Thursday, May 25, 2006


As part of an ongoing leavetaking of who I was 20 years ago, I have realised that I am no longer much of a fantasy fan. That is, I'd rather not read any more thick American paperback trilogies in the Tolkien mode.

In my early teens, love of fantasy led me to start reading novels in English (indirectly providing me with the tools necessary to write this blog). It was mostly American paperbacks in bunches of three: Eddings, Feist, Weis & Hickman, Brooks, Zimmer Bradley. Absolutely wonderful (except Brooks, shudder, even I could see that back then). Then I turned away from this sort of thing, shunning Jordan, Kay, Williams, Hobb, Lackey and their ilk. But still, inside me there is a 13-year-old who feels that anything with dragons and magic in it must be worthwhile. So I've returned now and then. With predictable results.

Dear Reader, it is useless to collect a fiction library, because you will sooner or later find that you are no longer the person who decided to keep a given book. Give your books away once you've stopped re-reading them. Eddings sat untouched on my shelves for 15 years. Then I re-read Pawn of Prophecy and promptly donated the Belgariad series to my local library. In recent years, I've also given Hobb, G.R.R. Martin, Goodkind and Kay a chance, but I haven't felt like finishing their books.

American Tolkienesque fantasy sells well, which means that it is good literature by the only meaningful yardstick I know of. But I am personally unable to enjoy most of it. My problem with it is that it feels like a walk through Disneyland. Everything is painted in bright colours with sharp edges, like the Larry Elmore cover of a Dragonlance book. It's mostly written in the voice of a literary innocent, guileless and naive, a breathless Dickensian storyteller. The people in these novels are clearly modern Americans in quasi-Medieval costumes. Much like Larry Elmore's woodenly posed and composed models, actually.

Another thing that keeps me from enjoying American fantasy is my profession. As an archaeologist specialising in 1st Millennium AD Northern Europe, I know a thing or two about the real Dark Ages that these Americans are dreaming of at long remove. I'm breathing the actual dirt from Dark Ages cemeteries and settlements. I can see what outdated college-textbook historical interpretation a fantasy author is working from. I groan at the umpteenth Happy Meal plastic toy resurrection of matters Arthurian, Beowulfish and "Celtic". The weight of cliché is often crushing. Diana Wynne Jones skewered the genre mercilessly in her very funny Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996), but of course she couldn't kill it.

Most of the fantasy novels I've read and liked in the past five years have been written by Europeans.
  • Låt den rätte komma in. John Ajvide Lindqvist 2004.
  • The Absolute at Large. Karel Čapek 1922.
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll 1865.
  • The Warrior of World’s End. Lin Carter 1974.
  • The Never-ending Story. Michael Ende 1979.
  • The Exploits of Moominpappa. Tove Jansson 1968.
  • Changing Planes. Ursula K. LeGuin 2004.
  • Ronia, the Robber's Daughter. Astrid Lindgren 1981.
  • Titus Groan. Mervyn Peake 1946.
  • The Truth. Terry Pratchett 2000.
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. J.K. Rowling 1997.
  • Kung Tulle. Om grundandet av Tulavall. Irmelin Sandman Lilius 1972.
  • The Eyes of the Overworld. Jack Vance 1966.
This list should be useful in one way or another to anyone with an interest in fantasy. If, as many people do, you really like American Tolkienesque fantasy, then it would probably be wise to steer clear of the stuff I like. If, like me, you don't, then give 'em a try!

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Blogger martha said...

I also read oodles of fantasy books in my youth, and can't stomach them now-- am I the only one who finds The Lord of the Rings incredibly bloated and tedious? But I still like fantasy, and dragons and all the trappings. I like China Mieville because he creates a whole new version of fantasy, sidestepping the Tolkien type universe completely. And I also admit to loving the young adult novel The Hero and the Dragon, by Robin McKinley, which I read only recently. It's yet another quest book, but it has a female protagonist, and is very well done. Also The Tooth Fairy, by Graham Joyce, which is very grim and doesn't include any dragons. I think I liked it partly because of the extremely compeling cover art, which you can see at
if you are so inclined. Sorry about the ridiculously long address-- I don't know how to do a link in a comment!

25 May, 2006 18:06  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You... you like Rowling and Carter, but not Martin and Kay?!

I'm speechless. Speechless, I tell you.


25 May, 2006 21:13  
Blogger Martin said...

Martha: I love Tolkien's Ring, but in all honesty it's been a while since I read it.

The Joyce cover looks pretty edgy for a fantasy book!

Akkie: I've read very little Kay, Martin and Carter.

25 May, 2006 22:36  
Blogger Simon said...

You were going fine until you got to HP...

Yeah I used to read a bit of fantasy, but I soon got bored with the psuedo-medieval, "Lawks a Lordy!" dialogue. Tolkien does it. There's not much to add, even if you find him long-winded.

Fantasy grew into sci-fi, which is usually more provoking to the mind (not Star Wars or any of that, which is really just swords and sorcery in spaceships).

About 20, I discarded the fantasy (and shortly the sci-fi too) and started reading history. I found the real stories of history to be far more stimulating than the stilted fantasies of writer who are mainly fulfilling their readers' desire for escapism.

26 May, 2006 13:31  
Blogger Martin said...

I've re-discovered sf in recent years. Have a look at the annual Year's Best SF anthologies edited by Hartwell & Cramer! There are some pretty cool new ideas out there.

26 May, 2006 13:51  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Varför är denna blogg så svårläst? Mörkgrå text mot svart bakgrund. Mina ögon tröttnar efter två minuter.

26 May, 2006 13:58  
Blogger Martin said...

On some screens it's fully legible as it looks now, but I do get complaints too. Maybe I should make a layout change.

26 May, 2006 16:01  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would think that Kay would work well even for a sceptic of traditional epic fantasy (if you discount his first work, the Fionavar Tapestry, which I do like but which seems to make a sport out of cramming as many clichés as possible into three books), whereas Martin is the pinnacle of traditional fantasy writing and might not go over as well if you can't stand the format.

Everything I've ever read from Carter shows him as a hack, but perhaps you stumbled upon a rare pearl.


26 May, 2006 20:22  
Blogger Martin said...

The Carter book is actually a little gem. Heavily dependent on Vance, but humorous in a Pratchett vein long before Pratchett had published anything. I think I've read a few really crappy Lovecraft derivatives by Carter, though, so I see what you mean.

26 May, 2006 22:36  
Blogger Martin said...

I read and liked (a lot) Kay's Tigana in 1992, though I was actually quite shocked when the Bilbo lookalike had S/M sex with the kinky countess.

Then I tried The Lions of al-Rassan a few years back and was soundly bored. But then, real-world history is my job, I'm not really in the market for fictionalised real-world history with fantasy frills.

26 May, 2006 22:41  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Though I always thought a good laser cannon wins over a sword any day I find myself reading Fantasy Opera like Robert Jordan, not very good literature. "Ship of fools" by Richard Paul Russo. That was a good sci-fi book.
Several of the books you listed are childrens books? Are all of them that?

28 May, 2006 12:20  
Blogger Martin said...

The ones intended for grown-up readers are, AFAIK:

* Låt den rätte komma in
* The Absolute at Large
* The Warrior of World’s End
* Changing Planes
* Titus Groan
* The Truth
* The Eyes of the Overworld

Not that I find that distinction very important once a reader grows up.

28 May, 2006 16:00  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even if you don't like his fantasy novels, have you tried George R.R. Martin's SF short stories from the eighties?

Amazing stuff. "The Way of Cross and Dragon" might well be my #1 genre short story ever.

05 June, 2006 12:29  
Blogger Martin said...

I'll give them a try!

05 June, 2006 12:51  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd better qualify by saying that they're of somewhat uneven quality. My personal favorites are:

* The Way of Cross and Dragon
* Sandkings
* A Song for Lya
* Everything in the collection Tuf Voyaging (recently reprinted - lovely eco-SF)

Also, upon checking, much of it is actually from the seventies.


06 June, 2006 01:17  

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