Earlier in the year I was I thinking a lot about science fiction roleplaying. Now I find myself thinking a lot about fantasy, an old love I keep returning to. I’m running fantasy, in the form of the 13th Age roleplaying game in the Planescape setting.
I’ve deeply conflicted thoughts about both fantasy literature and fantasy roleplaying. For this post, I’ll focus on the literature. Fantasy literature was one of the earliest sources for my imagination. On another level, I find much fantasy a bit boring these days, and find many invented worlds hard to invest in. Rather than being negative, I thought I’d call out a few things that give me pleasure these days.
- Middle Earth (J.R.R. Tolkien)
You saw this one coming, right? Over the last couple of years, after a long break, I’ve fallen in love again with J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion are all great for me in different ways. I’m awed by the depth and detail of the invented history and mythology, of course the languages, even the geography in Lord of the Rings where every hill and wood has a tale. There’s nothing else like it.
- Guy Gavriel Kay’s not quite historic novels
I’ve not read much Guy Gavriel Kay yet- he’s a recent find for me, and the novels I’m talking take place somewhere very close to the real historic world, with both a dose of invention and a very very small dose of fantasy- magic is present, but an extremely minor feature of his works. He sometimes deals with big sweeping events, and being fantasy rather than historic fiction frees the books from having to follow history. They evoke a time a place beautifully, as well as being human and genuinely moving stories. Sailing to Sarentium and Lord of Emperors (the two “Byzantium” books) got me hooked, and The Lions of al-Rassan (in an analogue of Islamic Spain) was just as good.
- The Saga of the Exiles (Julian May)
This is not so much fantasy as science fiction with lots of fantasy trappings- based around those who volountarily exile themselves from the world of 2110 to prehistoric Earth, six million years ago- and find it under the rule of two warring alien races who are rather close to beings out of Celtic legend- right down to their names being slight variations of the Celtic gods. I won’t go into detail here- or the details of the magical “metapsychic” powers which are the main element of the setting. I can’t really say why I like it so much- maybe because it’s just sheer fun.
- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell (Susannah Clarke)
Just one novel this time, though it’s rather meaty. It involves the return of magic and the Fae to early 19th century England, after a long exile from the world, where at the start magicians exist, but merely study the history and theory of magic, not being capable of actually putting it into practice. There are numerous (often big) footnotes referring to history and the real fairy tales of the world of the novel. It’s slow moving, and sometimes written in the language and spelling of the era. Yet I love it. One reason is that it’s one of the most terrifying depictions of faeries I’ve come across in fiction, even with (and to an extent because of) all of the whimsy.
That’s all for now. It’s not all I want to talk about (there’s Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Michael Moorcock and Pratchett to name but three), but it will do for a first post on fantasy novels.
Comments on: "Focus on the Fantastic" (3)
Nice, Mitch. The Julian May books I’d long forgotten about but may have to reinvest in sometime soon as they were a formative read for teen years in the 80’s. The guy’s still alive, I believe, and in his eighties. GGK writes with the one thing missing from the vast majority of current fantasy and that’s heart. The characters and events are beautifully drawn and the settings resonate with familiarity.
There’s not much I can say about Tolkien other than thanks for the introduction to fantastic worlds and thanks for the one that still looms largest in my visual imagination.
Not sure the Susannah Clarke hits my taste buds but I can give it a try.
Thanks Richard. I agree fully about Kay. Susannah Clarke’s a funny one- she’ll either tickle your fancy or drive you mad. Or both at the same time. I liked the book quite early on, but others I know got quite a way into it (when it got to magical involvement in the Napoleonic Wars) before it “clicked”), but it’s a slow start.
By the way, Julian May’s a woman! I liked the Milieu Trilogy sequel/prequel to the Saga of the Exiles too, but haven’t read anything she wrote outside that sequence. Very much a series from my teenage years too, but rereading it a couple of years back gave me feelings of warm nostalgia rather than disappointment.
How embarrassing – for me, not her. I totally forgot it’s Julian Clare May. Apologies to her.