If you’re a fantasy reader (and, if you’re reading this, I suspect you are), 2006 was a vintage year. One for the ages, like 2005 for Bordeaux, or 1994 for Magic: The Gathering. The Class of 2006 includes Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon, Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire. All of which, remarkably, are debuts (except Mistborn, but Elantris was only the year before and Mistborn was the breakout hit, so we’ll roll with it). And hey, if we stretch the strict definition of “2006,” we can even include Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind in the mix as well.
These are five authors that have dominated the contemporary fantasy scene, and to think that they all published more or less simultaneously is, well, kind of ridiculous.
However, as tempting as it is to examine the lunar conjunctions of 2006 in the hopes of finding some sort of pattern, the fact that these books all published at the same time is total coincidence—and, in many ways, irrelevant. Publishing ain’t quick, and by 2006, these books had all been finished for some time. For some of these authors, their books had been out on submission for several years. If anything, we’re actually better off prying into 2004, since the process between acquisition and publishing is generally around two years. What was in the air when five different editors all decided to lift these particular manuscripts from the stack?
Or do we go back further? We know, of course, that these books were all written at completely different times. The Name of the Wind was the culmination of a decade’s hard labor, beginning in the 1990s. Mistborn, given Sanderson’s legendary speed, was probably written overnight. But what were the influences of the late 1990s and early 2000s that would’ve led these five different people to all write such amazing, popular books? In the years leading up to 2006, there are some clear trends. These trends may have impacted the authors as they wrote these stunning debuts. They may have influenced the editors as they chose these particular books out of the pile.
Or, of course, they may not have. But where’s the fun in that? So let’s take a look at some of major touchstones of the period:
From 1997 onward, the world belonged to Harry Potter. And by 2004, five of the books were published and the end of the series was on the horizon. Publishers, as you might expect, were pretty keen to finding the next long-running YA/adult crossover series with a fantasy inflection. Moreover, Potter proved that a big ol’ epic fantasy had huge commercial potential, and could be a massive breakout hit. It also showed that the hoary old tropes—say, coming of age at a wizard school, detailed magic systems, and a villainous Dark Lord—still had plenty of appeal.
The British Invasion
Rowling—deservedly—gets the headlines, but the Brits were everywhere during this period. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was one of the breakout hits of 2004, a fantasy that couldn’t be more British if it were served with scones and a gently arched eyebrow. China Miéville collected every major genre award between 2000 and 2004. Looking at the Hugo finalists in from 2000, you can also see Stross, Richard Morgan, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald, Iain M. Banks… and that’s just in the Novel category. Seeing so many British authors up for what’s traditionally been a predominantly American award shows that the UK was, well, trending. That could only help inform—or sell—a UK author like Joe Abercrombie, or a British-set novel like Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon.
A Game of Thrones
This is a little weird to think about—by 2006, every A Song of Ice and Fire book (save A Dance with Dragons) had already been published. The Potter arguments apply here as well—ASoIaF was proof of concept: big fantasy series would sell, and publishers were on the prowl for the “next” one. And, for authors, ASoIaF had dominated the scene since 1996: even before the HBO show, it was a massively popular series. Big Fantasy, again, could be successful—and by subverting the tropes, Martin ushered in a new world of possibilities. Characters could die. Good guys could lose. Surprise was as interesting—and as rewarding—as simply doing the expected.
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But if we simply limit ourselves to books, we’re missing out. A lot. The Class of 2006 was surrounded by storytelling in a host of formats, both personally and professionally. Abercrombie and Novik, for example, worked in the film and the gaming industries, respectively. So let’s also consider the impact of the following:
The Lord of the Rings
The three most successful fantasy films of all time were released in 2001, 2002, and 2003. Everyone knew how to pronounce “po-tay-to” and had an opinion on eagles. The films were ubiquitous, breath-taking and, most of all, lucrative. Jackson’s trilogy meant that Hollywood wouldn’t shy away from Big Fantasy, and, as with Harry Potter, everyone was on the prowl for “what would be next”…
The biggest and best fantasy worlds weren’t in cinemas—they were in your home, to be devoured in hundred-hour chunks. 1998 alone saw the release of, among others, Thief, Baldur’s Gate, Half-Life, and The Ocarina of Time. By the early 2000s, games weren’t just hack-and-slash; they were about stealth, storytelling, meandering side-quests and narrative choice—with a rich visual language that stretched the boundaries of the imagination. From Baldur’s Gate 2 (2000) to Final Fantasy (1999-2002), Grand Theft Auto (2002, 2004) to Fable (2004), huge worlds were in, as were immersive stories and moral ambiguity.
Games were no longer about levelling up and acquiring the BFG9000; they involved complex protagonists with unique skills, difficult decisions, and complicated moral outlooks. Whether it’s the immersive environments of Scott Lunch’s Camorr, the unconventional morality of Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers, the deliciously over-the-top Allomantic battles in Sanderson’s Mistborn books, or the rich and sprawling world of Novik’s Temeraire, it is easy to find parallels between game worlds and the class of 2006.
Television’s best drama started airing on HBO in 2002. Critically acclaimed (and sadly under-viewed), it’s had a huge impact on the nature of storytelling. Big arcs and fragmented narratives were suddenly “in.” Multiple perspectives, complicated plotlines: also in. Immediate payoffs: unnecessary. Moral ambiguity: brilliant. Pre-Netflix, it showed that audiences—and critics—would stick around for intricate long-form storytelling. The Wire’s impact on fiction in all formats can’t be underestimated.
In 1998, the Spice Girls had sold 45 million records worldwide. Their first five singles had each reached #1 in the UK. The previous year, they were the most played artist on American radio—and won Favorite Pop Group at the American Music Awards. Yet, later that year, Geri Halliwell split from the group. Sales foundered. Lawsuits abounded. The Spice World had shattered. As an influence, we can see here the entire story of the Class of 2006. The second wave British invasion. The immersive, transmedia storytelling. The embrace of classic tropes (Scary, Sporty, Ginger)—and their aggressive subversion (Posh, Baby). The moral ambiguity—who do you think you are? The tragic, unexpected ending: what is Halliwell’s departure besides the Red Wedding of pop? The void left by their absence—a vacuum that only another massive, commercially-viable, magic-laced fantasy could fill.
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Okay, fine. Probably not that last one.
But it still goes to show the fun—and futility—of trying to track influences. With a bit of creativity, we can draw a line between any two points, however obscure. If anything, the ubiquitous and obvious trends are the most important. We don’t know everything that Rothfuss read or watched while crafting The Name of the Wind, but we can guarantee that he heard the Spice Girls. If a little bit of “2 Become 1” snuck in there… well, who would ever know?
Chasing an author’s influences—or an editor’s—is nearly impossible. There are certainly those inspirations and motivations that they’ll admit to, but there are also many more they don’t. And many, many more that the authors and editors themselves won’t even be fully aware of. We are surrounded by media and influences, from The Wire to BritPop, Harry Potter to the menu at our favourite Italian restaurant. Trying to determine what sticks in our subconscious—much less the subconscious of our favourite author—is an impossible task.
What we do know is that, for whatever reasons, many of which are completely coincidental, 2006 wound up being a remarkable year. Thanks, Spice Girls.
With huge thanks to r/fantasy and /u/TeoKajLibroj for kicking off the conversation.