What do you value in an author, craft or story? When I was a teenager my favourite fantasy series was without doubt The Wheel of Time. I read and reread books 1-6 until I knew every inch of the map, every obscure Aes Sedai. I never thought twice about the writing – I was so focused on how cool 13 evil mages called The Forsaken were.
When I was a teenager I also read The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay. I did not care for the premise. Real people sucked into fantasy worlds never appealed to me. It made the other world small. Then the story had Guinevere and Lancelot in it and… nope, not for me. How could it compare to The Wheel of Time with so much less worldbuilding?
Well, there was Kay himself. His prose was smooth like silk, and brought emotion to the fore. It did not hide behind tropes or long drawn out teenage awkwardness. It elevated the text itself, elevated the ideas it presented and elevated the reading experience. My father never read fantasy – he found Jordan fun but Kay art. I didn’t quite know how to engage with this at the time. I had no register upon which to compare writing ability. All I knew was action, story, monsters, heroes. Kay’s works since The Fionavar Tapestry are books I have not given enough of my time, but if The Lions of Al-Rassan is any indication, as I imagine it is, he has improved upon his earlier works – in content certainly while I’m not sure how room there is above his formative style to begin with. The Fionavar Tapestry (I had an omnibus edition) is still the only fantasy novel to make me cry.
So Writing vs. Worldbuilding. Where do you fall on the spectrum? Are you a Kay type, literary and leaning towards immaculate works of high language and high emotion, rich in vocabulary and deep in subtlety? Or are you a Jordan type where you can withstand any amount of braid tugging to enjoy the concept of a Myrddraal, the trappings of the Forsaken, or the powerful mysteries of the Aiel Waste and Shadar Logoth? I often see a writer’s craft as being a gift, some ephemeral quality that has been with them forever, while their worldbuilding stems more from dedication. Of course, some authors, like Erikson, are so much of both they break the graph.
Here is an imperfect layout of how I rank the authors I have read most. If authors push left or right, it’s not really a critique of what they can’t do but rather an emphasis on where their strength lies. Sorry for ditching on Sanderson.