We recently read A Game of Thrones, the first book of George R.R. Martin’s unfinished epic A Song of Ice and Fire, in my online book club. I said I was lukewarm toward the book, and also that I didn’t enjoy other epic fantasy greats Tolkien or Jordan, which led Kadomi to ask what kind of fantasy I do like. Which got me really thinking about how to write about the fantasy I love. And what better place to talk about it than here?
I started reading fantasy in grade school, probably around the age of 10. I had been crazy for anything involving swords or magic for as long as I can remember, but the first fantasy novel I clearly remember reading was Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. I probably reread it once a month, if not more frequently, growing up. My copy was severely worn by the time I reached high school. The character of Aerin was a revelation to my preteen self, who had previously read books such as Sweet Valley Twins and Babysitters Club. Here’s a strong girl who goes out and has adventures. She’s persistent and brave, but she also has faults, self-doubts and worries. In other words, she felt like a real girl, someone I could empathize with, in a fantasy setting that was both dark and hopeful. There were swords and magic. I was in love.
Around the same time, I met Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence. I enjoyed them all, but the title book, The Dark is Rising, was my clear favorite. It was the kind of old friend where I could open it to any page and just start reading, and I would know instantly what was going on. Will Stanton’s hero’s journey was a huge influence on my early writing (to the point where my first attempt at fiction was a rather bad mangling of the basic idea of The Dark is Rising).
My next significant encounter with fantasy was when a friend introduced me to Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald-Mage series. I was probably around 13. I devoured them, and then read anything else by Lackey I could get my hands on. While I recognize her weaknesses as a storyteller now that I am older, I still have a soft spot in my heart for Vanyel, Talia, and Elspeth. Vanyel in particular feels like the epitome of teenage emotions and angst: feeling outcast and alone; feeling unloved and unwanted by family; longing for freedom from oppression (imagined or otherwise); having desires that parents couldn’t possibly understand; the first reckless blush of new love and the loss of the same, as well as the discovery that it’s okay to be who you are, and that you shouldn’t deny it.
Lackey’s books also contained a vividly drawn world in which she encouraged people to play by writing fanfiction and drawing fanart. I wrote some of my first fanfiction for Lackey’s Valdemar books. I created a Mary-Sue Herald of my own and she had adventures, and I went vicariously with her. I also created my first male and homosexual characters for this fandom, and explored other facets of my own personality through them. I found some wonderful pen-pals via Lackey’s fandom newsletter, some of whom I am still friends with.
Lackey was also my gateway drug into fantasy that was more adult in themes and tone. I discovered authors such as Terry Brooks, David Eddings, C.S. Friedman, Tanya Huff, Guy Gavriel Kay, Melanie Rawn, Mickey Zucker Reichart, Jennifer Roberson, Roger Zelazny, and countless others. I also discovered sci-fi novels, and found something else to love. I voraciously read anything with a hint of fantasy, sci-fi, or paranormal/supernatural creatures.
I tried. I really did. It took me, who could read a book a day if I found it engrossing enough, almost a month just to get through the first book. I picked up the second, saw it was more of the same, and put it down after only a chapter or two.
I’ve had people tell me I should continue slogging through, because the books got better. But honestly, I didn’t want to read about those characters any more because I didn’t find them compelling. I had no emotional connection to Tolkien’s characters or world. I had no insight into who they were, other than almost-historical cardboard cut-out figures. Eventually I watched the movies and got the gist of the whole story, but I still didn’t really care for the characters.
So. I didn’t like the renowned classic, the story that launched the modern epic quest fantasy as we know it.
So what type of fantasy do I like?
It’s a complicated answer, because I like a little bit of everything.
I like unusual world-building and magic systems, with something outside of the cookie-cutter pseudo-medieval-European fantasy setting.
I like character-centric political intrigue. I like character studies that just happen to be in a fantasy setting. I love swashbuckling adventure stories with swords and spell-slinging, preferably with humor and some romance. I like urban fantasy, although I’m really getting tired of the supernatural romance subgenre that seems to have taken it over. I love genre-crossers, such as fantasy-mysteries.
I don’t mind violence, sex scenes or character deaths, as long as they make sense within the story and the world that the author is building. I don’t like when they’re clearly thrown in just for shock value, though.
I can enjoy when an author does the standard fantasy tropes really well, but I also love when authors turn the tropes on their sides in a clever way, or write with a tongue-in-cheek humor about them.
The characters have to be compelling, fleshed out and well-developed. I especially love witty dialogue and great banter between characters who play off of each other well. I adore a well-written anti-hero, or a noble villain with real motivations other than ‘be evil and conquer/destroy the world’.
That’s the kind of fantasy I love. Not a simple answer, but my answer.
How about you?