Is The Wager a fantasy novel?

When I was asked to write a blog for tor.com, a fantasy site, I felt like a charlatan. Me, a fantasy writer?

When people talk about fantasy, they often mean a story set in a created place and time. In that sense perhaps I never write fantasy. I set my stories in real places and times, so any magic, so to speak, is within a true historical context.

On the other hand, I didn’t live in 1169 (which is the starting date of The Wager), so I had to work from whatever I could find from that time, including written materials, songs, music, paintings, drawings. And I visited the place (Sicily), with the idea that perhaps the geography and flora and fauna in the wild and less populated areas were not so different 900 years ago from now. Still, historical research has remarkable shortcomings that I am constantly being reminded of and of which I’m constantly learning new ones. The historical novelist bathes in delusion.

So perhaps all historical pieces are fantasy in the sense of a created place and time.

When people talk about fantasy, they often mean a story set in a created (or perhaps creative) set of beliefs, that is, a set of beliefs we don’t recognize as coherent with the realities of the world we know. In that sense, again, I rarely write fantasy. Maybe only my trilogy Soccer Shock, Shark Shock, and Shelley Shock, about a boy with freckles that talk and that he can talk to, qualifies. I work very closely with the religious and philosophical beliefs of the time and place of my story. While I don’t share those beliefs (and, logically, couldn’t, given that I work with a variety of religions which present incompatible beliefs), I am, quite clearly, reverential with respect to how I handle them. So my stories are often religious, rather than fantasy.

On the other hand, the line between religion and fantasy may be one more delusion. I grew up Catholic, and though the other members of my family were not practicing Catholics in the sense of going to mass and taking communion, I very resolutely swam deep in those oceans, unwilling to poke my head out above the water’s surface for years. I loved the stories of the saints. Indeed, I always expected to die from being tortured for my beliefs. It was an attractive dream, alluring. I wanted truth and morality to come from on high, to be absolute, not affected by context. I yearned for a hell whose fires I could writhe away from and a heaven whose soothing glory I could strive for. In this day and age in which miracles come down to chemistry and physics, and ethics consists of mediation, the beliefs of my childhood might qualify as fantasy. And while I love both miracles and science, and both hierarchy and level playing fields, today I see different roles for them, not competing roles, nor even overlapping or complementary ones. Just different ones. And I revel in them all.

So perhaps all religious pieces are fantasy in the sense of a created (or creative) set of beliefs.

In setting and in characters’ beliefs and behaviors, The Wager is as true to Sicily in 1169 as I knew how to make it. And I’ve now convinced myself it is fantasy.

But I want my readers to enter the world of this story as though it’s real. I want them to become Don Giovanni. To fall from grace. To be mortified. To live on the tick-ridden, filth-caked underbelly of a society that shuns too many too easily. I want them to get enraged and to find inner-resources and to know exactly why Don Giovanni changes, why anyone who lives those experiences would have to be completely insensate if they didn’t change. I want to change my reader.

And now I wonder if it’s me who lives in a fantasy world.


Donna Jo Napoli is an award-winning author of over fifty childrens’ and young adult books. Her most recent novel, The Wager, is forthcoming from Henry Holt books.

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