Fantasy is my favourite genre, but that statement comes with a caveat: I don’t generally read ‘Epic’ or ‘High’ fantasy.
‘But what about Lord of the Rings?’ you ask, aghast.
Well, Lord of the Rings is a work of genius. I will freely admit that. It formed the gold standard for fantasy world-building which has never been surpassed. I mean, J R R Tolkien invented several languages for his books, wrote a detailed history of each realm and created entire cultures. Elves, Dwarves, Orcs – even dragons and giant spiders. His works inspired an entire genre. Countless authors have quoted The Lord of the Rings as an influence, and countless more don’t need to; it’s plain as day. It’s in the DNA of everything that came after it, in one way or another.
For me, however, it’s almost unreadable. I have made it through the whole trilogy exactly once, and it’s not an experience I’d care to repeat.
I’ve asked myself why I don’t like it. Surely I must be deficient in some way? I can recognise the brilliance of what Tolkien achieved with his writing, and I even love the films. Why couldn’t I get into the books?
That’s down to a lot of different things, not least my attention span and the language difference between now and 65 years ago. But that shouldn’t be an issue with the rest of the genre, certainly not more recent releases. So I figured out another reason: tropes. Tropes everywhere! They’re what give you that vague sense of deja vu, as if you’ve read this book before. The orphaned farm boy (or hobbit) goes off on an epic adventure, usually with his best friend and a wizard/spirit guide/ghost in tow, because he is the Chosen One and he has to defeat the Dark Lord. It’s FATE. They’ll pick up a motley crew of allies along the way, including the token female who the main character inevitably falls for. Oh, and she’ll be his only weakness, because his love for her can be used against him. Ugh.
So, what other kind of fantasy books are out there?
There are a few different subcategories: Young Adult fantasy, Urban fantasy, Magical Realism, and more besides. YA is Epic (read: otherworldly) fantasy aimed at younger readers, whereas Urban refers mostly to vampires, werewolves, and other ‘magic hidden in plain sight’ scenarios with some crime and gangs thrown in. Magical Realism paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements – think Harry Potter. I prefer them all to traditional Epic fantasy. Like all genre fiction, there are still tropes (what is it with all the orphans?!), but they have some distinct advantages. I just so happen to have a list of those advantages right here:
- Relatable characters. The warriors, assassins, bounty hunters, and spies all have feelings too, you know. Even the villains are relatable. They have reasons for wanting to have dominion over all beings, other than because they’re evil. We as readers can understand the motivations of all the characters a lot better.
- Tension. Every paragraph, scene, and chapter has a purpose beyond the writer demonstrating their ability to create an atmosphere or ponder the meaning of life. There is a clock, and it’s ticking! The characters don’t have to visit every country on the continent/ planet in the solar system for a satisfying reading experience. They do have to see enough action to keep the story interesting.
- Great dialogue. Voice is so important, and every character needs their own unique way of expressing themselves. Otherwise, I just don’t buy it. Sometimes the characters in Epic fantasy just don’t feel real enough.
- Whimsy. Damn, I love some magical silliness and fun every once in a while.
- Plot twists. When I genuinely don’t see something coming, it’s delightful. It still has to make sense, of course. A fantasy world has to follow certain rules set down at an early stage in the book, or else you’re dealing with a case of anything goes. And that’s not a plot twist, it’s just annoying. I think Epic fantasy is more inclined to employ a Force Majeure (that is, an act of God) than the sub categories I’ve mentioned. fantasy. They are simply a safer bet in this department!
- Romance. This is obviously a personal choice, but I looooooooove a good romantic side-plot. I think a lot of the branding decisions behind whether to label a book as YA or not come down to this element actually, not the age of potential readers. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher, really, because surely if it’s for younger readers, there should be less sexy-sexy scenes? The Throne of Glass and A Court of Thorns and Roses series by S J Maas are a prime example of this apparent disconnect; not that I’m complaining.
- Woke-ness. You just don’t find as much problematic material in YA. Characters are judged (by other characters) on their personality and choices rather than anything else. And if there is a homophobe, misogynist or racist, they’re generally the bad guy. IT’S LIKE HOW REAL LIFE SHOULD BE!
To give you an idea of what the hell I’m talking about, here is a list of some of my favourite fantasy books/series:
- Children of Blood and Bone (Tomi Adeyemi) (Young Adult)
- Jade City (Fonda Lee) (Urban)
- Harry Potter (J K Rowling) (Magical Realism)
- Throne of Glass (S J Maas) (Young Adult)
- Daughter of Smoke & Bone (Laini Taylor) (Young Adult, Magical Realism)
- Strange the Dreamer (Laini Taylor) (Young Adult)
- Six of Crows (Leigh Bardugo) (Young Adult)
- The Mapmaker’s War (Ronlyn Domingue) (Young Adult)
- Clockwork Prince (Cassandra Clare) (Young Adult, Urban, Historical)
- Illuminae (Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff) (Young Adult Sci-Fi)
- Cinder (Marissa Meyer) (Young Adult Sci-Fi)
- Truthwitch (Susan Dennard) (Young Adult)
- The Bone Season (Samantha Shannon) (Magical Realism)
- The Toymakers (Robert Dinsdale) (Magical Realism, Historical)
- The Bear and the Nightingale (Katherine Arden) (Magical Realism, Historical)
Yes, some are technically sci-fi, not fantasy. And despite a whole blog post about the problems I have with epic fantasy, I’ve got some favourites in that genre too:
- The Queens of Innis Lear (Tessa Gratton)
- The Fifth Season (N K Jemisin)
- The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss)
- Game of Thrones (George R R Martin)
- Blackwing (Ed McDonald)
- The Binding (Bridget Collins)
Have you spotted some of your favourites? If so, what would you recommend for me to read, based on these lists? Also, do you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said? Let me know in the comments!