My love-hate relationship with fantasy

I hate fantasy.

People give me funny looks when I say that. “Jo, you write fantasy,” they remind me gently. “You won the World Fantasy Award. You love fantasy.”

It’s true. I love fantasy. But I also hate it.

I love it because it’s what Tolkien called “history, true or feigned”. Fantasy is feigned history, imagined history. I love history, so of course I want more of it. And I love it because you can do anything with it. Fantasy is a very wide umbrella, and under the name of fantasy there are wonderful writers like Greer Gilman and Pamela Dean and Yves Meynard and Guy Kay are quietly doing marvellous things. I love it because issues are unmuddied. You can be passionately for something in a fantasy novel, it’s allowed. In Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged walks into a bar and declares “Innkeeper, I am on a quest!” The irony has to have worked pretty far within your soul if your heart doesn’t leap at that.

At least, it leaps the first time.

I hate it because it’s boring. It’s all the same. It’s warmed over Tolkien—not even variations on a theme from Tolkien, but repetition of the same theme from Tolkien, on one note. What I hate is what, on rec.arts.sf.written we used to call “extruded fantasy product”. I like reading things where I can put the book down half way through and not be able to predict what happens in the next half, down to where the beats will fall. Fantasy doesn’t do that for me half often enough. I hate it because I have read too much of it and the new stuff isn’t different. I hate it for giving me the exact same fix over and over. I hate it for having a world where you can do anything and having people walk into bars the way they did in 1969 and offering me the same old quest.

But there I am with everyone else, holding my breath until A Dance With Dragons comes out. And I just inhaled all the Vlad books. And Le Guin’s Western Shore books (Gifts, Voices, Powers) are just amazing. And The Privilege of the Sword was probably my favourite book of last year.

It’s not just the brilliant writers I’ve been reading since forever. New people are coming along and doing terrific things within fantasy, things that I like. A year or so ago, Patrick Rothfuss emailed me and asked if I’d give him a quote on his new novel, The Name of the Wind. You wouldn’t believe how much I cavilled. “I’ll hate it,” I warned him repeatedly. But I read it and I loved it. And I love what Sarah Monette’s been doing with the Doctrine of Labyrinths books. I’m waiting for Corambis with just as much impatience.

And it’s all marketed the same. I’ve got to the point where my reflexive reaction to a typical fantasy novel cover is to move on. I’m pretty sure I’d do that with some of my own fantasy novels. So I must be missing things. I don’t only read books by my friends, not at all, I read pretty widely. But I’m wondering what well-written unusual original fantasy I’ve been missing lately. Whenever I do pick up some fantasy at random it seems to be sludge, and what my friends have been recommending recently seems to have things that are actively offputting, like vampires, badly done alternate history, and pirates. (Fine if you like that. But it’s not for me. Zombies, too. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies couldn’t have been any less suitable if they’d been deliberate anti-marketing.)

I don’t promise to read it, and I probably won’t write about it for ages even if I do, but I’ll take all fantasy recommendations seriously. Anyone got any?


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