What Goes Into the Fantasy Fiction Pot?
August 10, 2011 § 4 Comments
Lately I have been reading reviews for a range of fantasy books and I have noticed a puzzling trend. Some reviewers are criticising books – that I enjoyed for being a little unusual – on the grounds that they aren’t real fantasy. Or they are only superficially fantasy courtesy of a few details tacked on over the top of a book that is definitely not fantasy.
Reviews like this puzzle me because while all of the books in question feature some elements that might be termed uncommon in fantasy, they also feature plenty of other elements that are pretty normal. There is always some form of magic. In each case the magic in question is central to the storyline. There are strange happenings and mysterious wizard-types and sinister dark magic aplenty. All of that sounds pretty fantasy-ish to me.
They differ in that they are, for example, set not in a pseudo-medieval world but in worlds based on much later periods of history. They feature technology of some kind (frequently steampunk inspired). There isn’t an artifact of power. Elements like these don’t seem to me to be so integral to the identity of a fantasy novel that their omission will entirely blast the book out of the genre. But then, what are the vital elements of a good fantasy book?
I might suggest that magic is the most basic requirement, but there are books that are considered fantasy and yet involve very little waving of magic wands. The “quest” storyline is very popular in fantasy, but it’s certainly possible to write one without it. And so on. On the other hand, writers can and do mix typical fantasy tropes with features more regularly found in mystery, science fiction, romance, thrillers and horror very successfully – without, I think, wandering too far away from the roots of fantasy fiction. It’s increasingly common to mix genre tropes these days, and that is a good thing in my mind as it leads to stories with much more depth and variety.
However, it seems it’s possible to carry it to the point that some readers will question a book’s right to exist alongside The Lord of the Rings as a fellow work of fantasy fiction. What, then, should go into the fantasy fiction pot, and what (if anything) should stay well clear of it? Do you welcome or resent the merging of genres?