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)