Where is the fantasy book genre going? A short article on past and current fantasy themes based on personal experiences
Can you still remember the first fantasy book that you ever read? For me, the introduction started when I was 16 with Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Not your typical starter some might say. This was eight years ago but these books were already written before I was even born. This is the beauty of books – however old they get you can always find a copy of them somewhere. In the last four years my reading has picked up speed, and even more since I started reviewing for Fantasy Book Review.
The fantasy book genre is divided in many sub-genres with epic/high, urban, alternate, sword & sorcery, science fiction and steampunk being just a few. Reflecting, I think that the major work that has promoted fantasy in itself is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; it is seen as a standard in Epic/High Fantasy.
Another large inspiration, mainly for the children/young adult audience, would be The Chronicles of Narnia from C.S. Lewis.
But this was all some time ago, and now comes the question: has the fantasy genre grown or has it remained stagnant in all the years since Lord of the Rings? Is living up to the standards of Tolkien and Lewis impossible?
I will try to make a comparison between the early works (for me) from about 1980 – 2000 and 2000 and onwards, as well as look at the current trends in fantasy.
The books I have read that were first published in the 1980 – 2000 era are from authors like Robin Hobb (The Farseer Trilogy), Tad Williams (Memory, Sorrow and Thorn), Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time), Celia S Friedman (The Coldfire Trilogy), Raymond E. Feist (Magician Series) and let’s not forget about Roald Dahl (I had double the pleasure growing up with the Dutch translated books and then getting to read them in English again!).
I do not know if it’s pure coincidence, but almost all of these books fall within the same High and Epic Fantasy category. It is not a bad genre at all, it can actually be quite grand and ambitious and I was indeed impressed with each and every novel (though I still have to finish Wheel of Time series). But I think that in the early years these were the authors that took the first step delving into the world of fantasy, and more often than not these books are classified as heavy weights.
What I think caused the majority of the earlier works to fall into the High and Epic Fantasy category is that it was a category that had been proven to work. High Fantasy is rock solid, the ingredients are simple, and it will probably always sell. Veering of this track and pioneering into new things is risky, and often it can be a wild guess whether or not a book like this will be liked by a major audience.
But I found one author ambitious enough to veer away from this trend early on – Stephen King with his Dark Tower series. Although it falls under the same category, Epic/High Fantasy, it also has many other features i.e the travelling in between worlds (with hints of science fiction) and King also wove many of his other written works into the plot line of this series. This offered, for me at least, more diversity earlier on.
From the early 2000 till now there is more diversity in the fantasy genre. I’m of the opinion that with the advent of TV, movies, computer games, the whole fantasy genre was challenged to step up their game. Trying to grab people with a book can be more difficult than a TV show or movie.
Some authors that for me showed an unexplored or hardly explored path into fantasy were Tad Williams (War of the Flowers) and Neil Gaiman (American Gods). Both showed new perspectives in the ways of combining fictional elements with non-fictional elements. And of course one series that set the trend for me was Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen (yes I know Garden of the Moon was published in 1999). This series really showed many virtues, a great plot line maintained over several volumes, world building to the maximum, character building, development throughout the series, and storytelling through multiple points of view. Also, when compared to the Wheel of Time series, the plot lines and dialogue are much more understandable and more engaging.
Another series that was noteworthy in, yes, also 1999 was J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. This is for me one of the best young adult fantasy series, next to the Chronicles of Narnia.
So coming back, yes I think the fantasy genre has evolved tremendously, and it needs to continue to develop. Not with more genres per se, but by using them in ways to lift the standard of the genres even higher; raising the bar.
China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and The Scar were both masterpieces. I’d read steampunk before but not in that way. Wow. Each Bas Lag novel added much to the current repertoire of steampunk. Similarly, the books of Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn), Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora), Joe Abercrombie (First Law), Kate Griffin (A Madness of Angels), and Brent Weeks (The Black Prism) also gave much more insight into what authors are capable of now days. These authors all combine great writing style with even greater ideas.
However it is not only the genres which makes the books great, it also the writing style which is important. The writing style used in books today — of course dependent on the author – is more loose, feels more natural, and is of this time. Even in High fantasy to some degree. Writing styles can either make or break a book. Lord of the Rings is known to be heavy in material mainly due to the use of words and the phrasing of sentences unlike what is normally seen now a days. This makes Lord of the Rings in no way less magical, but with the current writers I do notice a shift to a more understandable, everyday phrasing with writing styles. With these styles I find most of the stories more engaging.
What is the current trend nowadays in 2012?
Looking at the publishing schedules of some of the major publishing houses, more and more books fall under the genre of Urban Fantasy; it draws a wide target audience, young and old, male and female. I think that most of the new authors use this theme for their debut novels since it is easier to start a series and get known. Again a combination of both TV and film has led to the increase in this genre. Urban Fantasy: Vampire, Werewolves, Urban Magicians. What’s not to like? Authors can exploit these themes to the fullest, and every book can be unique. I have to admit I am not a huge fan of Twilight and such, but the Urban Fantasy theme has still proven to be fruitful for me.
The other genres have remained stable over the last few years; the majority of the authors stick to their favourites, and many series are yet to be finished. In here in find Brandon Sanderson a prime example. Picking up The Wheel of Time series is no small feat. There will be a lot of weight hanging on his shoulders with the release of A Memory of Light. His other books all have the Epic/High Fantasy themes but he manages each time to write a brilliant book with his fresh ideas. We need these types of authors who each time try to better themselves with fresher and newer takes on the proven fantasy genres!
In short, the trends from the early 90s till now have changed, not through an increase in the amount of fantasy fiction genres, but through the writing style of the authors. Diversity and change is needed in the world of books to keep them appealing and engaging. Often times my friends say “why read the book when you can watch the series or movie?” I then reply: “Reading is magical and nothing can beat my own imagination” and they stare at me with blank expressions.
I’m happy to see that fantasy fiction genres are developing, with more and more authors writing non-standard stories with plenty of fresh ideas to keep my book shelves filled. But what are your experiences with the fantasy genre? Do you think the genre has become stagnant? Or does this genre continue to grow from strength to strength? And… what was the first fantasy book you read?