We need, I think, fantasy in our lives, with its total escapism which at the same time asks us to look closely at ourselves. However, critics (both pro and anti) talk about fantasy as though it were all one genre. About the only thing some of the stories have in common is the disconnection from our mundane reality. That’s a bit like saying Romeo and Juliet falls into the crime category because it involves death. I enjoy reading fantasy, as well as writing it, but I tend to veer away from most of what is commonly known as ‘high fantasy’ just as I tend to avoid horror, really violent thrillers, overwhelmingly sweet romance and heavy handed humour. These are, of course, personal preferences, not criticisms.
I like exploring new worlds, as in the kinds of books and series that merge sci fi with fantasy. A good example of this is Anne McCaffrey’s Pern where it turns out the dragons were biologically engineered from small fire lizards on a new planet. The world building is superb and the dragons are more memorable than some of their riders.
I also like so-called urban fantasy where non-human beings interact with our mundane world though I prefer fae and shapeshifters, and am not so enamoured of vampires, zombies or demons. My favourites are series like Seanan McGuire’s October Daye, the changeling private detective who solves crimes for the fae as well as the normal inhabitants of San Francisco, and Laurell K Hamilton’s Merry Gentry (but not her vampire stories) where the heroine is caught between the ‘seelie’ and ‘unseelie’ courts of fairyland whilst trying to live in the modern world. I do not, however, much like stories that are based on someone from our reality being magically transported to another. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry and Steven Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant left me vaguely dissatisfied as I had a nagging feeling that the stories were founded on a kind of cheating.
I would include JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series in my favourites with caveats. The world she creates, of wizards living in parallel with the mundane ‘muggle’ world, is brilliant, and I am fascinated by the stories. I am not, however, a fan of her actual writing skills and I think the entire appeal of the series for me has been based on the films, the sometimes superb fanfiction and the way my own boarding school experiences are evoked by Harry’s story.
I love books that focus on the politics and social structures of the invented world rather than the magic which is a mere undercurrent. A good example of this is George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones though I do wish he’d get on and finish the book series instead of basking in the glory of the TV show, however wonderful it was. I can’t help remembering Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time which ground to a halt when the author died mid series. It was rescued, brilliantly, by Brad Sanderson, who possibly wrote better than Jordan had done towards the end of his life. However, I don’t count the series among my top recommendations. I think that’s because, having got to the end and found out the fates of the various characters, I have no wish or need to re-read it. It would be a bit like re-reading a crime story where I know the outcome. Game of Thrones (so far, and going by the TV version) leaves the ‘world’ wide open for later stories whereas Wheel of Time comes to a very final conclusion.
Deborah Harkness is another author who made me love her All Souls trilogy despite the vampires and time travel, neither of which usually appeal. The story has witches as well as vampires and moves seamlessly between modern Oxford, mediaeval France, Elizabethan England and late nineteenth century rural America. The characters are so well portrayed that I found myself not caring where they were so long as I could follow their lives and loves.
I have recently read, and would thoroughly recommend, The Gardener’s Handbook trilogy by Felicia Davin. Be careful when you look for it online – the title tends to lead you into rabbit holes consisting of non-fiction gardening books. The trilogy takes place on an invented world, with subtle but terrifying magic, and a cast of fascinating characters whose courage is wonderful and whose love lives are incredibly romantic.
And of course I can’t leave this kind of fantasy with talking about Terry Pratchett. I turn (and return) to his Discworld novels for comfort reading. Discworld is a distorted but truthful mirror of our own society and like all the best of sci fi and fantasy the stories help us to observe our own social problems through a different perspective, all while enjoying tales of dwarves, werewolves, trolls, etc. living in a detailed and intriguing world.
There are, of course, good and bad writers – and mediocre ones – in fantasy as in any other genre. The really good proponents of high fantasy can overcome my aversion to ‘swords and sorcery’ and I want to talk about a few of them. The obvious candidates for inclusion in my all-time favourite pantheon are JRR Tolkien and Tad Williams.
The author of Lord of the Rings is a favourite with so many readers that the trilogy made top position in the BBC’s 100 best books and it would be hard to topple it from its lofty eminence. The writing is good, of course, as is the world building. The story is gripping as is any quest, but it’s a pity so many writers have tried to emulate it too closely. Quests are at the heart of a lot of well loved tales but Tolkien made ‘the quest’ itself the main theme of his work. That’s a hard act to follow and so many writers try but fail, producing derivative and ultimately boring look-alikes. I think where Tolkien succeeds so well is in his depiction of a very real Middle Earth where people garden, cook, eat, smoke, go to the inn for enjoyment, not just on journeys, and have numerous relatives, loved and unloved. So many writers following in his footsteps never have their characters stop to savour fried mushrooms. The worse ones never have their characters eat at all.
Tad Williams is an author whose lack of fame surprises me. He’s known and loved among fantasy readers, of course, but has never made the leap into mainstream the way Tolkien has. And yet his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (a trilogy in four volumes and no, that isn’t a typo) has everything you would want and expect: a very real world, full of detail, empathetic characters, a quest, politics, and various strange and wonderful beings. The title refers to swords, which are important in the quest, but the books do not dwell on their use as anything other than symbols. It’s one of my favourite fantasy series and one that, along with Lord of the Rings, I have read more than once and will again.
I have just found a new writer of high fantasy to recommend. At first, I almost abandoned CT Rwizi’s Scarlet Odyssey. I bought it among a pile of books when some of us tried (successfully) to get books by writers of colour to the top of the best seller lists. When I started reading I realised it was high fantasy, complete with demons (not my favourites) written in present tense which I tend to dislike. So I skidded to a halt. Later, I gave it another try and I’m so glad I did. Now, I can’t wait for the sequel, Requiem Moon, which is due in 2021. The author is from South Africa and his fantasy world is rooted in African cultures, religions and folklore. This is unusual enough and is fascinating, but he also manages to gain a lot of sympathy for his well developed characters and their problems. The writing is excellent and the world building is superb. Think Game of Thrones set in a fantasy version of sub-Saharan Africa with magic and mayhem. There are hints that this might be a very distant future of our world but until the sequel comes out I’m not sure. I do wish Rwizi had copied Martin (and Tolkien) more slavishly; I would have preferred to read about each character’s part of the overall quest in longer sections, whereas Rwizi copies the TV Game of Thrones and LotR film pattern of moving swiftly and frequently between the various groups. That’s the only real criticism. I even found myself so drawn in by the present tense narrative that I started using it myself and had to do some hasty edits to a story I was working on. The swords and sorcery element leads to some gruesome scenes but the overall story line is wonderful and the demons, whilst not exactly endearing themselves to me (or to the heroes), are at least grounded in strands of African beliefs.
I hope I’ve managed to tease apart some of the sub genres of fantasy and to explain my own preferences. I’m sure some of you must love swords and sorcery for their own sake, and I know some of you have a love of vampires and zombies. They’re all good, provided they’re well written, but we’re all bound to have personal tastes. When we consider the standard of writing, fantasy is no different from other genres, or even from mainstream literature. And that, I suppose, is why Tolkien gained his place as the nation’s favourite author, even winning over classic greats like Jane Austen. At least I’m in step with the majority!
(I chose a few covers at random to resize and use as an illustration. They’re all books I love.)