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A Grumpy Reader’s Guide to Fantasy

By April 8, 2016Guest Blogs, Reading Habits

A Guest Blog by Debbie McCarthy

I’ve always loved fantasy fiction.  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the first book I truly fell in love with.  However, my love affair with fantasy started almost as soon as I could read, with the beautifully illustrated Pookie books by Ivy Wallace.  A huge amount of children’s fiction has a fantastical element to it: talking animals, cars, trains etc – not to mention traditional fairy tales.  I just never moved on to, for want of a better word, more ‘adult’ fiction.  Fantasy is, in effect, fairy tales for adults.

Once, the poor relation and considered rather nerdy, today there is a HUGE amount of fantasy fiction available. There are a raft of sub-genre’s from which to choose: urban, epic, historical, ‘low’, ‘high’ and so on – not to mention the overlapping genres of science-fiction, horror and dystopian. My problem isn’t not having anything to read but trying to decide what to read next in the full and certain knowledge that I am *never* going to be able to read all that there is out there. The thought that I may miss out on my next great favourite because I’ve wasted time on something mediocre is enough to break me out in a cold sweat. I therefore have a list of do’s and don’ts that I now employ in order to decide if a book is working for me or not.

It Has To Be Complete

Any novel I embark on now has to either be a standalone story or the first in a *complete* series.  There is a tendency in fantasy for a story to take at least 3 books to tell (often more).  Whilst I like long and complex tales, I have spent far too much time waiting for the next novel in a series to come out, only to have to re-read everything that went before in order to remember what has happened, only to have to repeat this cycle.  I realise this is both hypocritical on my part and unfair to those authors trying to establish a following – but I’ve done the whole waiting-around-for years (decades in some case) for a series to finish.  I’m not doing it anymore.  As I noted above, there is a plethora of fantasy out there to be read and more coming on-stream every day.  I don’t think I’m going to run out of complete fantasy series any time soon.

 Waiting for the next book in the series

2. It Has To Be Easy To Read

You would think this would be obvious.  Reading is something I do for pleasure and as a distraction from commuting.  It therefore cannot be hard work.  Much as I worship him, Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is a very good example of my point.  The overly flowery language means I have never been able to get further than the first few pages in – so frustrating!
Easy to read does not mean simple or lacklustre.  Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is very easy to read, whilst being the very definition of an epic and complex world-building story: multiple cultures, political machinations that makes the Borgia’s look like a tale of simple folk, and an enormous cast of characters (I once tried to write a list of all the significant characters in the series and gave up after 50)!  So many writers (of any genre) don’t seem to understand this distinction.

3. No Bombarding With Unique Terminology

Fantasy often takes place in a world/culture different to ours and so many authors front-load their novels with terms the reader has no hope of understanding until well into the story.  If the author doesn’t have faith enough in their tale to first introduce me to the characters and allow the story (and understanding) to build gradually without putting me into a perpetual state of confusion as to what they are talking about, then I’m likely to ditch it in disgust.  Again, The Silmarillion comes to mind here. (beg pardon, Professor Tolkien).

4. Don’t Over-Explain The Magic

For me, at least, the presence of magic is what defines fantasy – and because it *is* magic, it doesn’t need to be explained in excruciating detail.  I have no problem with a quick rundown of the basic principles – but I don’t need chapter and verse.  Some authors are so enamoured with the magic system they have created, that they launch into highly technical explanations of how it works and exactly what their protagonist needs to do in order to utilise it.  I don’t care.  Get on with the story.  It’s enough for me to know what it can do.  Take a leaf out of Anne McCaffrey’s marvellous Dragonriders of Pern series.  The teleportation and telepathic abilities of the dragons are never explained – and that’s fine.  If you want to write a technical manual on magic, invent a role-playing game.

N.B. I realise there is at least an argument for saying that the Pern series is in fact science-fiction not fantasy – but as the late, great, Arthur C. Clarke said “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

5. A Little Humour Goes A Long Way

A lot of fantasy takes place in troubled times, often with the fate of a world (or worlds) at stake.  The odd moment of humour can relieve the tension and adds dimension to the characters which makes me become more invested in what happens to them.  David Eddings Belgariad and Mallorean series are great examples of this.  The sarcastic banter and affection between his protagonists is beautifully crafted and a joy to read.

6. Make It Unique

Unless we’re talking about traditional folk/fairy tales, it has to be a new story – or at least an interesting take on an old one (there are for example, a few authors putting great new spins on the Alice in Wonderland stories).  Of course, all authors are quite rightly influenced by what others have written before them.  How can they not be?  That’s fine – but if all you’re going to do is re-tell another’s ideas with different words, then get a job as a storyteller (it’s a noble calling) but don’t write books.

Having successfully portrayed myself as a curmudgeon, I will now admit that I don’t adhere to these rules as strictly as I am claiming.  I fully intend to tackle The Silmarillion once I am retired and have the time to plough through its labyrinthine language.  Katharine Kerr’s otherwise excellent Deverry series occasionally launches into in-depth explanations of the dweomer and its rituals – but not until you’ve become so accustomed to the characters, story and setting that you don’t mind so much.  I still await the latest books by Terry Brooks (Shannara), Trudi Canavan (Millenium’s Rule) and Kevin Hearne (Iron Druid) eagerly.

There are always those books that ‘must’ be read – because no self-respecting fantasy fan can miss them out – or those that are just on the cusp of breaching the rules I’ve laid out for myself above.  However, these rules help me to stave off “what shall I read next” paralysis and are an aid in disciplining myself to cease reading a book I’m really not enjoying.

Debbie is an avid fantasy reader and regular reviewer here at For Reading Addicts. You can read what she thinks of some of your favourite fantasy books below:

Stephen King – The Dark Tower Series

Ursula Le Guin – Wizard of Earthsea

Robert Jordan – Wheel of Time Series

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