The Terror of Fantasy Fiction

Readers say that they find my fear of fantasy genre to be curious, so I will dedicate a separate post to it with the hope of analyzing why I dread the genre so much.

There is a number of genres that I can’t stand. Harlequin romance, for example. Or sci-fi. Still, I can read them if I have to. As for the fantasy literature, however, I’d rather read a phone book than a fantasy novel.

One reason is that, in my opinion, the founder of the genre (Tolkien) already did all that could be done with it. The guy was an obvious genius, so everything coming after him is likely to be inferior.

I also don’t really see the point of fantasy. The entire genre is a huge cop-out, in my opinion. If you have no idea how to resolve a plot line or explain something that is happening, just stick some Little People (this is a reference to Murakami’s 1Q84), and there is no need to resolve and explain. It’s the Little People, you know. They are magical and can do whatever they please.

You know these mysteries by Agatha Christie where supernatural or magical things seem to be happening? The best moment in these novels is when you realize that there is a perfectly rational, real explanation to what took place. It’s one thing to figure out who the murderer is within a small group of people locked in a library. It would be a complete let-down, though, if Poirot announced at the end, “The murder was committed by magical creatures who came through the chimney!”

I understand that fantasy novels have some sort of an internal logic at least some of the time. What is the payout to figuring this logic out, though? Even if it exists, it will be completely different for other novels by other writers.

This, of course, is not meant as a criticism of people who read this kind of books and enjoy them. I’m just sharing my feelings about fantasy in hopes of starting a discussion.

As Borges said, though, nobody knows what God’s literary preferences are.

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70 comments on “The Terror of Fantasy Fiction

      • Legendary reincarnated hero / quasi-Christ figure / schizophrenic lunatic teams up with a bunch of second wave feminist sorcerers to stop a gang of evil wizards trying to resurrect the devil. For 10,000 pages.

        Jordan does a great job with his legendarium and his writing style is way more tolerable than many fantasy authors. The sexual politics got on my nerves – lots of “boyz magix like THIS & gurlz magix like THIS” and “men suck!” “nuh-uh, women suck!” – and the plot takes forever to get anywhere, but as far as I can remember the characterization is strong and while many things ring of Tolkien and other fantasy tropes, Jordan does interesting new things with his source material and never phones it in.

        I only read through Book 7 though. David is Wheel of Time done yet or what? Didn’t Jordan die recently?

      • The series is being completed by Brandon Sanderson (hope I got his name right) based on the notes left by Jordan. So far, he’s been able to maintain the voice and characters created by Jordan.

  1. Yes, I have read all the Robert Jordan books in sequence, and I am eagerly awaiting the last two. I have a friend who rereads all of them every time another comes out. I have not done that.

    • You must really perceive the world he creates in the series as very real after reading so many books in the series. I’m now getting curious. But still very scared. :-)

      Maybe I subconsciously fear losing the grip on the actual reality if I get immersed in a fantasy one.

      • Fantasy is more about the environment – like Sci-fi (which is why they’re so closely linked in fandom) it permits an author the freedom to be creative outside the bounds of the known world. I, myself, prefer the genre, because the authours aren’t constrained by ‘that’s not the way it works in Russia’ or ‘that would never happen in an American company.’ It’s not about cheapening out on the explanations for things – authours like Jordan, Salvatore, Kay, Anthony, Zahn, etc. . . . create universes with rules – but more importantly, political & economic entities that ‘look’ familiar, but are distinct.

  2. Another curious example is A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. At times, Martin writes better than Jordan does, but his characters are almost all not people I can identify with at all, and seem to have few good qualities to offset their bad ones. So, I read his novels in this series, but I am not invested in them the way I am WoT. I won’t really care if this series is never finished.

    • David Bellamy :Another curious example is A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. At times, Martin writes better than Jordan does, but his characters are almost all not people I can identify with at all, and seem to have few good qualities to offset their bad ones. So, I read his novels in this series, but I am not invested in them the way I am WoT. I won’t really care if this series is never finished.

      Plus, rape everywhere. And child molestation. And misogyny and incest. And did I mention rape? There’s lots of rape. None of that bullshit in Jordan. The characters never even fuck on the page.

      This comment needs a trigger warning.

      • That’s precisely the problem I have with this genre. If it’s supposed to be a different universe with a different logic and a completely different reality, is one supposed to judge it according to the laws of one’s own reality? The article you quote, for example, mentions a 13-year-old married to a middle-aged guy. But is that universe’s 13 the same 13 as ours? Do they have age of consent? Or is morality there also different? But if so, then what’s the point of reading at all? If anything goes because it is all magical, anyways?

      • 13 is 13. Age of consent is if the man says it’s fine. Not a different morality, but veeeeeeery close, sweaty, intimate portrayals of amorality, especially abuse of women and children, over and over and over again.

        The apologists say that it’s ye olde medieval timey times so it’s okay. I say it’s gruesome and exhausting and nauseating. If you want to get into Martin, it’s probably best for your reading experience if you ignore that voice in your head that keeps yelling “what the fuck is wrong with this sicko???”

      • Well, actually, there are different moral codes, but they’re mostly projected onto evil or ignorant foreigners and libertine aristocrats.

        Now that I think about it, the whole thing is fucked up. Just don’t start with Martin. Really don’t.

      • “Now that I think about it, the whole thing is fucked up. Just don’t start with Martin. Really don’t.”

        – Believe me, after this discussion I’m really not going to.

        The Jordan series sound much better. And if people say he is better than Tolkien, that’s very impressive. Tolkien is so good. He can infuse terror with just one or 2 sentences.

  3. Yes, Jordan died a few years ago. He left extensive notes and asked his wife (who was also his editor) to find someone else to finish the story after his death. He had already written the critical scenes. She chose Brandon Sanderson, who is doing a credible job. Curiously, I think Sanderson understands some of the characters better than Jordan did, notably the male protagonist Rand. I think he does not understand Matt as well as Jordan did, but we have some new insights into both characters.

  4. It takes place in an imagined universe, although there are hints that it could be Earth in the far future, thousands of years from now, after some catyclysms have changed the landscape beyond recognition, or else another planet somewhere in our universe. There is gender essentialism in the magical system, but it is beginning to be resolved as not a real difference as the story stands now.

    • bloggerclarissa :So it’s historical fiction about the medieval period? I mean, does the action take place on planet earth? Or in an imagined universe?

      It’s an imagined universe very loosely based on western Europe and northern Africa. The political plot is very loosely based on the Wars of the Roses.

  5. Martin’s world is definitely a different planet from ours. It has summers and winters each lasting a decade or more. Jordan’s world is what I was referring to above in the comment beginning “It takes place in an imagined universe…” Both have maps provided that are nothing like anywhere on Earth.

  6. I was thinking about it…the only characters I really like in Martin’s books are Arya and Jon. Tyrion is interesting. I don’t like any of the other characters. And, Martin told me at Renovation WorldCon that Arya is not a central character, which made me sad.

  7. bloggerclarissa :
    So it’s historical fiction about the medieval period? I mean, does the action take place on planet earth? Or in an imagined universe?

    An imagined universe, similar to earth, but with dragons and magic, etc etc.
    I’ve not read nearly all of it, and while a lot of it bothers me, one thing bothers me above the rest: I think the author (SPOILER BELOW)
    plagiarized the idea of Arya Stark being blinded in order to be a better trained assassin from Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. *grrrr*

    • Except that, if I’m remembering correctly, Arya loses each of her senses, one at a time, in order to learn to live without them. I can’t speak to similarities in Atwood, having not read that one, but that’s not the only thing Arya goes through in order to develop her skills.

      • If I’m remembering correctly, Arya loses each of her senses, one at a time, in order to learn to live without them.

        You are remembering correctly.

        The loss of sight was the only one (so far) to be dramatized on the page, though, so I can see where nominatissima would get the impression that her training was *only* about loss of sight.

        It’s been a while since I read The Blind Assassin, and while the fantasy world there (Sakiel-Norn) is very unlike Martin’s world, I do kind of see some similarities between the assassins in that book and the Faceless Men in ASOIAF.

        (Also, while I love ASOIAF madly, everything p. rhoeas said above is true. There IS a metric shit-ton of rape in that book. I would not cast judgment on anyone who decided not to read the books for that reason.)

  8. One reason is that, in my opinion, the founder of the genre (Tolkien) already did all that could be done with it. The guy was an obvious genius, so everything coming after him is likely to be inferior.
    My problem with Tolkien is that while he may have done all that could be done with it he is so long winded that it seems like he was doing all of it at once. I’ve tried three times to read the main LotR trilogy and I get to about 1/2 of the book two each time. That’s not to say its bad, its just not for me and I’ll gladly take up with what other people are doing (such as the Dragonlance novels).

    • I don’t know; if you’ve tried fantasy enough times that you’re pretty sure you don’t like it (and not just that you don’t like a particular author — I am a huge fan of both science fiction *and* fantasy and I probably dislike or am indifferent to a majority of authors currently publishing in those genres), you’re probably not mistaken.

      Lots of people love fantasy, lots of people don’t; literate, adventurous people exist in both camps. If your problem is with the whole central conceit of fantasy (i.e., magic), rather than just bad writing or boring stories, there will probably not be any author whose writing is so awesome that you forget your fundamental problem with the genre.

    • No you probably aren’t. Like Lindsay says if you are just not a fan of genre then you just aren’t going to like it no matter how great the work is. I don’t care how many awards Keith Urban has won, I don’t like country music so that’s the end of that.

  9. If you have no idea how to resolve a plotline or explain something that is happening, just stick some Little People (this is a reference to Murakami’s 1Q84) and there is no need to resolve and explain.

    Oh, so the Little People are never explained? Like, who they are, where they come from, why there is an alternate world and what their relationship to that alternate world is?

    I am on something like page 500 of 1Q84, so like halfway through. I really liked it starting out — I still quite like Aomame and Tengo, but the story line that was compelling for me has ended, and now the story seems to be steadily losing momentum. And I still have no idea what on Earth is going on with the world change or the Little People.

    • Shit! I’m so sorry if I spoiled it for you! Shit, shit, shit! I feel horrible, honestly. I should have thought better before posting or written a spoiler warning.

      I must be tired or something.

  10. I loved William Morris’s Water of the Wondrous Isles, which was supposedly a big influence on Tolkien; and Birdalone is a wonderful female character. I was quite young when I read it, and at least at that time I found the book inspiring. I also enjoyed the faux medieval style of writing, although my boyfriend at the time thought it pretentious.

  11. Although I never read fantasy books because of Sturgeon’s Law, I play role-playing games set in fantasy worlds. To me, one of the appeals of fantasy is you can fix all the narrative problems with the real world. Lack of dangerous creatures got you down? Bam! Owlbears!

    Another thing is that there’s very few unknowns left in everyday physics. Those physicists have got everything figured out. But in a fantasy world, physics can be totally different and unexplained.

    Magic can be used to create all sorts of narrative devices, allowing plots that wouldn’t normally be possible in reality. Of course, if magic isn’t used consistently, people will get upset, but barring that I don’t thing it’s hackery.

    Finally, fantasy allows for a totally different atmosphere from something set in reality. Sure, a bomb implanted in the skull might serve the same narrative purpose as a curse set to kill the victim at some certain circumstance, but they conjure totally different imagery.

    I’ve always been bothered by the fact that nearly all fantasy uses medieval technology, and is assumed to operate the same as reality unless otherwise noted. I think I’m going to write a campaign in a high-tech world were technology runs off of magic, probably with cyberpunk tropes, to help alleviate this unusual phenomenon.

    • “To me, one of the appeals of fantasy is you can fix all the narrative problems with the real world.”

      – I think that’s a brilliant definition of the fantasy genre. Succinct but very complete. I really dig this definition.

    • Yes, magic used inconsistently is one of my main problems with it. Same with superpowers. And they are so often used inconsistently. And having it all set in medieval times is tiresome, too. I don’t find that calling tobacco “tabac” adds anything. Whereas Owlbears would.

      • For some reason everybody loves owlbears, despite the fact that they are flightless and kill their prey by hugging them.

  12. I would encourage you to give George Martin a shot. His universe is basically like our Middle Ages with a little dash of magic (dragons show up). Lots of horrible things happen in his books mass murder, rape, and forced marriages of little girls just like our world. This is hardly support for these things. I see it as a form of honesty to not romanticize things. Would you rather read about a Middle Ages where all the peasants are happy being lorded over and all the women are centent to be treated as property?
    Brandon Sanderson is very interested. Check out his Mistborn books. Also take a look at Patrick Rothfuss. Both Sanderson and Rothfuss are very character centered in their writing. There is magic, but mainly as something for characters to react to and things are a little more complex than just good vs. evil.

  13. I read several George Martin’s books and in the end decided it was a *huge* waste of time.

    Personally I am not big on fantasy, but love several sci-fi works and plan to read more in the future. What about George Orwell’s 1984? If you haven’t read it, it’s a great place to start. Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″ is good too and I liked his short stories even better. Whether magic exists or not, they talk about relevant to RL topics: bullying, love, loneliness, etc. I really loved “Summer Morning, Summer Night”, a collection of 27 stories. From Amazon review:

    Then there are the full-blown short stories. Here a chaste romance blossoms between a teacher and her brilliant young student, a beautiful woman’s memory lives on long after her death, an elderly woman’s long-lost lover may have returned, a spinster seeks perfume, and two old sisters make a secret “love potion” with some unwanted results.

    There’s no straightforwardly fantastical elements in this book, but there are moments of horror and comedy.

    I loved that there were no “straightforwardly fantastical elements”, yet the stories were as magical as RB can be. However, his “magical” stories are very good too. I see good sci-fi as analyzing past (communism in 1984) or trying to predict future (Jules Verne wrote about a submarine) or simply writing a gripping story with some magical elements and seeing how our world would react to them. F.e. I *loved* a short story “Computer Virus” about artificial intelligence made to brainwash human minds. It escapes from the laboratory and tries to save its’ life by barricading in a woman’s house and holding her & 2 children as hostages. And I don’t want to reveal the end.

    If you sometimes like not classic-like books too, what about Stephen King? Bandux talked well about his “Pet Sematary” and I sometimes like to read him. If you don’t like King, it doesn’t mean you don’t like horror, of course.

  14. And I completely forgot Линдквист- Блаженны мертвые (which I plan to read after loving his “Let me in” – Впусти меня – about abused teen boy befriending a vampire, who imo plays with him like a cat with a mouse, but others saw it as a love story). You can try reading them in Russian for free on-line.

    Here is a review:
    http://www.mirf.ru/Reviews/review4234.htm

  15. Are you familiar with Ekaterina Sedia? (Russian-born writer, resident in US)
    Elizabeth Vonarberg? Ted Chiang? Gene Wolfe? Nnedi Okorafor? There are plenty of fantasy writers who avoid the “pseudo-medieval” settings.

  16. It would be a complete let-down, though, if Poirot announced at the end, “The murder was committed by magical creatures who came through the chimney!”

    The little gray cells did it.

  17. Robert E. Howard. Conan.
    H. P. Lovecraft. Cthulu.
    Mary Shelley. Frankenstein.
    Edgar Rice Borroughs. Tarzan.

    All predate Tolkien.

    Also, bump on Gene Wolfe. Tolkien appears childish in comparison.

  18. So I know I’m a little late on this post. Blame the fact that I have mono and no discernible brainpower or energy. But I just had to comment, and have wanted to since I read this post a week ago. So apologies for the tardiness.

    Fantasy is one of my favorite genres, when done well. However there are very few authors who do fantasy well. Most of the time, especially in teen fantasy, it’s really poorly done, with crazy worlds that make no sense and are used as cop-outs. But hear me out. There can be really fantastic fantasy too, with worlds and creatures that are made up but incredibly consistent. Rules and languages and story-lines that just work, without just randomly employing someone’s new magical powers that happen to conveniently appear right when they’re needed most. One particular example, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been brought up here, is “The Kingkiller Chronicles” by Patrick Rothfuss. I recently read the first 2 books (there are only 2 out) and they were some of the highest quality literature I’d read in a long time. And I’m a reader. Sure, they’re set in a “fantasy” world – by that I mean, a world unlike our own. But they’re also remarkably consistent, the prose is FANTASTIC, the characters all have incredible backstories, I mean, the man even invented a whole new way of language (which, when I’m healthy will be a blog post subject on my own blog). But don’t write the genre off entirely. And if you ever have some time (the books are rather substantial, though they don’t feel like it (another amazing bit of the author’s skill) plus they’re available on kindle, which is how I read them), I *HIGHLY* recommend them. And that’s saying something, because I haven’t recommended a book to people in over 5 years. (And since I’m 22, that’s actually a long time to me).

    I read 6 or 7 Wheel of Time books, but just got more and more bored as I slogged through them. Granted I was 11 when I tried (4 years older than I was when I began tackling LOTR), but still… And don’t get me started on Eragon – lets take Anne McCaffrey’s dragons, Robert Jordan’s plotline, and Tolkien’s mythical characters and create a boring story that rips off all of the previous science fiction/fantasy that the author has ever read.

    • “So I know I’m a little late on this post. Blame the fact that I have mono and no discernible brainpower or energy. But I just had to comment, and have wanted to since I read this post a week ago. So apologies for the tardiness.”

      – No apologies necessary. There is hardly anything I like more than older topics getting revived. I hope you get better soon! Mono sucks ass.

      I think I will cull out the names of fantasy writers from this post and let my readers vote on which writer I should give a try just to see if fantasy can be redeemed in my eyes. :-) And then I will read the book the most people vote for.

      • Yes mono does suck ass. I’ve likened it to being run over by a steam roller: absolutely flattened, miserably painful, and significantly thinner than I started out. Also I’ll keep that in mind for when I slowly make my way through your blog archive. I keep trying, but there’s just so much of it, I get lost. I usually don’t comment until I’ve read a blog’s whole archive, but I had to break that rule for yours because I couldn’t catch up and still be a productive grad student, which I find far more important, no offense. ;)

        And don’t you think that a vote would be biased? Since authors who have been around longer will get more votes purely by the fact that more people will have heard of them? You should at least let us defend our choices. :P

      • “Also I’ll keep that in mind for when I slowly make my way through your blog archive. I keep trying, but there’s just so much of it, I get lost. I usually don’t comment until I’ve read a blog’s whole archive, but I had to break that rule for yours because I couldn’t catch up”

        – I’m sorry, I do fire off posts like crazy. I’ve tried to get it under control but I can’t. Somebody, please help!! :-)

        “Since authors who have been around longer will get more votes purely by the fact that more people will have heard of them? You should at least let us defend our choices.”

        – People should definitely do that in the relevant thread.

    • A little rough on Eragon – you’re right, it’s not terribly original and reads more like a role-playing campaign guide, particularly the first 2 novels. But give the kid a break – he was 16 when he wrote the first book. They have gotten progressively better.

      • I know, but it really was miserable to read for me. It just kept going and going and I really wanted to like it. Mind, I was significantly younger than that when I read them, and loved the idea of a young person writing a story (plus I was in a dragon phase). I made it through Eragon and thought it was mediocre. Then I got halfway through the 2nd one, and I rarely put down books, especially at that age, but I just couldn’t make myself read any more of it. Sure, it’s great that he wrote a book when he was 16, but no, it I don’t agree that it was the high quality literature that everyone says it was.

  19. Pingback: New Poll: Which Fantasy Writer Should I Read? « Clarissa's Blog

  20. I totally love fantasy. Personally, I feel that good fantasy uses a different reality to tell us something about who we are, individually or as a species. Good fantasy rarely drops a deus ex machina on the reader, though admittedly the author has more control over the logic of that reality than a realistic author. Fantasy is an experiment in which the entire universe is made of variables and you the reader are the only constant. So how do you react? It may help to consider fantasy through the lens of jungian analysis. Its all about the inner self and how specific archetypes repeat themselves in every psyche and every universe. At least, the good stories are, in my opinion. Also remember that there is enormous variety within the genre. Im a vociferous reader but I haven’t encountered many of these authors your followers are mentioning. I found robert jordan boring and poorly written, myself. So you might need to find the KIND of fantasy you like. Finally, I know youre very freudian, but if the subject interests you, ursula k leguin has written a lot on the subject of writing fantasy and how jungian archetypes fit in.

  21. The claim that there’s no rape in Jordan’s books is just wrong. Tylin’s treatment of Mat is most definitly rape no matter what some people claim. I’d also say that Edeyn raped Lan, but given that he’s been raised to believe he can’t and shouldn’t be able to chose his own partners everything is abit grey area with him (thankfully he seems to have gotten past this conditioning by the main series

  22. I have been thinking further about alternate universes in fantasy literature. The genre that I do not like is alternate history, since it can meka me believe that things happened differently from how history actually records. This is not a problem with fantasy, since the gap between reality and the fantasy universe is great enough to keep them mentally separate. But I read a year or so ago a story in which the church’s people interrogating Galileo were trained in Freudian psychology. This has affected how I view the story Galileo, no matter how much I try to ignore it.

    I have never had such an issue with fantasy of the more typical varieties.

    • David Bellamy :But I read a year or so ago a story in which the church’s people interrogating Galileo were trained in Freudian psychology. This has affected how I view the story Galileo, no matter how much I try to ignore it.

      “Eppur si muove.”

      “What you have to understand Signor Galilei that this kind of narcissistic delusion in which you are ‘right’ and everyone else is ‘wrong’ stems from your pre-social infantile resistance to your mother’s dressing you up as a baby girl.”

    • “But I read a year or so ago a story in which the church’s people interrogating Galileo were trained in Freudian psychology. This has affected how I view the story Galileo, no matter how much I try to ignore it.”

      – This is not a story I would have wanted to read, to be honest.

  23. I didn’t care much for Robert Jordan or Martin.

    However, I do recommend Patricia Briggs; both the Mercy Thompson books as well as Dragon Bones and Dragon Blood.

    Although it’s YA, some of Tamora Pierce’s work is very good. I guess Connie Willis falls more into science fiction territory, but I also like most of what she writes. And Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s work (also urban fantasy) has well developed characters, great plotting, and excellent writing (unfortunately, she’s not very prolific).

    I have a love/hate affair with Haden-Elgin’s Ozark series, but I’ve read it at least 3 times, so it’s got something going for it.

    • I love Tamora Pierce!!! But I think she’s a generational phenomenon. Most of the bibliophiles I have talked to who are more than a couple years older than me (I’m 22) don’t think her books are all that special… Even those who love fantasy and have a very similar taste in books as me. So perhaps not the best books for Clarissa to read to redeem the fantasy genre for herself. :P Though they are utterly fantastic from where I’m sitting.

      • I’m 55, so not exactly your generation! :D Some of her books are a little simple, but others — like the Beka Terrier books — are more nuanced. I think a lot of people read her earlier books and write her off.

  24. Oh, and 1632 was pretty darn good. Not really fantasy so much as alternate history science fiction, but I flew through it (several times). Some of the later books have not been as good, but are still readable.

  25. Jodie :
    I’m 55, so not exactly your generation! Some of her books are a little simple, but others — like the Beka Terrier books — are more nuanced. I think a lot of people read her earlier books and write her off.

    I love that you’re not my generation and enjoy her books. That made me so happy! You’re definitely the first. Even my literacy teacher in 7th grade (a fantastic young woman who encouraged a very healthy love of books, especially ones where girls were awesome and heroines) didn’t like them. Sure, they’re somewhat simple, if the only thing you’re reading is the love story. But since I’m autistic, I often miss the love story completely until it’s slapped in my face. So I get to enjoy the rest of the story too. :)

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