As someone dedicated to learning and gaining knowledge, I like to cultivate the ability to admit when I’m wrong. And in this case, I have been incredibly, incredibly wrong.
80s fantasy, I have not been fair to you.
Don’t get me wrong on this – I’m not going to be attempting to reread the Sword of Truth series nor am I going to be giving The Wheel of Time another chance, given I gave up after Book 1 on both series last time I tried to read them both, recently enough that I’m reasonably certain my opinions won’t have changed. I’m not getting into that here because last time I did the conversation went on for about three days, at a conservative estimate.
However, I have laid a lot of blame at the feet of 80s fantasy that I’m not sure it deserves. At least, I’m not sure it deserves most of it.
Let me talk to you a little bit about me as a pre-teen.
The years were the early 00’s. The place was the school library, the person was a voracious reader. I was starting to come out of the most vehement portion of my Harry Potter fandom, and I was looking for new things to read.
I was also starting to realise that I wanted to write as a profession, and what’s more, I had started to become Internet-literate, so I was also starting to read online discussions about writing, and I stumbled across Limyaael’s Fantasy rants.
At the time, they were still on Livejournal (which I didn’t have). Since then, though I don’t believe the Livejournal account exists anymore, the rants have been saved on sites like this one, for those interested in having a look. That list isn’t exhaustive; the reference list I had was on a website that no longer exists. But that should give you an idea of the type of advice those rants contained.
I haven’t read through them in a while, and I remember last time I did, I had developed my own opinions enough to disagree with many points. But when I first read them, it was a revelation. This was the first time I’d ever seen a compendium of very specific writing advice – catered to my genre, no less!
This was also the time I spent most of my free time talking to a friend of mine over Skype. We’d gone to primary school together, but she’d moved interstate since then and we found Skype after our parents collectively got tired of us racking up phone bills. We read many of the same books and we were constantly talking about the books we’d read, and recommending books to read to each other. Together, we discovered and discussed the Belgariad and Malloreon by David Eddings. Looking back, despite being only the two of us, this was my very first fandom. We had Discourse (or fanwank, depending on your Internet era). We had headcanons and AUs, and while we didn’t have ships we definitely had Opinions about the canon pairings.
It wasn’t too long after that that my parents deemed me old enough to start reading my first Terry Pratchett.
I’m not saying that these things were at fault, but I think it’s important that my first actual introductions to the 80s fantasy tropes were through parody. Limyaael’s rants were writing advice (and some excellent worldbuilding advice) rather than books, but she disliked the Wheel of Time and similar series intensely, and I seemed to hold enough similar ideas to her that I decided they probably weren’t my thing either, and most of the tropes that she was advising against were either fanfic tropes or 80s epic fantasy tropes, so they weren’t exactly contradicting the parodies I was reading at the time. I’d read a few YA books with some of the tropes in them (Chosen One fantasy, stuff like that), but I’d never actually read one of the grand, full-blown epics. I remember reading and enjoying the first book of one of the mid-epic sections of Shannara, but that was about it.
In the end, I’d sort of equated the idea of ‘epic fantasy’ with ‘poorly-written fantasy’. Later, I read The Sword of Truth, and the first book in the Wheel of Time series, and they did not change my opinion. I sort of assumed that 80s fantasy, by the time I’d come to it, had become mostly derivative and it was high time for something new. I talked loftily about ‘Tolkienesque’ fantasy and talked about how the fantasy genre did itself a disservice by continually borrowing from those books. I believed firmly that I was just not a fan of that sort of fantasy in general and I was not going to be convinced otherwise.
It never occurred to me that there could be, you know, variety in the entire supergenre of fantasy for an entire decade.
That’s a bit of an exaggeration. I knew there was other stuff being written at the time, but I had this idea of ‘the popular fantasy books of the time’ and they were all, in my mind, probably not that great.
And yet, at the same time, I had just finished everything appealing in the YA section of the library and was moving on. The Quickening/Myrren’s Gift by Fiona McIntosh, the Witches of Eileanan by Kate Forsyth, the Ill-Made Mute by Cecilia Dart-Thornton. I also read Wolfblade by Jennifer Fallon, though I didn’t realise (and obviously my school library didn’t realise either) that they had relatively detailed – and stridently non-vanilla – sex scenes in them, which was rather confronting at the time, being one of my first introductions to the concept. I think I might have read Warrior, but I don’t think my library had the third book in the series, and I was too afraid to ask them to get it, in case they Knew. I read some Ursula Le Guin, though I found I didn’t enjoy them as much as I would have liked to.
Later, it came as somewhat of a surprise to find out that Le Guin was actually one of the prominent writers of the era that I had just assumed was full of tropes that no longer held water.
You’ll notice that most of those books (in fact, all of them) are, if not actual, real, honest-to-goodness written-in-the-80s 80s fantasy, then at the very least, they’re following in its proud tradition. The 90s might have been a time of gritty cynicism for most media, but fantasy literature didn’t really get the memo on that until the 2000s in many ways.
I even mostly write fantasy in that vein nowadays, though some of it more than others.
I guess this is all just a roundabout way of saying that I have looked down on a lot of those fantasy tropes for a long, long time. I still won’t use many of them in my own work, for various reasons, but I definitely had a skewed perspective on the genre. And in ignoring what 80s fantasy actually was in favour of what the parodies had made it out to be, I had assumed that it was actually a jumble of the worst tropes of itself.
Those tropes are good to avoid, don’t get me wrong. But the genre was a lot more than that, and it has offshoots that are more than that now.
So I’m sorry, 80s fantasy, for assuming for so long that you were much worse than you are. And I’m sorry for not giving more of your books a chance. I promise I’ll try to read more of them in the future, with an open mind and a better sense of where the genre has come from and is going.
Just so long as it’s not the Sword of Truth.