wish-fulfilment fantasy); the handsome blond-haired knight turns out to be a good guy after all, albeit with some encouragement (I’m thinking of Jaime Lannister); and I’m also wary of claims that Martin brought a dark, gritty, and amoral side to fantasy literature which had hitherto never been seen in the genre. Such claims don’t stand much historical scrutiny, and must surely be made by people who have never read Poul Anderson, David Gemmell, or Glen Cook, all of whom were writing long before A Game of Thrones came along.
I find myself equally unconvinced by the idea that characters in Martin’s universe are neither good nor evil, but complex mixtures of both. This may be true if Tolkien is your only point of comparison; but how many characters in A Song of Ice and Fire are truly difficult to categorise? Tyrion is good, for all his faults; Cersei is evil, with no real redeeming features.
Indeed, the one thing which helped to make Martin stand out among fantasy authors – his talent for shocking readers by sweeping aside whole character arcs and plotlines in one fell swoop – may be one reason why he’s struggling to finish writing it. It’s easier to abandon plots when they’re becoming too difficult or too predictable than to sort them out.
What A Game of Thrones did do, however, was take the doorstop epic fantasy series – the longer (usually 500-600+ pages) novels that seemed to become the norm in fantasy after Robert Jordan made it fashionable in the early 1990s – and give it a darker, more realist makeover. But even in this, the tide was turning shortly before Martin’s first novel in the series appeared.
Which brings me to this week’s Secret Library choice: J. V. Jones’s The Baker’s Boy: Book 1 of the Book of Words, published 25 years ago, in 1995. Jones’s novel was the first in a trilogy which appeared in the mid-1990s, titled Book of Words and bearing, on its covers, an enthusiastic endorsement from Robert Jordan (who dominated the epic doorstop fantasy series in the 1990s before Martin dethroned him – as it were). Jones followed the series up with that rare thing, a standalone fantasy novel, The Barbed Coil, in 1997, before embarking on an ice-cold new epic fantasy series, Sword of Shadows, in 1999 with A Cavern of Black Ice. To date, four novels have appeared, though – like Martin with his epic series – the time elapsing between the publication of subsequent novels has grown from years to decades, although Jones has reported that she is making progress on the fifth instalment.
But The Baker’s Boy is this week’s choice, because for all the faults the novel has as a first novel – and it has plenty, like most first novels – it’s still true that Jones’s book appeared a year before A Game of Thrones hit the shelves, and Jones pre-empted some of the darker aspects which made Martin’s work so feted in fantasy circles.
In some (superficial) respects, there are clear resemblances between The Baker’s Boy and A Game of Thrones: there’s a spoilt and unpleasant prince (Kylock/Joffrey), a young high-born lady who doesn’t want to marry him (Melliandra/Sansa), a castle at the centre of the novel which is the seat of power, lords and their lackeys, whoring and intrigue aplenty. One is set in the Seven Kingdoms; the other contains the Four Kingdoms. Political machinations and scheming – a dirty scramble for power – play an important role in both novels. But The Baker’s Boy takes in a much smaller cast of characters, allowing for a tighter, if narrower, focus.
And like A Game of Thrones, there’s plenty of grit and a generous helping of gore. The Baker’s Boy opens with a prologue in which Baralis, the beguiling Machiavellian villain of Jones’s trilogy, recalls killing his mother when he was thirteen, during a botched medical experiment (called a ‘Searching’). We later find a woman skinned from the neck downwards. I won’t say any more because I might give away too many spoilers, but you need a strong stomach to read Jones’s work.
But although fantasy had explored the grittier side of life before the mid-1990s when Jones and then Martin came along, it’s true that, when placed alongside the earlier ‘doorstop epics’ published in the five or so years prior to their arrival, such as Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and Robert Jordan’s water-treading exercise, The Wheel of (Interminable) Time, they are much grimmer and much darker works. What writers like David Gemmell had already begun to do elsewhere in fantasy suddenly arrived in the epic works that dominated the fantasy genre in the 1990s (and beyond, until relatively recently). Indeed, both of them paved the way for ‘grimdark’, that new subgenre of fantasy that would only begin to emerge almost a decade later.
None of this is to make any claims for The Baker’s Boy as a masterpiece. For one thing, Jones’s plot is still all-too-familiar in some respects: an orphan boy from humble origins (Jack, the baker’s boy of the title) discovers he has magic powers, and leaves the castle where he lived and worked to embark on a perilous journey, accompanied by a (would-be) princess. There’s a scheming villain (and yes, Baralis is a villain, through and through). There’s a handsome, blond-haired knight, Tawl, who sets off on a quest.
Other aspects are a little less well-trodden. There’s a wealthy, lascivious lord (Maybor, the heroine Melli’s father), who is one of the most engaging characters, along with Baralis. The two everymen, Bodger and Grift, become tiresome after so many alehouse conversations about bedding women, but they take on a strange charm beyond the first novel once they, too, leave the castle behind; Jones makes them perform the role of chorus to the events playing out, which is also useful. And out of all this, Jones weaves a darkly compelling novel.
The Baker’s Boy: Book 1 of the Book of Words is sometimes a little clunky in terms of its prose and characterisation, but by the time we reach the end of the trilogy, Jones’s style has improved noticeably. Indeed, fewer new authors have honed their talent quite so speedily, so that by the time we come to the opening novel in her next fantasy series, A Cavern Of Black Ice: Book 1 of the Sword of Shadows (1999), it is almost like reading a different author. But part of the charm of The Baker’s Boy lies in its rawness, and in many ways it was the first example of a new subgenre, the ‘dark doorstop epic’ that George R. R. Martin and Steven Erikson would take to greater heights.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.