High Fantasy is a genre with a lot of good, and a whole lot more bad, and it seems like no one can really agree on what exactly it is that makes the genre good or bad. And it's such a wide genre that it's really not surprising.
I've been reading a lot of high fantasy lately, a kick started by the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. I hadn't given the genre a lot of attention lately, because everything I had read was... blah. Mistborn, then subsequently everything else Sanderson has written completely wowed me and renewed my interest in the genre. There are three things that set his novels above the rest in it's genre. Strong Female Characters. Detailed Magic Systems. An Extraordinary Plot.
High fantasy isn't known for it's strong female characters. The Hobbit didn't have any women at all. Game of Thrones... er, well, I'll get more into that later. Sanderson actually creates real and vivid female characters. I'd almost say he's better at writing women than men. As a lady, it's refreshing to see that not all male authors see women the same way, as flat, predictable characters that do exactly what men seem to want them to do.
Sanderson's magic systems are, in a word, daunting. I try to think of creating something so intricate and involved, and I get a stomach ache. And each of his series has a different one. I would say he fleshes out his magic systems far more than any other writer that I've read, and that's okay. Fantasy doesn't necessarily need magic to be fantastical, and really, you don't need to understand how it works. Lord of the Rings has very little 'magic' in the traditional sense, yet it is a paragon of the genre. Harry Potter has a whole lot of magic, but Rowling doesn't need to explain it in great detail. But wow, is it impressive what Sanderson has done with his novels. His attention to the minutiae and rules of magic give a very structured frame to the world, giving characters clear cut boundaries that they cannot cross over, no matter how high their power level is. Even if it's over 9000.
He gives the same attention to detail to his plots as he does his magic system. Really, the plot and the characters showcase this, as is shown in the Mistborn novels. A theme from those books is showcased in the rest of his stories, "There's always another secret." He shows that reversals can be surprising and awesome, even if you're expecting it. The only book I predicted the reversal in was Elantris, and even then I only guessed about half of it. If I tried harder, I think I could have guessed the endings of the other books, but I was having such a good time reading, following the characters, learning the magic system, exploring the vivid worlds created, that I really didn't care to try. That is something great.
Oncce I'd read everything Sanderson had to offer, I decided to move on to another popular High Fantasy series, one that has it's very own HBO series. Game of Thrones was... disappointing. I finished Game of Thrones and even checked the second book out from the library. I then proceeded to not read it, playing Skyrim and Harvest Moon instead. I was intrigued at first, the world seemed interesting. Summer and Winter weren't yearly, instead lasting for years. The storyline with the exiled children of the dethroned king piqued my interest. The northern wall, and the threat that lies beyond it sounds awesome. The rest though? Eh. Too much sex, WAY too much incest, flat boring female characters, and male characters that are almost as bad. The only parts I enjoyed were barely touched on and not fleshed out, I assume for later books, but I don't care enough to read further. George R.R. Martin failed to deliver a satisfying enough story that I would be content with so many unanswered questions and incomplete plot lines. Spoiler here: And the 'big reversal' of the King's children actually being the children of his sister and her twin brother. Sooo not surprising and a little gross. End of spoiler.
So, I'm starting Sword of Shanara, as I never got around to reading it in high school. I've heard good things, so here's to hoping!