NOTE: “AMoS” stands for A Muse of Shadows, the working title for my novel in progress. In this and subsequent posts, I talk about the various sources for my initial ideas for the (still extremely unformed) book.
There are dozens of subgenres of fantasy literature, and I have strong opinions about most of them. I grant that any subgenre can be done well or poorly, and I’m happy to allow other readers their preferences, but certain conventions and tropes just bug me, and often it’s because I’ve read them till they wore out their welcome. In beginning to conceive of an original fantasy novel, I started by eliminating the subgenres that feel oversaturated or undercooked.
My biggest bugbear is what I call Crossover Fantasy, although a better name might be the Wardrobe Romp. That’s “wardrobe” as in The Lion, the Witch, and the, C.S. Lewis’s first (well, technically second, but c’mon) Narnia book, in which four perfectly normal British children pass through an inexplicably magical closet into a wonderfully magical world and proceed to save it from the dark forces threatening its peaceful denizens.
But actually, LWW was published in 1950, so perhaps we should call it the Neverland Romp, since Peter Pan predates it by nearly 40 years. Or maybe Rabbit-Hole Fiction, in honour of Alice. Or the Gulliver Gallivant, after Swift’s eighteenth century proto-fantasy. Do you see a pattern here? All of these seminal Crossover texts are children’s stories (except for Gulliver’s Travels, although it has been annexed by kids’ lit since the bite of its satire went soft).
It’s wish fulfilment, kid’s stuff, and as a kid I lapped it up, particularly in the form of Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels, which paired Crossover Fantasy with an endless cavalcade of puns. When I was older, I tried a number of Crossover series aimed at older readers, but by then I’d cooled to the trope. It seemed too much like a shortcut, a cheat. Plenty of friends adore Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionovar Tapestry trilogy, but I couldn’t get past the first chapter: “Hey, disaffected college students who are obviously ciphers for the readership: I’m a wizard from the world next door. Wanna pop by for adventure-times?”
On account of my bias, I’ve long been drawn towards Sealed World Fantasy, featuring self-contained settings, often with intricate histories and mythologies that can serve as a puzzle-box for attentive readers – or as an expositional drag, when badly handled. The grandpappy here of course is Lewis’s fellow inkling, J.R.R. Tolkien, but I’ve never read The Silmarillion and I doubt I ever will. Mostly I like Sealed World Fantasy because it doesn’t talk down to its readers.
Except lately, I’ve found authors in this camp feel the need to outshine each other with increasingly rarefied concepts about the nature of magic in their worlds. Where does magic come from, the authors ask themselves, and then throw a dart at an encyclopedia: Bones! No, metal! No, trees! Like midi-chlorians in the Star Wars universe, I feel as if magic shouldn’t need explaining, and I shy away from Sealed World books that try too hard to dazzle the reader with something totally new.
Slightly less off-putting are Blended Worlds, where fantasy and reality co-exist, sometimes with magic lurking in the shadows, but more and more often in plain sight. Neil Gaiman’s works usually play with the shadowy variety, and nearly all the vampire fiction of the last 50 years fits in here, too. Sometimes, though, if the vampires get too obtrusive, then an author will perform a sort of sociological experiment – how would our world change if they walked among us? The extreme version of this would be Mercedes Lackey’s books, in which elves ride motorcycles and the wizards are the disaffected college students.
The Harry Potter series falls partly into this subgenre. It starts out with a rigidly divided Earth (ie. the muggles know nothing about the wizards) but then it gradually explores elements of blending. While it’s tempting to dismiss that series as more kid’s stuff, I think its later installments more properly fit into the recently branded Young Adult category – the shelf upon which I’m setting my own sights. But I’ll have more to say about YA another day.
Overall, I’m not wild about Blended Worlds. The sociological speculation is usually tepid, and elves look dumb on motorbikes. But hiding within the subgenre is a sub-subgenre that has long intrigued me. Secret History fantasy takes the shadow-dwelling magical elements of the Blended World and slots them into a meticulously researched real-world history. This gives the fantasy tropes a grounding that they otherwise almost never get – they’re presented as echoes of, or even justifications for, actual events.
If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you’ll recognize this device in episodes where the time-traveling Doctor subtly influences historical events – whether it’s causing Vesuvius to erupt or explaining Agatha Christie’s famous disappearance – then slips away before anyone thinks to record his presence. But for whatever reason, novelists who embrace this formula seem drawn to the lives of 19th century British authors, especially the Romantic poets. Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates and The Stress of Her Regard both expertly sew weird, horror-fantasy narratives through the warp of the larger-than-life lives of Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge – all without missing a single date or fact.
I admire the dark elegance of Secret Histories, which often involve cults, conspiracies, and double lives. I sometimes feel like the authors are just showing off their grasp of biographical facts, which can distract from the narrative. But I certainly can’t blame Powers for wanting to justify the anachronistic mysticism of the Romantics with a bit of myth and magic. So I will cite Powers, and other Secret History authors, as my first set of inspirations – even though I know I won’t be as diligent in researching, nor as faithful in presenting, the historical facts.
When I err, I’ll blame the vagaries of time travel. Because yes, Doctor Who fans, there’s going to be plenty of that, too.