Have I gone off fantasy?

Posted October 22, 2017 by Lory in discussions / 40 Comments

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!!

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40 responses to “Have I gone off fantasy?

  1. I don’t know what you’ve read already but Frances Hardinge has a new book out: A Skinful of Shadows and I have loved Robin Hobbs Farseer novels and Katharine Kerr’s sequence which starts with Daggerspell.

    • I’m excited for A Skinful of Shadows though I have not read it yet. I really want to read Robin Hobb too, and will check out Katharine Kerr. Thanks!

  2. Though I was not that attached to fantasy as I was growing up I had a similar experience with science fiction. Could it be that the genre has not changed that much but that our experiences did? When we were growing up we had decades of great books to choose from. With some exceptions we may have read most of the great books written in the past. Now we have only the new books as they come out. It seems like the great books come out infrequently because they do. But when we had decades of books to choose from, the great ones seemed more plentiful. This may not match your experience but it is just a thought.

    • That is a good point — some of the winnowing has already taken place for books from the past. But I think that also there is more fantasy being published these days (I have no data, just an impression). Not all of it is going to be good or to speak to me personally, and I should accept that.

  3. A provocative post title, Lory, and an illuminating discussion. I think, though, that you’ve rather answered your question — namely, that you haven’t gone off ALL fantasy, just the substandard lazily-written stuff!

    I think when we’re young we crave adventure, don’t we, and jeopardy and strangeness. But perhaps, as we mature, what matters more than the imaginative flights of fancy are confirmation basic human truths. Like compassion. Frodo taking pity on Gollum trumps magic and the literary equivalent of CGI anytime.

    • You’re right, I clearly have not gone off fantasy completely. It’s just that I used to feel more in step with the popular trends in the genre, perhaps. A lot of the stuff that other people rave about now leaves me scratching my head.

  4. Jerri

    I have recently fallen in love with the Five Gods Universe series of fantasy tales by Lois M. Bujold. Three novels written some years ago, and now that she is semi retired she is self publishing (so far eBook and audiobook only, with limited edition hardbacks, perhaps paperback compilations sometime in the future) novella length stories about Penric and his demon Desdemona. If you have never explored this universe, you might try the first novella, Penric’s Demon. If you don’t become fond of Penric and Desdemona, then you probably won’t like the rest.

    • I read and liked some of Bujold’s Chalion books, though I lost interest after a while (not sure why). I should revisit them as well as the new one you mention.

  5. I know what you mean 🙂 I think it’s to do with the fact that a lot of the books are geared towards YA and want to, basically, JUST MAKE MONEY. So they simplify them… And putting the stories in a mold.
    Luckily, I have recs for you 🙂 I am currently reading Library At Mount Char – and it’s like Neil Gaiman plus Stephen King!! It’s unbelievably awesome and dark and it’s reminding me of The Ocean At The End Of The Lane a lot. Also, did you read the Fifth Season? What about the Industrial Magic series? Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials? And what about Senlin Ascends? There. Now you are saved 😀
    Also, I shared your post today on my Sunday update, so you should receive more recs 😀

    • Hm, throwing formulaic genre books at unsophisticated readers to make easy cash? Those kinds of books are definitely not my thing. But what really puzzles me is that some authors and bloggers I respect a lot have praised some of the books and series which I didn’t like at all. Some of it is just down to personal taste, I suppose.

      Thanks for all the great suggestions! Pullman should have been on my list but I don’t know the others.

  6. I agree that Fantasy is tending towards YA as I am retreating from it (finally for the most part – Patrick Ness, Marcus Sedgwick and Philip Pullman excepted). However I did read one excellent fantasy last year – Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings. She’s written a sequel and I can’t wait to read that.

    • I have to admit that the one Marcus Sedgwick book I have read (Midwinterblood) is one of the books behind this post — but books involving reincarnation are often problematic for me anyway. Maybe I should try another one. I will try House of Shattered Wings as well, thanks!

  7. Janice

    As a child in the 1950’s, before discovering adult Fantasy and Science Fiction and the British fantasy that was not yet widely available in the US due to restrictive copyright law, I read Andrew Lang’s variously colored Fairy Books through my public library.
    Recently, I acquired the entire set and am enjoying them again from the perspective of a grandmother. There is a humor there that went completely over my head as a child.

  8. This isnt a genre I have ever really got into though I did read Northern Lights a few years ago and enjoyed it. I read a piece today about the new Philip Pullman book and it sounds very imaginative

    • Pullman is a wonderful writer though i find his ideology sometimes off-putting. But when he doesn’t let that get in the way of the story, he’s great! I am excited to see how The Book of Dust develops.

  9. There are fabulous fantasy reads out there – it’s just a question of finding them. Jo Walton is an amazing author – Tooth and Claw and Among Others are two examples of her standalone offerings. N.K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy; The Midnight Mayor series by Kate Griffin and The Memoirs of Lady Trent by Marie Brennan are also outstanding series written by authors with strong quirky voices and a great premise.

        • Yes, I’m a longtime fan — I reviewed the Small Change trilogy back when I was writing for the Green Man Review. I love how she does wildly different things with each book/series, but that may make it hard for her to catch on marketing-wise.

          • Yes… I suppose that might be a problem. She completes each different project with such a high degree of skill… Lovely to talk to someone else who enjoys her work:)

  10. I want to recommend a couple of books that were recommended to me by Jenny at Reading the End: Gemsigns, by Stephanie Saulter, and The Scorpion Rules, by Erin Bow. They are terrific.

  11. I’m afraid I don’t read many new releases – fantasy or otherwise…well not when they’re new anyway. However I have recently really enjoyed Cheryl Mahoney’s fairy tale re-imaginings, including: The Wanderers and The People the Fairies Forget 🙂

  12. Fantasy is still one of my most read genres, but because I’ve been reading so much of it in recent years I have noticed a lot of series that are pretty formulaic or gimmicky. I’ve started reading more YA fantasy though, which I’ve found can either be really good, or really bad, so that may be part of the problem. It seems like when one great YA fantasy comes out, a whole host of similar but not as good series follow.
    I have been reading some pretty good adult fantasy though recently! Juliet Marillier, for example, is someone I’ve been reading a lot of lately, and I’m really looking forward to the third book in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series coming out in November 🙂

    • Yup, there is the imitation syndrome that creates some of the inauthentic-feeling books.

      I liked some Juliet Mariller books a lot. I think Wildwood Dancing was my favorite.

  13. As someone who has only in the past few years started reading fantasy again, I’ve been busily taking note of all the recommendations here! I keep seeing Jo Walton and N.K. Jemisin being praised, maybe I should start looking…

    I’m a big fan of Theodora Goss’s short fiction – if you go to her website you can find links to many of her stories online, alas she hasn’t published a collection for a decade now. Diving Belles by Lucy Wood is lovely; I really like Kelly Link’s stories too, and China Mieville though some of his work is too close to horror for wimpy me. But I’m not sure that any of them really have that sense of the numinous you’re seeking.

    Oh, and an Australian children’s writer called Cassandra Golds (the final s is important). Actually I think you’d REALLY like her.

    • Wow, you have a lot to catch up on … but also a lot to wade through. Jo Walton is definitely worth a look. As I said in a comment above, she seems to be trying something different with almost every book, so if one doesn’t work for you, you might give her another chance. Jemisin is unknown to me but looks intriguing.

      I think I”ve read one or two of Goss’s stories online and I have her book on hold at the library. Kelly Link is fantastic though I think of her more as a horror/creepy author. Must check out Cassandra Golds, thanks!

  14. Ha ha, you’re right! I’m also intrigued by your list as I haven’t read most of them. Where to start… A nice problem to have. 😉

  15. I read a lot less fantasy than I used to too. I don’t think I like the genre any less though, I’ve just started loving other genres more. Fantasy doesn’t make it to the top of my to-read list very often. I’m not sure I should recommend any though, because I’d list Jonathan Strange as one that’s disappointed my recently and I love Neil Gaiman’s writing style, but always feel let down by his fiction too.

    • Yes, the reactions are so personal, it is hard to know what to recommend — I can only say these are books that have worked for me, though I know other readers may detest them (or at least be unimpressed).

      And it’s true I also have just started loving other genres more, and that leaves less room for fantasy on my reading list.

  16. I have a very similar early relationship with fantasy, Lory, and I’ve had a similar reaction to some of the fantasy available now… particularly some of the YA series, many of which feel very similar to one another. (The nearly ubiquitous love triangles irritate me no end.) And there’s a darkness to much fantasy now that, while not new, is more widespread. It used to be easier to find fantasy that had an element of hopefulness to it.

    That said, I’ve either loved or been impressed with (or both) some fantasy books I’ve read in the last 10 years. The Temeraire series, absolutely. Patrick Rothfuss’s picaresque Kingkiller Chronicle blew me away with the depth and complexity of its worldbuilding and the author’s literary skill; his prose ranges from breathtaking beauty to earthy humor, depending on the needs of the scene (and sometimes within the same scene.) The All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness may buy into some rather questionable tropes (vampire Matthew shares some very annoying traits with Edward from the Twilight books), but it combines a love of books and scholarship and a solid grounding in history that I found almost irresistible. Jim Hines’s Magic Ex Libris series is a delight for book lovers, especially SFF geeks, with its frequent references and homages to other books, but he doesn’t shy away from thought-provoking questions and situations. Mary Robinette’s Glamourist Histories can best be described as Austinesque, but with magic, while her Ghost Talkers combines WWI history and mediumism in a surprising way. Bee Ridgeway’s The River of No Return melds secret-organization-consipiracy novel, time travel SFF, historical fiction and historical romance and tops the mixture off with a treasure-trove of literary and pop-culture references, some obvious and others subtle. Rachel Hartman’s YA novel Seraphina explores what it means to be human, and what it means to be Other. Beastkeeper (Cat Hellisen) and Valiant (Sarah McGuire) both enchanted me with their unexpected twists on familiar fairy tales and, in Hellison’s case, with her prose style as well. And I loved Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus for its dreamlike quality and unearthly magical circus. It may be getting harder to winnow out the books that sweep me up into their fantasy world and dazzle me with their excellence… but they’re out there.

    And incidentally, the Queen’s Thief series, The Golem and the Jinni and Francis Hardinge are all on my list of books to read. 🙂

    • I’ve read some of these and appreciated them; I already mentioned Temeraire, but I also liked the Glamourist books though I wouldn’t put them on my very top shelf. Seraphina was also quite good.

      Some acclaimed books leave me cold without being able to quite define why. A Discovery of Witches and The Night Circus are among these.

      You have some really good books on your to-read shelf! I just got A Skinful of Shadows from the library and I’m excited for that one.

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