Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Epic Fantasy - how I fell out of love

It's Robert Jordan's fault really.

Let me explain.

I discovered fantasy fiction at the tender age of six, when my Grampy leant me his copy of the Hobbit. Two  years later I read Lord of the Rings, in a weekend, and I was pretty much lost to the world of realism from that point on. I'd already devoured books of myths and, as I come from a family of readers, trips to the library were common. I worked my way through the Green Smoke books, Rosemary Sutcliffe's historical novels and other books, but I always returned to fantasy and science fiction. This early deluge may be why, when my other Grandfather, who lived further away and seldom saw us, gave me Ladybird versions of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Hound of the Baskervilles they were digested and found to be somewhat disappointing. In retrospect it was the fact he told me my spine would break free of my body crawl across the floor... which it didn't, because they were Ladybird books.

This may be why I have a strange sense of how quickly people learn to read too, it feels odd that children aren't ready for the books I read at the age I was even now.

Back to Fantasy. I spent my teen years reading pretty much nothing but fantasy fiction, devouring everything from David Eddings and D&D novels to the weird heights of Michael Moorcock and Tad Williams. It wasn't until I went to university that I moved on in any significant fashion, and then not far, only to urban fantasy and horror. A big part of the move away from fantasy was that I'd overfaced myself, read myself raw. I was becoming jaded by scullions and farm boys that just so happened to be the long lost heir to the throne and somehow became real kings, not puppet rulers. I was tired of magic swords and what I suppose Twitter would call #fantasyworldproblems.

A big part of this was to do with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. It is a huge, thirteen book series that took something like twenty years to write, publish and develop and during which the author had a heart attack and would eventually die before it's completion. It is truly epic in every sense of the word and it hits just about every cliche under the sun. Poor boys with great destinies, check. Princesses in need, check. Hideous monsters in service to an undying evil, check. You get the picture. The teenage me enjoyed the books anyway, delighting in the power fantasy they represented. Every battle, every new piece of weirdness and sorcery was carefully treasured for about nine books or so. Even the Aes Sedai, Jordan's witches with their agendas and guile were cool when I was a teenager (to balance things, Elric of Melnibone seems a lot cooler when I was a teenager too).

Ultimately the series was too long, too involved and eventually too insulting for me to continue. My girlfriend (now my wife) pointed out how many women got spanked and how many of them were cardboard thin, caricature bitches, with few redeeming qualities and I started to feel uncomfortable with that - in the same way that I've become uncomfortable with orcs, unless they have a context outside of 'barbarous evil people who exist only to harass the heroes'. Even Tolkien added in context eventually, making the orcs twisted, brutalised elves.

So by and large I gave up on the genre. I read a little, mostly Deverry and tried to read Tad Williams' Shadowmarch series, but I didn't really enjoy it. I did enjoy things like the Lankhmar books and Poul Anderson's books, still Fantasy but on a very different scale and tapping into a very different atmosphere. Chiefly I enjoyed the new ideas and, Deverry aside, the fact that one book was one book: I didn't have to read a huge load in order to follow the story. Where there were sequels they also stood alone: Heaven!

Its only in the last couple of years that I've come back to Fantasy in any real sense.What swung it was actually going to FantasyCon and listening to writers talk about their work. Hearing Juliet McKenna and Adrian Tchaikovsky and others talk about their work was enough to pique my interest, as was the fact that, honestly, Fantasy has moved on. Elves and orcs have fallen out of fashion, as have wizards and for the first time I remember not only had Fantasy swung free of Tolkien's Shadow but also the shadow of the Cold War. A more republican feeling, of all things, has sprung up. The stories aren't of lost princes and pale princesses but thieves and spies, revolutionaries and slaves. I'm sure there are Fantasy books about the nobility (Game of Thrones for one), though a lot of that feeling seems to have gone to Steampunk, but the stuff I've read has been firmly grounded in other places and time. It feels as if the Medievalism of the 80s and 90s has been jettisoned in favour of something more in line with the here and now. Whither Tolkien's dark technocratic future in books like Shadows of the Apt with the Apt races' war machines and air ships, or in Lies of Lock Lamora's strange gizmos? Whither the king's return? If anything Fantasy seems to have adopted the same strategy as SF, holding a mirror up to the world wherever it can, something I welcome.

This isn't to say I'm entirely sold. I'm still going slowly, frightened that this blushing love of mine will sour. For the moment I'm going softly, reading slowly and savouring what I read.