Blurring The Lines: The Fantasy Thriller by Anne-Mhairi Simspon

The Fantasy Book Review. Not the Thriller Book Review, or the Romance Book Review. Genre is why we’re here. We love fantasy. We love the escapism, the larger-than-life characters, the extreme situations. To us, there is no real conflict unless it involves something undead which can only be killed by symbols combined with a sword which hasn’t been seen in a thousand years and a pure heart.

But the genres have more in common that we might think. You can’t have any one in isolation. Or rather, you can, but it would make for a fairly simple story. Fantasy began with friendship and a quest and weird and wonderful creatures and magic, but it has evolved. Fantasy no longer stands alone.

Tolkein is universally acknowledged to have written somewhat weighty prose. I will admit I only read The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings because I felt I should, for someone who loved fantasy so much. So it was more like homework, or research, than pure escapism.

Nowadays, the style varies but there is, I think, a tendency towards action rather than description. Short sentences that move the action or the development of a character or relationship forward are more common now, rather than twenty pages of description relating to trees and the precise way in which they grow so as to provide optimum coverage and foraging possibilities for the small animals that live in and around them, none of whom are actually relevant to the story. Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, you probably haven’t read Tolkein.

I never really got on with Tolkein’s style. I’m probably too young, but I’ve always preferred the snappier, action-filled books, like Terry Pratchett’s, or Anne McCaffrey’s. I realised one day that I wanted my books to read more like thrillers. Action-packed, always moving forwards, plenty of doing and not much scenery. So I decided to do some research. I bought a few Patterson books and got a feel for the style. Then I realised I pretty much wrote like that anyway.

Which was a bit of a blow. I mean, how depressing is it to do research and then discover, not only that you already knew this stuff, but that you hadn’t known you knew it? If that’s never happened to you, it’s mildly depressing. I mean, writers are supposed to be into the introspective stuff, right? Apparently I hadn’t been doing it properly.

So I like writing thriller-type fantasies, where the action moves fast and you only hear about the trees if they’re going to fall on someone’s head. Which, when they do, they do with the utmost amount of noise and fuss but not a single adjective or adverb. Verbs, baby, VERBS are where it’s at!

Unfortunately this has made me the pickiest reader on God’s green Earth. I used to be happy to sit back and read a book and all I’d notice were the typos. Now I notice the entire chapter that does nothing to advance the action, I notice the adjectives/adverbs/run on sentences and I notice when a character is being a big fat out-of-character wussy wuss and it all annoys me. That never happens to me when I read thrillers. But it happens quite a lot when I read fantasy books.

This makes me sad. But there’s nothing I can do about it, except write fantasy books in the style of a thriller, where every word counts and not in the style of a traditional fantasy book where entire chapters will be spent discussing the main character’s family history and what she sees when she looks in the mirror.

Who cares if she looks in the mirror? Is she about to see in the mirror a demon metamorphose behind her in a cloud of mist? Is the mirror suddenly going to break into seven pieces and split her soul into seven pieces and each piece of the mirror trap a piece of her soul in a different world? Is the damn thing going to crack because she’s so damn ugly and this happens every damn day and why can’t she remember her mother’s advice not to look in the mirror because manticores always break the damn mirror?

You see what I mean? Thrillers are big on action and plot. Maybe I should only read thrillers. Or I could find authors who write fantasy with tight prose. Peter V Brett’s The Painted Man (The Warded Man in the U.S.) is an example of this.

Oh, you thought there was a point to this post? Er… wait, yes, there is! The point is that the genres are no longer as cut and dried as they used to be. Next week I’ll talk about romance in fantasy. Which I generally don’t write, so that will be a learning curve for all of us.


All her life Anne-Mhairi has told herself stories, even when they involved her dolls and toy horses, or lego dogs and horses (which the instructions were wrong about, so she made up her  own). To find out more about her experiences in sharing these stories with the rest of the world, check out her website here. Anne-Mhairi also writes The Elemental Races, a collaborative serial where the readers dictate the hero’s actions at the end of each episode. Voting goes through Saturday midnight (US Pacific Coast time)


9 Replies to “Blurring The Lines: The Fantasy Thriller by Anne-Mhairi Simspon”

  1. Ohh….. New Weird would be a fantastic topic to cover. You dont have to look any further than Michael Moorcock, China Mieville, and Mark Charan Newton to cover everything you need to know about New Weird. One of the better New Weird books I have read in the last couple of years is called The Dream Merchant by Isabel Hoving, and I think everyone should read it along side Kraken by Mieville.

  2. And don’t forget New Weird, Steampunk, Paranormal Romance, Speculative Fiction, Anthropomorphism, Alternate History, Comic Fantasy and Dystopian Fiction!

    All these sub-genres belong on a site such as this (in my opinion).

  3. I can see I’m not going to get away without mentioning Sci-Fi Fantasy in this series, then. This is good. It makes me work. What else is there? Romantic Fantasy, Thriller Fantasy, Sci-Fi Fantasy. Christian Fantasy? Horror Fantasy? I just thought of a really good (i.e. funny) one and of course in the time it took me to come back here from Twitter, it’s gone. Damn you, Twitter!

  4. I think something like Dune really blurs the lines of Sci-Fi / Fantasy. It starts life as a hard sci-fi, but finishes with Paul Atreides attaining “god-like” powers of omniscience through scientific means… Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde would probably be science fantasy, along with Doctor Who and maybe the later seasons of Stargate (the ones with the Ori)

  5. Eeek! Comments! I didn’t realise people were actually commenting on these posts. Yay!! *happy dance*

    I have to admit, it’s an intriguing question regarding science fantasy. Personally I’d say that if there is any kind of scientific explanation offered for something which is otherwise quite beyond our current comprehension, that would make it science fiction. The minute you bring magic into it, that’s fantasy. In my opinion. Which as we all know, is rather cute and fluffy, but not what you might call authoritative.

  6. Science fantasy is an intriguing genre and one I am keen to feature on the site. What do you think would be an excellent example? Star Wars perhaps – classic fantasy plot: Young orphan turns out to be rather special; trained by an aged and wise mentor; goes on to bring down an empire.

    I’m planning on covering the 50 books which make up the Fantasy Masterworks series and I think there are a few titles on there that will fall into the science fantasy genre.

  7. We had a big discussion about a very similar topic at work, the blurred line between Sci-Fi and Fantasy (or as we coined it, Science Fantasy). We came to the conclusion that anything “sciencey” that applies to the laws of nature in our universe should be considered Sci-Fi, but when they start to bend the rules through the introduction of magic and the like, we start to cross over into the fantasy realm.

    But we also have that great quote from Arthur C. Clarke that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” so really just because we consider stuff to be magic or rule bending doesn’t mean that it is completely impossible because it could just be advanced technology far beyond our understanding. Food for thought.

  8. I find the categorising of books on this site so difficult. For example, we have The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant? High/epic fantasy? Yes for both as the fate of the world lies in the hands of two unlikely figures (a hobbit and a leper). But would you recommend Thomas Covenant to someone who has just finished The Lord of the Rings and wants to read something very similar? No, probably not as they are very different books despite falling into the same main genre. The Sword of Shannara would probably be a good suggestion but then I would struggle as, although I can think of many great fantasy books, I cannot think of too many other that feature the good old, human, elf, dwarf and orc combination. It is so difficult.

    And then we get the Narnia and Harry Potter books… Now which genre do they belong to? Contemporary/urban perhaps but there are elements of heroic and high fantasy, both have wizards and witches in but again they just don’t seem to belong in the same pigeon-hole.

    So I’m embarking on a re-categorisation of the site which involves assigning each book to a main genre and a sub-genre. The Hobbit goes into high fantasy and dragons, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell goes into historical fantasy and wizards, A Wizard of Earthsea goes into high fantasy and wizards and so on.

    A very popular category at the moment appears to be contemporary/urban fantasy and vampires but I’ve been told that mermaids are the next big thing…

    So, as Anne-Mhairi quite rightly says, “Fantasy no longer stands alone”, and each and every book that is now published is real mixture of sub-genres.

    Has anybody read the Malazan Book of the Fallen? Now where does that belong?

    Of course not all genre-melding should be encouraged and romantic Christian fantasy should been outlawed. Immediately. In every country in the world.

  9. I think it is when genres start to blur that things get really interesting. I’ve read quite a lot of fantasy combined with thrillers now, and while some of it was fun, I like character based stories with room for more peripheral scenes and description, and a less relentless focus on plot. That’s hard to find at the moment. I’d quite like to see some fantasy and paranormal combined with other genres, not just romance or thrillers.

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