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In Defense of Fantasy: #2 The Imagination's Sandbox

Over on Black Gate Magazine, I've just reviewed some Osprey "Dark" and "Adventures" books - fictional military history texts from a publisher that usually deals in facts. Two are squarely Traditional Fantasy; one about the mythical wars of Atlantis, the other about Orc warfare , complete with all the tropes: goblins, dwarves, trolls, dark lords and minions.... it could almost be a guide to one aspect of the Oglaf mileu...

And did I mention Oglaf (really very NSFW)? That um... raunchy... webcomic is a romp through a Dungeons and Dragons-esqu world, and derives its humour not from sending up the genre, but from the situations it creates.

Then there's Dungeons and Dragons itself, and a zillion tabletop and screen games that scratch the same itch. Nobody goes, "OMG. 'Mage' Knight. How clichéd!" They're too busy playing. Nor, for that matter, did anybody stop to complain when Terry Pratchett pretty much segued from taking the piss out of what I've been calling Traditional Fantasy, to using it as his sandbox.

Because Traditional Eurocentric Quasi-Medieval Fantasy is a great sandbox. Let me put on my (very minor compared to our godlike host) writer hat... (Clunk! Yes, it is a helmet)... there. OK, here's how I see it...

What I am calling "Traditional Fantasy", by which I mean specifically Traditional Euro-Centric Quasi-Medieval Fantasy, has the following features:

  • Strong Quasi-Medieval European element
  • Magic and the supernatural may be real
  • A secondary world, either in the mythic past as per the Heroika antholgies, or else fully secondary as per... well just about most such books.

Taken together, these features provide the following benefits to the writer and hence the reader:

Familiar Environment: It takes place in a world where at least parts of the culture and economy are not so different from our Medieval and/or Late Roman past.

Some people treat this as a strike against the genre. After all, "Creativity is King" etc.

Certainly there's some amazing Fantasy that's not remotely Eurocentric Quasi-Medieval. A good example you probably missed is the work of James Enge. In  Wolf Age, for example, he creates an entire civilisation of werewolves - with castes based on how, when, and in which direction they transform - then uses it as the setting for a sorcery and sword (yes, that way round) adventure.

However, there's also stuff - no I'm not naming names - where the setting is about the only good thing about the "story". We privilege creative world building because it's easy to intellectualize over and discuss in the pub or on panels, but it's no guarantee of a good read.

Using stock elements in your secondary world is no guarantee of producing a good read, either. Even so, a Standard Fantasy setting has certain literary advantages:

For a start, you can get on with your story - good or bad - without needing to explain the world. If I say, "My hero is a young serf owned by a vile baron", that's enough to start a story about, say, oppression and rebellion. Inventing an entire class system with funny names would be superfluous.

Also, if you start in a familiar place, you can then explore what it's like to interact with other cultures. Sure, writing from inside a non-western-style culture is also good, but then you don't get to show the viewpoint character getting over culture shock, or learning to respect the apparently exotic and so on.

Finally, the Standard Fantasy setting is archetypal, not just for westerners, but also, increasingly, for geek culture. (However I want to cover that in the last blog entry of this series, so please can we ignore this for now?)

Individuals Count: It takes place in a world where individuals wield direct power, either through role, martial prowess, or magic.

In Traditional Fantasy, individuals really count in ways that are much harder to set up or justify in other genres. A king can start a war and there are no legal checks and balances to stop him, as per Guns of Dawn. A warrior can turn a battle as per Conan. (Yes, Historical does that too -- which is one reason why I wrote Shieldwall -- but with less freedom.) A single magical act can change the world as per Frodo and the One Ring.

This lets you tell stories where there are no moral safety nets, where the fate of the world can literally rest on the shoulders of the protagonists.

Creative Freedom: Even so, the writer can otherwise pretty much do what they like with the setting.

This lets us tell unpredictable stories about big events, for example Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay's Albigensian crusade mashup, or Lions of Al-Rassan, his take on El Cid. It also lets us bring contrasting cultures together in interesting ways, e.g. Feist's Magician series which pitted Medievals versus a more exotic people from a nextdoor dimension.

We can also tweak the setting to explore particular themes, match modern sensibilities (where authentic period ones would distract from the story), or else just give readers characters to identify with. We see this especially when it comes to gender and sexuality. In his Big Fat Fantasy with no Boring Bits, Harry Connolly gives us a convincing equal-opportunity military. Adrian Tchaikovsky's The Cherry Orchard Does the Red Badge of Pride and Prejudice conscripts the kingdom's women then shows us the fallout. And of course we have Jacqueline Carey's  O does Cathar France with More Barbarians.


Yes, Traditional Fantasy has its boundaries. You also have to use at least some of the toys available, and you're building out of sand other people have handled... but what a sandbox!

This sandbox has two interesting aspects.

First, it's similar to that used by approved heroes of the literary establishment; Shakespeare, for starters, who outside his History plays could do pretty much what he wanted. Macbeth is pretty much a Heroic Fantasy complete with Dark Lord. Spencer's Fairy Queen's another, as are some of Chaucer's stories, and, of course, Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (which I reviewed on Black Gate). The Arthurian stories have some fixed points, but in other ways are similar, so you can add the Gawain Poet and Malory to the ranks. Then there's the Beowulf (which, by the way, made a wonderful bedtime story for my son when he was 7).

I am not trying to grandfather in these literary grandfathers. However, they are Fantasy the way Robert Johnson is Rock and Roll. Not only did their sandbox have similar features and benefits to that of modern Traditional Fantasy, but they also influenced the writers who carved out that genre.

Thus, on the off-chance you do encounter somebody who is dismissive of the book you are reading - or writing or selling - you can tell them that it's in the same tradition as [vaguely relevant Shakespeare Play Here]. If they say, "Well that's different..." ask them in what way and sit back and wait for the answer...

Second, Historical Fiction uses the same sandbox but confines itself to one corner. We can see this in the origins of the genre, when Robert E Howard and Harold Lamb stories jostled for space in the Pulps.

I think that's where I was coming from when I wrote Shieldwall: Barbarians! It wasn't that I specifically wanted to write a historical, but I'd discovered an epic milieu in which Romans and Germans clashed, then combined forces to face Atilla's mobile empire, itself a patchwork of Turkic and Germanic peoples. A battle the size of Waterloo but fought with close quarters weapons? What's not to like (as long as you don't have to personally survive it)? Writing it as a Historical made good literary sense. However, it was probably a mistake -- I'll explain that in an interlude.

So, gentle readers, if you like Traditional Fantasy, who do you like and why?



The Divine Comedy by D Alighieri?
Is after all a giant fantasy actually written in medieval times .....
It's also a "Pilgramage with an object(ive)" as defined by JRRT himself in writing LotR.

Eddings' fist series? ( Also a coming-of-age story, of course )


> Eddings' fist series? ( Also a coming-of-age story, of course )

Fist? Is that an Oglaf sequence? (Chortle.)


I like Lord of the Rings. In my early teens I'd read the Hobbit but had no idea that LOTR existed until I read the Mines of Moria fight and pursuit sequence in an English textbook. As a youngster in the 1970s I loved the heroic fantasy, which was rare. These days I'm aware of the dodgy racial stereotyping etc, but I still love it as heroic fantasy.

I like the Swords of Lankhmar series by Fritz Leiber, provided I stop after Book 5 The Swords of Lankhmar. Flawed rogues who still end up as heroes. A more humorous look at fantasy, inventing so many things that are cliches today such as the Thieves Guild. A more complex world, requiring brains as well as brawn.

I like some of the Conan stories. It's a real pity that Robert Howard wrote during the Depression when quantity was rewarded better than quality. "People of the Black Circle" and "A Witch Shall be Born" have important secondary characters and more complicated than you'd expect. And nearly all the Conan stories have a fierce energy about them, stripped down and high velocity like the Mad Max films.


I think if I could change one moment of literary history, I would zip back in time and persuade Howard not to shoot himself. The best was yet to come.

Structurally, he actually does some very clever things, or at least instinctively achieves effects that other people would have to think cleverly about in order to emulate.

Tower of the Elephant is a good example. It looks like a random walk, until you spot the thematic forces at work:


"Macbeth is pretty much a Heroic Fantasy complete with Dark Lord."

I disagree, though that was a component. Far more was classical
tragedy - a man tempted into a Dark Act by ambition, and reaping
the fruits of that. The heroes aren't the principals.

But back to your question. I was a VERY fast reader when younger
and liked The Faerie Queen (Pilgrim's Progress and Vathek were
ordeals. though), but my current taste is for faster-moving
stories. Yes, including Howard, Tolkien, Brennan, Wen Spencer
etc. What ticks my boxes seems to be (in no particular order):
Originality, of milieu, plot, viewpoint, 'magic' or anything
A deducible universe model, used consistently
A story that keeps moving, with some 'action' (of ANY type)
Reasonably competently and literately written

There are also a couple of aspects that depend on my mood but,
most of the time:
Not descending into sadism or brutality fetishism
Not uniformly depressing - I am reading escapism, after all!


Only commenting to say, Oglaf! (& cum sprites, cold-proof vibrators, magical talking bear prostitutes … Blood and Thunder! Victory at Sea!)


Since you mentioned Howard and Conan I must mention Karl Edward Wagner's Kane series. Some of Moorcock's Eternal Champion stories are better than others.

If Traditional Fantasy is Quasi-Medieval then His Dark Materials isn't? What about the Locke Lamora series? Isn't a lot of traditional fantasy more 18th century with duelling and pirates and Three Musketeers? By the time you get to steam trains it probably isn't traditional anymore...


Ah, that's why I said "*Strong* Quasi-Medieval European element." Locke Lamora has a lot of medieval elements in the setting and technology. You could argue that even 3 Musketeers is quasi medieval...


Macbeth was historical fiction. They just had different history.

When Shakespeare wrote it, they were burning witches at the stake. They believed in them and their powers, and had laws about how to suppress them. Putting the witches in the play wasn't invoking anything 'unreal'.

And whether Banquo's ghost was real or in Macbeth's mind: well, his audience would have expected ghosts were likely real wouldn't have put money either way about Banquo.


I think the only big quibble I'd have with this is your early use of "traditional" and later "standard". Change these to "traditional European" and "standard European" and I'm on board: the point of "tradition" is that it gives you a rich trove of archetypes and tropes to play with, and people who are interested in those notions will happily come along for the ride.

The problem with the original wording is that this is (obvious, but necessary to make explicit) not traditional Chinese, Indian, or Inuit fantasy, among others. People who write from those and other traditions rightly get pissed when their culture is considered not to be traditional. You do get to this point eventually, but by the time you do, you've probably lost or alienated these readers*: potentially the vast majority of your audience nowadays. Let's be clear that I'm not in any way being a "sad puppy" here, just being pragmatic about the nature of our audience.

* One thing I've learned over the years is that readers form a judgment about your writing within the first few paragraphs, and once made, it's hard to break that impression. You want to start out on the write [sic] foot so that they stick around long enough to have a chance to appreciate the more important points of your argument. Here, the key point is that European fantasy isn't even remotely mined out, not that other traditions aren't traditional.

Martin: "Sure, writing from inside a non-western-style culture is also good, but then you don't get to show the fiewpoint character getting over culture shock, or learning to respect the apparently exotic and so on."

"Viewpoint", of course, if you have a chance to correct the typo. But the point isn't really valid. First, you could easily have (say) a Chinese Marco Polo suffering from culture shock after arriving in the medieval U.K. Second, just as it's fun to play with French knights invading England, it's fun to play with Mongol horse archers invading China. The parallel is exact from a culture shock or conflict perspective, even if the details differ (e.g., the French knights probably had worse hygiene and larger horses. *gdrlh*)

"Individuals count" is where I've settled in terms of why I read F/SF rather than "literature": the notion that even if they're doomed in the end, individuals have agency and a sense that they might change the world. Also, that proverbial "sense of wonder". I get more than enough real life in my real life.

Martin: "A king can start a war and there are no legal checks and balances to stop him": Unlike, say, the Reagan/Bush empire and about 90% of modern American geopolitik? *gdrlh*


Not a zero sum game! There's room for all the possibilities. I'm just saying that Traditional Fantasy, which I am using as shorthand for Traditional Eurocentric Quasi Medieval as per the title, is a valid sand box.

The Bush/Reagan example is an, um, example of how in a modern setting you would need to establish the ability to just start a war like that, whereas in Fantasy it can just happen.

Fantasy of course isn't the *only* genre where you can do that. That's not the point.


Familiar environment: "My hero is a young serf owned by a vile baron"

-I can see where you're coming from there in saying that a more exotic world needs more work to establish but OMG not another hero is a young serf... really I think the familiar environment needs a similarly big amount of work to justify making it worth reading. That might just be having a really engaging plot or amazing dialogue but it needs to draw me in and an interesting new environment is one way to do that.


If this blog was written in Chinese by a Chinese author specializing in medieval Chinese fantasy do you believe they would even think to add the word "Chinese" to "Traditional Fantasy"? Would any of their readers expect it to be added? The language, location, literature and readership supplies ample context.


The Bush/Reagan example is an, um, example of how in a modern setting you would need to establish the ability to just start a war like that, whereas in Fantasy it can just happen.

You get to set up your fantasy as you like. If you want an ad hoc spur-of-the-moment war, you can have it. If you want more context, you can put that in.

Compare to icelandic sagas. Maybe there was a strip of coastline whose ownership was kind of disputed. Not valuable, it had never been a big issue. Then in a hungry winter a dead whale washes ashore there. Both sides turn out to harvest it. There's probably enough stinking whale for both, but they get into a dispute about who really owns it and they wind up hitting each other with chunks of rotting blubber and whalebones etc. When it goes to court the judge ridicules both sides.

The main character is born into one family, his enemy is born about the same time into the other. They don't get along and get into fights during playful games. There's a posse to hunt down an outlaw and one of them sees that the other is not invited, they have a big argument about that. Later one of them goes fully armed to have it out, and catches the other in the milkshed holding a great big skin of cottage cheese. "If you stab me I'm going to pour this stuff all over you." He goes home, humiliated.

Eventually they duel. The winner must hide while his case goes to court. He gets trusted friends to speak for him at court. Later people remark about what a pathetic, incompetent job they did. He is outlawed. No one can legally buy or sell from him, or give him things, he must acquire everything by force, making more enemies when there is a price on his head and anyone can legally kill him. No one has ever survived a whole year doing that. He can't trust his fellow outlaws who tend toward murderous insanity.

There's a man who owns an isolated fortress who welcomes outlaws. They have an alarm to warn of visitors and the outlaws hide. The outlaws must obey him and work hard. But our hero doesn't get along with the other slaves and must leave.

His friends and relatives bribe a ship captain to smuggle him away. As a proven killer he gets a job as a bodyguard for the king of Norway, but some random incident persuades the king that he is unlucky and he is deported from Norway. He has no better prospect than go home to die. "He was strong, quick, brave, and smart, but he was not lucky."

Everybody including kings have stuff they can choose, and stuff that's true whether they choose it or not. It just seems grander for kings because they can get hundreds, thousands, or millions of people caught up in their mistakes. A cobbler who spends the rent money on a wild weekend with booze and prostitutes is pathetic. A king who spends the treasury for a war when he has given no thought to logistics, is somehow tragic and noble. Something to do with context.


So Traditional European Quasi Medieval fantasy.

Picks would be
Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander
Elenium/Tamuli, David Eddings
Riftwar series, Raymond E Feist
Drenai series, David Gemmell.
Valdemar series, Mercedes Lackey
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Tad Williams
Demon Cycle, Peter V Brett
Wars of Light and Shadow, Janny Wurts
The Black Company, Glen Cook

Locke Lamora is more Age of Discovery, as are Modesitt's Recluce and Scholar series. They have technology developing in the background. The later Riftwar books also move out of the Medieval into early modern, before the Space Elves arrive and ruin things.

M,S & T has a blend of cultures, similar to the Kushiel series but the heart is medieval england. The Black Company starts off there before heading to India/Vietnam


If we're including Roman derived works, I'd add the Belisarius books and the Codex Alera. Both were very fun.

The Wheel of Time is an automatic entry.
The Malazan series and A Song of Ice and Fire should automatically fall in here, but I think they're doing more than just inheriting a setting.


> If this blog was written in Chinese by a Chinese author specializing in medieval Chinese fantasy

Yes, sorry, I have amended the original post accordingly. I am of course talking about Traditional Eurocentric Quasi-Medieval Fantasy as per part one of this series, and using Traditional as short for this.


> but OMG not another hero is a young serf...

LOL yes indeed. My heroes tend to arrive pre-empowered (so I can put them up against even bigger level bosses).

I really was just using that as a throw away example.

A more nuanced example would be "A royal general who worked his way up from being a serf (through martial prowess), forgot his origins, but - now he's on the run due to [Spoiler Redacted] - is increasingly uncomfortably aware of social injustice." That, of course, being Harry Connolly's Great Way.


Yes, what I am calling (purely for brevity) Traditional Fantasy can act as an epicifier (I made that word up). However, I also think it can be about the people on the ground in the context of those arbitrary decisions higher up, Tchaikovsky's Guns of Dawn being a really good recent example.

Worth also noting that Historical has similar instances of individuals making Big Decisions, e.g. Henry V going to war with France -- though I am sure there were devilish details -- however, as I argued in the OP, Historical is playing in one corner of the Traditional Fantasy sandbox: if I write a story about Henry V, the question is why not whether he will go to war - history, unless obscure, comes pre-spoilered. (One of the reasons it's fun reading Historical Fiction to kids:


Seriously, though, it's interesting we read the Classics from a Fantasy POV. I couldn't get into Dante, but I did enjoy Boccaccio's Decameron, which I read more or less as Tales of Lankhmar. (I am pleased to note that Google spellchecker can spell Lankhmar!)

I read Malory when I was quite young - 12? - probably with the same sensibility. I sometimes wonder whether there are meta-genres...


>Not descending into sadism or brutality fetishism

>Not uniformly depressing - I am reading escapism, after all!

Yes. Perhaps its my age and being a dad, but I don't really enjoy amoral protagonists and endlessly depressing plots.


> Only commenting to say, Oglaf! [NSFW material elided]

LOL yes. Have you ever come across a series called The War of the Powers?


...and then there is Egil Skallagrimmason. Gentleman, scholar and ugly psychopath.
"At the age of seven, Egill was cheated in a game with local boys. Enraged, he went home and procured an axe, and returning to the boys, split the skull of the boy who cheated him, to the teeth."
He lived into his 90s


Or Grettir, who it's hard to tell whether he was sociopathic or just Clint Eastwood:


I've been looking beyond the "Great Wall of Europe" in my fantasy lately. That said, I am still reading the quasi-traditional stuff, when its really good.

Scott Lynch was mentioned above, and I think he is an excellent example of using that to great advantage.

I've also learned that Dark Age stuff doesn't do much for me. Give me classical-based stuff, and then I can skip through until the High Middle Ages. There does seem to be a spate of Dark Age stuff lately, and it doesn't interest me as much as I thought it might.


> There does seem to be a spate of Dark Age stuff lately

Interesting. Can you give some examples?

>I've been looking beyond the "Great Wall of Europe" in my fantasy lately.

Yes, just 'cos Trad Fantasy is fun doesn't mean to say... etc etc.

One of my joys has been discovering Harold Lamb's Cossack series, where he takes Khlit the Cossack, a not actually very western character East and ultimately to India.

As an Oglaf-esque aside: Unfortunately, Lamb as writing before the sexual revolution and chose an unfortunate name for his hero. I did check with a Russian friend: "Is it pronounced 'K-lit'? 'KurrrLit'? 'k-LIT'? 'Shhhl't'?" Alas, all I got was an amused shake of the head.


"Seriously, though, it's interesting we read the Classics from a
Fantasy POV."

All fiction is fantasy - if it were not, it would be fact! My
understanding is that the hard distinctions are all modern, and
Shakespeare would have been bemused at the separation of Love's
Labour's Lost from A Midsummer Night's Dream into different
genres. Actually, I think that most authors and readers would
have been, at least before the 20th century.

One of the main reasons I read relatively little modern
mainstream work is the way that Character and concomit purely
social interactions have taken over as the be-all and end-all
of literary virtue as far as the content goes. And, like many
geekish persons, those are fairly alien to me and my interests.
That was a very Victorian phenomenon - I much prefer 18th
century writing to (almost all) 19th - but I accept that is an
unusual viewpoint.


Same reason I never watch soaps


Or Grettir, who it's hard to tell whether he was sociopathic or just Clint Eastwood

He definitely was not perfectly socially adapted for his time and place.

He kind of lacked subtlety. Though when he killed his father's killer he had one whole day of his mother's complete admiration. No doubt if the son of the man he killed had managed to kill him, he would have had *his* mother's undivided admiration and the cycle would continue.

Grettir preferred that somebody else do the work. He got a reputation on shipboard of being lazy, until the leaking ship required bailing to survive, and he got a whole lot of admiration from a beautiful woman for bailing well, and he did it so well everybody was impressed. In general he preferred to make a giant effort in a crisis and not do the boring normal work.

His problems were partly his own making, but then he wasn't entirely his own making either. He took his place in an existing network of conflicts that people around him nurtured and prevented resolution. And all through the stories there are side characters who are not interesting because they finesse their way around the issues he suffers for. But every now and then some of them get dragged into the conflicts and killed. Maybe partly they get killed because they don't want to fight and aren't that good at it, and the fanatics on both sides do them the honor of killing them before they can disgrace themselves by running away.

Anyway, you can have fantasy stories where powerful people make important decisions on whim, because nobody can stop them. But you can have fine stories without that, where people still make their choices and live with the consequences.


Yes you can. I sing the praises of this sandbox, not its supremacy, nor the supremacy of particular features.


For historians, the Medieval period in Europe usually is broken down into Late Antiquity (300-850); Dark Ages (850-1050); High Middle Ages (1050-1453)--which might be further broken down into Twelfth Century Renaissance and other periods. However, the past is not evenly distributed; so even these periods apply differently to different parts of Europe. For example, Iberia probably improved during the Dark Ages. England had a bad patch at the start of Late Antiquity, but then bounced back a bit. Etc.

I have soft spot for the Twelfth Century Renaissance because it was home grown, not an imitation of the Ancients.

We also see a mild form of Charlie's Glasshouse scenario. Where you don't have good records, people will fill in the blanks with themselves as the template. The Hellenic Greeks arguably did this with the Mycenaean Age. French (later German) poets rewrote post-Roman Britain, complete with chevaliers. Often the historians were almost as bad.

So, take heart bold Fantasists, you are actually taking part in a very ancient tradition of making stuff up as you go along.


Yes you can. I sing the praises of this sandbox, not its supremacy, nor the supremacy of particular features.

I intended to say that you can do it both ways and anywhere inbetween in fantasy worlds, too.

SF has a long tradition of that sort of thing, Slan is maybe the type case. A ten year old boy is highly resistant to all diseases, super-smart, telepathic, he can do telepathic mind control etc, and also he has the secret key to an advanced technology nobody else has. As he grows up he single-handedly makes a collection of secret bases, builds one or more revolutionary space ships, infiltrates the martian world of tendrilless slans, gets the girl, and makes a big start at reforming the world subject to his ethical concerns that it isn't OK to kill or seriously inconvenience the old-style humans just because they are trying to exterminate him and all his relatives.

Sort of the ultimate Gary Stu. Or maybe Van Vogt was a piker and it's been done bigger and better since. Yes, Alfred Bester did it in The Computer Connection and Bester plus Zelazny did it in Psychoshop. It's hard to be more uber than an immortal time-traveling hero who creates universes on a whim. Though there may be a reason that novel wasn't published until after they were both dead.


I think the problem here is that, in this context, there isn't really a need to defend the a priori validity of Traditional Fantasy. You're not likely to find many people on this site who think that all Traditional Fantasy is trash. So what matters is that you establish the merits of Traditional Fantasy relative to other types of fantasy (or other speculative fiction). And while this certainly establishes that Traditional Fantasy has worth > 0, it's not clear that it establishes that it is justified in dominating the market.


> And while this certainly establishes that Traditional Fantasy has worth > 0, it's not clear that it establishes that it is justified in dominating the market. etc

It dominates the market? Egad I must write one!

I certainly don't think it *should* dominate the market in the sense that there's a lot of cool stuff people are missing out on reading, not least books my mates of mine like James Enge (I told you about the werewolves? and Howard Andrew Jones (authentic Arabian Nights setting, Islamic characters, cool stuff). Saladin Ahmed, who I don't know but wish I did (so I could talk loudly about "My friend Saladin"), is another writer who damn well deserves to be better known.


While I agree that it doesn't dominate the market, it does plaster
the market with second-rate crap - often of the thud and blunder or
oh-so-wonderful-elfish varieties, without a new twist in sight.
I am one of the people who think that it's overdone, and am very
chary of buying books in this genre, despite liking the better ones
very much and having no objection in principle.


Yes, as I think I said on the previous post, it's hard to locate the good ones, though they are there.


"> but OMG not another hero is a young serf...

LOL yes indeed. My heroes tend to arrive pre-empowered (so I can put them up against even bigger level bosses).

I really was just using that as a throw away example."

Yes, but you have to admit an ironically good example for traditional euro-fantasy - the farmboy destined for greatness is a pretty much a foundational pillar of the genre. :)

I suppose what I'm trying to get at is that if you're serving up a book of wizards and knights and castles (and farmboys) its going to need a lot of hard work somewhere other than the setting because there's oceans of words written in settings like that. Alternately an interesting setting can carry a book over some other weaknesses - at least for me I don't think the familiar is an obvious benefit to the author, they just need to work harder somewhere else to make it worth my time.


From reading some of the posts above, it seems that the acceptance of fantasy as mainstream fiction may parallel the acceptance/pervasiveness of religion. Basically, for the uber-religious, fantasy can pass as reality if it features the appropriate cast of characters.

Always thought Feist's Magician series had a West meets East (European - Japanese) feel to it.


Okay, "dominates the market" is a bit of an overstatement, but I would expect it to be a plurality if not a majority of fantasy. In any case, it certainly dominates the general imagination.


Thinking of what I like in traditional I see quite a few of the classics mentioned above - not personally a fan of Fiest or the Malazan books - besides obvious Tolkien Lieber Cook etc I did enjoy the ones Fiest did with Wurts (though those weren't really traditional or Euro) and quite liked some of her work, enjoyed Jack Vance's Lyonesse books, I'm a couple of pages from finishing Smylie's The Barrow (didn't rock my world but a pretty good example of trad fantasy being confident to acknowledge the genre and still tell a good story - the opening scene has the heroes prying gems from a daemon statue's eyes per the old D&D cover!) - I've gone through a lot of fantasy so I'm pretty sure I'll facepalm later over the ones I missed.

Oh and Abercrombie does interesting things - though I prefer his single volume stuff to the trilogy.


It's been pointed out that LotR (unfortunately) conforms exactly to standard RC theology - which is a pity.
Damned good story, though.
As for #2 yes, well, my usual typo-faulting there ....


By the time you get to steam trains it probably isn't traditional anymore...
If you really want heroic fantasy, succeeding against all the odds, try reading an account of the first (or even later) railway-builders.
The late Tom Rolt's biography of "George & Robert Stephenson" gives a fascinating account of (successively) building the first three main railways:
Stockton - Darlington
Liverpool & Manchester
& the London & Birmingham - Kilby tunnel was a saga in itself.
Later, the epic tale of the desperate fight to get the Severn Tunnel built.
Or, earlier, "The Thames Tunnel" ( Brunel father-& Son )


I sometimes wonder whether there are meta-genres ...
Yes, of course there are.
Le Guin once said: "Go on, write your story, it will be one of The Old Ones, anyway ..."
The still-missed scientist/author Charles Sheffield once wrote a story about saving a loved woman from Death, only to realise, about a third of the way through, that he was re-writing Orpheus' tale. Ha stated that, once that penny dropped, he re-wrote the first bit & then sewed the thing up neatly.


>Okay, "dominates the market" is a bit of an overstatement,
> but I would expect it to be a plurality if not a majority of
> fantasy. In any case, it certainly dominates the general imagination.

I kind of agree - it's what I want to address in the next part.


> parallels religion etc

Interesting point, I suspect! Please expand.


Barrow added to my wishlist - looks fab, thanks! Try also Paul S Kemp Egil and Nix...


"If you really want heroic fantasy, succeeding against all the
odds, try reading an account of the first (or even later)

I haven't read it, but the classic railway-building heroic
story is "The Man-eaters of Tsavo".


Don't forget "The Railways Up on Cannis" and its associated story "The Subways of Tazoo". Heroic railway engineering stories of the finest water. Not to forget "A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!"


I said "classic" and I meant "classic". I also used the simple
word "story", because there are arguments ofer how factual or
fictional it was. Look it up :-)


I'm going to add Bujold's "Chalion" series; damaged and recovering protagonists, who try to do what is right rather than what is easy.

Then there is Miles Cameron - "The Red Knight" and "The Fell Sword" felt real. Not quite as dark as Joe Abercrombie, but in a different way. Richard K Morgan qualifies, for the characterisation alone (Ringil Eskiath is very definitely a soldier).

All of the above authors are on my "if they publish, I will automatically buy it" list. Apart from the Sharing Knife stuff ;)

If we're into the "Age of Discovery", the Lies of Locke Lamora have already been mentioned (my thirteen-year-old insisted I read them, I hate it when he's right). But I'm surprised that no-one has mentioned K.J. Parker - is that because there is little or no magic? The Company, Sharps, The Folding Knife are well worth it.

The "individual can make a difference" trope can be turned, too. Stephen Hunter wrote a truly excellent non-SF&F thriller called "The Day Before Midnight"; given that most of his other books focus on an awesomely skilled and heroic protagonist, this one chose to focus on the success of the broad mass of averagely skilled people trying their hardest, not "the few, the elite, the heroic". Real page-turner.


LOTR is an awful lot of fun, perhaps nearly time to dust it off for another vacation in middle earth. But Larry Niven's post-atlantean "The magic goes away" is also a lot of fun, if several steps removed from traditional fantasy.


The cultural ties with medieval Europe via "classic" literature and history may be a neat explanation for the popularity of English-language "Traditional Eurocentric Quasi-Medieval Fantasy" among both readers and writers. Andrzej Sapkowski expressed similar views while discussing why there is essentially no good medieval fantasy by Eastern European authors — the history here is quite different.

Exceptions to the rule seem to be rather exotic - either his own Witcher saga (popularized by recently successful games, with translations published by Orbit) or, I don't know, the Wolfhound series by Maria Semenova. "Witcher" is a tale of moral ambiguity on the scale of Game of Thrones (it seems that it is really difficult to judge what is "good" when you do not belong to the general populace you try to help - due to being a mutant monster-killer for hire). And "Wolfhound", well, is strongly equal-opportunity fantasy about an Aikido-wielding, part-time werehound Slavic pagan helping his alien (as in "a stranded astronaut telepath from Earth") friend.


Actually, the modern stories are NOT built on European history, so
much as the tradition of romantic fables ('Arthurian'), and that is
very much a Western European phenomenon. It would be surprising if
it had been adopted elsewhere to the same extent - and Eastern
Europe counts as elsewhere in that context, however close in


>Actually, the modern stories are NOT built on European history,

Depends on the story! GoT is Wars of the Roses meets the Mongol Invasions with Zombies or something. And so on.

However, I think you are broadly right about the fables. I have another blog entry to follow on exactly that theme.


But I'm surprised that no-one has mentioned K.J. Parker - is that because there is little or no magic?

You beat me to it. Parker (or T. Holt in reality) very much mines the Western fantasy tropes (Roman and then Norse mythology for the Scavenger Triology).

The Scavenger Trilogy was written 10+ years ago, however.


I like Oglaf as much as anyone, but do not see anything particularly Dungeons and Dragons-esque about Oglaf's world. What makes you think it is?


What makes you think it is?


Taking the D&D trope about giant spiders always being the icky low level monsters and making it just a little bit more uncomfortable?

Taking the trope about how well-armored and proficient warriors from "evil" races always lose?

And so on and so forth.

Damn. Tough crowd.


Not sure I'd class Richard Morgan as traditional fantasy - just thinking through it the only traditional elements in the story are ... they use swords and the dragons in the back story (and they're sea monsters).

Traditional fantasy to me at least brushes certain tropes (perhaps inverts them but I'm not settled in my mind how much inverting you can get away with before you're no longer traditional) it may not hit all of them up there's usually a mix of; feudal society, magic, non human races and societies, a dragon(s), fated heroes, prophecies, European climate, European(ish) society, and I could probably add a couple of others.

Again it doesn't have to hit all those points but the further away it strays the less traditional IMHO. As far as steam trains I think the more traditional fantasy answers every "what's the best?" question with "a wizard did it" - the best sword, a wizard did it, or it was handed down through generations of high kings after being forged by the dwarf smith Bob and quenched in the tears of a unicorn. When we start getting into discussions of proportions of iron to carbon and metal folding - well I'm interested, I like to read it, but its not traditional to me (and steam engines are right out)


Sorry - I was being unclear, as is not uncommon! I was referring
to the tradition, not the stories. To cut a long description
short, the Western Christian version of the Brythonic legends
became the Arthurian/chivalric trope, and that is the only one
that remained a literary tradition in English (and French)
during the centuries when fantasy was in abeyance. Actually,
I would say that Game of Thrones owes more to the Sagas than
most other tropes, as do many of the swords and scorcery books,
but the modern fantasy revival is more catholic (small 'c'!)
than the traditional one. The Irish legends seem to have been
picked up less, for some reason.

And, in Eastern Europe, NONE of those have been important in
historical times - though the Western Church reached as far as


I'm not convinced traditional fantasy has any dominance in today's market. It certainly owned the 80s and much of the 90s. But today most of what I see that isn't a tie in novel like dragonlance is doing something different - either deconstructing (Abercrombie, Erikson, Morgan, Bakker), inverting (Monette, Carey's Sundering), parody and satire (Asprin/Pratchett) or mixing it with a different genre - Cook's Garrett PI is film noir mystery in a Standard Fantasy Setting, as was the Thraxas series.

Kingmaker/Kingbreaker by Karen Miller was Standard.

What do you call traditional Chinese fantasy?
You know, the ones with dragons, wandering martial artists, legendary weapons and probably a monkey god.
I've seen a few translations come this way which use that setting.


Scott Bakker, I knew someone would make me facepalm - does he count as deconstructing? He's certainly doing interesting things but I think I'd still put him and Abercrombie in the traditional tradition as it were. Morgan on the other hand really took an axe to things.


Ahh, labels.

Short answer is I'm not sure. Both are very much Darker and Edgier, but are doing different things. Abercrombie is all about the Antihero lead, possibly as an effort to see just how dislikeable you can make your main characters. Bakker is all about taking the myth of the Chosen One and making it so the cure is as bad or worse than the disease. He's also about as far from a Serf as you can get.

Both are definitely in a Standard Crapsack Medieval World, Bakker seems to be playing with the Crusades to a certain extent with the desert group in the East and his multiple religions.

I think Bakker is doing some interesting things with the whole human manipulation thing, but I'm somewhat repulsed as much as interested in the series.


Nitpick to the OP: IIRC "A Song for Arbonne" was GGK's medieval-Provence-with-magic novel. "Tigana" is loosely based on late c15 and early c16 Italy, at the time it was being fought over by the French and Spanish.

Abercrombie is all about the Antihero lead

Not entirely. In the First Law trilogy, there are some fairly likeable lead characters such as West and the Dogman. Logen is a fearsome barbarian warrior, but on a personal level he's probably more pleasant (and certainly more human) than Conan. The big difference is that Logen (and others) face some realistic consequences (physical, mental and social) from the violence they mete out.

Also, the antihero trope in fantasy goes back a long way -- Michael Moorcock pretty much built his career on it. Unlike Elric of Melnibone, Abercrombie's Inquisitor Glotka at least has a sense of humour.

In fact, that's probably the most subversive, deconstructive thing about Abercrombie's work: His characters are aware of how ridiculous their situations are, and react accordingly.


Ah yes. It's been a decade and two kids since I read it.


Have you looked at Bakker's blog? He quite explicitly makes a link with strong AI (as in what happens to the people when you have intelligence that can predict your actions and out think you) he's also heavy on the philosophy (which makes sense for someone who was doing a PhD). There's lot of trope inverting but still I'm not sure - there's magic, there's an evil that wants to kill almost everyone, there's empires and kingdoms. Anyway I quite liked the first trilogy, the second.. I haven't been buying consistently but I may pick them up when they're finished.

As for Abercrombie I think his characterisation is the strongest point of his writing. I really like that a character can do something unexpected and shocking but leave me feeling as a reader that yes that actually was completely in character when I think about it. I'm not sure how far his works go as a deconstruction though, of Tolkien sure, but we've seen plenty of ambiguous characters and scheming wizards elsewhere.


Look at it this way: Abercrombie relates to, say, Raymond E Feist roughly as Shaun of the Dead relates to Resident Evil. In the former, the characters appreciate the absurdity of what is going on, and they think and act like regular people instead of Big Damn Heroes (while still having moments of courage and heroism).

For added recursion, the world of the First Law itself contains mediocre fantasy epics, and characters who complain about the mediocrity of same. IIRC in "The Last Argument of Kings", Ardee West has a drunken rant about the multi-volume book she's reading which has lots of maps in the front, and characters who spend a lot of time walking around for no reason.


I'm really not a fan of Feist, there's a vague memory of a particular fight so thoroughly shattering my suspension of disbelief I've never touched him again.


I had to give up Feist in "Magician". Maybe his later books are better, but it felt like a poor Tolkien with entire ideas copied. When the main characters had to go through a dwarfen mine under a mountain to avoid a pass, I couldn't take any more.


I think I met Feist at a science fiction convention. Maybe it wasn't him but somebody with a similar name. He seemed like a nice guy. I liked him.

I don't think I've read any of his books, but somehow I don't like it when people criticise them, because I like him.

It's damn peculiar being a human being.



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This page contains a single entry by M Harold Page published on May 29, 2015 4:02 PM.

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