A long while ago I complained a bit on this blog about how difficult it was to find good fantasy books to read. It’s still a problem for me: I still like fantasy, and I still struggle to find examples of the form that I actually enjoy.
Take Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss as an example. It’s a hugely successful novel that has been praised by authors and critics and that I hate, and so it makes a good lens through which to look at the rest of the genre.
It opens with a prologue that aims way too high, trying to be poetic and evocative but ending up sounding merely pretentious. The silence of the protagonist is described as being “the patient, cut-flower sound of a man waiting to die”.
My guess is that most prose writers regularly write passages like this where their ambition exceeds their ability and what they hoped would be beautiful or masterly ends up being unreadably florid – I’ve certainly inflicted more than my share of such on readers of this blog. But it seems that fantasy is rife with purple prose like this, and I think more so than other genres.
It might just be that fantasy imprints have sloppier editors than other genres, but I think it’s actually because of something good about fantasy. Done right, fantasy fiction can make you feel like you’re touching something transcendent and fill you with a sense of wonder in a way that no other form of fiction seems to. It’s that feeling that keeps me coming back to the genre. But it is a tricky thing to do well, and the failure mode is writing that makes you think more about the description than the thing that it’s describing.
Once Wise Man’s Fear gets going, we learn about Kvothe, who is absolutely amazing at everything that he does. In the previous book, we are shown how he is amazingly intelligent, a prodigy at magic, and perhaps the greatest musician this (made up!) world has ever known. In this book, we are subjected to him explaining how awesome he is at martial arts, court diplomacy, and sex.
This seems to be a thing that sells books. It happens in genres outside fantasy too: Lee Child seems to spend a large chunk of his mental energy getting off on how bad-ass Jack Reacher is. I’ve got no idea how anyone can actually enjoy being told how great the author’s made up person is at all the things. To me, it’s like those conversations you have when you are six years old, insisting that you double dare them infinity plus one times. I get that heroes need to actually be heroic, and that following along with them doing great things is part of the fun, but it doesn’t have to be adolescent wish fulfilment.
When I started my quest to find more decent fantasy back in 2009, I wanted to find books that actual felt magical, the way that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, or Sandman, or Lord of the Rings did. Now I’ll settle for finding fantasy that’s well edited, isn’t self-congratulatory tosh, and has enough of a plot to keep me turning the pages.
This post is part of the Alphabet Supremacy series that I’m doing with Bice Dibley.