Hello and welcome to another discussion! As is my habit this year, I’ll be linking this post to the Discussion Challenge linky, where you can find many interesting discussions about books (and sometimes other things as well).
Today, I want to talk about fantasy. Specifically, I want to know what makes a fantasy. I’ve been sitting on the idea for this post ever since I read Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy (see my reviews of parts 1, 2, and 3) and have now decided to finally write it as I had an interesting conversation with Mogsy when I reviewed And I Darken by Kiersten White.
In the Shattered Sea trilogy (and I warn you for minor spoilers here), the events take place in a ravaged land with a Viking-like society of very brutal people (Hello, it’s Abercrombie. Of course it’s brutal.), but it wasn’t clear to me for a while that it might not be an actual fantasy land but a postapocalyptic society that lives in the area of the Baltic Sea. And that all the fiery weapons the characters think are magic are actually guns, relics from a society that they call Elves because they knew how to build tall buildings made of glass and iron.
See, I felt cheated by this revelation that there were actually no elves in that world. And that “magic” consisted of gunpowder. I thought the author had imagined a fantastic new world where instead he used the relics of our disintegrating one to build a society that is just as “backward” and human as ours. *sigh*
Then I talked to my husband about it – he’s a huge Abercrombie fan – and he remembered this quote by Arthur C. Clarke, who allegedly said (or wrote?): “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And I think this is what Abercrombie played with in his books. He used our (readers’) expectations and put us in the mind of people who’d never seen electricity or guns or anything similar. I don’t have to like it but there it is.
And then I read And I Darken, which is an alternative history retelling of the life of Vlad the Impaler, where the main character of the story is a girl, Lada, an unpleasant and cruel kid. I didn’t really think much of it, I just read the book as if it was any old historical YA and left it at that. And then Mogsy said that she considered every alternative history book to be fantasy/sci-fi, too – especially if it was written for adults because apparently such books are always classified as speculative fiction.
Now, I haven’t read enough alternative history novels to be really familiar with the subgenre, but my response was something like: “But, but, but there are no dragons! No magic! How can it be fantasy?”
And yeah, I still hold to that. I’m aware it’s a personal preference but I only classify books as fantasy if there’s something magical about them. If they take place in a world that does not exist in our consensual reality, if the characters have supernatural abilities, if there are magical creatures like dragons and the Fae. I remember reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” (I think this is a full article!) and I agree with a lot of what they said. It’s pretty old school but still.
So did I go back and correct my classification with Abercrombie’s trilogy? No. But I kind of want to. Because although it’s alternative history and written as if it’s a fantasy, it’s really not – not by my rules. And I probably wouldn’t go all “my way or the highway” if I was writing an article for publication, for example, but I can certainly do it here. :)
So, how do YOU classify fantasy?
Do you need dragons and magic or is the author’s/publisher’s word enough for you?
I’d love to hear from you! :)