In general, I really don’t like the fantasy genre. I also really want to like it. I want to be whisked away to fantastical worlds of magic and strange creatures. But like Hollywood movies which make only the slightest attempts at plot coherency which make it difficult for me to suspend disbelief, fantasy is full of clichéd, trite, and poorly written crap. More so than most genres, I cringe every time I start another fantasy novel. Here’s why:
Length: Most fantasy novels these days are too damn long! Like a billion other suburb raised generation X-ers, my MTV-trained attention span does not easily focus for longer than five minutes. It’s surprising I read at all! My mind wanders before I get to page 500, and I start thinking
is it done yet?
Series: You! Fantasy author! Book one of your series was long enough, and you have decided to make your story a trilogy! In addition to my attention span problem, I don’t want to wait months and years between installments. I didn’t watch Heroes on television this last season. I bought it on D.V.D. last week, and watched it in three sittings (commercial free!). I remember during my teenage years, waiting for new installments of David Eddings’ series to come out. I’m impatient dammit! Of course, in retrospect, I’ve come to think Eddings is a hack for other reasons so now I wish I had that time back.
It also seems more and more that fantasy authors can’t find a way so as to write their stories with even a small payoff for each installment. I want to feel like I’ve accomplished something by reading the book. It would be bad enough if a book in a series were to end with a cliffhanger and no conclusion to the story. These days though, there isn’t even that. It would be so much more enjoyable to the reader if each book has it’s own purpose that fits in with the series purpose, and by the end of the book the reader sees that purpose fulfilled. But no. It’s almost as if the books are just chopped randomly, leaving a plot mid-sentence. Neither a sense of completion nor a sense of anticipation as would be left by a cliffhanger.
Elitism: Kings and first wizards and palace intrigue! Take me away Calgon! Or not. Would it be the death of fantasy for more people to write about the scullery maids, the itinerant bards, or common criminals? Ones who aren’t the secret heir to the throne, that is. It’s the lottery of medieval times! Buy a $1 scratch ticket to see if you will be the next king! Orson Card’s Alvin Maker series started off very well on this point with Seventh Son. By the end of that series though, Card (and the story) completely jumped the shark. Not everyone’s destiny is to be king, and there are a lot more common people than there are elites. Speaking of destiny…
Destiny, fate, and prophecy: I read China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun this spring and I loved it partially because of this lack of prophecy! Mieville included prophecy in the novel, but he made it unreliable to make a point. Prophecy in the real world is crap. It’s Pat Robertson making an ass out of himself. Now, fantasy isn’t the real world of course. I want to be taken away to something exciting and new. Prophecies don’t make a life exciting and new; prophecy makes life predictable and boring. It removes the question about where the plot will end and reduces it to how it will get there. At best, it becomes
will the character in which I’ve become invested fulfill the prophecy or will some other dude step in and take his place?
Medieval times: No one would be struck with palsy if fantasy were not set in something resembling medieval times. Technology and magic aren’t oil and water except to bad writers. Science fiction has discovered the benefits of moving to the past in steampunk (yes, i realize steampunk is broader than that…). Fantasy could move to the present (which some, thankfully, does!) and the future. Again, we know how medieval times worked. Adding in some magic doesn’t make it less predictable and more exciting.
Rural idyll: While in the past the large bulk of the population lived in the country, raising their own food, it was hardly a Norman Rockwell painting of innocence. Rural life was not carefree faeries cavorting in the forest with wood nymphs. Hard, sweaty work enveloped most people’s lives. People couldn’t read or write. Their teeth fell out. They died before age 40. And don’t forget about cities! While certainly no panacea for bad writing, a few authors have shown that using urban settings can make the stories so much more interesting. Go read Perdido Street Station or Last Call for inspiration.
Ponderous: Lighten up guys! If the success of Terry Pratchett and Tom Holt doesn’t clue you in that there’s money to be made from entertaining people and not weighing them down, you are hopeless. Now, Pratchett is horribly fluffy most of the time, and readers will tire of that quickly if an author doesn’t have his skill. Science fiction has it’s dystopias, but it also has many works that bring a sense of wonder and exploration to the reader. If a fantasy book is to be set in the past where knowledge is limited, it would seem to me that there ought to be a sense of excitement as new continents, new people, and new magic, is discovered. When Europeans found the Americas, they weren’t filled with dread. It wouldn’t be pleasant for the sailors as they crossed the ocean and trudged through Florida swamps, but the Europeans returned again and again to seek out the new and unexplored. It doesn’t have to be for a pure thrill of discovery and revealing the grey unknown. It may simply be a case of seeking one’s fame and fortune in new gold. There’s new magic, and new people, and new wonders to be found in a fantasy world! Or there should be…
There are a few more categories where fantasy goes wrong. But I’ll leave off here before I get too much more negative. Oh, how I’d love for people to point out to me where I’m wrong. I’d love for people to point out where there are good fantasy novels that break these seemingly unbreakable rules of fantasy and the result is a good read. Give me the counter-examples!
There are so many ways fantasy could go right if someone were to pay careful attention.