Saturday, 27 August 2011

Essay: On Fantasy

A number of decades ago (better not say how many), when I was in the sixth form of my rather staid girls' grammar school, the headmistress personally took one lesson every week. She would ramble at some length on a topic of her choice, presumably political or topical in some way, although I remember none of it, except for one. This was about a book she had recently read which had changed the face of literature (or something). Well, English literature was her subject, and she was very much a classicist so it was most likely deadly dull, but it seemed worth a try and I got volume 1 from the school library.

Eons later, so it seemed, I emerged breathless from my first foray into Middle Earth, my head exploding with elves and hobbits and wizards and orcs and runes and rings of power. The next morning, I was camped outside the library waiting for it to open, desperate to get my hands on the rest of the story. And what a story! I had been brought up on 'Pride and Prejudice' and Enid Blyton, and Tolkien blew me away. As soon as I had finished the lot, I started again at page 1, reading more carefully this time, so that I was less surprised when that suspicious ranger at the inn of Bree turned out to be the lost King of Gondor, and when the elf princess briefly mentioned in volume 1 turned up late in volume 3 to marry said lost King. And then I went out and bought all three volumes in hardback, a huge expense on a pocket-money budget, because I knew I would read them over and over.

Pretty much every year from then on I reread the whole thing, and added 'The Hobbit', 'The Silmarillion' and the lesser works. My schoolbooks were edged with runes, and I pored over the maps, savouring every minute line and symbol. The habit gradually lapsed, but then Peter Jackson worked his cinema magic, and I wept to see the Shire in such perfect detail, gasped when Gandalf fell, cheered when the elves arrived (non-canonically, but who cares) at Helm's Deep, finished all the familiar lines before the actors did, and sobbed uncontrollably at the Ride of the Rohirrim, reproduced exactly as I had imagined it for decades.

But somehow it never occurred to me to read any other fantasy works. I had been mesmerised by Anne McCaffrey's dragonriders, but that was science fiction. 'His Dark Materials' and Harry Potter were enjoyable, but basically children's books. Terry Pratchett's Discworld was very funny, but it, too, seemed child-like. Gradually the science fiction section of the bookshops came to include fantasy, but the covers of dragons and towers and sword-wielding heroes of improbable proportions never appealed to me. I had read the one true fantasy, and everything else was a pale imitation.

But then I became a Lost fan, and joined an online forum, and in the what-shall-we-do-now aftermath someone mentioned 'A Game of Thrones'. It was being made for TV, with Sean Bean in it (ah, Boromir!), so my interest was piqued. I had a Kindle by this time, and the ability to download samples of books for free, so I started to read. And suddenly I was sucked into another world in a way I had not experienced since Tolkien.

George R R Martin's landscape is vast, with a huge cast of characters, all manoeuvring for political advantage in a web of interlocked alliances and loyalties. And these are no heroes selflessly fighting for good in an evil world, these are real conflicted people who leap vividly off the page in all their complexities. Nor do they triumph over adversity, defeat their inner demons, or else come to redemptive or heroic ends. Martin's world is one where innocence, nobility and good intentions are no defence against death or disaster, and treachery and deceit are often rewarded with advancement (or at least survival).

That first exposure to 'A Song of Ice and Fire', as the series is called, was an intense experience beyond that of any book I have ever read before, even more so than Tolkein. Partly this is because of the author's skill in creating his world, so that every chapter was a delight which drew me further in, but partly it was his readiness to kill or maim even his major characters at the drop of a hat, which I found quite bizarre.

While his willingness to subvert the expected norms of fiction is commendable, it is a dangerous strategy. First, any work of fiction depends for its effectiveness on the reader engaging with the characters, and having horrible things happen to them is liable to have a disconnecting effect. We can accept a death (or worse) if it feels right for the story - a bad guy getting his comeuppance, a good guy saving the world (or his one true love) - but if it's just done for shock value it becomes counter-productive.

Secondly, having your characters meet with gruesome and (occasionally) downright grotesque happenings can lead to a sort of internal arms race, where the author tries with each new incident to outdo his previous efforts. Then the deaths (or maimings or tortures or whatever) become an end in themselves, and any pretence at plot-relevance is lost. This too tends to disconnect the reader.  There is also the risk of becoming overexposed to violence, and therefore desensitised.

Thirdly, fiction needs a rhythm to its tension levels - even thrillers have to have quieter passages between the moments of great danger. But if every encounter is potentially a matter of life and death, the dramatic tension is ramped up to max at all times, and that makes the experience extremely uncomfortable for the reader. We read such books because we want to feel the excitement, but not constantly. I found it so physically stressful that I broke the habit of a lifetime and went online to find out the life expectancies of at least the major characters.  It was the only way I could read the book.

But by the end, I was hooked. I discovered that 'A Game of Thrones' was the first in a series, but the rest were not out on Kindle (and several were not even written). While I waited to get the next book, I started looking elsewhere. There was so much fantasy out there, there must be masses of good stuff for me to enjoy, right? And what is fantasy anyway (since Martin is poles apart from Tolkien)?

I found a website which listed the 25 best fantasy books, and that seemed like a good place to start - Martin was number 1, and Tolkien was number 4, so at least they were on my wavelength. Well, some of them were not available on Kindle, and some were clearly not for me, but I drew up a promising shortlist and got some free samples.

Oh dear. 'Gardens of the Moon' (the Malazan series) was all duelling wizards and piles of dismembered corpses. 'The Eye of the World' (the hugely popular Wheel of Time series) was overly pretentious Tolkeinesque prose. 'The Lies of Locke Lamora' was set in the grim underbelly of a city. 'A Cavern of Black Ice' (Sword of Shadows) started interestingly but soon got to the pile of corpses.

So I looked around a bit more. 'Elfhunter' was a very cheap Kindle book, but I couldn't get beyond the author's explanation of her capitalisation policy (elves, sorry Elves, are always capitalised because they're immortal, you see). And 'Kraken' was fantasy set in modern London which started intriguingly but quickly became unfathomably surreal.

Then I had a piece of luck and found 'The Folding Knife' by K J Parker. There was no magic apparent in it, just an unusual amount of luck for the protagonist, but it was set in an intriguing pseudo-classical world (complete with Latinesque names), the story was absorbing and - hallelujah! - it was funny. After the high-flown pompousness of some of the books I had attempted to read, it was refreshingly different.

Next I found another very cheap Kindle edition, 'Dragonstones' by James V Viscosi, which was interesting enough to get me past the initial heaps of bodies and turned out to be a very readable story about a dragon in alliance with a mercenary, an innkeeper and an oracle to get revenge on the men who had killed the dragon's hatchlings to obtain the stones which were their source of power. It was not great literature, but it was reasonably entertaining, and with a good twist at the end.

But it raised the question again - what exactly is fantasy? The conventional idea is something like 'Lord of the Rings' - hero of humble origins finds himself in possession of a magic thingummy, and must use it/deliver it/destroy it to save the world. Or else he's secretly the heir to the kingdom and must seek out the magic whatsit to regain his throne and bring peace to the realm. Or perhaps the evil demon has covered the land in darkness and he's the only one who can find the long lost five magic something-or-others which will blah blah blah. There's a hero and a quest and magic of some sort and the world must be saved, basically. Usually there's a group of companions and a beautiful princess too. And there may be elves and dragons and wizards and swords with names and strange languages. And a map. There has to be a map, or better still, several maps.

But then 'The Folding Knife' had no visible magic at all, being just a story of one man's rise to power in his city-state, with rest of the invented world only sketchily touched on. 'A Game of Thrones' has the map, the sword-wielding warriors and some magic, but every other convention is out the window, being essentially a medieval power struggle. Urban fantasy like 'Kraken' is barely recognisable as any genre at all.

Ultimately, fantasy is a story set in a completely imaginary world. It might be completely disconnected from our own (real) world, except for the fact that it has people in it, or it might be interwoven with the real world (like Harry Potter), but it is a world which does not and cannot exist. If it could exist, it becomes historical fiction, modern fiction or (if in the future) speculative or science fiction. But fantasy is impossible, either because the setting for it is pure invention, or because it contains magic or mythical creatures, or all of these. Of course there is a lot of overlap.

Most fantasy, following the Tolkien gold standard, is set in a pre-technology era. The population is held in a medieval stasis of peasants and feudal lords, bad roads, horse-drawn wagons and oared ships, leeches and potions, swords and chainmail and crossbows. The most advanced machinery is the windmill, or perhaps the printing press. The towns and cities are filled with pickpockets, merchants, innkeepers and whores. There's an air of anarchy and decay - everything was (somehow) better in the distant past when there was magic (or dragons or elves or whatever).

A few writers go for a more Dickensian feel, with steam and other heavy industry (steampunk), and there are also modern versions (urban fantasy). Then there are paranormal and vampire variants. A few aim for a more eastern atmosphere, which feels refreshingly different.

It is interesting to wonder what exactly it is that makes a good fantasy story? Some can have a wonderful setting, but unbelievable or unsympathetic characters or a silly plot. Some have clever ideas but the writing is execrable. On the other hand, the writing may be brilliant, but if the 'secondary world' (as Tolkien called it) is uninteresting, it fails. After reading a few, here are my basic criteria:

1) The secondary world must be believable. It can be as original and weird as the author can devise, but the reader has to be able to suspend disbelief. This means that everything in the world has to be self-consistent. And if it's a relatively conventional world (Middle Earth by another name, or yet another medieval European setting), then it helps if the author throws in a few unexpected twists. But please - no anachronisms. In summary, it works best if it's a little bit familiar but with some original additions. The more out there, the harder it is to make it feel real.

2) The magic has to obey rules. Some fantasy is wall-to-wall magic, with wizards on hilltops hurling thunderbolts at each other, while some has almost none at all, and either is fine as long as it is constrained within some logical framework. It need not be explicit, but there must be limits, so that the use of magic feels perfectly natural. And it should never simply appear out of left field at a crucial moment - there is nothing worse than magic as either a deus ex machina to rescue the hero(ine) from some impossible peril, or else a random plot driver (prophecies and dreams, chance meetings with wizards, or the sudden appearance of a magical creature). And unless the magic is the whole plot, then less is more - a light hand always feels more comfortable.

3) The plot should derive largely from the world and its magic. Well, there's no point in inventing these things if the story could just as well be set in the real world, is there? But it also means that the events must arise organically from the setting, and not be purely character-driven. Where characters do make decisions which affect the plot, they have to feel natural. If the world is cleverly constructed and the magic is interesting, then the logical consequences will drive things along effortlessly.

4) The characters should behave consistently within their world. If a character is not supposed to use magic, it should be a big deal if s/he does. If a character is supposed to be a prince in a medieval-style kingdom, he should be dealing with the big (kingdom-sized) picture, and if he steps outside that role (decides to give it all up to be an innkeeper with his one true love, for instance), then everyone around him should be surprised or even shocked. A peasant should need a heap of training to become the big sword-wielding hero(ine). The language used is less of an issue - it's better to have the characters speak in modern colloquialisms than to write in some kind of cod Tolkienesque or pseudo-medieval travesty.

5) The mood should not be too depressing or too frivolous. The fashion for gritty realism is all very well, and fantasy is inevitably dealing with events on an epic scale, involving mass deaths and (possibly) the end of the world, but I don't want to read anything which is unrelievedly dismal or violent or negative. On the other hand, Tom Bombadil tweeness is even worse. Serious, even dark, is fine, but leaven it with some upbeat notes as well (although a happy ending isn't compulsory). And I can forgive almost anything if a book has some humour.

Of course, a good fantasy story should also be a good story. That means wonderful characters that the reader can get involved with (whether positively or otherwise), an absorbing plotline and skillful writing. Just because a writer can create an entire world doesn't allow him (or her) to take liberties with the quality of the work. Styles vary widely, but as a baseline, it has to be reasonably literate, with no silly typos (loose instead of lose, for instance), competent punctuation and dialogue suited to the characters.

But one thing almost all fantasy works have in common is size. A typical modern novel is around 250 pages. A big one is 400 or so. But a typical fantasy is 3 volumes, and each one will be 600+ pages. Of course, in best Tolkien tradition, a sizeable part of that is maps and appendices listing the major characters, history, languages and traditions, and so forth, but it's still a lot of reading (and writing). Some run to 4 volumes, or multiple trilogies, and one (Wheel of Time) is so long (14 books) that the author died before completing the series. On the plus side, such expansive works give the author the time and space to develop a story of truly epic proportions, but it can also make it seem interminable, and very often the story does not even begin to get going until half way through the first volume. Some series are said to get into their stride only around volume 3.

The other curious thing about fantasy is that it scores remarkably high ratings. Online booksellers like Amazon and book reading sites like Goodreads encourage users to post reviews and ratings. A well-regarded book might average 3.5 stars (out of 5), and a true classic might make 4.0, but fantasy works regularly score 4.5. I'm not sure whether this is because it is a genre which attracts brilliant writers, or whether fans are particularly enamoured of it, or whether they're just uncritical, but whatever the reason, it makes it very difficult to judge a book's quality. Even the reviews are not much help in selecting, since they are full of unqualified praise. In the end, there really is no alternative but to try reading them.

So far, I have found that the second book in 'A Song of Ice and Fire', called 'A Clash of Kings', was even more enjoyable than the first, and perhaps a less intense read now that I had some idea of who would survive. I shall certainly read the next two, and then join the legions of fans waiting patiently (for 6 years now!) for the remaining 3 in the series.

I have also discovered Patrick Rothfuss, whose 'The Name of the Wind' is an extraordinary work, written with an eloquence which borders on lyrical in places. It is the story of one man's life, and is (inevitably) the first of a trilogy, although, unlike Martin, the remaining 2 books are all but written, and the author is just tweaking them before publication.

My personal favourite so far is Daniel Abraham's 'The Long Price', a quartet of relatively short books following one man through most of his life. It's a quiet book, with few scenes of dramatic action, but it's beautifully written, the invented world is evocatively eastern, the magic is minimal but intriguing and the (few) characters are highly believable. It's intelligent and thought-provoking, and (to my mind) everything good fantasy should be.

After that, I have a number of samples to try out from other series that might appeal to me. And after that, there is the TV series of 'A Game of Thrones' to enjoy, and then... oh. It seems I am a fantasy reader now. Will life ever be quite the same again? [First written Feb 2011]


  1. Will life ever be quite the same again?

    Definitely not. Fantasy can change you and, although it might be imperceptible at the beginning, you will think differently. A lovely essay, thanks!

    1. Thank you, Anachronist. A year on, yes, I definitely think differently. But I love it!