Friday, February 26, 2016

Why is the Fantasy Genre so Focused on War?

Warfare plays an important role in the fantasy genre. Many of its most iconic works embrace military themes, either as a central plot element or as a disruptive force that's more in the background but still creating obstacles and conflict for the protagonists.

Sometimes the military is front and center, as in Elizabeth Moon's Deed of Paksennarion novels or Django Wexler's Shadow Campaign. Other times battles occur intermittently throughout the series where much of the focus is on something else, as in Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy, and other times, war is completely in the background but still influencing the story, as in Carol Berg's Lighthouse Duology.


I've wondered why this is. Many people look at the genre as escapist, and war is one of life's less pleasant realities. Few of us really want to live in its shadow as civilians or soldiers, and painstaking descriptions of military training, tactics, camp life, not to mention indignities such as dysentery, can be quite dull. Conflict, change, and stakes are necessary plot elements in any story, and war can certainly create these, yet other genres of fiction find ways to test their characters and introduce change without a focus on sieges, battles and military strategies or tactics. It's possible to create stories with compelling stakes that have nothing to do with war. This is the norm in many genres

When I put this question to some of my fellow fantasy readers and writers, one explanation was that historical epics, such as Gilgamesh and The Iliad focused heavily on battles and wars. Fantasy as a genre often attempts to recreate or evoke the tropes presented in these traditional tales, which often contained magical or supernatural elements.

The success of Tolkien's work is also a possible explanation. While he didn't dwell on the nitty gritty day-to-day life of soldiers, or even on military tactics, no one can argue that war was an important part of both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

Given Tolkien's influence on the genre, it's hardly surprising that many writers adopted his approach. A focus on enemies who are unilaterally evil and under the control of a dark figure that must be stopped certainly does turn war into something that's more appealing from an escapist perspective.

I can't help but wonder how much of fantasy's sometimes idealistic portrayal of war was shaped by the two world wars in particular. Tolkien fought in WWI and lived through WWII as well. He claimed that his work was not meant to be allegorical, but it's hard not to see parallels between fascism and the minions of Sauron.

And Tolkien aside, those of us who were born and came of age in the decades following WWII had our consciousness shaped by the cultural memory of a war that really was against an implacable evil that could have destroyed civilization as we know it. Few would argue in hindsight that a more pacifistic approach would have been the best one in that particular instance. Could the warlike nature of late twentieth and early twenty-first century fantasy represent a collective desire to escape to a world where moral ambiguity was (in hindsight, at least) less than it is today? This is certainly possible, though I can't think of a way to test, or falsify such a hypothesis.

Another thing to consider is that war stories are often anti war stories at their heart. All Quiet on the Western Front is an iconic example here, but there are plenty of others. Fantasy novels are notably absent from this list, but I don't think fantasy writers always portray war in a positive light. TH White's The Once and Future King is a retelling of Mallory's version of the Arthurian legend, a heroic epic, yet some feel it was inspired by his own pacifism and misgivings about nationalism as he came to terms with a war (WWII) where the enemy clearly had to be stopped.

Other fantasy writers like Moorcock, and more recently Abercrombie, have also sought to deconstruct some of the tropes popularized by Tolkien and other fantasy writers from the earlier part of the 20th century. Moorcock's Elric saga, and the Abercrombie's novels are very violent and war-centered, yet neither glorifies war or presents it as something that improves the world.

And there are plenty of other explanations why war is so commonly portrayed in fantasy novels. It's often stated that in the early-to-mid 20th century at least, fantasy was traditionally aimed (with some noteworthy exceptions) at young, male readers. This is a demographic that is often drawn to tales of adventure, heroics, and self-sacrifice, and while war isn't necessary for stories to embrace such themes, it certainly lends itself well to them.

It's also possible to overstate the prevalence of war in fantasy, as there are a number of popular and iconic fantasy tales, many very recent, but some quite old, that have no military, battle, or war in them at all, or if they do, it's so much in the background that it has little to no impact on the plot. One thing that's really hard to do, given the thousands of trade-published titles (not to mention all the self published work that's become available more recently), is to actually tally up the books published during a given period to see if there are certain plot elements or themes which become more or less prevalent.

The diversity of the genre itself becomes problematic here. How does one define a war-focused story to begin with? Are Rowling's Harry Potter books war focused because the last book in the series had the siege of Hogwarts in it? I'd say it really isn't, but some might not agree.

A case in point, is that I never really thought of McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern books as militaristic, since it's unthinkable in that world to pit dragon against dragon or go to war over land when the whole planet must cooperate to survive. To me, these books always felt more like a long disaster relief effort with coming of age stuff, romance, interpersonal drama, and cloak and dagger plots, but a friend recently told me that they always made him think of one unending Battle of Britain, but with mindless spores instead of enemy planes and bombs. He has a point.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Great Secondary World Fantasy by Woman Authors You Might Not Know

 Since March is Women's History month, I thought I'd write about women who are currently writing traditional fantasy (by traditional, I mean fantasy that takes place in a secondary, pre-industrial setting).

I became a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy in the 1970s and 80s, and I've been reading it ever since. While I read all types, my primary interest has been traditional "space focused" SF,  and traditional "secondary world" fantasy. For a long time, most of my favorite writers of speculative fiction were women. They included writers like C.J. Cherryh, Mercedes Lackey, Lynn Flewelling, Kate Elliott, Ursula K. LeGuin, Kate Elliot, Kage Baker, Elizabeth Moon, and Anne McCaffrey. My bias was somewhat deliberate, because I noticed that a lot of the popular male SF and fantasy writers of that time period treated female characters (and relationships between the genders) in a way that didn't appeal to me.

Sometime during the early 2000s, I decided I needed to remedy my female bias in reading, and I started reading some of the newer male authors

Not dismissing the men here. Many of my favorite fantasy authors have been male. But with all the controversy over at the SFWA, I've been thinking a lot about this issue lately. Epic fantasy has taken a darker, grittier turn in recent years, and it also seems like fewer of the new voices in adult secondary world fantasy have been women in recent years, though there have been a lot of women writing YA fantasy and urban fantasy. When people recommend fantasy, or discuss their favorite authors, female writers often get overlooked.

Here's a list of some woman fantasy writers I've read personally who have set at least some of their more recent novels in secondary worlds and who write primarily for an adult audience. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I've tried to emphasize some writers who are a bit more recent.

Kristen Britain: Green Rider Series. This tale is set in a more traditional fantasy world, where special messengers called Green Riders serve their king. An enjoyable tale with a strong female protagonist.

Amanda Downum: The Drowning City (first book in the Necromancer Chronicles). A great female protagonist, and a cool take on necromancy in general.

Lynn Flewelling: The Nightrunner series and the Tamir Trilogy. She's been writing for a while, and has a strong following, but a surprising number of epic fantasy fans haven't read her work. Her fantasy society is ruled by a lineage of warrior queens and served by a network of wizards and spies, and intrigue and conflict figure prominently in these stories.

N.K. Jemison: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: This is her debut novel, and it's a complex tale of intrigue and ambition, set in a fascinating world.

Jaida Jones and Daniel Bennett: Havemercy. This is the first book in a series that is set in a world where a country with a Czarist Russia feel uses mechanical dragons to fight their enemies.

Francis Knight: The Rojan Dizon Trilogy (Fade to Black, Before the Fall and Last to Rise). Darkish fantasy set in a dystopian theocracy where magic is fueled by pain.

Glenda Larke: The Stormlords Trilogy and the Isles of Glory Trilogy. Both of these have great world building and intriguing characters. The water-based magic system in the Stormlords books is wonderful.

Jane Lindskold: The Firestarter series. The protagonist is a girl raised by intelligent wolves, but this doesn't stop her from becoming embroiled in a web of royal intrigue. Lots of twists and unexpected turns. An added bonus is that the author actually researched wolf behavior and social structure and didn't rely on the outdated stereotypes and assumptions that clutter up far too many stories.

Anne Lyle: The Night's Masque Trilogy. This is set in an alternative Elizabethan England, where an intelligent, magic-using species that is decidedly not human inhabits the new world.

Maria V. Snyder. Poison Study. I've heard that this is marketed as YA, and as a romance, but it doesn't really fit the typical mold for these genres (the protagonist is 19, already past the usual cut-off age for YA at the beginning of the series, and ages throughout. Plus the romance is an important part of the tale, but not its main focus). An interesting debut novel set in an unusual fantasy world.