Echo and Bounce

Fantasy


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.

Recommendations welcome.


This post is part of the Alphabet Supremacy series that I’m doing with Bice Dibley.

Comments

Jonathan Lange on 2013-04-13 11:11
I've read Tigana and quite enjoyed it. I agree that it's one of his best. I also read his magicked-up historical fiction from time to time, and although I haven't come across anything that's quite as good as Tigana, it's a pleasant enough way to pass the time.

I tried The Way of Kings again. I pushed through the prelude, with its eternally dying characters and made up monsters and magic swords (no, wait, "Blades") and got to the first page of book one, at which point I got hit with so many made up words I had to stop.

It's fantasy, so of course there are going to be made up monsters and Words capitalized for the sake of it. But, at least for me, I have to trust the author to go along with it. And, for Sanderson in the The Way of Kings, I don't. He doesn't even seem to try to earn my trust or to convince me there's a story worth telling.

I can imagine reading the same text and being intrigued instead of annoyed, and maybe some day when I'm in a different mood, I will. At this stage, it would be for the sake of the warm recommendation rather than anything alluring in Sanderson's prose.
Story Weaver on 2013-04-12 15:47
Have you already tried Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay? A weakness of Kay's writing is that it is rather heavy on moralising and a bit stuffy. However, his best writing, and I think Tigana is amongst his best, is also thoughtful, with engaging characters. Tigana is particularly good because it deals with such difficult themes. One side of the book is the efforts of a plucky and noble bunch of rebels to oust the evil invader to their land… but the other side of the book is from that invader, who is a deeply sympathetic character. It's a fantasy story where you grow to love both sets of characters even as they are locked in conflict.

Secondly, I know that you already read the first few pages of Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings and turned away from it in disappointment. I would encourage you give it another go. It is of the breed of "epic" fantasy that takes some time to get going, but I think it is well worth it. Something that is true across of Sanderson's books is that you sometimes find yourself wincing at the flawed view of a character. However, that doesn't mean it's what the book, or the author, espouses. His books take characters with a great many different viewpoints and let them really develop over the story. If you haven't the time for The Way of Kings then Mistborn is also very good.
Tristan Seligmann on 2013-03-18 08:38
It's interesting that you would mention Lord of the Rings. I believe Lord of the Rings (or possibly The Hobbit; I read them together and I can't recall in what order) was the first fantasy literature I ever read (at the age of 7 or so), and I found it utterly amazing. In retrospect, while Tolkien's world-building was impressive, the actual writing in Lord of the Rings was extremely tiresome to wade through, and it's not something I usually recommend to other people as an enjoyable read.
AmanicA on 2013-03-17 21:44
Hi,
here's a list of authors I've enjoyed, but you probably have either read them or have totally different taste:
David Eddings
Markus Heitz
Raymond E. Feist
Christopher Paolini
Terry Goodkind
Trudi Canavan
Robin Hobb
Terry Brooks
AmanicA on 2013-03-17 21:42
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