Winter is coming, as someone somewhere once said (you know who I’m talking about). But epic fantasy is instead seeing its spring as across the world, fans have embraced the genre in record numbers and paved the way for authors new and old to produce bold new visions for everyone to enjoy. San Diego Comic Con saw a record number of people turn out for a signing by Patrick Rothfuss. An equally amazing number of fans came out at New York Comic Con for Brandon Sanderson at the Tor booth as he signed copies of his Mistborn series on Saturday afternoon.
Later, he joined fellow authors Peter Brett and Phillipa Ballantine, as well as new authors Rae Carson, Nils Johnson-Shelton and David Chandler in discussing why fantasy has been seeing such a heyday in a panel called “Winter is Here: Epic Fantasy Takes The Throne.”
The first question that the authors tackled was why write fantasy fiction as opposed to anything else. While authors Peter Brett and Nils Johnson-Shelton referenced influences like Dungeons and Dragons from their childhood and Rae Carson revealed her childhood love affair with all things Star Wars and Luke Skywalker, author Brandon Sanderson said it best. “So my response to that is why not? Fantasy is awesome because you can do everything. Now granted, I am willing to bet that anyone who writes in genre is going to say that their genre is awesome, and that’s great. But for me, I’ve read fantasy books with as much literary style as any literary novel out there. I’ve read fantasy books with as much romance as any romantic fiction out there, as good mysteries as any mystery fiction. So fantasy can do all this... plus have dragons! So why not?”
That kind of wide-open thinking seems to be at the heart of the evolution of fantasy literature from what is considered ‘just’ genre writing to one of the best selling forces in the literary world today. With the popularity of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series rocketing up the charts as a bestseller and massacring television audiences on HBO, fantasy is seeing a heyday like never before. This is giving the authors within the genre a chance to reach audiences they might never have and provide stunning work that plays with tropes more familiar to fantasy fans.
A great example is David Chandler’s main character in The Ancient Blades Trilogy. Chandler plays with changing up the charming thief character that is familiar to fantasy fans and gives it a new touch. “I started with an absolute cliche. The oldest trick in the book is the low-born kid who has to make a living on the tough street, only to find out he’s got this secret destiny. And I said, ‘Well, how can I mess with that? How can I screw with that?’ I figured out that this guy’s destiny is in fact to destroy the fantasy milieu and drag his world screaming into the Rennaissance.” That kind of innovation has been breathing new vigor into fantasy writing and giving writers a chance to play with tropes long since overly familiar. Add to that incorporation of elements of other genres, such as epic romance tales like in Sanderson’s Mistborn series and horror like that in Peter Brett’s work, and you have a little bit of everything that a reader would need.
It also allows writers to expand outside of the normal worlds that readers might be used to seeing. In Rae Carson’s series The Girl of Fire and Thorn she took the usual fantasy settings of castles and forests and tossed in some Moroccan-style desert adventure instead, drawing on colonial Spanish influences to flavor her world. Nils Johnson-Shelton, instead, drew back on Arthurian legend and mixed in modern day teen fiction for his book, The Invisible Tower. Changing up tropes also keeps things fresh in a genre that can’t keep seeing the same things over and over to keep readers interested. An example is Peter Brett’s books, where although swords are a fantasy staple, he instead focused a lot of the action in his books on spear fighting, all in the name of keeping things interesting.
Make no mistake, though — that doesn’t mean that your typical fantasy writing is gone. Each of the authors represented made sure to point back to the high fantasy elements in their work, mixed into the contemporary and the new elements. A trend pointed out is that much fantasy these days is trending towards worlds that are not considered ‘high fantasy’ which Brandon Sanderson pointed out just hasn’t been doing as well with audiences.
“There have been plenty of fantasy movies recently that didn’t do very well that were high fantasy,” he said. “And it’s just the fact that the thing that has done very well lately has been George R.R. Martin and his series on film. When the Tolkien films came out it did wonderfully well... Hollywood being Hollywood said ‘well, fantasy is hot right now’ and put out a bunch of films that weren’t very good films. And then they didn’t do very well, so they said ‘fantasy isn’t hot anymore’.”
David Chandler posited his own theory. “I think we’re seeing a turn towards a gritty realism in almost every genre... I had a professor in college a long time ago who pointed out that horror movies before 1975 were mostly guys in rubber suits, and after 1975 we started to see buckets of blood and guts and viscera all over the place. And he said it was the Vietnam War, and that people had seen all this on television and they didn’t believe the guy in the rubber suit. And I think that certainly in the last ten years of history has shown us all kinds of horrible things in a bloody, realistic fashion. So that’s what we’re demanding now from our myths and legends.”
“As it [fantasy] hits mainstream,” added Rae Carson, “people want that realism. You see a lot of anti-heroes now, the psychology has changed. But I’m curious to see if we’re on the cusp of another change because I think we see a lot of hopeful fantasy in times of economic hardship. And boy are we ever in a time of economic hardship, so it’ll be interesting to see if this continues or if we go into a different cycle.”
This trend towards grittier, more genre-bending and defying fantasy seems to be exactly what audiences are embracing, including those titles in mainstream fiction that don’t seem to consider themselves as part of the fantasy genre. Rae Carson tossed in examples like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Margaret Atwood’s work as pieces that don’t consider themselves part of genre fiction that are still bringing the fantasy tropes and themes to the masses. The end result is still a burgeoning wave of fantasy fans that might never have read what was considered genre fiction that is giving the fantasy world a shot in the arm.
The panel was a refreshing discussion of what fantasy literature is doing today and where it can go, among the crazy madness of the world of Comic Con. What will the future hold for fantasy, though? That remains to be seen. As Carson said, “Maybe we should get back together in five years and see.” Here’s to Comic Con 2016!
For more on this topic, check out Tor.com’s Genre in the Mainstream series.
Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com