I don’t like grenache single-varietal wines. There’s just something about the taste. Unless it’s a well made, carefully husbanded grenache that is bold and fruit-forward, and then I love it. I think the same concept applies to any genre of fiction. The genre doesn’t matter, as long as the writing is good, the characters compelling, and the story engaging.
I am, as you may have already discerned, a fantasy author (also a wine drinker). When people ask me what I do, I tell them I write fantasy novels. This will often result in a studied effort to avoid rolling their eyes, and a polite, “I don’t read fantasy. Sorry.”
My theory is that they just haven’t discovered the fantasy writer or the type of fantasy that they like. Many people were drawn to fantasy after reading “Lord of the Rings.” I think an equal number of people were turned off by it. (Hence the parody, “Bored of the Rings.”) But there are many different types of fantasy, often bearing no resemblance to other fantasies other than being pigeonholed in the fantasy genre. Let’s take a look at some of the fantasy out there that shatters expectations and stereotypes.
The “Outlander” series by Diana Gabaldon. “Outlander” begins when a young Englishwoman, Claire, steps through a circle of standing stones in Scotland and is transported into the 18th century, where she falls in love with a braw young Scot who is not her husband. The series follows Claire and Jamie and their family through many years and adventures, switching back and forth between the present day and the historical past. Although clearly fantasy, “Outlander” is also romance, adventure, and well-researched historical fiction. It doesn’t easily fit any particular genre—but it’s labeled “fantasy.” The characters could be people you know—flawed in some ways, but worth knowing.
“In Pursuit of the Green Lion,” “A Vision of Light,” and other novels by Judith Merkle Riley. Riley’s fantasy novels are also historically based, and several reflect the author’s interest in alchemy and how it was practiced. I found these novels to be full of drama and adventure, but despite some nasty characters, they also left me feeling good in the end. Some of her stories are set in medieval times, some in the Renaissance, and the historical research is excellent. She has a lovely, subtle sense of humor as well.
Neil Gaiman is, of course, in a class by himself. Gaiman has the career I would have picked out for myself, had I been bolder and smarter. He writes short stories, poetry, novels, and screenplays as well as graphic novels. He travels all over the world dressed in a black leather jacket, black T-shirt, and black jeans, to the adoration of the masses. I could skip the all-black dude-clothes, but the rest would be nice. Gaiman’s work is extraordinarily varied. “American Gods” and “Anansi Boys” are both about Old World gods transplanted to America, and having to deal with powerful New World gods—such as Media. If you’ve been following the TV series of “American Gods,” it’s a good sample of what Gaiman does. One of my favorites in his oeuvre is a children’s book, “The Graveyard Book,” but I don’t recommend reading it to a young child. It’s about a boy who, as a toddler, escapes being murdered by a serial killer, though his family is massacred. He winds up in a graveyard, where he is cared for and raised by the ghosts that “live” there. The story gets pretty hairy at times, and I would recommend not giving it to anyone under, say, 12, and then only if they are not the nervous type. Gaiman’s other children’s books, like “Coraline” or “The Wolves in the Walls,” have a dark edge that many kids enjoy, but “The Graveyard Book” is much darker, though highly entertaining. Gaiman reads many of his own audiobooks, and he is great at it. I would listen to him reading the NYC telephone book, if it still exists.
If you think epic fantasy might appeal to you, there’s always “Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin. GOT is more epic than most epic fantasy ever dreams of being. His story involves hundreds of characters, all of their stories revolving around a power clash between the various kingdoms of his invented world—and a more serious threat from the supernatural, which most in his world do not believe is real. If you enjoy long, involved stories with plenty of action, adventure, blood and guts, GOT might be your cup of tea. It literally has everything—wars, intrigue, treachery, incest, romance, bravery, murder, tragedy, family issues, war, politics, magic, comedy, and, of course, dragons.
Diana Wynn Jones is someone I need to read more of. She has written several children’s stories as well as adult fantasies. She wrote “Howl’s Moving Castle,” which was made into an anime movie that has quite a cult following. Her stories take place in invented worlds where magic is a natural phenomenon, like vision or touch, and treated as such. She makes these worlds seem real while we are visiting, which is the mark of a truly good writer. If there is such a thing as a “cozy” fantasy, Jones writes them.
Fantasy writers like to talk about “creating magical systems.” If you incorporate magic into a story, you can’t have your characters solving all their problems by waving a wand or reciting a spell—that would be boring. So you have to come up with a system that has rules and limitations. The maestro of magical systems is Brandon Sanderson. One of his more memorable series is the “Mistborn” trilogy. Set in a created world, certain individuals (the “mistborn”) are born with the power to ingest different metals, each of which gives the wielder specific supernatural powers. (I can’t remember what this ability is called at the moment.) The world is threatened with unexplained phenomena, people are dying, and those in power are helpless to combat the evil. It is the mistborn that discover the source of the threat and how to combat it. It’s epic fantasy, but the heroes aren’t the guys in the tin suits this time. Sanderson’s work is so well respected that he was selected to finish Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series when the author died.
For those who enjoy fast-paced action and intrigue, you might like the work of Ryan Attard, who writes adventure fantasies full of snark and martial arts. Both are equally enjoyable. Attard is an incredibly prolific young writer who lives on the island of Malta. In the time I have known him, Ryan has pumped out something like fifteen novels, while I have produced two and a half. He is a martial arts practitioner, and can take you out with his hands, feet, or katana—your choice—and he incorporates this expertise into his work. I haven’t read all his books, but he has a devoted following. Try the “Legacy” or “Nemesis” series.
There are even humorous fantasies. The British writers Tom Holt and Terry Pratchett come to mind. I think Pratchett uses his bizarre fantasy creation, the Discworld and its assorted improbable inhabitants, to make insightful observations of our world, right here and now. I have written about Sir Terry before, I think he’s beyond brilliant as well as funny, and I’ll leave it there—other than to say I think “Monstrous Regiment” is his best work.
Tom Holt sets his fantasies in modern-day London, where there are discrete firms run by vampires and goblins, and law firms headed by werewolves. His hapless hero finds himself working for one such firm in his first book in the J.W. Wells & Co. Series, “The Portable Door.” It’s a lovely combination of the fantastic bounded only by the restrictions of the utterly mundane.
I have to mention one more humorous fantasy, “The Scriptlings,” by Sorin Suciu. Suciu is a programmer, and he envisions a magic system based on the way computers are programmed. If you’re a bit engineerish, you will find the in-jokes delicious. I am not a programmer, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
So please. Don’t lump all fantasy novels into the bag labeled, “Books I Don’t Like.” Fantasy can be everything from high tragedy to low humor, family drama to twinkly comedy, with themes as broad and varied as any other genre. The really wonderful thing about fantasy is that there are no limits. Fantasy authors don’t have to conform to the laws of nature or science. They can go where their dreams take them, and it can be quite the journey.
So I think I’ll go read “A Natural History of Dragons,” by Marie Brennan. And while I’m at it, I think I’ll have a gorgeous glass of Denner grenache. Because Denner knows how to make great grenache. And some fantasy writers know how to craft excellent literature.