Who Goes There?
The idea that George R. R. Martin, perhaps the most famous living fantasy writer (or the most famous to not be a raging transphobe) right now, used to be mostly a science fiction writer would strike a lot of people as odd, but that’s the truth. I recommend picking up both volumes of Dreamsongs, the retrospective collection that covers Martin’s essential short fiction up to the turn of the century. The stories themselves are worth it, but Martin also wrote lengthy autobiographical introductions for each section (the stories are divided into thematically appropriate sections), and keep in mind that this was back in 2003… two whole decades ago. In his intro for the section containing “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” and a few other early fantasies, Martin gets weirdly defensive about what must’ve been a recurring criticism of him in fandom at the time: that he was a science fiction writer who “sold out” and started writing fantasy once market forces shifted.
There’s no question that Martin’s priorities with genres changed radically by the time he started working on A Song of Ice and Fire, but the reality is that Martin was always more of a fantasist than a science-fictionist at heart. In the ’70s, when Martin started writing professionally, you had basically two options for getting short fantasy published: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which tended toward fantasy of the whimsical Lewis Carroll sort, and Fantastic, which welcomed adventure fantasy but sadly also paid considerably less than F&SF. Despite the pay gap, though, it was Fantastic and not F&SF where Martin cut his teeth on short fantasy, with him calling “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” his first “pure fantasy” as a pro. Of course, by 1976 Martin was not just a pro but a Hugo winner.
First published in the May 1976 issue of Fantastic, which is on the Archive. It was first collected in Songs of Stars and Shadows, but now you can easily find in the first volume of Dreamsongs. You can also read “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” totally free and legit online as a reprint in Fantasy Magazine, which can be found here. Really you have no excuse.
Martin’s third-person narrator, not quite omniscient, gives us the immediate impression that this will play out like a fairy tale—or at leaat part of a fairy tale. Like your typical fairy tale we’re given a broad outline of the plot in advance, along with something like a message we’re supposed to take from it. The narration borders on childlike, but this is ultimately still a fantasy for adults, though I’ll say right now that certain Martin hallmarks like gore and sexual assault are nowhere to be found; you can rest easy on that. Anyway, the narrator tells us that this story is incomplete, like so:
We have only the middle, or rather a piece of that middle, the smallest part of the legend, a mere fragment of the quest. A small tale within the greater, of one world where Sharra paused, and of the lonely singer Laren Dorr and how they briefly touched.
I have to admit that I assumed going in that Laren Dorr would be a woman, even though thinking about it, Laren is not exactly a feminine name. Unconscious bias maybe? Doesn’t matter, because while he’s not strictly the protagonist Laren is very much the character of interest here; he is, after all, the one who changes. Hell, there are only only two onscreen characters, plus one who is mentioned but never seen, plus a group of villains who are also unseen but who still very much lurk just outside the confines of the page. The real protagonist is Sharra, “the girl who goes between the worlds,” a warrior lady whom sadly we find out very little about. We start with Sharra, who is in pretty rough shape, having just escaped a violent encounter into Laren’s world, with a dark crown on her head that apparently lets her use gates between worlds—an ability that the Seven do not approve.
Who are the Seven? We find out basically nothing about them, aside from the fact that they are supposed to be a pretty powerful bunch—perhaps a league of sorcerers—who can see across worlds. We know they’re evil and that also they wanna get their hands on Sharra, having already separated her from her lover (whose name I can’t remember).
I’ve struggled to write about this story, despite its length, because a) the plot is very abstract, and b) very little actually happens. Sharra is a refugee in Laren’s world, and Laren, being the sole keeper of his castle, takes her in as a guest. Laren doesn’t want Sharra to leave but Sharra has to find the gate to the next world at some point. Laren is not necessarily a sorcerer but he’s certainly a powerful being on this world where he’s the only human: he has magical healing powers, for one, and is also seemingly immortal. He’s also in contact with the Seven, and may be in cahoots with them. We get this lengthy explanation for how Laren knew Sharra before she came to his world and how her arrival did not strike him as a surprise, despite him having been by himself for—let’s say a stupidly long amoutn of time.
“You are Sharra, who moves between the worlds. Centuries ago, when the hills had a different shape and the violet sun burned scarlet at the very beginning of its cycle, they came to me and told me you would come. I hate them, all Seven, and I will always hate them, but that night I welcomed the vision they gave me. They told me only your name, and that you would come here, to my world. And one thing more, but that was enough. It was a promise. A promise of an ending or a start, of a change. And any change is welcome on this world.”
Somehow this does not concern Sharra too much—certainly not enough for her to go scrambling for a gate. A few other things I feel like noting, because to his credit Martin does try to generate intrigue with the setting while failing to do so with the characters. Like I said Laren’s world is barren as far as civilization goes, with his castle being stuck in the middle of endless forest; the castle itself also seems to be alive, acting of its own accord by, for example, turning its windows into stone at night as a security measure. During the daytime, though, Sharra and Laren are free to wander and hunt outside the castle as they please—so long as Sharra does not find the gate that is surely hidden around here.
Something I’ve noticed about early Martin is that he was preoccupied with capturing mood over plot and character, sometimes to his detriment. I don’t know what was going on in his personal life at the time that made him write several stories about isolation and feeling disconnected from other people, but then again, anyone who grows up in New Jersey seems to go through a social maladjustment phase. (I wanna point out that John W. Campbell, fellow New Jerseyan and someone Martin’s been open about admiring, had kind of a shitty childhood that no doubt impacted his capacity to get along with others in adulthood.) It could also be that it was simply an artistic thing of his—one that he’s never entirely gotten over. Consider how music is great at capturing emotions but not action (hence most rock operas are kinda lame from a narrative standpoint), and how some of Martin’s fiction is clearly meant to evoke music: “A Song for Lya,” “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr,” “Remembering Melody,” and of course A Song of Ice and Fire.
(I mean given that it’s a series of really long novels it should be called An Album of Ice and Fire, but I can see I’m getting distracted.)
Another Martin story I’m reminded of here is “Bitterblooms,” which has a somewhat similar premise, what with someone (a girl, again) being rescued by someone who might be a sorcerer/sorceress (only it’s a woman this time!), and there’s this wiff of Stockholm Syndrome you get from the pages. The difference is that there’s a tangible sense of danger in “Bitterblooms,” an actual conflict between characters that reveals their unsavory sides and puts them to the test. Sure, you could say there’s conflict in the story I’m reviewing here: Sharra wants to leave and Laren wants her to stay. The problem is that Sharra doesn’t wanna leave that badly; she’s not desperate to rescue her lover, nor does she ever come up with a scheme to get rid of Laren. Sharra thinks strongly about leaving for about a minute and then is easily convinced to stay for God knows how long; she may even think Laren worthy of a pity fuck or five. In other words, there’s no imminent threat and no reason to worry, with even the Seven apparently taking a nap through all this.
Much of the story’s 7,000+ words is speant on Laren monologuing about how lonely he is and how much he had been hoping for the day when he and Sharra would meet and he’d be, momentarily, relieved of his loneliness; this is the fantasy equivalent of writing about the tragic tale of a man who has not gotten his dick sucked since the days before 9/11.
There Be Spoilers Here
A Step Farther Out
It took me only a lunch break to read this, but much longer to come up with something to say about it. “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” is almost as pure a mood piece as you can get—at the expense of plot and even basic conflict. When I reviewed Martin’s earlier story “With Morning Comes Mistfall” (review here), I was impressed at how much he was able to do in the span of a dozen pages; sure, it too was a mood piece, but it was rich in characters, themes, and even prose style. It could just be that I much prefer Martin when he’s writing SF over fantasy, as for some reason I rarely find the latter convincing. I’m reminded of when I read “Blood of the Dragon,” which was Daenerys’s chapters from A Game of Thrones edited into a novella, and I thought much of the dialogue was cringe-inducing. “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” did not make me cringe, but it did bore me more than a little. I think Martin went too far in one direction in an effort to capture a specific mood, which strikes me more as play-acting than genuine feeling, which is actually a problem some of his other early fiction has.
See you next time.