Speculative Literature’s Best Duels
I don’t know about you, but I love a good duel. The hero and the villain (or, perhaps the hero and anti-hero, or two villains, or what-have-you) facing off, one-on-one. It’s been done thousands of times and, yet, there are still so very many ways to make it fresh, to get us on the edges of our seats, hearts in our throats, waiting to see how and if our favorite characters will make it through alive. Love it. So, for this post I’ve decided to list off my top five favorite duels in scifi/fantasy literature. first, some stipulations:
Duels Not Battles: Duels are events of single combat (or nearly so). Big battles where it’s one guy against many or two big groups of people having a free-for-all don’t count.
Books Only: This is a list of duels present in books. No movies, no graphic novels, no video games, no television series. Books. The first guy who comments ‘but what about Vader/Skywalker in Empire!’ gets a giant, metaphysical dope-slap. Yes, yes – that duel was iconic. Heck, it’s probably why I love duels in the first place. It isn’t, though, what I’m talking about here.
Gotcha? Okay, let’s go:
#5: Rand al’Thor Vs High Lord Turak and (later) Ba’alzamon At Toman Head
Book: The Great Hunt, Book 2 of the Wheel of Time Series
Author: Robert Jordan
Among the interminable tales of badassery that is The Wheel of Time, there is that first time – that very first time – you realized that Rand al’Thor is, in fact, a stupendous badass and likely only to become moreso. Up until Rand crosses swords with Turak, he’s been toting around a heron-mark blade, which marks him as a blademaster. Thing is, though, he isn’t. He sucks, actually. For the first two books, Rand is, essentially, living a lie. We, the readers, are worried about him. I mean, sooner or later, his luck is going to run out and he’s actually going to have to tussle with a serious swordsman. Then he’s screwed, right?
So then Turak draws his own heron-mark blade, except we know he’s earned it. A collective ‘oh shit’ moment ensues. Will Rand’s training with Lan be enough? Jordan then treats us with a vivid swordfight told in metaphor, essentially – the descriptions of all the moves Rand’s been taught by Lan – and he wins! But that’s not enough! Then he has to fight, essentially, Satan Himself in a damned duel. Seriously, it’s awesome! What’s more, everybody else sees it and knows it’s awesome, too. Yay! This, of course, is only the beginning for Rand, but what a start, right?
#4: Bilbo Baggins Vs Gollum Beneath The Misty Mountains
Book: The Hobbit
Author: JRR Tolkien
Not all duels are fought with weapons. This one ranks as one of my favorite duels of wits ever: Bilbo, lost, alone, stuck in the dark, finds himself accosted by the sinister and creepy Gollum in his underground hideaway. They engage in a game of riddles, with the stakes being Bilbo’s escape or his being devoured by the hungry Gollum. Thinking outside the box, Bilbo wins by simply exploiting the rules of the game: “What is in my pocket?” Brilliant. Unexpected. Wonderful.
Well played, little guy. Well played.
#3: Paul Muad’Dib Atreides Vs Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen on Arrakis
Author: Frank Herbert
This duel is as much dance as fight. Everything in Paul’s long quest leads to this, and all the political ambitions of the galaxy are wrapped up in it. Tricks within tricks, feints within feints, treacheries over treacheries. Paul’s eventual victory is fitting, given that it, itself, is a trick within a trick. “I will not say it!” tells Feyd-Rautha that Paul knows, but that Paul need not use. It is still enough; death on Arrakis is often sudden.
#2: Bronn Vs Some Knight of the Vale at The Eyrie
Book: A Game of Thrones
Author: George RR Martin
Martin’s successful and expansive series involves a number of memorable fights, but this is, perhaps, the most memorable for me. First off, if you don’t love Tyrion Lannister above all other characters in that series, there is something wrong with you. So, when Fly-Off-The-Handle Catelyn Stark hauls the little guy off into the Eyrie on a bunch of nonsense charges and he finds himself faced with the lunatic Lysa Arryn, we feel pretty bad for the guy. His trial by combat looks pretty damned hopeless, but then here comes Bronn, the mercenary. Standing up for the little guy (and for his own paycheck, no doubt), so good for him.
But wait, Bronn’s not wearing any armor? Huh? What? Oh no! But…oooohhhh. I get it. Smooth, Bronn. Smooth.
#1: Dappa (w/Otto Van Hoek) Vs Sir Charles White (w/Woodruff) at Tower Hill, London
Book: The System of the World, Book 3 of the Baroque Cycle
Author: Neal Stephenson
What’s better than a former slave dueling a former slave owner/present day bigot on the field of honor? A former slave and former sailor/pirate hunter dueling a bigot and swordsman with cannons. Yes, cannons; it’s a cannon duel. Suddenly, smarty-pants swordsman/bigot needs to know math to kill his enemy, the supposedly ‘inferior’ African man who has been taunting him for years now. Yes. Yes and yes.
This was among the most amazing, hilarious, wonderful, and satisfying duels I’ve ever read. I really can’t think of any that top it at the moment. It is worth wading through the umpteen thousand pages of the Baroque Cycle just to get here. Trust me.
Well those are mine. What are yours? I’m curious to hear.
One of my favorite things about a fantasy novel is the map of the world included in the front (or back) that gives me the lay
of the land. Ever since I read The Hobbit in second or third grade, I’ve loved fantastic maps of alien worlds, continents, cities, and even buildings. My favorite part of the Greyhawk: From the Ashes boxed set? The maps, obviously – the giant hex map that covered a dining room table and could tell you exactly how far it was from Dothrakaa to the forests of Celene was simply awesome, and I loved every inch of it.
As I got older and I started making maps myself, I started to realize how much thought can (and I think *ought*) to go into map-making for your fantasy world. It’s all very well and good to create a map that directly suits your narrative purposes, but such places look artificial and weirdly convenient (the first D&D campaign setting I devised in 7th grade had a whole series of impassable mountains and uncrossable rivers/chasms designed to restrict where players can go – it was foolish). Then again, if you make a map too complicated and too realistic, it becomes difficult to keep it all straight or describe it to the reader as they are going through the book. There’s a balance of detail that needs to be struck, I think, to make a map work right.
The reason this is all so important is that geography affects culture. It does in our world, and there is no reason to expect it to do otherwise in another world. If you have a society that evolves on the open steppes, they are going to likely behave one way, whereas a society evolving in dense woodlands or mountainous highlands is likewise going to behave differently. Furthermore, the proximity and disposition of one’s neighbors will make a big difference on how a people will act towards strangers, how militaristic they will be, and exactly what kinds of things they will trade or have in abundance. This kind of thing is what history is built from, and it has relevance and importance in a fantasy setting.
Failure to appreciate this and just slap things wherever you choose means you lose out on a huge opportunity. Every fantasy author wants his or her world to be as ‘real’ as possible, and constructing a reasonably realistic geography is a great place to start. Furthermore, geography can beget drama. Remember the attempt to climb Cahadras inThe Fellowship of the Ring? That was a function of geography – they couldn’t risk the Gap of Rohan, which was in the great wide open, so they took the more dangerous path in the hopes of evading the enemy. Managing geography was one of the things Tolkien did very well, overall. Even when looking at the map above, you can see how the mountain range splits to create Mordor – a geological possibility that, furthermore, could indicate the kind of tectonic activity that would result in Mount Doom. Now, did Tolkien consider this when crafting Middle Earth? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it.
One of the things that dissapointed me from the beginning of The Song of Ice and Fire is that, for all the time we spend across the Narrow Sea, we never once get a map of the damned place. I can’t place Mereen or Braavos in my head, and it makes it hard for me to understand where it is in relation to where the characters have been and where they can go next. Qarth may be right next to Pentos, or it may be half a world away – I just don’t know. It’s frustrating; it’s like navigating a new city without a map or any street signs.
My own fantasy setting, Alandar, has a lot of maps associated with it and, furthermore, has been through several geographical revisions and will likely have more. Here’s one of the current ones to the right. You’ll note the giant mountain range down the eastern edge – the Dragonspine – which constitutes a major feature of the world and has major social and cultural and economic repurcussions the world over. Likewise, the oceans and their disposition as well as the rivers have another large impact on the locations of cities and the arrangement of nations. All of this filters down to my characters, who grew or are growing up in various corners of the world that have been shaped by the geography around them. This, I see, is my duty as someone trying to shepherd a new world into existence. To do any less is to acknowledge that Alandar is ‘artificial’ and, therefore, reduce the story from ‘fantastic’ to merely ‘absurd’.
Maybe I’m a little crazy, but hey, I’m a grown man wanting to write stories about imaginary places and times and hoping, one day, to make a living off it. You certainly shouldn’t expect me to be entirely sane.
Say you really loved the sitcom, Cheers. You were totally into the zany exploits of Sam, Norm, Cliff, Woody, Fraser, and the rest of the gang. You tuned in every week like clockwork and laughed your butt off. Then, somewhere around the 11th or 12th season, the plot followed Fraser as he moved to Seattle. It spends a lot of time with Fraser, actually. Next thing you know, every episode is set in Seattle, where we meet Fraser’s father, his zany brother Niles, and a bunch of other characters. You keep watching, but you also keep cursing and asking the TV ‘where the hell is Norm, guys? What’s going on at the bar?’ Then it hits you – you aren’t watching Cheers anymore. This is a spin-off called Fraser.
Except nobody ever told you, and the show is still called Cheers.
This, my friends, is exactly how I felt upon finishing A Dance with Dragons this weekend. I have come to the conclusion that I am no longer reading the series of books I started and, accordingly, my interest in the storyline has faded to almost nothing. I am not reading any more of the books, since I don’t see the point. I didn’t sign on to watch Fraser, guys.
Oh, and if you care about these things, there are lots of ‘spoilers’ below. I put the word ‘spoilers’ in quotes because I fail to see how a series of storylines completely irrelevant to the one you’re reading now could be ‘spoiled’ at all (presuming you are in the first three books of Song of Ice and Fire). Anyway, you’ve been warned.
Before I set about tearing into the book, I’d like to give some shout-outs to the things I liked. There aren’t many:
1) To Jon Snow: For cutting off that fucker Janos Slynt’s head. That felt good.
2) To Wyman Manderly: For uttering the following line: “Perhaps it is for the best. Had he lived, he would have grown up to be a Frey.” <zing!>
3) To Theon Greyjoy: For having the decency to mope about all the Starks being dead and the old days being gone for good. I really identified with him in that sense.
4) To Danerys’s Dragons: For fucking shit up and finally, finally introducing some action into the plot, even if it was only for the last 10% of the book.
Now, to Brass Tacks
I will henceforward refer to the vast majority of this book and the last book as ‘The Dithering’. I call it ‘the Dithering’ because that’s what happened – Dithering. Most of the books were various individuals sitting on their asses and wondering what to do next. So much internal monologue it made me want to scream, and this is even though Martin is really good at writing inner monologues. This wouldn’t have been so bad if we were seeing the thoughts and hopes and dreams of characters we cared about, but Davos Seaworth? Victarion Greyjoy? Quentyn Martell? Jesus Christ! Booooring! Also, it seems to me that Martin deliberately avoids writing action sequences since, for the vast majority of instances, the action happens off-stage. Did Stannis have his head cut off by Bolton? If so, HOLY CRAP that’s something I would have liked to see. Screw you, Martin. If it isn’t true…meh. More Dithering is to come, I suppose.
Beyond the Dithering, however, is the fact that the story is no longer about the things I care about anymore. It has become a series about other plots, other families, and other conflicts that, frankly, don’t interest me in the least. My interests, at the start of the series, were as follows:
#1: The Fate of the Starks: I wanted to know if the Starks could spring back from the blows of the Red Wedding and Ned Stark’s death. I have my answer now, and it is ‘no, they can’t.’ Ned is Dead, Robb is Dead, Catelyn is Dead, Jon is Probably Dead, Sansa is worthless, Rickon is a toddler somewhere, Arya Stark is being actively convinced by other characters to stop being a Stark, and Bran has decided to sit down and become a tree. Gotcha – I can stick a fork in this one, folks.
#2: Justice for the Lannisters: I wanted to watch the Lannisters pay for what they’d done. Well, Tywin is dead, Joffery is Dead, Jamie is gone rogue, Cersei is mortified and finished, Tommen and Mycella are children, and Tyrion is halfway around the world and no longer directly involved in this plotline anymore. Finished here.
#3: Can Jon Snow Hold off the Others at the Wall: The answer is ‘no’. Even if he isn’t dead, everybody up there sucks so badly at life that I think it’s a foregone conclusion.
#4: Will Danerys be the Targaryens claim the Iron Throne: This, I should point out, is a distant fourth. I really only care insofar as it related to plot’s 1 and 2, and all the Dithering has convinced me that the amount of time it is going to take Danerys to get her ass back to Westeros is such that it doesn’t make sense for me to read the other books. Besides, there’s Young Griff already back there, ruining the surprise for Danerys, and there goes the novelty of that little plotline. Booo.
As for the rest of them, they can all jump, for all I care. I don’t care about Dorne, I could give a crap about Sam and his schooling, the Seastone Chair I have already ranted about at length, all those mercenary companies disinterest me, Stannis and the Bolton’s deserve each other, the Others can undead-ify the world, for all I care, and the whole slave revolt/Red God thing? Who cares? Martin trying to get me to care about the slaves of Slaver’s Bay is like Hermione Granger trying to get everyone to give a crap about House Elves.
Oh yeah, and Danerys had her chance to ride her dragons a long time ago. Now it’s too late – I just don’t care. When all those guys from her past were giving her crap about not moving on from Mereen while she was hallucinating, I was right there with them saying ‘yeah! Tell her!’
So, there you have it. I’m done with Westeros – all that has thus far occurred has convinced me I haven’t anything to look forward to. At the very least it isn’t like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which took a somewhat more kick-ass story (and somewhat less ‘gritty’) and dithered itself away into a bloated monstrosity of nothing happening at all until, at last, the author died. Yeah, at least that hasn’t happened to Martin.
Why are there Vikings in this book?
Dear George RR Martin,
Why are there vikings in the Song of Ice and Fire? Seriously, I’m honestly curious. I mean, yeah, Vikings are cool, but you made a deliberate decision somewhere (second book, I think, or maybe third) to make the squabbles among the folk of the Iron Islands into a major subplot and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why.
Let me be clear: Theon Greyjoy is a great character. He is, frankly, the best thing about A Dance with Dragons; were it not for his wandering around Winterfell and regretting everything that happened to him, I’d probably have put the book down by now (I’m about 75% through at this point). To have Theon, though, we didn’t need the Iron Islands. It isn’t like there’s a shortage of murderous dickheads in Westeros. There are dozens of petty lords and assholes scattered around the north of Westeros whom you could have easily had revolt at some time in the past and have Eddard Stark kick their asses and then have Greyjoy grow up with the Starks and so on and so forth, but no – you needed to create the stupid Seastone Chair and waste our time with idiots like Euron and Asha and Victarion.
That’s right: Waste. Our. Time.
I just read a chapter where Victarion is considering sending men into the rigging of his ship to chase monkeys. Yes. Monkeys, in his rigging – apparently it’s a problem. You should know this, since you must have spent at least an hour or two writing this chapter and thought to yourself ‘you know what would be funny? Monkeys on a sailboat.’ You know what would have been more funny, though? Having Arya stab Cercei in the eyes. Much more funny, I promise.
Okay, so granted, that whole chapter wasn’t about monkeys in the rigging (though you did spend a bizarre amount of time describing their shrieking and poop-flinging episodes), but it isn’t as though the rest of the chapter was somehow interesting or worthwhile. Moqorro? You had to bring him back from the dead? Why? So he could convert Victarion to the worship of the Red God? WHY? WHO THE FUCK CARES? One guy we don’t care about converting some other guy we don’t care about to a God we’ve already seen used plenty of other places doing the same exact thing? Sheesh…
Here, for your perusal, is a list of facts:
1) Nobody gives a crap about Victarion. At all.
2) No one from the Iron Islands has interacted with a single other major character in Westeros for something like 1000 pages. No, Asha talking to stupid Stannis doesn’t count.
3) The person who sits on the Seastone Chair is completely, 100%, and in all other ways irrelevant to the main plot of this series. Provided it still has a main plot, which I’m beginning to doubt.
4) The idea that Victarion and his crappy band of Viking buddies are sailing off to capture Danerys is stupid. Why? Well, we already know Danerys isn’t in Mereen, anyway. Plus she has dragons. Plus there are a billion other people there to kick Victarion’s ass. Plus WE DON’T CARE ABOUT VICTARION OR WHAT HAPPENS TO HIM!
Seriously, Mr. Martin, this is driving me bonkers. I really love your world, here. Well, specifically, I love the story of the Starks and the Lannisters, I’m interested to see what happens with the Others, and I’m willing to tolerate Danerys long enough for her to deus ex machina Westeros out of being consumed by snow demons. I really cannot stomach the Iron Islanders. They have nothing to do with the story in any interesting fashion, Theon excepted. Can’t we just forget they exist? Can’t we go back to seeing what happens to Arya and Tyrion and Jon? Remember when the main characters occasionally talked to each other about things that were interesting? I miss that time. I want that time back. Every page I waste hearing about the Drowned God keeps me from the time where that may yet happen again.
So, in short, if you wanted to write a book about Vikings, you should have done so in some other book. Here, it’s just plain annoying. They’re a bad sideshow, a disinteresting distraction, a plot thread I’d rather see get cut with a massive set of Editing Shears than see to its conclusion. Don’t take this personally–you are a fine writer in most other respects and probably a very nice person. Let’s face it, though, the Ironborn are just plain old stinkers and they ought to all go to their Drowned God.
P.S.: Don’t get me started on the Dornish.