It comes to some shock when I say to my reader friends that I have a distinct dislike of fantasy fiction. As a reader and writer who is certainly a lot more comfortable dealing with plot-heavy genre fiction as opposed to more highbrow, high-concept literary work (that’s not to say I’m opposed to literary work; just not at the expense of plot, but that’s a whole other blogpost) my disdain and difficulty with fantasy may come as a shock.
High fantasy is where I struggle the most, and I know exactly which book it is that both, I think, set the example for the genres worst and compelled me to be hostile (and that’s being generous) toward fantasy on the whole to the point where now I don’t attempt it:
The Lord of the Rings.
I have one endearing memory of Lord of the Rings: an English class at secondary school where we had to bring in a book to read – a wonderful idea, in hindsight. But I brought in Lord of the Rings and I literally fell asleep reading it. Incidentally, I fell asleep watching the first two movie adaptations and never bothered with the third.
But The Lord of the Rings I feel is so archetypal of fantasy, especially high fantasy, and is so influential a work on that entire genre that I feel it’s hard to decouple a fantasy book from thoughts of it. And I find that subconscious comparison that’s always present does stunt and colour my suspension of disbelief toward fantasy books that, more often than not, I find I simply have no patience for them.
Let’s explore a few aspects of fantasy that do nothing for me.
Pacing and Plot
One of the major flaws I saw in The Lord of the Rings for a start is that the plot is glacial. Pages and pages of stuff is there but nothing happens. Tolkien has a gift for lush and detailed worldbuilding but it comes at the absolute expense of plot progress. Frank Herbert does this too in Dune, which reads less like a science-fiction novel and more of a fantasy; the plot moves like molasses and there seems to be a distinct focus on worldbuilding – it’s not done subtly but piled on to the degree that it leaves the reader confused – what details are important to retain now and which are mere backstory. And the pacing suffers, fatally. I prefer much more pacier narratives – that’s not to say that these pacey narratives have less depth than Lord of the Rings or Dune (which I actually consider a fantasy novel, not science-fiction).
I’ve also noticed that in some works I’ve attempted that the story just seems derivative and, ultimately, unworthy of my time, no matter the lusciousness of the characters or world. I was lent Twelve Kings of Sharakhai and I ended up abandoning the book roughly a third of the way in because it was unfolding in an extremely formulaic way – the book established the journey of vengeance the protagonist was embarking upon, and was doing some heavy worldbuilding but I found myself simply not caring to accompany the protagonist on the journey, figuring that, whatever happened, they were going to eventually get aforementioned vengeance and that was that. Yes, that may come across as extremely harsh but that assessment is a direct result of my longstanding antipathy toward the genre; I did not feel I was able to immerse myself in the world enough to allow my suspension of disbelief to fully take over.
Another major flaw I’ve experienced when approaching fantasy fiction – especially high-fantasy, toward which most of my ire is directed – is that writing a fantasy genre almost imbues the author to adopt an irritating, twee narrative voice which I feel merely gets in the way of comprehending the narrative, which is already a stretch given how I previously said how threadbare the plots seem to be, especially when poorly or glacially paced.
While I get that the authors want to tell the story from the perspective of a narrator immersed and emergent from the universe created therein, it gets old real fast. I recall the most egregious example of this that I recall reading being Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb which borders on the unreadable, hence I abandoned it. Is this a predilection of high fantasy especially? I’d say so; again, going back to archetypes of high fantasy, which are “beardy-weirdy” tales from a pseudo-medieval time period definitely subconsciously encourage this.
Does it always have to be this way? Again, I feel no – there’s books of a high fantasy bent that avoid this trap and therefore succeed a lot more with me – The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris being a surprising and refreshing example. I’d also say that this is truer of A Game of Thrones which I feel drops a lot of the narrative pretention.
And that’s what I feel it is a lot of the time – narrative pretention on the part of the author, who maybe feels they have something to prove when writing a very genre-heavy fantasy book. But that’s no excuse to baffle or bamboozle one’s readers with some of the purplest of purple prose.
Overwhelming Lore & Magic
The final aspect that I have noticed rubs me up the wrong way is the lore inherent in high fantasy books, especially those that attempt to convey entire new worlds different to our own, is that of lore overload. The Lord of the Rings was a prime example of this, as I touched on earlier – there’s so much lore, at expense of plot or pacing, I feel that it’s overwhelming. It’s hard to pinpoint what’s important and what is just backstory, and to drop huge chunks of lore in the middle of chapters ruins the pacing. But it also encumbers the reader with a lot of extraneous information they feel like they need to retain, and that’s at the expense of plot comprehension.
What I’ve noticed is that glutinous blobs of exposition are poor in any fiction, but to which high fantasy seems the most vulnerable and does to the excess. The Lord of the Rings is an example where I feel it is done extremely poorly; A Game of Thrones strikes a much better balance of imparting backstory, when appropriate and to appropriate levels – just mentioning some random character’s unseen half-nephew as an aside is no excuse to divert for the next twenty pages on an intricate study of bloodline that goes nowhere. It’s about proportion; reveal backstory in layers, not chunks and then it feels less like the novel is a textbook and the reader is expected to sit an A-level in the lore at its conclusion.
And that’s not to say that high-fantasy is the only genre to which this is an easy trap to fall into. I’ve experienced a fair few lore-heavy space operas that indulge in this, memorably Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, and that heavy-handedness definitely gave me the impression that I was thoroughly confused.
One point about the lore in high fantasy which also comes to mind is the use of magic – something I generally feel is a narrative crutch and very unsatisfying, unless done correctly. Magic in fantasy should have clear and specific boundaries and limitations, otherwise why have a story with conflict, tension and jeopardy if a well-timed wave of a magic wand can solve the problem? It’s a deeply dissatisfying thing to experience when executed poorly and mishandled magic leads to many a deus ex machina. I recently experienced this with The Soul Drinkers Omnibus, which funnily enough is a science-fiction novel of the Warhammer series and it was a magical happening that broke the story for me – an all-too-convenient magical transformation in the nick of time to save a character in a fight… it broke my suspension of disbelief quite madly (I perhaps wasn’t well versed in the Chaos mythos but still, it was a poorly-written book anyway) to the point where I abandoned the book.
Now taking all that into account that’s not to say I’m averse to the elements of fantasy; I’m really not and I do have an interest in expanding into fantasy that doesn’t fall into traps I’ve outlined I feel are present. But I only have a certain amount of time for reading so I try to make sure I’m always reading well-written, pacey, plot-driven work that’s enjoyable. Everything I’ve outlined just spoils the enjoyment of books for me which is sad.
I recently re-read the first three Harry Potter books and mentioned this to friends while planning this post. They’re surprisingly-good books to read as an adult as there’s a whole layer of hidden depth that may not be apparent when reading as a child and that was a very pleasant surprise. But what do those books do well, as they’re unashamedly fantasy? My answer, considering what I’ve written above, can only be that they don’t fall into the traps I’ve outlined.
Now I have a ton on my reading plate but I am, on reflection from writing this post, feeling adventurous, so feel free to suggest some great fantasy to me – certainly eyeing up urban fantasy that’s a lot more contemporary!