Why I Choose Fantasy

Examples of fantasy books.When you list reading as one of your hobbies, most people assume you enjoy the classics or thrillers. Often I find people smirk slightly when I explain that I enjoy fantasy literature.

The common misconception is that fantasy literature concerns itself solely with elves, dwarves, orcs, hobbits and rings. Yet I find it one of the most flexible and diverse of genres.

I suppose you can blame the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ stories I read in my youth for my initial interest with all things fantasy. A few friends at school told me in solemn tones that ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ were the ‘best books ever.’ Being a curious chap, of course I had to read them.

Your tastes change as you get older, and in my teens, I wanted my fantasy to have irreverent humour thrown into the mix. Enter the books of Douglas Adams (The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series) and Terry Pratchett (the Discworld books). I devoured these quickly and loved all of the in-jokes and references to popular culture. See? Fantasy fiction did not have to all be about quests, swords and sorcery.

By the time I discovered Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert, I realised that there were no limits to the genre. Most other kinds of literature for good or bad have constraints, and therefore fall into the trap of becoming formulaic. Not so for fantasy literature.

You can go anywhere: the past, the future, other dimensions, other worlds, inside computers, inside minds, the possibilities are endless. This makes it exciting and dynamic.

As I have reached young adulthood I have truly discovered how diverse and wide-ranging the genre is, here are a few examples (from the top of my head) that all come under the fantasy umbrella: Fantasy, Urban fantasy, sword and sorcery, spoofs (‘Bored of the Rings’), science fiction, steampunk, YA, horror, alternative history and wizards.

An eclectic mix and that is just the tip of a very large iceberg. All of the above sub-genres can be philosophical, sociological, political and, importantly, cerebral. The common misconception is that fantasy books are for geeks only; dwelling in a safe, cliché ridden comfort zone, when in fact the opposite is true.

Because of fantasy literature’s diverse nature, both new and well-established authors can continue to raise the bar and redefine the genre. The authors and their readers continue to be challenged, which is invigorating and is exactly what a reading experience should be.

In the last decade or so, there has been an unprecedented increase in fantasy, sci-fi and comic book adaptations on film. These are hugely influential, continuing to shape the world-wide movie-making landscape (and will do so for a long time to come).

This tells me that film goers and book readers all want the same thing: entertainment and escapism, particularly in these trying times of financial doom and gloom.

Nothing else in the writing world holds up as well, influences as much, and drives creativity like the fantasy genre. This is why it will endure and why I will continue to be a fan of it.

In search of the Perfect Fantasy Movie

When did it all start? This love of fantasy. Hmm. It was 1977, I was four years old and it was the Summer of Magic or Sci-Fi if you prefer. Star Wars came out. And forever it has shaped my destiny. I saw it seven times. I even lied to my mother to get her to take me one more time after that. I fell in love with the beautiful princess and discovered there was a power in the universe even greater than the ability to destroy a planet. And I also learned that lightsabers are. The. Coolest. Things. Ever.

I proffer this for debate.  Is Star Wars the greatest fantasy movie of all time? Is it the perfect one? Is there such a thing? I guess it depends on what you classify as fantasy. For many years I held the position that Star Wars was a Sci-Fi film. It had spaceships, aliens, technology etc., however I turned that view around when I learned about the tropes within fantasy. But I’m getting ahead of myself a little.

After Star Wars I got into Fantasy reading. It was my favourite Genre – I immersed myself in it loved it. Then I got into D&D and FF and it all got a bit mad. I could play fantasy, I could read it, move it about a table. But I couldn’t watch it (except in the colourful world of my imagination).

One thing that I was constantly frustrated with was the lack of good fantasy films (we’ll talk about TV next time).   Where were they? I mean, I know it was the late 70s/early 80s but come on – what with all those historical epics starring Charlton Heston knocking about the place, why not throw in some red hot orc vs dwarf with fireball spell action? I’ll stop for a moment and lay out the ground rules of what I’m actually talking about now. I know fantasy is a broad church and defining what I mean by the perfect fantasy movie is going to stir things up a bit. I wanted to see elves, dwarves, wizards, fighting evil things, big battles, great characters, good dialogue, a rich and a magical world that was still believable and populated by real folk who swore and got drunk etc.

You might be starting to pick up on my bag – the works of Glen Cook and Steven Erikson would give you a steer! So that’s what I wanted. But could I find it? It wasn’t easy. Whilst Sci-Fi was running rampant with some classic movies, it seemed that Fantasy could only manage cheese.  It inhabited the realm of the B movie – cheap sets, wooden actors, bad action. And lots of them were Italian. Honestly – how could they get it so wrong? Easy. There seemed to be no-one out there who fully understood how to handle fantasy material and how to create a compelling drama within the rules of a fantasy universe. You know, subtle things like internal logic, characters that you care about, good dialogue, gravitas, that sort of thing.

There was a film. It was called Hawk the Slayer. Perhaps you have heard if it? A modest, British production that tried to box above its weight whilst being hamstrung by a limited budget and effects. But you know what? It was the first time someone had actually tried to make a real, proper, fantasy movie (did I hears someone scream Harryhausen?). It had everything in it, a real sense of an alternative medieval history. There were elves, dwarves, wizards, bad men in helmets, lots of fighting and spells. There was an awesome repeating crossbow. And there was a mad hippy synth groove soundtrack. I loved this film. Yet there had to be more.

Then my big brother got a VHS rental of Conan The Barbarian. Now this was more like it. Raw, gritty, bloody with added Arnold. It felt I was watching a fully realised universe, an epic. Now I know the Howard fans may disagree with the interpretation, but the world that was created in this movie felt complete, whole. I found no faults in its logic and was not upset with what I was shown as the story unfolded (let’s not talk about Conan the Destroyer….oh dear).

The 80’s did pump out a number of films. The Sword and the Sorcerer and The Beastmaster were ok but sort of felt like American movies trying to look like an Italian ones.   I do have a soft spot for Krull, though. Funnily enough, another British creation which also suffered from having a dreadful American actor in the lead role. The plot was a standard hidden fortress rehash, it had tons of British thesps (including Bresslaw who played Giant in Hawk The Slayer) and had a lot going for it in creating an interesting, visually pleasing fantasy world. The Slayers where also pretty cool, yet it wasn’t a smash. Probably because it had the faint whiff of cheese and the public just weren’t up for it. Ah – my wife has just berated me. “What about Ladyhawke?” she has just cried in outrage. Alright, she has a point. It was a lovely, gentle movie (except

for the fighty bits) with a great left-field cast.  The trouble was, it’s an 80’s movie and has got the worst music in a battle sequence ever to assault my earlobes. It utterly robs it of any dramatic intensity.

Lucas gave us Willow. I am strangely ambivalent about it. An interesting cast, the film looked good and there was a world there to explore, but it just…didn’t hang together. You know what, it reminds me of Snow White and the Huntsman – another quite entertaining movie. I think that it’s because there are occasional leaps in narrative that says “Oh that happens and then that happens but don’t worry about it because it isn’t important”. Argh. It matters to me. You can’t just give me a fait accompli and just expect me to accept it. I can’t, I won’t. I’ll take the betrayal to my grave.

The 90s were a pretty barren decade. Was there anything? My mind is a blank

Then the year 2000AD arrived (and I panicked about what my favourite comic was going to call itself).  There was the Dungeons and Dragons movie. Geesh, the cartoon series was better than this and that had a baby unicorn! Things were looking grim. Enter a certain Kiwi director whose work I had followed with great interest since I’d gotten hold of a pirate copy of a movie called Bad Taste. A work of genius. Fun, crazy, gory and starring the boys from the Astro Investigation and Defence Service.  Step forward Mr Jackson. Now I’m not going to say much about this other than, like Milius and Conan, with LOTR we got a fully realised depiction of a fantasy world – with everything in it. This film changed the landscape. Suddenly Fantasy as a movie genre was cool(ish) but it was accepted in a way it never had been before. A global audience embraced it and was amazed by it. Yes! A genuine swords and sorcery epic! An actual bone fide good movie. I wept for joy. I do every time I watch these beautiful creations. I don’t care.

One last thing before I start my conclusion and please, bear with me. Uwe Bolle. Yes, him. He made In The Name of the King. It was his attempt at duplicating Jackson. We could spend a long time discussing why this film was terminally bad. But you know what, I actually almost enjoyed it. The casting was drastically off (except for Statham and Rhys-Davies and having Perlman always gets you an extra half-star) the editing was often atrocious and I could go on. There were some huge battles with some extra martial art madness thrown in and it also had what, for my money, is still the best wizard duel I’ve even scene committed to celluloid. I kid you not. The spinning sword standoff is a really good piece of work. Right. I’ll stop talking about it now because someone wants to fight me in the boxing ring…

Thus, for most of my 39 years on this earth, my quest to find the Perfect Fantasy Movie has been long, hard, frustrating and of course, entirely subjective.  Have I found it? Perhaps. The LOTR trilogy is the most complete fantasy movie sequence that has ever been created. I adore it. I couldn’t believe it was possible to see an army of elves fighting an army of orcs. But it was and it looked amazing. And we’ll get to see dwarves fighting goblins soon. Heaven!

So there we have it. Though I do wonder what would happen if the Warhammer franchise could be made to work on the big screen….Oh and what about Star Wars?  Dammit. Maybe that’s the best fantasy movie that’s ever been made. Argh. Can’t decide brain aneurism.

Fantasy, Imagination, and The Ordinary World

By Thaisa Frank

Where Do Stories Come from?

A portrait image of author Thaisa Frank.Readers often ask me where my stories come from and in truth the imagination is mysterious to me—I never know where it begins or ends because the seeds of my stories have a “given” quality and I can’t really will them to happen. It’s almost as though there’s a pneumatic tube of the imagination and I hang out there when other writers are occupied so I get weird and cryptic assignments: It could be a title, like The Loneliness of the Midwestern Vampire. Or the image of an enchanted man. If I play with the assignment long enough, characters appear and they make the image or title earthbound. My characters have to adhere to the laws of gravity and deal with an ordinary world. It interests me most when one fantastic thing enters the ordinary world. Everything gets a little tilted yet life has to go on according to ordinary laws. You might say that real time and space have been invaded by one alien thing–a Midwestern vampire, an enchanted man, the presence of an angel.

It sometimes takes a long time to find the link between the cryptic image or title and characters who are grounded in the mundane world. For example, the title story of Enchantment began when I had an image of a woman on her porch getting a UPS delivery of an enchanted man. She’d ordered him from an online site and he came with instructions to mist him twice a day. I started the story many times and couldn’t figure out how to move it forward. But when her sullen teen-aged kids appeared, I realized the heart of the story was about the woman hiding the enchanted man from her family.

And the title The Loneliness of the Midwestern Vampire appeared with such urgency that I knew I had to write the story. All I knew about this vampire is that he lived in the Midwest and was terribly lonely. But when a judge in the small Midwestern town bothers him about getting citizenship, I knew that he had to bend to life in the heartlands.

In these stories, a girl has feet that can see, a man is indirectly introduced to an angel who has lived his life, and two circus-performers turn themselves into piece of two-ply thread to go through the eye of a needle.

Not all of my stories are triggered by surreal images. I’m fascinated by people, relationships and obsessions. Enchantment has a story about a character who wants to get a piercing (I did all my research online!), a woman who visits an old boyfriend, a cat that acts as a comforter, and two people who think they are soul mates. It also has two semi-autobiographical novellas with roots in my own life. These were hard stories to write because I had to invent and surprise myself to discover a universal element (Once more the use of the imagination!). After I finished, I felt as if I’d dived into a shipwreck and come up having lived a slightly different life.

Whether I write about what’s apparently “real,” or something more surrealistic, I have to feel captivated and enchanted myself or I don’t feel motivated to write the story. As a kid I had a viewer that held discs so you could look inside and see three-dimensional scenes. I remember looking at Little Red Riding Hood, poised in the dark forest with her basket. I could feel the quiet of the woods and she seemed real, alive in another realm. I wanted to find a way to reach her. So when I talk about feeling enchanted, I’m talking about a feeling that started when I was very young. Perhaps all resonance to fantasy and what seems impossible happens when we’re young. If this is the case, part of fantasy fiction isn’t an escape at all, but a return to a time when we dreamt and imagined more freely.

Enchantment: New and Selected Stories by Thaisa Frank cover image.This guest post by Thaisa coincides with the publication of Enchantment: New and Selected Stories. Her short fiction has captivated readers for two decades, and now many of those pieces are collected in one volume, along with several new stories. In the title story, a lonely mother and housewife orders an enchanted man from a website called The Wondrous Traveler, who arrives with instructions for use and a list of frequently asked questions about enchantment. In "Thread," two circus performers who pass through the eye of a needle become undone by a complicated love triangle. In "Henna," a young writing teacher must contend with an exotic student who will not write, her hands covered in dye and her fingers "sprouting innumerable gardens." And in "The Loneliness of the Midwestern Vampire," the undead descend upon the heartland of the country and become accustomed to its friendlier way of life, attending barn raisings and feasting on cattle in an attempt to normalize their darker passions.

These are vibrant, compelling stories that examine the distance between imagination and reality, and how characters bridge that gap in their attempt to reach one another.

Enchantment is available in both paperback and Kindle format.

Read our review of Heidegger’s Glasses by Thaisa Frank

The Joy of Maps

Earlier this year at the SFX Weekender sci fi and fantasy convention in Prestatyn, Wales, a panel discussion was led by Juliet E McKenna called ‘It’s not a story, it’s a map!’, with China Miéville, Gaie Sebold, Sam Sykes, David Tallerman and Ian Whates discussing the merits, or lack of merit, of using maps as part of fantasy fiction.

To my surprise the absolute consensus was that maps are an unnecessary and pointless addition to books, and as writers the panel saw no use for them. McKenna, who has maps at the beginning of her Tales of Einarrin series of books, and who I therefore expected to mount a spirited defence, seemed to concede to the prevailing opinion, which centred on maps and drawing maps being a constraint on the development of a story, or merely useless. Possibly she was as taken aback as I was at the amount of dislike displayed, but as far as I can remember there wasn’t one argument for the humble map and I was sadly disappointed at this. Therefore, it is time for the flag to be raised for the greatness of maps, the majesty of a beautifully drawn mountain range, the wide sweeping pen stroke of a river, the giant forbidden forest, and the potential that this contains.

As I imagine you have gathered by now, I am a keen fan of maps. When I bought Skyrim and found there was a map inside showing me the as yet unchartered realm that lay within the disc next to it, I thought it was a fantastic addition. The map of Middle Earth is iconic, and recently the Game of Thrones HBO series won an Emmy for its title sequence, which pans down the map of Westeros and Essos.

I think there’s a strong case for the use of maps in fantasy fiction because a map doesn’t constrain a story; how the story has been written and where an author decides to place various points of interest is what the story has to sit in. Maps are the promise of an adventure, a piece of artwork inspired by the story, a scene-setter that, like the opening title of Game of Thrones, lets you initially skim across a world that you have yet to be introduced to, see the places that you may go, or you may never go, and orientate yourself to a starting point which, if you so wish, you can then follow as the story develops.

How you use a map, or whether you even look at it at all, is completely up to the reader, that’s the beauty of them.  They require imagination in order to bring them alive, so therefore a perfect accompaniment to a fantasy novel where usually a whole new world has been created. There is also an antique beauty to maps, a sense of romance, which brings to mind a world of exploration where electronic positioning devices were a mere figment of a far off future, suiting the pre-industrial period in which a lot of fantasy is set.

A map obviously defines boundaries and where places have to be, and I can understand that some people don’t like that, but it also provides a world of opportunities to what could be and where the story could go. What’s beyond the boundaries? What is the history behind the name of this bit over here? Has anybody ever been to this bit here? The map of Middle Earth is a fantastic example – we know about the Western Lands of the continent of Arda, but there’s a whole world outside of this that we are never taken to. The story which we read is just one little bit in a very big whole, both in timescale and location, which I think maps encapsulate because they’re timeless – they lift above the story because they show the ground the story is taking place on; the forests, the mountain ranges, the seas, lakes and rivers. These features are often integral to how the story develops. Going back to LOTR, the Misty Mountains cut across the path to the east, forcing the characters underground and causing the initial splintering of the Fellowship. In Game of Thrones, set in a similar time to Civil War England, where towns and cities are positioned and how battles are fought are determined by the topography. How various peoples develop is determined by their surroundings, and this is true for many fantasy series.

A map is the board on which the game is played – a representation of the foundations on which a story is built – and I think a lot of people would agree with me that maps can be a beautiful and useful addition to the world of fantasy literature.

Why Star Wars is coming to Fantasy Book Review

When you come to Fantasy Book Review, you probably come because you want “reviews” on “fantasy books.” It’s a pretty decent assumption, right? It’s in the name, it’s what we’re all about.

Image: Star Wars

So you might find yourself asking, why are there now Star Wars reviews up on Fantasy Book Review?

Well I can answer that for you, as I’m the one who’ll be leading the charge through the Star Wars universe.

When you think of Star Wars, what do you think of? Space? Battles? Lightsabers? Jedi? Bagels?

All of these are likely, and each in and of itself could immediately make you think Sci-Fi (let me work on how the bagels makes you think Sci-Fi, I can make something of it). But take another look at all of those ideas that make up Star Wars and you might see a similarity to Fantasy in there as well.

Space? Just another setting.

Battles? Uh, Lord of the Rings anyone?

Lightsaber? Just a shiny sword.

Jedi? Another word for sorcerer.


And look at the whole picture as well. The good versus bad, dark versus light, the Dark Side versus the … well, what was the other half called?

Beyond that we see a lot of archetypes that Star Wars uses that are similar to those used in the Fantasy genre. ‘Princess’ Leia, the princess from a lost world; mysterious powers bestowed upon a boy from a rural nowhere town; the used feel of the universe compared to the sleek and shiny Star Trek universe.

You can even be really nerdy like Keires on the official Star Wars forum;

“…you can find the typical D&D team (in episode 4, for example): an apprentice-knight, an expert-knight/magician, a mercenary, a princess… Instead of a dwarf and an elf you have two droids (dwarf-size and elf-size!)…”

George Lucas, the creator extraordinaire behind the Star Wars universe, describes the movies as Space Fantasy, which is probably the best way to look at it. The universe isn’t really based on “science” like Star Trek or Babylon 5. The hyperdrive just exists, without any scientific explanation as to how. The same can be said for the power generation for Death Star and Super Star Destroyers, how Coruscant hasn’t just collapsed in on itself under the pressure of all that city, and why everyone speaks basic except for the Sullustans and Wookies.

In Sci-Fi, these things would normally be explained; in Fantasy, they just ‘are,’ whether by being magic or simply unexplained by the author.

Long lost family, redemption for the bad guy, swords and sorcery, wise old men (and Yoda’s) and princesses in distress all cry Fantasy. So it comes really as a natural conclusion for us here at Fantasy Book Review to include Star Wars in our collection of reviews.

As for that bagel? Here’s my attempt at it being Sci-Fi;

Nah, I’ve got nothing.

Note – the prequel trilogy definitely make this classification a little murky, considering its sleek ships and attempt to explain the Force, but as with most Star Wars fans, we’ll simply ignore the movies and move on.

Best selling sci-fi/fantasy audio-books of September 2009

September 2009 sees Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series still maintaining a stranglehold on the top 10 sci-fi/fantasy audio-book downloads, as listed by Audible.co.uk.

Fantasy Book Review favourite Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke), read by Simon Prebble, is still performing well (we were so impressed we interviewed Mr Prebble and asked him all about it).  Two new entries are The Hobbit and Good Omens. Most will be familiar with the highly enjoyable BBC Adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit but this version is read by Martin Shaw, the narrator who did such a fine job on The Silmarillion. He has once again proven that his dulcet tones are perfectly suited to Tolkien’s prose. Good Omens marked a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman; it is a very amusing novel read here by Stephen Briggs.

Here is the top 10:

  1. The Time Traveler’s Wife (Unabridged) Audrey Niffenegger
  2. The Strain: Book One of the Strain Trilogy (Unabridged)
  3. Twilight: The Twilight Saga, Book 1 (Unabridged)
  4. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Unabridged)
  5. New Moon: The Twilight Saga, Book 2 (Unabridged)
  6. Dune (Unabridged)
  7. Breaking Dawn: The Twilight Saga, Book 4 (Unabridged)
  8. Eclipse: The Twilight Saga, Book 3 (Unabridged)
  9. The Hobbit
  10. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (Unabridged)

The title that really caught our eye was Guillermo del Toro’s The Stain. Although not what you might class as fantasy – it’s more horror –  the synopsis is captivating and this could well be our next download. It is narrated by Ron Perlman of Hellboy fame. Here is the blurb:

A plane lands at JFK and mysteriously ‘goes dark’, stopping in the middle of the runway for no apparent reason, all lights off, all doors sealed. The pilots cannot be raised.

When the hatch above the wing finally clicks open, it quickly becomes clear that everyone on board is dead – although there is no sign of any trauma or struggle. Ephraim Goodweather and his team from the Center for Disease Control must work quickly to establish the cause of this strange occurrence before panic spreads.

The first thing they discover is that four of the victims are actually still alive. But that’s the only good news. And when all 200 corpses disappear from various morgues around the city on the same night, things very rapidly get worse. Soon Eph and a small band of helpers will find themselves battling to protect not only their own loved ones, but the whole city, against an ancient threat to humanity.

Pretty good eh?

Audible.co.uk have over 30,000 titles from classics to crime, sci-fi to languages, self-help, biographies, comedy and more. From their offices in Chiswick they search far and wide for the best audio-books available.

Check back in October when we will see if Twilight still rules the audio-world!

Audiobooks – have your favourite books read to you

I have always enjoyed listening to audiobooks. My first purchases were Ray Dotrice’s magical reading of Watership Down and Douglas Adam’s fantastic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Since then I have continued to use audiobooks, in parallel with reading, to widen my reading and listening enjoyment.

Let’s just quickly explain what an audiobook is for those who have never come across them before. An audiobook is a book that is read out aloud by a narrator and was originally mainly available in the tape format but can now be purchased on CD and also downloaded in mp3 / mp4 format. Audiobooks are extremely useful because they can help children learn to read and are also invaluable to the blind.

The audiobook’s popularity has increased over the last five to ten years due to the many activities that can still be carried out still being able to listen to them. For example, you are able to listen to an audiobook whilst driving, doing the housework or even naughtily in bed after lights out.

We have put together a selection of the finest fantasy tales available in the audiobook format today.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellThis is an excellent unabridged telling of Susanna Clarke’s debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. At more than thirty two hours this is certainly brilliant value for money. The narrator Simon Prebble has an excellently descriptive voice that perfectly fits the story and captures the period setting of the novel. As already mentioned, this is over thirty two hours worth of audiobook and may take you a while to get through but the tale of the two competing magicians should keep you enthralled throughout.

The Hobbit

The Hobbit audiobook This is J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic tale of Bilbo Baggins and Smaug the Magnificent brought to life on audiobook. Rob Inglis narrates The Hobbit and this is an abridged version of the children’s and adults ,favourite. Due to this being in abridged form it is only 11 hours in length but that is more than long enough to get this wonderful story across to the reader. This audiobook is also available with the narration of Martin Shaw, who has already done such a good job on Tolkien’s collection of ancient tales, The Silmarillion.

The Lord of the Rings – Fellowship of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Audiobook Following on from The Hobbit, is of course, The Lord of the Rings. This audiobook is also narrated by Rob Inglis and The Fellowship of The Ring is the first installment of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s masterpiece. This is a beautiful unabridged reading and really brings The Lord of the Rings to life. I would still have to honestly say that reading the book is the best way to enjoy this classic but this audio version is also of an excellent standard. This could make a long journey considerably easier…


Thud! Audiobook This audiobook is a recent addition and features Stephen Briggs as the narrator of Terry Pratchett‘s discworld book THUD! Ten hours worth of pure enjoyment!

These are just a few titles that can now be purchased in stores or online as audiobooks. There are many, many more, why not visit Aubible.co.uk to see what they have to offer?