A Quick History
When I say Fantasy Novel, you say–
sighed and said “Swords”. Or “Castles”. Or “Wizards”. Or “Dragons” or “Eternal Evil” or “Destiny”. And you’re not wrong. Many of the works that are considered canon for the Fantasy genre feature these elements because of the genre’s roots in supernaturally embellished tales of old:
…Homer’s Odyssey written in the 9th century BC[…]chronicles the fictional adventures of a hero returning to Ithaca after the capture of Troy. Beowulf (ca 700AD), the earliest surviving epic poem written in English, is another early work containing fantasy elements – such as witches, monsters and dragons. Perhaps more recognisable to modern audiences, the legend of King Arthur has been told and re-told many times over. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (ca 1470; printed 1485) is recognised as the earliest definitive account of the legend.
As always, Europe isn’t (and wasn’t) the only place pumping out awesome Fantasy. Gilgamesh, the original Demigod, is considered the world’s first superhero and is also the star of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Ol’ Gilgamesh did his fair share of monster slayin’, had a bromance, challenged gods, and lived by a code of honor well before Arthur and his crew set out for the Holy Grail. The One Thousand and One Nights was full of love, adventure, magic, and many more of the elements that we consider key to identifying fantasy fiction today.
Modern fantasy is defined by Tolkien’s Hobbits, Lewis’ Witches, and LeGuin’s Wizards. In these stories we see callbacks to the myths of old. Each one of these modern classics features gods in machines, heroic heroes, dread monsters, and richly imagined worlds that were characters unto themselves. These works have left their mark on almost every piece of fantasy literature that has come after them. We, as writers and readers, must pay respect. The downside to paying too much respect, though, is the derivative fantasy work that takes things no further than elves, dwarves, grizzled grimdark Gary Stu warriors, Damsels in Distress, and Dark Lords bent on Destroying the World (often for no real reason).
The Necessity of Imaginative Fantasy
“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
I latched on to Fantasy literature because I loved to escape from the humdrum reality of being a child growing up in the ghetto. As I grew older and was told that I shouldn’t be trying to escape from the world, I spurned fantasy, figuring that it was the domain of children…but I eventually found my way back. I now know that, more than being an escape, Fantasy literature is a lens. What better way to examine all the worrisome bits of the society that I love than by creating a world with those same problems and trying to work them out?
To this day, I love to live in complex, well-imagined worlds that writers have created, and I love to see stories unfold through the eyes of rich, nuanced characters. Interesting depictions of magic and magical systems appeal to me immensely. There’s something even more compelling about opening a fantasy novel and finding a story with imaginative aspects that sets it well outside the mold for traditional, canon-inspired fantasy.
Fortunately, I’ve come across several fantasy novels that take elements of the ENTIRE genre–not *only* magic systems or fantastic creatures or diverse cultural representation–and turn them on their heads:
- Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed is one of the most spectacular alt-history pieces I’ve ever read, with amazing magic and haunting characters.
- David Anthony Durham’s Acacia was another, a piece of epic fantasy that took diversity and magic and the ideas of epic fantasy itself and spun them until they were something totally different–still familiar, but different enough to be refreshing.
- N. K. Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is another book that looks at epic fantasy, takes those essential elements, and uses them to tell a story that’s new and fun.
- DaVaun Sanders’ The Seedbearing Prince is a novel that builds a refreshing world and fills it full of imaginative places, characters, activities, and even foods!
- Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon takes a culture that is often presented in vanilla fantasy with heavy Orientalist overtones and puts an entire diverse world there, complete with stunning magic and wonderful villains
All of these works do the genre a favor by working within the fantasy label while presenting the kinds of worlds that jolt readers out of the Swords, Wizards, Dragons, Dark Magic, Medieval Europe loop that many fantasy novels and novelists still employ in their works.
I think that a continuous loop of settings, cultures, and enemies does the genre a disservice. For one, it’s bound to get boring reading the same tropes over and over again. I know that there are some people who are perfectly fine with seeing “everyman” (read: white cis straight male) heroes (or grizzled anti-heroes) claw their way through hordes of swarthy natives in search of resolution to some world ending matter of plot, but I’m not one of those people. That’s the old way, and while we’re grateful for the old way, It’s time for a change.
Secondly, many of the folks pushing that paradigm are the same folks that are committed to pushing creators and readers who want diverse stories out of the genre. And honestly, screw that. Fantasy is not just escapism for one group of people. It’s for everyone. And everyone deserves to read Fantasy that pushes the boundaries.
On Mirror Empire
On the suggestion of a friend, I bought Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire, and it is such a well crafted and imaginative piece of fantasy. Hurley takes the standard humdrum elements of the genre and twists them unmercifully to her will. We start with a glimpse of the awesome magical system, which somehow takes plants and wind and astronomical beings and builds something amazing out of those concepts. Hurley really flexes her descriptive muscles in showing the reader how this magical system will be used throughout the novel. Flora and fauna are not just settings to be gawked at, but living, moving dangerous beings in many of the multiple worlds that Hurley creates. She then fills these worlds with believable characters and then does interesting things with the characters’ gender identity and relationships, romantic and otherwise. Even the weapons are conceptualized in a mind-bending sort of way. And I’m only partway through the book, but I can only imagine how well the larger thematic elements are conceptualized and presented.
Every time I settle down to read this book, I’m excited because I can’t wait to dig into the story and get lost in the world again. Mirror Empire is the kind of multi-layered fantasy that I enjoy reading, full of surprises and imagination. In fact, I think I want to go read a bit more of it.
What are some particularly imaginative works of fantasy that you’ve read, either recently or in the past?