Fantasy Genre Theory

Fantasy Genre Theory

Fantasy and Sci-fi often get lumped together, and while there’s a lot of cross over between the two genres, both in terms readers and concepts, there is one vital difference. Sci-fi is representation of how we think of the future, while fantasy is often about how we view the past.

Fantasy novels are clearly not history books or even historical fiction (though they do share some DNA). Fantasy isn’t a verbatim retelling of past events, but rather seeks to capture the overall ‘feel of the past’, that’s why so many have magic and fantastical creatures, those things feel realer, or were believed to be realer, in pre-modern times. And while magic and fantastic beasts appear in almost every fantasy novel, they are not the defining element of those worlds. The setting of a fantasy novel is not so much a magical place, but an old one.

One of the reasons Game of Thrones became so popular was that people thought it was a more ‘realistic’ fantasy story. Most of its seasons don’t deal with magic at all, but rather brutal medieval combat and court intrigue. It shows a Hobbesian past where life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. In part we watch it because of all the nastiness, it intrigues us even though we wouldn’t want to live through it ourselves. It’s a past that we’re grateful to have move beyond.

In contrast Tolkien envisioned a gentler past, his hobbits live simple, pleasant lives, suffering only village gossip and British passive-aggressiveness. War comes, and it is brutal and requires sacrifice, but the lines are clearly drawn: good and evil. The enemy are literal inhuman creations, spurred on by an evil god. Men are mythical heroes, taller and stronger than the simple hobbits who themselves have more in common with the reader than the mankind of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Tolkien’s past is both idyllic and epic, it’s something we feel we’ve lost.

Both Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings speak to the way we view history rather than to any particular period of history itself. And while it’s true that both Middle Earth and Westros invoke some of the more exciting elements of Medieval Britain: knights in full plate, maidens in long gowns, the remnants of a more advance people (the Romans), barbarian invaders, etc. They have as much to do with actual Medieval Britain as Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angles has to do with modern LA.

Outside of the hobbits, dragons and white walkers Medieval Britain also didn’t have taverns, smoking pipes, sewers, full plate armor (until the very end), banks, or large population centers. Medieval combat rarely involved pitched battles on the field and was mostly castle sieges. Trial by combat was exceedingly rare.

Tolkien’s Hobbits have a lot more in common with 18th and early 19th century British farmers than they do with Medieval peasants. Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series has Norse style Northmen raiders, but they’re duking it out with Union soldiers who use fencing foils, a technology appearing more than five hundred years after the Vikings. Michael J. Sullivan’s Heir of Novron series takes place in a world of knights and a tyrannical church, but also has early 19th century style ships, with sailors that would have fit in during the Napoleonic wars.

The British Empire itself looms large in most of our Fantasy. The attitudes, manner of speaking and social economics of a great deal of supposedly medieval fantasy worlds instead come from late 19th, and early 20th century Britain. Medieval Britain was poor and splintered, with dozens of ethnic groups and a ruling caste that considered itself more French, or Norman at least, than English. The arrogant western like kingdoms in fantasy who refer to other people as savages and who think of themselves as more advance come from our living memory not our distance past.

None of this is to belittle or attack these works, I’ve enjoyed every series I mentioned here. None of these writers are trying to create a historical place. Their worlds are constructed from a hodgepodge of myth, different historical periods, and imagination. But all of them are trying to conjure the past and when they do so they are speaking to our comprehension of it. The use of so much British empire in our fantasy works shows the impact that the British empire has had on us and how we distinguish our modern selves as people distinctly different than the Imperialist of old.

And as the fantasy genre has spread out it has begun to leave behind both the trappings of Medieval Europe and the attitudes of the British Empire. Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series takes its inspiration from early Chinese history (as well as the Odyssey, and the Vikings again). S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon both focus on myth and history from the Muslim world, while Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti brings in influence from African history and culture. The expansion of Fantasy genre is an expansion of our understanding of the past, of who’s past has value, and who’s past deserves to be mythologized and critiqued.

As we grow, becoming more multi-culture our fantasy will as well. The genre will ask us to explore new pasts, new combinations, new understandings of where we come from, who we are and who we are not. The past might be the past, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change.

Kings of The Wyld and Bloody Rose: The Band Series Rocks

Kings of The Wyld and Bloody Rose: The Band Series Rocks

On a whim I picked up Nicholas Eames’s Kings of the Wyld and loved it. I devoured the book in under a week and immediately dove into its sequel Bloody Rose. It’s a good book, on par with Kings of the Wyld, but different in some meaningful ways. What really makes Bloody Rose impressive though, is how it improves and complicates the world that Eames introduces in Kings of the Wyld. Two books in and Eames’s Band series is already a roadmap for any writer looking to make a one and done story into an entertaining series.

In Kings of the Wyld mercenaries in the style of D&D adventurers, right down to classes like warriors, thieves and wizards, gather in ‘bands’ that have a distinct rock and roll vibe to them. (Sidebar, fantasy needs a new sub-genre for stories that are purposely playing with D&D and video games tropes, I’m thinking RPG-Fantasy? Something catchier?) The merging of rock and roll with epic fantasy drives the lion’s-share of the world building. There’s arena shows, bookers that get mercenaries gigs, when mercenaries head into the dangerous Heartwyld to go adventuring it’s called ‘touring’. There’s a big festival called the ‘War Fair’ where bands get drunk and party; you get it.

The story focuses on Saga, the greatest band of all time. Saga broke up decades ago and Golden Gabe, the band’s ‘Front-man’, needs to get the band back together for one last tour. He has to save his daughter who is trapped on the other side of the dangerous Heartwyld in a city under siege by a horde of monsters. It’s a compelling plot and Eames runs with it, combining his aging adventures with aging rockers to create a hilarious, bad ass adventure.

But the adventure ends. Rose is saved, there’s some foreshadowing of greater threats, but everything is neatly taken care and honestly, how long can you really stretch the whole ‘D&D characters are rock stars thing?’ Saga is a fun crew, but they’re also old and have other responsibilities. Can you really force the band back together for two more books? Wouldn’t you lose what made the first one so special if Clay Cooper had to leave his family behind two more times to save the world?

Eames smartly decides to leave Clay and the rest of Saga home for the sequel. Instead he focuses on a new band, ‘Fable’, led by Gabe’s daughter Rose. And he makes the ‘bard’, a joke role in his first book, into the lead for his second. Fable’s prospective character is Tam, a seventeen-year-old girl and huge Fable fan. While Tam is likable and pragmatic like Clay Cooper, the perspective character in Eames’s first book, she’s coming from a very different place and that allows us to see Eames’s world in a different light.

But it’s not just Tam, Eames smooths out the rough edges of his world building in the second book. Mercenaries are still rock and rollers, there’s still arena fights and even groupies and tour followers. Fable still gets drunk, has crazy sex and does drugs. But the rock and roll stuff fits neater into the world this time, it feels less like a clever joke and more like a thing of consequence.

There’s a seedy underbelly to the arena shows and the treatment of ‘monsters’. Eames grazes this in his first book, but really explores it in his second. Fable’s booker is a monster, they stay the night at Tree Ent’s place, there’s a much more complex situation going on. Tam starts to see the mercenary bands she idolized in a different light. In this way Eames leaves behind the rock and roll stuff when it doesn’t suit the world building and makes the connections when it does. This gives Bloody Rose a less manic and more disciplined vibe.

That’s not to say the world isn’t still a blast, full of crazy, weirdos and funny situations. There’s a Shaman that accidentally turns into a bear cub, a satyr that eats everything like a goat, a guy living with monsters who ties an extra pair of felt arms to himself to blend in. Moog, the impish wizard from the first book, shows up again to delight. It’s fun, but the world feels more introspective.

Part of that is the crew. Fable is younger and more damaged than Saga. Don’t get me wrong, Saga had its problems and arcs. I also absolutely loved Clay and his bandmates. But they were more established, their issues played for jokes at time. Rose and her team are younger and there is an insecurity to them that feels real.

Eames is more interested in exploring these characters than his world, but that’s for the better. He does good character work and while there is a touch of cliché to everyone in both Fable and Saga, they both raise above their tropes and become so endearing it’s hard to let them go by the end.

And let them go you must. Eames has a three book deal, but he says that each book will focus on a different band. While I’m sad to see Tam and her friends depart, I can’t wait to see how Eames’s world will continues to evolve. I also have no doubt that I will grow to love his final band as much as I loved the first two. If you’re looking for a fun fantasy world that isn’t afraid to grow and question its own conceits, then check out Kings of the Wyld and Bloody Rose

Problems with the ‘The Poppy War’

Problems with the ‘The Poppy War’

I recently finished The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang. The book’s first half was enjoyable, but it’s second half was frustrating. It encompassed a lot of the problems I see in fantasy novels. The world building was under-cooked, the pacing messy, the villains one dimensional and it’s grimdarkness unearned. Still, there’s something to be learned from it’s unevenness.

*****Spoilers for The Poppy War below******

The Poppy War is a pretty standard fantasy novel. It’s protagonist, Rin, starts off as an orphan and through a combination of hard work and a ferocious will becomes the vengeful avatar of a god. It’s a classic power story, complete with training montages and a special school. The school part is enjoyable and Rin is an interesting protagonist. She starts off normal enough, but shows hints of a power hungry side that threatens to overtake her.

However, once the title ‘Poppy War’ starts? (I’m actually not sure if it is a Poppy War, there were Poppy Wars in the past with the same enemy, but no one calls it anything other than ‘the war’ when it begins,) things quickly fall apart. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening, the reader has no sense of scale or the strategic value of any of the cities in play or even the bare geography of the Nikara Empire which Rin is fighting for.

Worse of all is the enemy Rin faces, the Mugen Federation. The Federation is bland and evil. They’re somehow more technically advanced than the Nikara, though we get no details at all about their equipment, fighting style or even their ideology and culture. Really, the only thing we know about them is that they will kill themselves for their emperor and think the Nikara aren’t even human. Oh, and they’re basically Japan.

This another problem with the Poppy War it leans way too hard on real history for its world building. Nikara is very obviously China, Mugen is very obviously Japan, there’s even a very obviously European faction with fair skin and tall ships across the ocean. R.F Kuang talked about how 20th century Chinese history influenced her and boy does it ever show. The opium wars is right there in the title and Kuang uses the details from the rape of Nanking when describing a massacre done by the Federation.

The mining of a real world tragedy to give a dark edge to the story and motivate the hero, didn’t sit right with me. It was so grotesque and hard to get through that it shocked me out of the story. I could dedicate a whole blog post to discussion of using details from a historical tragedy as fodder for your fantasy novel, but outside of it being in poor taste, it’s also not a great narrative device. Going grimdark doesn’t give your story weight, it can have the exact opposite effect, snapping suspension of disbelief. This is what makes tone and tonal consistency so important.

I never really recovered from the massacre and neither did the novel. The pacing became even more hectic and what world building there was frayed with inconsistencies and random betrayals. It all built to what was supposed to be an horrible act of genocide, the complete destruction of the Mugen Federation’s home island and everyone on it. But I didn’t care.

The Federation might as well have been orcs. There’s only one named Federation character and he’s a literal mad scientist, with a white lab coat and everything. (Doesn’t this book take place in medievalish times? Maybe? Another character treats a fucking crossbow like a machine gun, complete with a dull thud when it’s ‘out’.) The genocide fell flat. Mugen was never made to feel real. I didn’t care about it because the writer never did.

In many ways the Poppy War is a story that can’t live up to it’s ambition. It wants to talk about tragedy and sacrifice on a deep level, while also being an engaging action story. Achieving that tonal balance was always going to be difficult and the Poppy War’s bland, over the top antagonists and weak world building couldn’t sustain it. In some ways it asked both too much and too little of the reader. At the one hand we have to read through detailed rape and murder, on the other hand we don’t have to sacrifice anything when the hero burns a whole people away, because they were never described as people to begin with.