George RR Martin and JRR Tolkien have a lot to answer for

Fantasy author AJ Dalton on escaping the influence of George RR Martin and JRR Tolkien

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Gateway Of The Saviours by AJ Dalton is out now, published by Gollancz

 

Everything I write fantasy-wise seems to come out sounding like George RR Martin. The theorist Roland Barthes reckoned there was no such thing as ‘original style’. Maybe he was right. The first book I ever wrote sounded like Tolkien (or a poor version of Tolkien, anyway). And the harder I tried not to sound like him, the worse it got. Was I channelling his restless (and no doubt unimpressed) spirit? Or possessed?

Throughout history, there have been writers who believed they were channelling the cosmos or hearing the ghostly voices of muses. Were they all nuts or was there genuinely something bigger than the author going on? Even in today’s more cynical age, most would admit they don’t fully understand what goes on during the ‘creative moment’, even though they wouldn’t then necessarily go getting all extra-terrestrial in their speculations. (No offence to the millions of registered members of the Jedi faith). Besides, George isn’t even dead… George RR Martin, I mean, or George Lucas come to that.

So what’s my beef with first Mr Tolkien and then Mr Martin? They have both come to dominate the genre in which I write, that’s what. All fantasy gets compared to them. They are the standard. They are the definition of fantasy. Anything too different to them doesn’t get recognised as fantasy, as it doesn’t contain enough of the required motifs and conventions. Anything that even remotely resembles them gets called derivative and lesser. You just can’t win. The tyranny of Tolkien. The mire of Martin.

Author AJ Dalton
Author AJ Dalton

A quick example. I published Empire of the Saviours, an epic fantasy, with Gollancz last year. The book starts modestly enough with a boy growing up in a village in a remote corner of the empire in question. Several influential online reviewers refused to read it, saying they’d heard it all before, no matter the book’s purported humour and contemporary social and religious considerations. Hadn’t I heard how Mr Feist’s Magician and Mr Paolini’s Eragon opened with the selfsame premise, and besides weren’t they just versions of Bilbo in his burrow at the start of The Hobbit? An Australian newspaper then reviewed the book with the statement that Tolkien had ‘a lot to answer for’. Sheesh.

Needless to say, I began to wonder if I was the only writer experiencing this particular hell. I started reading negative reviews of a range of other authors. Just about everyone gets accused of being derivative at some point. JK Rowling borrows from Enid Blyton. Sir Terry Pratchett rips off Niven and then spoofs proper fantasy. Tolkien nicks mythology from all over. George Lucas steals from Tibetan mythos. Mr Martin… well, you get the idea. With these examples, however, we start to get an inkling to what’s really going on. It has something to do with shared and sharing mythos.

Basically, every writer has a particular cultural identity and cultural legacy of myth. When they write it is with the ‘cultural voice’ of that identity. Implicitly their writing references that culture and myth, becomes derivative of it, if you like. That’s why there’s no original style. That’s why I’m lumbered with Tolkien and Martin… no, that’s why I share references and a mythos with Tolkien and Martin. As they in their turn inherited from others.

So where does that leave us? Will I sound like Tolkien and Martin forever more? With my latest book, Gateway of the Saviours, I really tried to strike out on my own, really strove with every word, tap of the keyboard and artificial stimulant to attain that hallowed state of the most ‘original’ epic fantasy ever. And what happened? Well, Marcus Gipps, my editor at Gollancz, said, ‘Um… it’s very good… but is it a fantasy? Isn’t it a bit too sci-fi?’ You just can’t win.

Empire of the Saviours is out in paperback now, available for £9.59. The sequel Gateway Of The Saviours is out now, available for £10.49 from Amazon.co.uk. Published by Gollancz.

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