George R.R. Martin will head out on tour this summer for “A Dance With Dragons,” the long-awaited new installment in his “Game of Thrones” series. My town, Seattle, is one of the few to make the tour cut, but I won’t be among the expected throngs. As I suspected after reading Book 1 in the fantasy series, the epic story was compulsively readable – but also too violent, too randomly ruthless to keep my allegiance. It seemed Martin was creating an emotional connection with characters purely to set them up for their awful final fates.
If you felt the same, you might enjoy a few gentler, kinder books, also by a talented fantasy and science fiction writer – that same George R.R. Martin, in his earlier years. The plots of his earlier books are simpler – which can be seen as a plus or minus – but still engrossing, while their characters are more sympathetic and their fates generally more compassionate.
Looking at online reviews of these earlier Martin works, it’s striking how the main criticisms are that they are not for “Game of Thrones” fans. If that’s the reason Martin’s current fans didn’t like them, it stands to reason that those turned off by “Thrones” might want to give them a try. Some of my favorites, which I read as a teen but still enjoy through adult eyes, are:
1. "Windhaven" (co-written with Lisa Tuttle): Lovely linked stories about Maris, who lives on a world divided between a landbound lower-class and elite “fliers” who soar on constructed wings. Both fans and critics compare it to Anne McCaffrey’s “Pern” series.
2. "The Armageddon Rag": A dated but entertaining novel from the early ‘80s mixing ‘60s nostalgia, midlife crisis, mystery, and horror. The story centers on a music journalist following the resurrection of the “Nazgul” (catch the Tolkien reference?), a fictional rock band that disbanded after a tragic concert death.
3. "Wild Cards, Vol. 1": Martin was both editor and one of the writers on this alternate history of the US, featuring linked stories by different authors, which now numbers 20 volumes. The idea: An alien virus over Earth in 1946 reshapes human DNA, killing the majority of those it touches, but transforming a small number into superheroes and disfiguring others. Fans of Alan Moore’s "Watchmen" (from the same era) will find a lot to love.