Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Revisiting Epic Fantasy

I'm closing in on the end of this book -- finally! Within about 10,000 words I should be at a length I'd consider a full novel. I don't know how many words it will take to finish the story. I've discovered some surprising things along the way. For instance, I now know what the deal is with that cat/woman fairy. She's played a role in the plot in the past, and I knew there was a story behind her. I just didn't know what that was until yesterday.

Now I just have to resist the end-of-story impatience that has me so excited with the end in sight that I rush toward the end, skimming over things like "lots of stuff happened and they beat the bad guys, the end!"

I went on about a month-long library lull because I've been trying to purge the to-be-read pile (or as one of my friends dubbed it, The Strategic Book Reserve) and actually read some of the books that I thought I might read at some point. I found a small nest of Old School Del Rey fantasy novels from the late 70s/early 80s that I'd somehow never read. That was a real blast from the past. This seemed to be from the era soon after the official US paperback publication of The Lord of the Rings, when suddenly everyone wanted more books like that and fantasy was the next hot thing. There was even a special variation of the Del Rey imprint logo to indicate that it was a fantasy. I suspect that this was a case of publishing glut (though I don't know that the genre ever died out) when they were so desperate to find these books that they were buying them up left and right. Newbie authors could become smash bestsellers overnight, just on the virtue of having that logo on the spine, that style of cover art, and a map at the beginning of the book. Some of the authors first published during that wave are still going strong (Terry Brooks). Others have faded into obscurity since then.

After reading one and a half of these books, I can see why I haven't read these in all the time I've had them (I'm not sure when I obtained them) and why these books are now out of print and I can't find anything newer than about 1984 by this author. I suspect that at the time they were very much in the "it must be like Tolkien" mode -- the story had to be a journey or quest of some sort, the questing party had to be made up of people from various magical races, and the hero had to be an "unlikely" ordinary guy (always a guy) thrust into this adventure, usually a bit reluctantly. And there always had to be a wizard in the Gandalf mold. There was often some weasely bad guy stalking them, wanting to get their magical object(s). Usually, the wizard had to give a chapter-long lecture on the history of their world and of the bad guy in the second chapter, before they set out on their quest. There was always some incident in the middle when the questing party made a really bad decision, overruling the wizard's advice, that ended in some kind of disaster and major setback (note to self -- when on a quest and tired of walking, be very, very suspicious if just the right number of really friendly and suspiciously well-trained horses shows up. It's a trap. It's always a trap.).

I imagine a lot of the issues have to do with the time. There was likely that "it must be just like X, but different" factor. Pacing was very different then. There was a very strong emphasis of plot over character, and I think today's readers generally demand a deeper viewpoint. I got to the end of one book and still couldn't have told you much of anything about who those people were, which made it hard to care what happened to them.

But man, when I was in high school, I probably would have devoured this stuff. I probably wouldn't have noticed the thin characters because I'd have fleshed them out in my head. I'd have charted every step on their journey on the map at the front. I'm not sure these particular books would have become obsessions the way some of the others I read at the time did, but this was still the sort of thing I enjoyed reading at the time, and it was the kind of thing I kept trying to write when I first decided I wanted to write a fantasy novel. I still would love to write a classic "quest" fantasy, and No Quest for the Wicked was my way of playing with those tropes in a modern setting (if you read a lot of these fantasy novels back in the day, you may recognize them).

I saw this map of "Clichea," the generic epic fantasy world around the time I was struggling through these books and found it highly amusing, but almost too true to be funny.

I did finally give in and go to the library. Now I'm reading a Charles de Lint book. Aaahhhh, sweet relief. I may stick to fantasy that's a little more recent or that has stood the test of time.

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