The Fantasy Doorstopper Atkins Diet

So, fantasy books could stand to lose a little weight.

I’m nearly halfway through A Feast for Crows, Book 4 of that series that made that TV show the whole world thinks is pretty cool. There’s tons of new characters being introduced, new settings being explored and a lot of ponderous wandering occurring. And sweet cookie-flavoured Christ is it boring.

There’s a real stigma attached to fantasy novels that come with 600+ pages these days, and that’s the sheer metric volume of information contained within that would turn all but the most hardcore escapists off the idea of most of them. Who the hell wants to bother with all fourteen books of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time when you could just use the years it would take to finish them writing your own damn novel? Instead of farting around with any of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn tomes you could instead raise a child and shape them into a Nobel Laureate.

And when the Song of Ice and Fire books start traipsing through plot and characters that go nowhere and achieve nothing, respectively, why don’t you simply put them down and go enact the Red Wedding with your own relatives instead? You might need a decent lawyer and a rock-solid insanity plea in that instance, but the idea is still there.

It’s been the norm for as long as I’ve read books that fantasy tends to outstrip other genres when it comes to content and page count, not to mention shelf space at Dymocks. That’d be fine if most of those books didn’t contain needless fat around the muscle and bone of good plotting and protagonists. Don’t tell me it’s simply for world-building or setting the scene when Jordan outlines a character walking through a windy forest for half a chapter (yes, it’s a thing that happens towards the start of The Eye of the World) and nothing else of interest occurs. I get that fantasy books, especially with large sweeping environs that need to be outlined and described as apart from the world we live in now, require a little more than a book describing an apartment in New York with a dead hooker on the carpet.

I do think that when your book necessitates a length that makes it sizeable enough to use as a paving slab then you’ve got a problem.

So here’s an idea: once you’ve written your fantasy doorstopper, gut a third of it. Just take the chapters randomly from the manuscript and light your cigar with them. If the story still maintains coherency afterwards, you’re doing it right.

The problem I’m having with A Feast for Crows and several others of its ilk is that this approach could work on those books and the plot would still make as much sense, maybe even a little more. I’m not saying a book needs to be all plot and no dalliance with characterisation or setting, but there comes a point where it’s too much of a good thing to have Hodor ponder his future as the saviour of all mankind while Westeros burns around him – oh, whoops, sorry, should’ve said SPOILERS there. My bad.

As a counterpoint to A Game of Thrones, the first book which was also a bit flabby in places, have a look at Matt Stover’s Heroes Die. It’s fantasy, from around the same era (printed nearly 3 years after Thrones) and manages to both build a believable and engrossing world with fleshed-out characters without sacrificing its narrative spearhead. It got the job done in a little over 500 pages with, I’d say, more purposeful attitude and aplomb than Thrones did in nearly 900. Before you all gather on my lawn with pitchforks and assault rifles for my besmirching of one of my favourite book series’ of all time, I’m not saying I enjoyed one or the other more. I’m saying as a representative of the fantasy genre, Heroes Die got to have its cake and eat it too without sacrificing readership. Also, it’d be impossible for you all to gather on my lawn since I don’t have one.

It’s ok to have a bit of fat around the edges if it’s nice, cushy fat that you don’t mind getting after a night with a bucket of Baskin Robbins. Too much and you run the risk of heart failure – or, in this case, reader atrophy.

Maybe I’m just not the kind of person for incredibly dense books that meander slowly through the action. Perhaps I should just go back to Golden Books.

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