The two series are similar in that they both have fleshed-out people attempting to survive in horrible realities and are both loaded with brutal, sociopathic violence. But they differ in the kinds of realities the characters face, and I think those differences are telling in that they call out how America and England are dealing with a new era. Martin is American and Abercrombie is English and the worlds they build reflect the Zeitgeist in those different countries and cultures.
Martin’s Westeros is of course a horrible, horrible place, almost post-apocalyptic, where wannabe-king warlords rule according to their whims, spreading chaos and horror, and might makes right. It is also what happens after the fantasy ends: Our heroes have defeated the mad king and one of them is the new, just, king and has married his beautiful queen while his stalwart friend has has returned to his family holdings to raise his family in peace. But our hero has been too long at war and soothes his PTSD with drink, women and hunts—anything to give him a thrill—while his queen has, ahem, her own issues. And things fall apart, to out it mildly.
This feels very post-Cold War American: Hey, we won! We are the only standing super power! And now we have to deal with all the internal problems that were overshadowed by the larger struggle against the Russians. Those problems can’t be swept under the rug anymore.
Issues are coming to the surface. How do we deal with them? Are they going to tear the country apart? Some people want to secede from the union, some demand their religion be the only religion allowed, some want to believe the Russian threat is still out there, and some want the armed forces to be kept strong because we have needed the strong armed forces before and not having them would betray what the country is all about.
Abercrombie’s Union, on the other hand, is European. It is also a horrible place to live, a crumbling remnant, but not a Road Warrior nightmare. Instead it’s ossified, a place that worships its old glories and the Way Things Are Done. A place where a self-made man is looked upon with suspicion and denigration. How dare he? A place where blood is what counts and no matter how unsuitable a man may be he is still a member of the aristocracy and thus better than you, sir.
Which of course is very British and a remnant of the way things used to be in the heyday of the British Empire, where the troops pillaging the colonies would be lead exclusively by the classes that could afford to buy commissions for their sons, no matter how incompetent they might be.
The Union is corrupt, an empire in the last, unfit years of its life, and Westeros is tearing itself apart.
But of course it’s entirely possible I’m overthinking this…
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