V.E. Schwab was that kid. The one who, while hiking, always kept an eye out for cracks and stones in the shape of doorways. “I was always looking for a way into another place,” she explained at the NYCC panel Extraordinary Enchantments. Schwab added that she was always “taken with the idea of the proximity of magic [to the real world],” that sense of “you just haven’t found the key to that specific door yet, but that door is there.” Her own desires for a real-life portal fantasy has led her to seed those same hints into A Darker Shade of Magic and its sequels: “I always wanted to make my readers doubt their reality.”
Many of the other female fantasy authors on the panel discussed fantasy in terms of this sort of gateway to another realm, a way to flee the world they currently inhabited.
“For me, it began with the escape from the real world,” said Tamora Pierce, “which I didn’t like very much and still don’t, actually. But it also gave me the ability—I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s—it gave me the ability to escape the mores and practices of my time and empower my girl heroes with the ability to do things that were supposedly only the capability of men. I spread out from there, from warfare, to just about anything, and no matter where I fit my girls, they seem to work out rather nicely. So I crossed over to the idea that if it could happen in these worlds, why couldn’t it happen in my world?”
This was just one of several answers from Pierce to be greeted with panel-pausing applause. During her introduction, moderator Maryelizabeth Yturralde took a moment to address Pierce, saying that “while this is a group panel, I feel that many of us would not be here without the trails you’ve blazed.”
And what trails they are. One of my favorite aspects of the panel, as a fan of Pierce’s for twenty years and someone growing familiar with this new generation’s work, was watching these women discuss the varying scope of their stories, from incredible, epic settings to interpersonal relationships that could challenge any fantasy quest in their sweeping scale.
“People have been drawn to fantasy since we were drawing cave art,” said City of Brass author S.A. Chakraborty, adding that “we all like our domestic dramas.”
“I was always that kid who was playing tons of ridiculous, over-the-top video games where everyone is so much larger than life,” The Tiger’s Daughter author K. Arsenault Rivera explained. “I found that that tied in really well with my interest in Greek myth and larger-than-life figures there. I think with fantasy there is a potential to find something that reaches across different cultures and different people … something that’s very unifying.” She added that part of what drew her to fantasy was “the ability to make something larger than yourself.”
And that starts with setting, with each author drawn to a different type of world, from traditional fantasy settings to something more resembling the real world, except with everything moved an inch.
“For me, setting is always a character,” said Schwab, “it’s usually the first character. … [T]o understand outsiders, you have to understand insiders; to understand insiders, you have to understand the world they fit into.” While she wanted to write portal fantasy, “I also wanted it to feel accessible. I didn’t want you to need to have a map; I didn’t want you to need to do any research. I wanted you to be able to step in and vanish right in.” And so she devised the four Londons of her Shades of Magic series–taking the “scaffolding” of our world but erasing most of the details, save for the Thames and the scale: “One step in Grey London is one step in Red London is one step in Black London is one step in White London.”
Katherine Arden set The Bear and the Nightingale in medieval Russia, then took elements from Slavic folklore and inserted them. As it’s an ancient historical period that’s poorly documented, she explained, it was easy and believable to slip magic in.
For The Last Magician author Lisa Maxwell, her protagonist was clear from the start, but choosing a setting didn’t click until she introduced her children to, of all things, Newsies. A story about immigrants in New York City’s Lower East Side lined up with “this idea of magic as marking you as ‘other’—this thing that makes you special also makes it dangerous for you to exist.”
As many of the writers’ books deal in magics big and small, and in the spirit of discussing the crossover between fantasy and the real world, the panelists contemplated which small magic phenomena from their works they would find charming—or chilling—in their real lives. Maxwell is a fan of the “talent” approach, where a character just happens to be very good at dancing, or another trait, without necessarily recognizing the magic they’re practicing. However, she’s very glad that the “mastermind” quality—that is, the ability to glimpse connections between events and predict the future—doesn’t exist. Arden mentioned household spirits from Russian folklore, that take care of the home: “I would like one, or six.” While the primary magic in The Tiger’s Daughter is shamanistic in form, Rivera would love to mimic one of her divine protagonists, O-Shizuka, and have flowers bloom in her wake whenever and wherever she wanted.
The most fascinating part of the panel was the debate over how much romance, if any, to include in female-penned fantasy—including the romance mainstay of the “happily ever after.” Schwab, for her part, reverse-engineers her character arcs so that she knows where they are at the end and then works backwards to the beginning. She said she prefers the diversity of relationship possibilities, that she is “so much more excited by siblings, and antagonism, and parent-child, and friends who turn into enemies, and enemies who turn into friends.” For her, “happy endings are what happens after the world gets saved.”
Arden finds that relationships grow out of character; i.e., putting two characters in a situation and seeing how they will react. “I do like it when my books surprise me,” she said, “when two characters interact in a way that I didn’t expect.”
Chakraborty’s modus operandi is to apply the scope of epic fantasy to the relationships themselves. Depending on the setting and action, she pointed out, small-scale moments like little jealousies and slights could dictate entire series arcs: “How would you react if your brother were given a kingdom?”
“Can I be the unpopular one and say I like books with lots of kissing in them?” Maxwell asked, prompting laughter.
Whether these books are about ego battles over kingdoms or magical populations fighting for their place within the non-magic realm, they have been and continue to be spaces for exploring better worlds. “Fantasy is the realm of idealism,” Pierce said. “Science fiction is the realm of the future. We can game out how the future is going to grow from the seeds we have now. But fantasy is about idealism, is about justice, is about the effects of the rule of law, is about the effects of tyranny, is about the effects of poverty; and we put these things in fantasy so that readers don’t feel preached at.”