I recently finished reading The Black Company series of epic military fantasy novels by Glen Cook. There’s cast of thousands, sorcery, battles, betrayals and death. I’m now reading the Malazan series of epic military fantasy novels by Steve Erickson which also contains a lot of sorcery, betrayals, battles, death and a cast of thousands. On the surface, both of these fantasy book series are considered to be epic military fantasy and both appear to have a lot of similar elements, but beyond that, the two series are nothing alike.
The results of playing around with permutation gadget I showed you in my previous post, “Unique Fantasy Combinations – Oh, The Possibilities,” would definitely support this lack of similarity in spite of all the commonalities. Especially when you consider that for my calculations, I set the variables to 10. What if the variables were set even higher?
What is Missing in Fantasy?
I think what frustrates a number of people about the fantasy genre is that, in spite of the magical possibilities, all we readers see reams of thinly disguised fan fiction touted as the next biggest, brightest, newest, greatest thing since the invention of steel. We see promising work from indie authors that can’t, won’t, don’t hire an editor or at least make use of experienced and honest beta readers – before publishing. So what is missing in fantasy as a genre? As genres, horror and science fiction both seem to have found their stride, so to speak, while fantasy seems to struggle with being taken seriously.
It is possible that, because of those very same nursery rhymes, fairy tales and cartoon princesses we all grew up with, the fantasy genre has been relegated to the under-appreciated status of literature written for children and young adults. The genre has acquired an unearned nostalgic patina that seems to acts as a barrier to it being taken seriously as an art form.
Much like an onion rendered in pointillist technique, culture, mythology, history, politics and human behavior accumulate in layers, mixing with magic and the fantastical elements, creating a masterpiece. A world of words, the sum of which outweighs the author’s individual daubs of literary paint. Fantasy, as a genre, reflects the multi-layered artistic impossibility of what it is to be exquisitely and painfully human.
A good fantasy story should endeavor to encompass as much of the world and human lifespan development as possible then presenting those precious pieces of humanity back to the reader, safely wrapped in the dark, glittering lacework of the author’s imagination. This is why so many readers camped out on J.K. Rowling’s front porch prior to the release of The Deathly Hallows and why so many readers are currently camped out on George R. R. Martin’s front lawn waiting for last two installments of his Game of Thrones series.
As with any type of literature, the fantasy genre serves a multitude of roles but it is most frequently thought of as escapism, where the reader flees a world grown dark and weary to embrace fantastical worlds we can only imagine. However, fantasy is often used as an allegory, presenting sensitive, complicated ideas and concepts to readers in ways that are more easily accessible such as through using symbolism or imagery.
Immersive readers want to be able to see, hear, taste, smell and touch, as much of the fantasy world as possible. Some authors are very skilled at world building while some aren’t. It’s like comparing Martha Stewart to your friend that thinks the appropriate color for walls is white and artwork is a distraction. One designer is gifted while the other, though comfortable in their vanilla world, lacks that special touch. Author differences in world building are to be expected but it’s still the author’s sacred duty to give their readers as memorable a reading experience as possible. A successful fantasy author will not only take their readers down to the river but they will also dip them in the water.
In spite of all the fairy tales, make no mistake; the fantasy genre is not all rainbows, smiles and dancing unicorns. Sometimes, there may be a “happily ever after” ending but those endings are becoming increasingly rare. Now, the endings are bittersweet more often than not. The Hero doesn’t always get the girl and sometimes, the Hero doesn’t win. Sometimes, the villain comes out victorious. Sometimes, the villain gets the girl.
Modern fantasy writers are making a concerted effort at helping the genre mature into the bright promises of its youth. Sure, there are fantastic beasts, sorcerers, witches and endless lists of magical elements to a story, however, these things are naught but baubles – window dressing for a timeless story that shines through, no matter the genre. So what does the fantasy genre need to help it grow, shift, transmogrify into a mature art form? I will tell you that I don’t think the answer is more sex and violence.
So what’s missing in fantasy? What developments would you like to see in the genre?