Fantasy. The term evokes images of rainbow unicorns, fire-breathing dragons preying on virgin princesses, and sparkly elfy-welfy magic, or maybe even exotic dancers in a nightclub. The word used to categorize the type of fiction I write doesn’t sound very serious, does it? There are others who call it “imaginative fiction,” or “speculative fiction,” perhaps to avoid whatever perceived stigma “fantasy” suggests. While I am uneasy with the term, I also try to embrace it.
The application of the term “fantasy” in publishing to indicate a category has been in use for a long time. According to my editor, Betsy Wollheim, it’s been around since the early 20th century and was used to label the works of such greats as Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), Robert E. Howard (Conan), and H.P. Lovecraft (Cthulu). But it was her father, the legendary Donald A. Wollheim, writer, editor, and founder of DAW Books, who, while he was an editor at Ace, spurred the modern fantasy genre into popularity by publishing an unauthorized paperback edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in 1965. If he hadn’t, fantasy might have remained obscure and non-commercial.
Books fall into categories, or genres, because it simplifies marketing and indicates where they should be shelved in stores. As a result, it’s relatively easy for people to locate the kind of books they wish to read. The problem with categories is that one may begin to make assumptions about what a whole genre is about, when really books lumped together in a particular genre can be quite diverse. Are all novels shelved in the mystery section Agatha Christie cozies? Are all romances bodice rippers? And do all fantasy novels feature rainbow unicorns and fire-breathing dragons?
For my part, I write traditional fantasy adventure. Traditional fantasy is often set in a secondary world. Magic may play a part or not. Often the books have great sweep to give depth and complexity to the worlds that have been created, and the immersion into these worlds, the experience of it, is often what draws readers. Sometimes they do feature unicorns and dragons, but if you think their use is all rainbows and sparklies, you might be surprised. Traditional fantasy is a very archetypal genre with roots as old as story-telling itself. Archetypes allow us to see our own world through a different lens. For instance, the conflict between an evil overlord and a resilient hero may sound a little too familiar, but depending on how the writer uses the archetypes of good and evil, the reader may find deeper meaning in the savagery of war, and the cruelty or nobility of human beings. Modern traditional fantasy has mostly leaped beyond its…well, its own traditions, and become sophisticated and gritty and full of sharp details. I think of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. One of his central characters is a slave who struggles between hope and defeat, and who through force of will transcends the cruelty inflicted on him and his fellow slaves.
Over the last decade or so, the genre has become ever more diverse, leaving behind its traditional origins and leading to highly imaginative tales and different sub-categories. I’m not sure how to classify Anne Bishop’s work, but it is dark, yet deeply touching and romantic. You would not naturally associate “romantic” with the domain of Hell, and it may not be obvious to think of Saetan as a loving father, yet Bishop makes it work. She spins our assumptions on their heads, making her Dark Jewels books such a fabulous read.
Historical fantasy is a sub-category of fantasy that offers an alternate version, or vision, of our own history. Authors must artfully combine the requirements of both the historical and fantasy canons to make their novels work. In Jacqueline Carey’s “Kushiel’s Legacy” series, we get an alternate Europe where angels once walked the Earth, making for a creative re-imagining of European culture and religion. To top it off, the lead character is a courtesan. And not just any courtesan, but one whose “gift” is to receive exquisite pain as pleasure. (You would not have seen a protagonist like this pre-21st century!)
What about those dragons? They still roam the worlds of fantasy, but not necessarily sniffing out virgin bait and hoarding caverns full of treasure. In Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire series”, dragons populate Napoleonic-era Europe, which impacts not only the war between Britain and France, but cultures across the world.
Urban fantasy has been in ascendance for some years now, frequently featuring vampires, werewolves, fairies, and zombies populating our modern world. One of the best known practitioners is Charlaine Harris whose Sookie Stackhouse books have been adapted into a popular television series.
There are more sub-categories of fantasy fiction than I can enumerate, and more and more often fantasy overlaps with other genres, such as romance. There are even literary novels that borrow fantasy conventions, yet are not considered fantasy.
I guess what it all comes down to is that today’s fantasy ain’t your grandpa’s fantasy, and its creators are wildly inventive, challenging the once accepted boundaries of the genre. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a great time to be a reader.