Articles, reading

Is This The Real Life? Why I Don’t Like Fantasy

fantasy-header

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.

Author Voice

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!

Reviews

DNF: Assassin’s Apprentice (Kindle Edition)

This isn’t a review per-se; rather, I aim here to briefly elaborate on why, unfortunately, Assassin’s Apprentice was a book I can’t finish right now. I’m sad to say this, as a good friend suggested it, but it would go against reading being fun to protract the lack of enjoyment I experienced with this book.

Assassin’s Apprentice is certainly a “high fantasy” of the kind that I’d, reading it in 2016, thought went out of date in the 1940s. There’s shades of Tolkien in Assassin’s Apprentice which are impossible to shake; considering Lord of the Rings is a key reason why I am almost weighted against fantasy as a genre, a book harking back to Tolkein is a warning sign unlike any other.

The prose in Assassin’s Apprentice is borderline unreadable. I understand the author’s intent to convey a pretty generic, swords-and-shields pseudo-medieval setting, the painfully twee and intentionally archaic prose made AA a chore to read. Adding another layer of parsing for my brain to need to carry out made reading this book slow and laborious and I don’t think it was entirely necessary.

Compounding my literary wonderment were the cast of cardboard and ultimately uninteresting characters. Why do we care about Fitz, the orphan? The only feature he seems to have in the part of the book I read is his supposed noble lineage. His naivety seems to know no bounds and Fitz doesn’t seem particularly perceptive. Considering the nobility are portrayed essentially as pantomime snobs it’s hard to allow the connection to them form as a point of endearment for Fitz.

Nothing happens, either – this is the worst of Tolkeinesque writing for me. This book reads like a diary chronicling Fitz’s mundane and ultimately generic castle life as a small child. Anything remotely interesting, such as the Wit (sense of magic) is glossed over – indeed, Fitz is barred from keeping pets. Rather, the prose focuses on every mundane aspect of castle minutiae and leaves the potentially-interesting magical abilities unexplored.

Large chunks of exposition form slabs of world building, which isn’t presented in what I’d consider a digestible form; I feel the need to take an A-level in the lore before I can begin to understand what’s going on (this is similar to the issue I had with Ancillary Justice). There’s chapters of castle minutiae. He gets the attention of the King, for some reason, and the course of events seems so predictable and well-trodden I found myself wondering: “why am I bothering if I can see exactly where it’s going?

Characters, too, are uninteresting and unengaging – the protagonist, Fitz, is a stupid boy whose wellbeing and story I don’t care about. If his father, Chivalry, hadn’t been unchivalrous with his mother, why would we, the reader, care about his story? His personality is amoebic, and the reader is expected to be interested because of his heritage alone. It’s not enough to carry the intrigue required for me to want to continue with the story. Burrich, Fitz’s mentor, is an archetypal “drunken, grizzly surrogate father figure who’s out of his depth”. The various members of nobility are detached and aloof from any of the events occurring in the world.

Overall, I found Assassin’s Apprentice a disappointing trudge more than an engaging read. Sure, I am predisposed against fantasy as a general rule (which I will explain in a future post), but I did read The Gospel of Loki semi-recently and found it quite entertaining. But Robin Hobb’s twee prose was irritating, her characters boring, not endearing and uninteresting and the world a plain mix of trite “vanilla” fantasy tropes. I did want to enjoy this book, mainly as a good friend had suggested it, despite how derivative it was turning out to be. However, the characters were not strong enough to warrant continuing this chore of a read. The prose became a chore to read, the characters a chore to empathise with and, when a book becomes a chore to read, it’s time, unfortunately, to put it down.

Luckily, I grabbed it when it was free.

Buy Assassin’s Apprentice on Amazon UK, if you need help sleeping.

Reviews

Review: Twilight (Paperback)

Yes, I’ve read it…

Another set text from my creative writing and English literature course, Twilight was the one entry in my reading list I was truly dreading, but also looking forward to dissecting. I studied it as part of a strand on popular romance fiction, and will review it accordingly.

I managed to finish Twilight, though it was with some difficulty. I generally have little acclination towards romance as a genre; personal relationships between fiction characters being the sole motivator in a plot is not something that appeals to me. However, even from this standpoint, both the characterisation of the two main characters, Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, in this book, coupled with the nature of their relationship if observed through non-tinted glasses, was troubling.

Bella’s characterisation was virtually non-existent. Sure, she’s a 17-year-old girl who conforms to the stereotype of “hating her life”, but what else is there to her? Bella’s personality is absolutely vacuous. Her sole motivation and reason to even exist is to fall uncontrollably in love with Edward. Bella takes an almost nihilist approach to her entire life; she doesn’t want to live in the dreary backwater of Forks particularly, yet chooses it over her mother’s new life with her stepfather. She doesn’t have a good relationship with Charlie, her father – there is little characterisation or progress on him besides his establishment as the town’s police chief. I get that the reason Bella is so vacuous is so that the reader can supplant their own self into her shoes and live the story through Bella, but it is very hamfisted and makes Bella a truly loathesome and boring protagonist. She’s unlikeable – the few friends she does miraculously make in the local school are treated contemptibly as nothing can seemingly come close to her infatuation, early on, with the “mysterious” and “perfect” Edward Cullen.

Edward Cullen’s behaviour quickly becomes irritating – he’s trying to avoid Bella because her “scent” is so good, he’s doing her a favour, she’s “better off avoiding him” – the usual tropes are invoked clumsily. There are a few hints at Edward’s mystique and Bella frequently identifies him as “perfect” and, more cringe-inducing, as an “Adonis”. Multiple times. Why is Edward these things? There’s no qualification of these terms; partly as the reader is meant to imagine why Edward is so wonderful, and partly I suspect because Stephenie Meyer simply had nothing better to say.

Edward indicates quickly a few superhuman traits that lead Bella’s inquisition. Her concerns are almost confirmed comically – Bella googles vampires, and, lo and behold, we discover Edward’s secret (though it takes a while for Bella to finally wrangle that out of Edward). Vampirism doesn’t explain or excuse Edward’s creepy and, frankly, deeply concerning behaviour. He watches Bella sleep. He follows her. He controls her behaviour. He even, near the end of the book, appears to engineer her sedation. None of this strikes me as healthy, or acceptable behaviour. So why is Edward lionised?

Vampirism seemed, to me, to be crutch for a story that outstayed its welcome about 66% of the way through. There are clumsy attempts to subvert classic vampire tropes; the only reason I find Edward scary is not through his vampirism (though he is part of a group of ‘good’ vampires who don’t hunt humans) but through his behaviour and actions. The ending of the book, where Bella is discovered by a vampire “tracker” and must be whisked away from Forks while the Cullens counter this “threat” is farcical almost to the point of melodrama. The pacing is all off; the book burns slowly until – boom – Bella is suddenly in some manufactured mortal danger. Meyer’s own additions to the vampire gamut don’t seem effective as part of a whole cohesive group of underground bloodsuckers.

To her credit, Stephenie Meyer does, in the book, identify a few salient points. Edward does question Bella’s almost manic resolve, at 17, to become a vampire, stating that she has a whole human life to lead. Bella has no answer to this beyond the quite pathetic “I love you, Edward!”, but I will credit the book for making this point clear. It alludes to the important message of not surrendering your entire existence for one person, and to enjoy life as whole. The classic romance trope of perusing sensual experience (read: sex) is subverted in Twilight as a quest for abstinence. Bella and Edward spend the whole book fighting urges – Bella her urges to seduce Edward and Edward to suppress his vampiric urge to kill Bella for her “exquisite” blood. Perhaps this pro-abstinence position is borne of Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon upbringing; regardless, it’s done in a less-effective narrative style, and is drawn out artificially.

I feel Stephenie Meyer has not done her own story justice, ultimately. The prose is wooden and awkward, with phrases feeling like they’re first-draft material and it could do with a good copy-edit. I wish more of the ancillary characters were expanded – some of them seemed more interesting than the protagonists. I realise this is a book about the burgeoning romance between Bella and Edward but these characters – most of whom, especially the classmates, are treated appallingly by Bella – have potential stories of their own outside of the vampire narrative that could’ve been explored at the same time as the Bella and Edward thread.

Overall, though, I did it. Certainly it was an unchallenging read; Twilight is certainly not anything I would consider “literary”, however I feel that the writing and the characterisation left a metallic taste.

Buy Twilight on Amazon UK