I love fantasy novels. I love them like a dog loves walks and whatever food is on your plate. I’m that dangerous combination of compulsive academic and intellectual snob that likes to be able to pick apart my books, to find meanings both intentional and unintentional, and similar pursuits that make high schoolers roll their eyes at their teachers. So, yes, I’m all about Srs Fantasy Bsns that discusses the human condition and is conscious of its metaphors and contains historical reference Easter eggs for readers, who know their Napoleonic Wars or whatever.
I am also a fan of the Dark and Gritty. I mean, I think the 2013 Hannibal TV series is among the best TV shows ever made. That show makes George R. R. Martin wish he could be half as graphically cruel. It’s safe to say I’m not opposed to Dark and Gritty.
Nowadays, my favourite books include the Rai-Kirah Saga by Carol Berg, which takes place in a cultures with strong ties to Welsh and Mongolian cultures, respectively, plus demons. The demons have a semi-feudal-Medieval society with castles and dungeons.
My other favourites are Neil Gaiman, who blends mythology and mythological creatures with modern life. I also like Jennifer Fallon’s Tide Lords quartet, which is Renaissance-flavoured (as far as I recall – it’s been a few years) with animal people racial tensions. Ditto The Priestess of White by Trudi Canavan, in a more late Medieval setting.
Those stories are amazing, and set in great worlds that I love to visit.
But let me tell you about my favourite books from childhood.
I loved The Edge Chronicles (written by Paul Stewart, illustrated by Chris Riddell. When I saw Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle illustrated by Riddell, I made noises that could not be replicated without inventive use of a cattle prod until my friend bought it for me. That reaction was only about a third because of Neil Gaiman.). I still love them. I read them obsessively, repeatedly, and it’s probably one of the least Earth-like worlds I have ever read. It had termagant trogs, halitoads with terrible breath, wood trolls, the terrible, nightmarish Gloamglozer (which gave my younger cousin nightmares just from the pictures), floating rocks providing lift for skyships … Willy Wonka’s got nothing on this World of Pure Imagination.
Don’t get me wrong – Urban Fantasy is great. There are books in the genre I love. When I read The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch, I remembered everything I love about that kind of fantasy. I devoured that series. I will always champion fantasy grounded in reality. Choosing where one deviates from a norm is an important tool in the fantasy toolkit. I’d say it’s one of, if not the single, most powerful tools in the trade.
But fantasy does not need to faithfully reflect reality in order to be meaningful or taken seriously. Fantasy can be a mirror, reflecting ourselves back at us while we try different outfits. But we also need fantasy to be a Hall of Mirrors at a fairground, where we look at ourselves squashed, stretched out of shape, distorted and distended, but undeniably us. Speculative fiction has the power to do that like no other genre, and fantasy arguably has the most free license of all. It would be more than a shame to not use that just because it’s hard or not currently popular.
Bring back weird fantasy, with its invented critters, strange peoples, impossible but plausible landscapes and blatant disregard for real life. Or at least, bring it into adult fantasy. We’ve proved that kids’ shows have appeal for adult audiences, and can be mature enough for both demographics. Time to allow that adults might enjoy some crazy imagination in the fiction meant for them only, too.
And if there is a whole bevy of fiction out there with that kind of purely invented worldbuilding, please tell me. I need to know about that as soon as possible.