When I was growing up, I almost exclusively read fantasy. C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll, Ursula LeGuin, Madeleine L’Engle, E. Nesbit were the writers I read again and again, devouring every one of their books. In my teen years I idolized Robin McKinley, and became passionate about Diana Wynne Jones. Well into adulthood I pored over lists of best novels and tried out authors I didn’t much like, but could appreciate, like Michael Moorcock and Mervyn Peake. And one of the first things I did when I started this blog was to create an annual event to celebrate my favorite fantasy books and authors — Witch Week.
Now, even as I look forward to this event, I’m wondering about my current relationship to the genre. Fantasy is more popular than ever, but I seem to have drifted away from it, at least when it comes to new releases. Many of the books and series that others are raving about leave me cold; they seem too formulaic, too gimmicky, too dishonest and unconvincing, and sometimes just too silly. What happened to the magic?
I hate to name particular examples, since a book that did nothing for me might be your best-beloved, but one that I can’t resist dissing is The Girl of Fire and Thorns. As well as my least-favorite titling trend, A of B and C, this features a pseudo-religion that completely misrepresents the purpose of prayer, a character arc that seems designed as an advertisement for a weight-loss regimen, and a magic spinning belly-button jewel (???). Oh, and a scene in which the heroine uses a sheepskin to start a fire. Apparently the author did not know that wool is naturally flame-resistant and that this would be quite difficult to do with a tinderbox.
So, I’m sorry if G of F and T is one of your favorite books of all time, but it just made me laugh — and groan. And it’s not the only one. I’m now quite hesitant to pick up a highly praised fantasy book, because I’ve been so disappointed. Has something happened to the genre, or is it just me?
On the other hand, in recent years there have been a few excellent fantasies with all the qualities I love: a distinctive use of language, characters I want to spend time with, an original worldview without tons of holes in it, a respectful sense of the numinous, and above all that grounding in reality which is essential to a good fantasy. Can I have more like these, please?
- Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susannah Clarke
- Cuckoo Song and The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
- American Gods, The Graveyard Book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
- Temeraire series by Naomi Novik
- The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
- The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
- The Folk Keeper and Chime by Franny Billingsley
What about you? Have you been disappointed by any recent fantasy releases? Or have you discovered any true gems I should know about? I’m sure I won’t go back to reading fantasy 90 percent of the time, but I would like to find more of the kinds of books I used to love. Help me!!