Epic Fantasy: Archetypes & Window Dressing

A couple months ago I posted a short essay in which I began examining the ideas and archetypes that are particular to the Epic Fantasy genre.  This is important to me, because while Epic Fantasy is my first and primary literary love, I don’t want to write in it simply out of habit: I want to make the choice of writing Epic Fantasy an informed and intentional choice.

In the essay, titled “Post-Tolkien Fantasy“, I questioned the decision by many latter-day “Post-Tolkienists” to eschew the common tropes, archetypes, and aesthetic trappings of Tolkienesque-flavored Epic Fantasy, and I questioned my own relationship with those same tropes and archetypes.

My purpose was to point out that neither Tolkienesque Epic Fantasy nor Post-Tolkien Epic Fantasy is inherently a superior mode, and that both have potentially valuable aspects as well as potential pitfalls and challenges.

I’d been thinking about the subject, in general, because my current WIP is an Epic Fantasy of the predominantly Post-Tolkien variety: inasmuch as it lacks things like a pseudo-medieval setting, magic swords, dark lords, hidden heirs, and other such archetypes and tropes.  But it was my contention that my WIP is still, despite these things, an Epic Fantasy.

In writing that essay, I referred to some of the common tropes and aesthetic trappings of Tolkienesque Epic Fantasy as “window dressing”.  My contention was that some tropes and trappings add to the aesthetic “flavor” of a given literary work, but don’t fundamentally interact with the core foundational archetypes that constitute the being of Epic Fantasy.  In other words: elves, dwarves, and dragons, knights, kings, and castles – these aren’t foundationally important elements of Epic Fantasy.  Their presence or absence doesn’t make or break an Epic Fantasy.

In referring to these things as “window dressing”, I entered into an exchange of ideas with a pleasantly articulate fellow named Jeff (Confidentially: I found your last name from your LinkedIn profile… but since “Jeff” looks a little like an alias I figured I’d respect that and refer to you just as Jeff) who responded to my article with his essay “My Plea for Philological Fantasy“.  Jeff approaches the topic from an angle decidedly more in favor of Tolkienesque Fantasy – a choice that I can’t disagree with.  At the same time, it’s clear that he doesn’t advocate for this choice based solely on an appreciation for the aesthetics of a Tolkien-like fantasy.  Continue reading

Gender Gap

Some time ago I wrote a blog post about perceptions that there was a demographic shift occurring in the readership of speculative fiction: a substantial tilt toward girls and away from boys, such that perhaps a genre that was once perhaps dominated largely by male readers is now substantially dominated by female readers. 

The question of gender – of readers, of authors, and of characters – has been on my mind a lot lately thanks to a series of blogs and articles I’ve seen that address the topic.

First, there was an article on the Powell’s blog by author Jennifer Dubois in which she opines about the difficulty in our society of female protagonists and narrators in fiction – and the ethical need, in her opinions, for more such characters.  The article is called “Writing Across Gender” but it isn’t really about writing characters of the opposite gender, really, as it is about writing female characters.  It was an interesting place to get my recent thoughts on the subject jump-started.

The question was inherently interesting to me, naturally, because the primary protagonist of my current novel project WIP is a female character.  I had a lot of trepidation when I began this project, I must admit.  Jennifer Dubois thinks that because:

…First, the notion that women are essentially strangers, their consciousnesses wholly foreign; and second, that this foreignness, in addition to being unassailable, is also pretty limited and boring.

But honestly, I don’t think that’s terribly accurate, or true. Continue reading

Post-Tolkien Fantasy

Like a lot of fans of Fantasy literature, and especially of the Epic Fantasy subgenre, I grew up on what today you might call “Tolkienesque” fantasy.  You likely know what I mean: Dragons and Elves and Fairies and Wizards and Magic Swords and Hidden Heirs and Noble Destinies.  I could take a year off your life just by linking to the relevant “TV Tropes” pages.  (Don’t worry, I won’t do that do you.  I love you too much.  You can get lost all by yourself if that’s your inclination. Oh ye gods, I almost got lost myself just by linking the home page!)

One of the first fantasy novels I ever read was Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, the first in his “Prydain Chronicles”.  It wasn’t much longer before I’d read Tolkien and Dragonlance and a slew of other Tolkienian fantasy works.  Although Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy didn’t feature all of the major tropes and archetypes we now associate with fantasy of this type, his work was nonetheless so seminal in the foundations of this genre that we now consider him to be arch-progenitor of the form and genre, even if some of these tropes actually predate him.

And yet, it’s all the fashion and rage, these days, to dismiss Tolkienesque-style Epic Fantasy, to bemoan the woeful and backward state of the genre, and to denounce as tired, and trite and boring all of these old tropes.  Most of the big names in modern Fantasy Literature make a big deal about how about how they’re not writing Tolkienesque Fantasy.  When Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings came out he wrote an essay called “Postmodernism in Fantasy” (and got a lot of attention in the blogosphere grumbling that he’d misused the term “postmodernism”), he was essentially making this point.  Perhaps what Brandon was really talking about wasn’t Postmodern Fantasy.  Perhaps what he was really talking about was, to coin a phrase, Post-Tolkien Fantasy.

To hear the Post-Tolkienists talk, the world of fantasy has heretofore been nothing but a sad and endless stream of cheap Tolkien knock-offs and drudgery.  But at last, they promise, there will be an end to this otherwise endless tide of backward fantasy literature.  At last, they will create something new, something that challenges the old, familiar tropes.  At last, we will shed the shackles of Tolkienism!

Me… I don’t think that way. Continue reading

Movie Adaptations

Dear Wife and I recently went out to see “The Hunger Games” movie, and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about my reaction to the movie, and about how it compares to my reaction to the book.  And this got me thinking about the movie adaptations of books more generally.

One word of warning: as I discuss my thoughts on this subject, I’m bound to offer some spoilers from the movies and books I touch on. 

With respect to “The Hunger Games”, there were things I enjoyed about the movie.  It was certainly, in my opinion, a good movie worth seeing and I’m actually eager to see it again when it’s available to watch at home.  There were elements of the movie that made it superior to reading the book.  But there were elements that definitely made it inferior to the book as well. 

For example: the additional scenes focusing on Seneca and President Snow and Haymitch add a lot to the story – a depth that you don’t get from the book alone.  The scene that shows the reaction of Rue’s father after her death in the Games, and the resulting riot in District 11, was much more powerful on an emotional level than the abstraction of Katniss receiving a baked loaf and realizing it came from District 11.  On the other hand, the use of “Shaky Cam” was so disruptive in the early scenes that viewers never really felt settled in this world.  Even more problematic, the movie treated the relationship between Katniss and Rue in such a cursory fashion that the viewer doesn’t have time to be impressed by that relationship before Rue’s death.  I imagine that the viewer that hasn’t read the books might be a tad perplexed as to why Katniss reacts so strongly: poor Rue only had maybe five or ten minutes of screen time, tops (and that’s being generous by counting scenes in which she appears in the background), before her tragic death.  You really only understand how important this relationship was by reading the book. 

As I contemplated this, I realized something. Continue reading

Interrogating the Text #5: The Hunger Games

This is a continuation of my occasional series on what I can learn on the craft of writing from reading the stories of accomplished professionals and examining and understanding my reactions.

For an explanation of what I’m attempting in this series, go here.

In the second post in my in this occasional series (what was actually a three part post), I tackled a novel I had just finished.  Having recently finished Suzanne Collins‘ widely-acclaimed The Hunger Games, I thought now was a good time to similarly analyze this book – the recent release of the film notwithstanding.  (Note that Dear Wife and I have not seen it, yet, but intend to.  Getting a babysitter on short notice is not generally easy – especially when all your stand-by babysitters are themselves going out that same weekend to watch the same movie.)

Obviously, now, no links to the book – but if you haven’t read it you can probably obtain a copy from your local library, and a nearby bookstore is almost certain to have a copy.

I picked up The Hunger Games on the recommendation of Dear Wife, who picked it up on the recommendation of other friends.  She read it a couple years ago while I was still in Grad School and thus unable to read it myself at the time.  But with the movie coming out this year, I was determined to give it a read before seeing the film.  (And in fact I finished the book about a month ago… I just hadn’t had time to write this up, yet.)

I will say, right off, that I didn’t have the same conflicted relationship with this book that I had with the last novel that I analyzed in this blog (the aforelinked The Magicians).  Whereas I found the ending of that book problematic, I found the ending of this book mostly to be quite satisfying.  That said, I don’t come to this analysis without some criticism for The Hunger Games.  But criticism aside, it’s a good book and well-worth the read.  It doesn’t have the same lyrical narrative flare and style that some of the other works I’ve analyzed have.  But that’s of necessity, being in the first person perspective of the protagonist.  Obviously, though, the book has become a phenomenon for a reason, and that reason is valid.

By now you’re likely familiar with the book and its plot.  But here’s a short run-down anyway (and my usual warning: There will be spoilers): it’s the dystopian future, and what was once North America has given way to the oppressive regime of Panem, as ruled from the Capitol. Continue reading

Interrogating the Text #4: Jay Lake takes a “Long Walk Home”

This is a continuation of my occasional series on what I can learn on the craft of writing from reading the stories of accomplished professionals and examining and understanding my reactions.

For an explanation of what I’m attempting in this series, go here.

Today, I want to talk about a story I read recently by author Jay Lake called “A Long Walk Home“, which you can read for free at the website of Subterranean Press.  “A Long Walk Home” is the first science fictional story I’ll review and analyze for this series.  As with all the stories/novels I’ve discussed so far, I definitely enjoyed reading Jay Lake’s “A Long Walk Home”.  There were, however, some things about the story that disappointed me, which I shall get to in due course.  To follow along, you might want to go check the story out first, then hop on back here, as there will be spoilers in my analysis.

“A Long Walk Home” starts pretty strongly, as we’re introduced to protagonist Aeschylus Sforza, thereafter referred to as Ask.  The year is 2977 – the distant future – and Ask is an enhanced human.  These technological enhancements give him increased strength and durability, longevity (and presumably immortality, as we shall see), a perfect memory, and a direct neural connection to whatever information network exists in the future.  Except Ask is cut off from the network, deep underground exploring the strange and mysterious caverns on an alien planet called Redghost – a planet that has been colonized by humans and looks faintly like a far-future version of the American Frontier of yore. Continue reading

Interrogating the Text #3: Michael Corradi Wields a “Ghiling Blade”

This is a continuation of my occasional series on what I can learn on the craft of writing from reading the stories of accomplished professionals and examining and understanding my reactions.

For an explanation of what I’m attempting in this series, go here

Michael Corradi’s “The Ghiling Blade”, which appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is a story that stayed with me and haunted me for some time after I finished reading it.  It was a powerful story taking place in a world that was rich with wonder and amazement.  Unfortunately, as it appeared in a print mag, I can’t link you to it (but if you can track down back issues of the magazine for a reasonable price, I’d recommend it just for this story), so after reviewing the story I’ll try to provide a little context about the story before getting to the writing lessons.

So, the review:  I absolutely enjoyed this story.  Oftentimes, though, when I enjoy a story I can still find some little thing that wasn’t quite right, that didn’t set well with me.  That is not the case with “The Ghiling Blade”.  I can honestly say that this story was a nearly perfect execution of style, ideas, theme, character, and plot.  It surprised and delighted me, and its world has already wormed its way under my skin.  It has been quite some time now since I read this story, and I still think back to it, and have already been comparing my ideas and my stories against the sheer wonder this story induced in me.  My only caveat to this uncompromisingly positive review relates to the main character’s name, which falls into the trap of the fantasy-cliche-pointless-apostrophe.  The only other word of caution: this is a dense story filled to the brim with things fantastical and amazing.  The world it portrays is very far from the mundanities of our own reality.  If you’re familiar and comfortable with fantasy fiction in general, or with the unusual and the bizarre, this will be a comfortable and exciting read.  But if you’re not, there’s a lot to take in and process in this story.

So, that dispenses with that.  But what was this story about?  Well, for starters, it was a fantasy.  There was magic.  There were epic battles between the massive armies of powerful nations.  There were bizarre and alien gods inhabiting otherworldly temples. Continue reading

Diabolus Ex Machina, Sanderson’s First Law, and the Watkins Corollaries

Today, I’m going to attempt to make a useful contribution to the lexicon and learning of the writing craft – it’s all in the headline of today’s post.  Perhaps it’s a bit presumptuous of me – an undiscovered author with as-yet little by way of writing cachet – but I had some realizations this week that I think are potentially useful.

Over the past few weeks, I’d written extensively about what I perceived as the problematic ending to Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians.  By and large I found the books well-written and well-crafted – right up until the ending when a number of unexplained plot holes derailed things a bit.  Then it occurred to me this week that the problem with the ending of the book relates, in a way, to a violation of Sanderson’s First Law of Magic.

Sanderson’s First Law goes thusly:

An author’s ability to [satisfactorily] solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

On the face of things, The Magicians doesn’t appear to break this “law” because the problem with the ending isn’t with how the author solves conflict with magic – the actual resolution to the main conflict is appropriately foreshadowed to some degree – but about how that conflict intensifies because of magic.  You can, perhaps, see where I’m going with this. 

Sanderson’s First Law, as stated, is incomplete.  In the article on his site about the First Law, he says this about “Soft Magic” systems, in which the reader has little or no understanding of the way magic works:

So, if you want to write soft magic systems, I suggest you hold yourself to NOT letting your magic solve problems for your characters. If the characters try to use the magic, it shouldn’t do what they expect it to—as the reader doesn’t know what to expect either. Use the magic for visuals and for ambiance, but not for plot. (Unless it’s there to screw up things for the characters. That’s always okay.)

And therein lies the problem: it’s always okay to have something unexpected and unexplained and incomprehensible come along and screw things up for the characters?  Really?

Yes.  That law is incomplete.  But never fear.  Along come the Watkins Corollaries to resolve this conflict, and once again set right in the land that which has been made wrong. Continue reading

The Passing of Anne McCaffrey

I heard the news yesterday.  One of the elder craftsmen and great figureheads of the SF&F genre, Anne McCaffrey, passed away on Monday.

If I’m totally honest to you, dear reader, I’ve never read any of the Pern books, nor anything else written by Anne McCaffrey.  But her influence on the genre is still felt, and I know her passing will be a sad one for the legions of fans she has earned in her lifetime’s worth of work. 

It’s a strange thing to admit that I’ve never read any Pern books, given my unapologetic obsession with all things draconic.  My particular obsession takes the form of an interest in dragons of myth and fantastic literature, whereas in time McCaffrey’s dragons were revealed to be science fictional in nature.  See… I may not have read those books, but I’m at least familiar with some of the core tenets of her world.  As I said, her influence on the genre is felt, even by one such as I who has not read her work.

My understanding of McCaffrey’s influence is that she was an early pioneer of bending genre expectations and tropes between fantasy and science fiction.  Technically speaking, her Pern series is sience fiction: starring as it does the descendents of space-faring humans who’ve colonized a world and genetically re-engineered one of its species to more closely resemble mythological dragons, or something to that effect.  (Most of my knowledge of the specifics comes not from reading the Pern books, as I said, but from reading about them.)  But many people have read and continue to read Pern as fantasy, despite the latter revelations about the history of Pern, and her writing apparently was such that you could happily read it either way.  For a long time I think she was fairly unique in this sort of genre-bending, but I suspect that we’re beginning to see and will see still more such genre mash-ups as time goes by: both fantasies that are really sci-fi and science fictions that are really fantasies and many other such combinations which are spawning whole new genres.

Another big influence, I suspect, was her portrayal of dragons.  The concept of dragons who telepathically bond with a given rider is something that’s been explored in other fantasy stories – notably Eragon and the other books of Christopher Paolini’s series – but which was first pioneered, to my knowledge, in McCaffrey’s Pern books.  Her take on dragons will continue to be a source of inspiration for generations of fantasy fans and authors to come.  I know even my own takes on this most venerable of fantasy species has been touched by McCaffrey.  That’s how the genre works: a grand master lays down some innovative ideas in a celebrated work, and new writers take those ideas and turn them into other new ideas through a process of iteration and mutation, through homage and parody and carbon-copying and any of a number of other ways, until those ideas are so threaded in the history of the genre that it’s inseperable.

Anyway, I can say without reservation that though I myself never read her books, yet I know her presence in the genre will be missed.  May she find herself flying with dragons in that great beyond.

Have you read any of Anne McCaffrey’s books?  If you’re a writer, have you felt her influence on the genre?

More about Anne McCaffrey’s passing here and here.

Interrogating the Text #2: Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” – The Lessons

At first I was a little embarrassed that I was going to write three entries to run a full analysis of lessons learned from Lev Grossman’s novel, The Magicians.  I was able to contain a short review, analysis, and lessons learned of the short story discussed in my first “Interrogating the Text” series in a single post.  And then I realized: waitaminit… a novel is a lot longer than a short story, and there’s a lot more depth to what’s going on in a novel.  It only makes sense that a complete textual analysis for a novel is going to be longer than for a short story.  Heck… I’m probably missing a lot even confining it to three overlong posts.

That said, to get the full benefit of this post, you’ll probably want to check out the prior two posts discussing my reading of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians: here and here.  The first is a relatively spoiler-free review that discusses my initial reactions to the book.  The second is a deeper and more thorough (and far more spoilery) analysis of why I had the reaction I had.  Now, I want to bring it all together to talk about the lessons I think I can take away from all of that.

The short version, then, is that I enjoyed reading the book.  The reason I enjoyed it was, mostly, for the high-quality prose, style and voice of the book, first of all, and for the clever twists and tweaks on common and sometimes-cherished, sometimes-maligned fantasy (and YA fantasy, especially) tropes. Continue reading