Sunday, 22 February 2009

Bummed Out on Fantasy Lit

This post is not a rant - more a kind of pitiful whine. Bear with me.

I've been increasingly irritated by most fantasy literature of the last decades - especially that produced by younger authors, who seem to fall into two categories:

  • The desperate-to-be-hip type, who either try to turn everything into a commentary on modern day politics (usually from a leftish angle) or else introduce silly anachronisms like characters who say 'fuck' every other word;
  • The stuck-in-the-past conservative type, who are trapped in an endless repeating cycle of yetanotherfantasybildungsromanwhichseemstogoon foreverandoffersnothingnew.

I find it worrying that all of the fantasy writers who I consider myself to be a big fan of are either dead or getting old. Who is going to take up the mantle of people like Gene Wolfe, M. John Harrison, Michael Moorcock, Guy Gavriel Kay, or George R. R. Martin when they're gone? China Mieville is a talented writer, no doubt about it, but he can never seem to make his characters really sing. Other than him, though, who really is there? Naomi Novik? It's a sad state of affairs that the genre is in such a trough.

Anyway, I'm going to the big Kinokuniya in Shinjuku today to see what I can find in the way of interesting English fantasy books, and maybe it's just the thought of staring at the shelves and seeing nothing that catches my eye which is getting me down. If you have something you can recommend, let me know.


  1. I've gotta say, I'm surprised to see George RR Martin in your "good" list. I am a huge fan of his science fiction (the "Haviland Tuf" stories and associated "Thousand worlds", and the other short stories), but I've never been able to penetrate more than a hundred pages into the vast fantasy bricks.

    Personally, I'm taking solace in going back to the older classics in the genre; Howard (I'm halfway through the three-volume set of his unexpurgated Conan stories), Smith, Vance, Lieber, Carter, etc. It's been a while since I've re-read the Elric series, but your mention of Moorcock might just bring it to the top of the stack.

    One thing I'm finding to be an absolute treasure are those "Worlds Best Fantasy" and "Worlds Best Scifi" compilations from the 70's and 80's. Lots of excellent stuff in there by writers who never made a huge splash, but had one or two gems, and a lot of lesser-known works by some of the stalwarts.

  2. I'm also on a re-reading (or reading for the first time) some of the classic pulp stuff. For contemporary fantasy, I think the urban fantasy stuff is where it's at. To the extent it is at anywhere. Most everyone in my crowd likes Patricia Briggs' Mercedes Thompson stuff. Robin McKinley's Sunshine is another good one. Joe Hill's Heart-shaped Box comes highly recommended, but I'm told it may be too scary for me.

  3. Patrick Rothfuss's Name of the Wind is a well written modern fantasy and pretty much stays away from the faults that keep you away.

  4. Your mention of Moorcock, combined with your complaint about stuck-in-the-past conservatism in fantasy, reminded me of Moorcock's essay railing against that half of the decline in fantasy literature. Read Epic Pooh if you haven't already.

    It won't exactly make you feel better, but it will at least let you know you're not alone.

  5. I think the general rule for any time period is:

    Most things are crap, 1 or 2 things are good.

    When we look at the past we tend to lump all the stuff from the past we like together, making it seem like it all was part of some golden age, but really, Moorcock's early stuff and Harrison's (for example) were a decade apart.

    Most things are always bad, because genius is rare.

  6. If you like your fantasy grim, high-powered, and baroque, give Steven Erikson a try. I've heard his "Malazan Book of the Fallen" series described as Cook's "Black Company" series "done right". I'm not sure I'd denigrate Cook's work by agreeing, but Erikson spins a fun tale. They seem a bit random an disconnected at first, but things begin to weave together in the second book.

    If you prefer your fantasy urban, geek-hip, and a tad Buffy-esque, try Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" novels. Very post-modern, but fun.

    On the other hand, if you don't mind your fantasy waxing a touch decadent, urbane, and blasphemous, I can highly recommend Jacqueline Carey's "Kushiel" novels. The setting is an alternate Europe where angels descended to live and intermarry with mortals. They're chock full of politics, tragedy, anthropological touches, and old-fashioned adventure. They make me think of "The Three Musketeers" as written by the lovechild of Madeline L'Engle and Harry Turtledove. Yes, a cursory glance at the back copy will make you think they're full of S&M smut, but that facet, while central to the main character, is only a minor portion of the plot.

    Hope these help!

  7. Joseph: A Song of Ice and Fire is the single best fantasy series I've ever read, and just about the only one of the last two decades I've read which I can honestly say has been worth the effort. (When I was a teenager I devoured the big Eddings, May, and Goodkind sagas and found them not at all fulfilling.) Of course, it's all a matter of taste, but I recommend you give it another try!

    jamused: Thanks, I'll take a look at some of those and see what I think.

    ligedog: Okay, another one for the list!

    Talysman: I did read Epic Pooh a long time ago, and... well, I can see where Moorcock is coming from, because he's a well known Marxist. Like other hard-left fantasy writers (Mieville, and I think Harrison though I'm not sure), Tolkien's brand of ultra-conservative nostalgia is anathema. It's the opposite of everything they stand for. I'm in the happy position of being a political neutral, so I can enjoy both the Tolkiens of this world and the Moorcocks. ;)

    Zak: True, of course, but I think there is some fluctuation in the numbers of great and minor talents over the years and in different areas. For instance, New England at the time of the transcendentalists, or the Manchester music scene in the 80's, or the Scottish Enlightenment. I think there was genuinely more good fantasy around in previous years than there is now. Of course, the crap doesn't survive and that skews perceptions, but still.

    Brian: Thanks for the recommendations. I've thought about Erikson but never got around to starting it. The size and length of the series is pretty intimidating...

  8. Steve Erickson wrote the introduction to one of my books, so I'll go ahead and recommend him too.

  9. Yeak, Erikson's books are thick. However, in my experience, they don't read like thick books because:

    * there are no boring characters. At no point in reading any of the Malazan books did I ever once say to myself, "Ugh! A chapter on the boring characters. When do we get back to the good stuff?"

    * the books are fast reads. Erikson's style has a headlong-rush feel to it that reminds me a bit of Tom Clancy's very first novels.

    * an understanding of character that reminds me very much of anime. The books are full of absolutely sympathetic, though flawed, characters. There's a mix of melodrama, power-fantasy, tragedy, and yet also depth and reality to his characters that probably doesn't make sense in that sentence, but you'll get it when you read them.

    YMMV, of course, and his stuff is hardly perfect. But if you like Glen Cook's stuff, you'll probably eat up Erickson.

  10. I've been re-discovering pulps, too, as I gave up on mainstream fantasy years ago. I also enjoy hunting down the old DAW stuff; Tanith Lee, Cherryh, and the like aren't the greatest writers (Cherryh can be quite good, actually), but there is always some vital spark in their early works that provides a lot of game-ready inspiration. I can't abide the ongoing series and page bloat, no matter how well-written.

    I'd really like to see more self-contained fantasy novels rather than endless series. I've been working on one for the past several years, but it'll probably never be finished (that's the writing degree at work). It'd probably never sell in the current market anyway, even if it was any good (which I'm doubting of late).

  11. I love, love, love Erikson. The books are gigantic, and sometimes hard to get through...but they offer a vibrant, exotic world which is deliciously fun to explore. There are no infodumps. You see a slice of the world, and have to puzzle out the rest of it. And that puzzling is fun.

    Note: The first book, Gardens of the Moon, is a bit weak. Keep going past it, and make your decision on continuing the series after checking out Deadhouse Gates.

    I will also second Trollsmyth's recommendation of the Dresden Files; they are popcorn literature, but so fun.

    For new fantasy writers, you could do a lot worse than to check out Scott Lynch, "The Lies of Locke Lamora." It's a very taut, incredibly well-written thief story, and very much worth the read. The sequel, "Red Seas Under Red Skies," is fun but not nearly as well-written.

    I would also recommend Steven Brust's work - both his primary "Taltos" series (about a human assassin in a land full of elves...who he hates) and his spinoff, "The Phoenix Guards" - a pastiche of Alexander Dumas in the world he created for the Taltos series. The language is decidedly modern in the Taltos books (much less so in Phoenix Guards, it is a pastiche after all), but they're quite solid books.

  12. KenHR: I'd like to see more self-contained novels too. I find it harder and harder to read even long novels these days (I've tried to read Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games about five times now and failed), so snappier works of around 400 pages at most are what I'm really looking for. I make an exception for GRRM and maybe Erikson if he's good.

    Allandaros: I'll definitely check those two out. Thanks for the recommendations.

    In the end, I relied on a trusted name and bought Ilium by Dan Simmons yesterday, but mainly because I couldn't find anybody's recommendations in Kinokuniya...

  13. I second Scott Lynch's "The Lies of Locke Lamora." I just finished it and moved on the the second book, so I can't comment much on that. Also a second for "The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss that ligedog mentioned - I tore through that and then cursed Rothfuss's name when i reached the end (since he hasn't released the next book yet).

    So you like Song of Fire and Ice? Then let me suggest that you should check out Joe Abercrombie's First Law series ("The Blade Itself," "Before They are Hanged," and "Last Argument of Kings"). It has a similar style to Martin's work, but is much faster paced and a bit narrower in scope. And as a bonus, the series is all done.

  14. I feel the same way and have been reading more and more historic fiction these days as a result. I find it scratches my fantasy itch, particularly if you like grim-and-gritty, well-written action in the vein of George R.R. Martin.

    I would recommend Steven Pressfield (Gates of Fire, Tides of War) and Bernard Cornwell (The Warlord Trilogy, Saxon Stories) if you want to go this route. Cornwell's Warlord Trilogy is more or less fantasy since it's a retelling of the Arthurian myth, albeit set in the 5th century with that period faithfully depicted.

    I didn't see Poul Anderson on your initial list. He's obviously not a new writer, but I can't recommend The Broken Sword, Hrolf Kraki's Saga, or War of the Gods highly enough.

  15. SKelly: Thanks, I'll take a look. Nothing worse than an unfinished series, is there? That's the only complaint I can lay at the feet of GRRM....

    Brian: Yeah, I'm a long-time Cornwell fan, from back in the Sharpe days. I'm loving the Saxon stories, but his best novel for a while has I think been Azincourt.

  16. The Icelandic sagas are well worth reading, even if they don't qualify as modern literature.

    So is Odysseia.

    Iliad and Beowulf are a bit less pulpish, I think. Kalevala is interesting and maybe a tad more appropriate than they, but it has been a while since I read it.

  17. thanuir: Yeah, I love the sagas. Egil's Saga is one of my all time favourite works of literature.

  18. Also weighing in on Erickson. Well worth looking up.

  19. I agree about the fantasy genre today, I'm much pickier and have diversified my reading away from it. I hate trilogies. I also think these days there is a lot more life in Sci-fi than fantasy (e.g. Iain Banks). Which is a shame, because fantasy should be a lot more versatile than it is.

    I think you are mischaracterising the "hard left" writers though, or at least Mieville. I think they like/appreciate Tolkien but they hate the stultifying efforts of modern fantasy writers to just redo his work over and over. Mieville has an essay about this that is quite good, from back when he wrote King Rat.

  20. ardwulf's lair: Okay, I get the idea - Erikson's next on the list. ;)

    faustusnotes: I think fantasy is suffering from that weird thing that happens to genres, where they slowly crystallise into a load of tiny sub-genres which don't cross-fertilise as much as they should. So you get Dark Fantasy, Weird Fantasy, Steampunk, Epic Fantasy, and whatever, and people who like one sub-genre might avoid the others entirely. This is unfortunate.

    Both Mieville and Moorcock have said some pretty nasty things about Tolkien - Mieville called The Lord of the Rings "a wen on the arse of fantasy" or something like that, and Moorcock called it "Epic Winnie the Pooh". But then again I've also read Mieville saying that Tolkien was valuable inasmuch as he was basically the first writer to come up with a complete fantasy world that made no references to our own.

    I think hard left writers feel that they have to hate Tolkien because, let's face it, you can't get as far removed from Marx as Tolkien.

  21. All I can do is pimp the fantasy books I've loved these past few years. CJ Cheryhh's Fortress in the eye of Time series was surprising. I've also really gotten into Lois Mcmaster Bujold's romantic fantasies, The Curse of Chalion and The Paladin of Souls are exceptional. And read anything and everything by Robin Hobb. Really... go do it right now... ;)

    PS. I'm still waiting for ASoIaF to finish too.

  22. Thanks for the recommendations Blotz. I do wonder about ASoIaF sometimes. I know GRRM is slaving away at it, but he sometimes sounds depressed about the entire thing.

  23. I can't believe I forgot the Curse of Chalion! I love that book. The sequels are decent enough, but didn't grab me the way the first did...possibly because I didn't like the protagonists as much, possibly because the setting wasn't as fresh.

    One of the things I really liked was the theology of the setting actually mattered, and it wasn't used as a simple commentary on real-world religions.

  24. Keep in mind that ASoIaF is, in part, the story about how a nine-year-old girl becomes a cruel assassin who sees murder as a way to solve her problems.

    I don't see how that would be depressing at all. /sarcasm

  25. Robin Hobb / Megan Lindholm is a good writer, and I much enjoy her tales. Some classify them as romantic fantasy. There certainly is plenty of focus on family and relation(ship)s. Someone said that in those books characters quickly find a family if they lose theirs, as contrasted by Conan et all that are much more about the single hero's exploits. (Or a pair of heroes.)

    Very different subgenres of fantasy, but I find both enjoyable.

  26. RE:thanuir
    I've never found any of her Megan Lindholm books. Love to read them. And your point about family pretty much sums up one of the basic thrusts of romantic fantasy. I think its one of the reasons I'm getting sucked into it as I get older (and now have a family of my own).
    I think I'm definitely stealing the theology from Curse of Chalion for my next campaign.

  27. I'll recommend Patricia McKillip. She writes normal-sized, one-book poetic fantasies that are a nice antidote to the thousand-page-installment neverending series that dominate the bookshelves. (Well, she did write a trilogy back near the start of her career, but it wasn't bad). 'Forgotten Beasts of Eld' has my favorite opening sequence of all time.