On the surface, George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson and Joe Abercrombie tell very similar stories. They write fantasy novels about harsh worlds full of murder, betrayal and conflict, and their characters are often forced into terrible circumstances. They are also excellent writers who create amazing worlds and fascinating characters. For which they are (rightly) some of the most popular and largest selling fantasy writers.
In this post, I will discuss the common themes and features (as I see them) in GRRM’s five A Song of Ice and Fire books, the six books of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law (seven if you count the short story collection), and the ten books Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, Stormlight Archives, Elantris and Warbreaker (eleven if you count the short story collection). That’s not everything they’ve written, but it is most of it and enough to see common patterns.
(Yes, we are all aware that GRRM writes slowly and Sanderson writes quickly, we don’t need any comments to confirm this.)
All three authors have much darkness in their novels, but the way they handle this darkness is revealing. GRRM is famous for his grim and cynical view of politics which can be summed up in the line (even if it did only appear in the show not the books) “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” Time and again Martin subverts the hero tropes and mocks naïve ideas of virtue and chivalry. In Westeros, there are no true knights.
Sanderson’s worlds are just as harsh and cruel, yet he always gives a positive and hopeful spin. The clearest example is Vin in Mistborn, who has suffered as much as anyone in Westeros, yet overcomes this hurt and learns to trust people again. She decides it is better to trust and risk betrayal than never trust at all, which could serve as a motto for many Sanderson’s novels. Kaladin and Raoden find themselves in desperate situations and nearly give up on life, but instead keep going and inspire hope in others. Sanderson always has one (or more) inspirational characters that the readers are cheering on (at least I am). All three writers are in the mud, but Sanderson is looking at the stars.
Abercrombie’s characters are somewhere in between heroes and villains, often people trying to do good but failing. Logen, Shivers, Monza, Glokta none of them can be classed as either heroes or villains, they usually swing between the two, often trying to improve but ending up destroying. Likewise the world is full of ruthless but not evil people, in fact the theme of The First Law is discovering that what we thought was the good side is pretty much the same as what we thought was the bad side.
An interesting comparison is their female characters. Fantasy is traditionally dominated by male characters, but these writers have progressed in their own way. Abercrombie has the most male dominated cast of the three (although Red Country and Best Served Cold did counter balance this). However, he does ignore many gender norms (why should a fantasy world have the same gender norms as our world?) and treats his female characters pretty much the same as his males. Ferro and Shy are ferocious warriors and no one mentions their gender. GRRM has many active and important female characters but they are all confined by the gender norms of Medieval times. Brienne is frequently ridiculed for her manly nature, Catelyn and Cersei are ignored, Sansa is helpless about the events surrounding her and Arya only becomes an assassin by abandoning her past and pretending to be a boy. Sanderson has much more inspiring female roles, Sarene and Shallan are clever and funny heroes who overcome adversity despite frequently being underestimated. In fact, in almost every Sanderson novel, the main characters are usually a male/female pairing like Raoden-Sarene, Vin-Kelsier/Elend, Shallan-Kaladin. There are still gender norms, but they aren’t as detrimental to women. For example, in the Stormlight Archives war is considered manly while reading is for women.
Sanderson’s Mormon background is frequently mentioned when describing his handling of sex, or more accurately it’s absence from his novels, but bar Warbreaker I never found it a noticeable feature or detrimental to the story. The only other example I can think of is how arranged marriages are always good matches Raoden-Sarene, Wax-Steris and Adolin-Shallan. If anything for some with a religious background, Sanderson always portrays religion in a negative light as either something false and based on a misunderstanding (Stormlight Archives, Mistborn Era 2), something that oppresses the people (Mistborn Era 1) or as dangerous fanaticism that causes war (Elantris, Warbreaker).
GRRM’s sex scenes are not his best writing (“fat pink mast”) and there’s almost no happy relationships in Westeros (Ned and Catelyn is the only example I can think and even they are separate for most of the book). It’s only in A Feast for Crows that religion plays more than a background role, yet it’s still too early to judge how it will all play out. Abercrombie largely ignores sex and religion, although when sex does happen, it’s casual and not really a big deal, like when Lamb admits he slept with the Mayor with a shrug.
It wasn’t until I read Sanderson and Abercrombie that I realised how few fight scenes GRRM uses. Despite the fact that many of the characters of ASOIAF are warriors or lead them and the series mostly occurs during a time of war, there’s hardly more than one fight scene per book. Although when swords are drawn, it’s usually in a battle rather than an individual fight as in Abercrombie and Sanderson. The other two have much more action, although Sanderson is more likely to have characters flying through the air and soaring in the sky during his fights, while Abercrombie is more likely to have dirty fighting in the mud that ends with a kick between the legs.
There is a large difference in the way they view magic. Magic is always at the centre of a Sanderson novel and there is always at least one (and often several) main character who can use magic. He is also famous for his incredibly detailed, well thought-out and almost scientific magic systems. This might seem like an oxymoron, but that is how he builds magical systems, they are logical. In GRRM and Abercrombie novels, magic is more likely to be hidden in the shadows. Most of the people don’t seem to believe in magic and the only magic users are cryptic and mysterious people who we gain little understanding of. We the readers are shown that magic does exist, but we have no idea how it works.
The three authors take three very different approaches to world building, although they all create worlds with different peoples, cultures, lands, cities and empires. GRRM focuses mostly on history, building a vast background for his world and the families within in. He has written about the family trees of the main families of Westeros dating back hundreds of years and hundreds of historical characters. Sanderson focuses his world building mainly on magic and religion. Each world has its own unique religion with developed beliefs and its own inventive magic system. Abercrombie is noticeable because he places far less emphasis on world building, in fact his books don’t even contain a map (a bold move for a fantasy book). This doesn’t mean that his world is any less developed, just that his focus is more on the individual characters and their actions rather than the broad scope of time. Most people have little knowledge of the outside world and ancient history has little influence on them.
Someone once made the excellent point that GRRM’s novels are essentially Westeros through the eyes of the 1%. Almost all of the main characters are knights or nobles, belonging to the elite of society. We never see the viewpoint of an ordinary peasant or a solider in the lord’s armies, the focus is entirely on the elites. Abercrombie takes the opposite approach. Most of his characters are ordinary or at least not privileged. They are regularly down in the dirt and have to fight their way to the top. While The Heroes did contain some viewpoints from generals and chieftains, it was mainly concerned with the frontline foot soldiers. Sanderson is somewhere in between, usually dealing with ordinary people who become extraordinary, like Vin, who goes from a street orphan to one of the most powerful people in the world (similarly for the Knights Radiant).
They all subvert tropes in their own way. GRRM creates brave and noble people who are committed to doing the right thing, only to be killed due to their naivety. Sanderson completely twists the traditional fantasy trope of the hero who refuses ultimate power or what if the hero failed their battle against the great evil? The ending of the First Law trilogy was one of the best I’ve ever read for the way in which so many tropes and expectations were subverted and the wheel came full circle. The spin off books subvert many action and Western tropes, revealing that quests for revenge aren’t as great as films often portray. Abercrombie has particular skill in weaving a theme into the whole book. For example, Best Served Cold asked if people can change and if revenge is worth it, not just once but throughout the whole book. The Heroes discussed heroism from many different viewpoints and Red Country is all about people desperately wanting something but being disappointed when they finally get it.
There is much more that could be discussed like pacing, description, characterisation, literary skill, plotting etc but this post has gone on long enough. I hope you enjoyed this discussion of the differences between three of the most famous and my personal favourite, fantasy writers.