January 6th, 2017


Old Books

I hit a particular reading mood right before Christmas in which what I desperately wanted to read was fun fantasy — something escapist, about people I liked having adventures in a world I’d want to visit. I wanted something like Stardust, with adventure, magic, and romance. I posed the question to a fantasy group on Facebook and got a lot of recommendations for things I’ve already read. But there were also some recommendations for old classics that I hadn’t read, books from the early days of fantasy as a commercial publishing genre. Fantasy stories have been around forever, but it was the US paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings in the late 60s/early 70s (I think the late 60s one was unauthorized, but it was still a big hit) that kickstarted the idea of books like that as a genre that was kind of a subset of science fiction, and they started actually labeling books as “fantasy” and had publishing imprints dedicated to that.

As happens with a lot of newly popular genres, publishers became desperate to find more books like that, which meant the quality varied widely. The Sword of Shannara was one of those early books, and it was essentially a retelling of The Lord of the Rings. There were a lot more a lot like that. I missed many of them, even though I was a teen fantasy reader hungry for more books like that in the early 80s, mostly because of my access to books at the time. I was living in a small town without a library or bookstore. The school library was pretty much useless. The nearest bookstore was a B. Dalton in the mall in a city more than ten miles away, and I didn’t have independent transportation to get there or much money to spend on books. We mostly got our book fix from the large used bookstore in that nearby city, and later we were able to get a membership in the library in a nearby small town. But that meant that my selection was limited to what was in the library (and when it came to paperbacks, that usually meant what people had donated) or what was in the used bookstore, and that meant it was the books people were willing to get rid of. As a result, I missed a lot of the classics from that era.

So, I thought I’d give some of those that were being recommended a shot. I figure that someone working as a fantasy novelist ought to have read some of the standards. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to go back and read those now. They come across as awfully cliched. These were the books that created the cliches, so they weren’t cliches at the time, but if you’ve ready pretty widely in the genre and then go back to the earlier books, the tropes really jump out at you.

For instance, how many of these books start with a weather report? It’s like the way to set the mood and establish the world is to have the main character noting the weather — snow is falling, it hasn’t rained in ages, there’s a storm coming. Then we frequently have our hero do something really dumb that ends up launching him into the story — he misses a turn and goes to the wrong place, forgets what he was sent to do, takes a break to take a nap and oversleeps, trusts the wrong person, trips over something and causes a disaster, etc. This is because we have to establish our hero as an unlikely hero, an everyman underdog in the mold of Frodo and Bilbo, and apparently that means he’s a bit bumbling. He’ll probably be helped out of the fix he got himself into by the appearance of a white-bearded, wise old wizard. Once he’s thanked the wizard for his rescue, the two of them will have some kind of conversation in which they discuss the history and current political situation of their world. The wizard will either sense some kind of power or potential in our hero or will know something about the hero’s background that the hero doesn’t realize about himself (all those orphans with mysterious origins). The wizard will either recruit the hero for some kind of quest or take him on as an apprentice. The hero will try to learn magic and fail (more bumbling), and it’s almost inevitable that he’ll later learn that this is because he’s truly special and has a different kind of magic that doesn’t work by the usual rules. Once he figures out how his power works, he’ll be the most powerful wizard ever.

I won’t name the book that inspired this rant because it applies to more than half the fantasy novels published between about 1973 and 1993. I’m really making an effort to get through the one I’m reading now, since the author is now considered a grandmaster of the field and I’ve never read anything by him, but I don’t know how long I can take it. It’s not his fault that other people went on to do the formula better than he did or that other people ripped him off (then again, I’ve read several books in this mold that were published before this one, so it was already a bit tropey).

However, I will blame the author for making a bad point of view break in the opening paragraph. I think I need to do a writing post on handling deep POV.

I need to find more current fantasy that’s not so grim and dark. What else is out there for someone who wants to read something like Stardust?