Well, that’s the title done. Ten minutes to come up with that! Would you believe it? This is one of those posts where I know exactly what I want to say, but I struggle to find a title to do it justice.
Anyway, onto the topic at hand. I want to talk about the fantasy genre right now and look ahead at what I think we can expect from our fantastic fiction in the near future. It feels like the last decade has been a kind of “fantasy dark ages”. Not in the sense that we’ve had no innovation, but in the sense that I feel a great big grey cloud has been hanging over us, stifling our creativity. I speak, of course, about the phenomenon that was gritty/grimdark fantasy. I don’t want to spend too much time talking about this. I’ve already done that elsewhere.
Now, I’m absolutely not saying I don’t like this kind of fantasy yarn. I was an Abercrombie fan right from the off. I love A Song of Ice and Fire (epic fantasy, but I consider it gritty nonetheless) And I’m a bit of a Warhammer Fantasy fan too. Basically, this type of fantasy was original when it started to rear its head. I’m not saying Joe Abercrombie and George R. R. Martin are the same, either, but they could be loosely categorised under a similar grouping.
The problem, though, that I have with this sub-genre of fantasy is that it can all take quite the emotional toll. There are only so many times I can stomach reading a graphic torture scene or a battle where people are being eviscerated and dismembered all over the place. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that I don’t really enjoy this sort of stuff. I read this type of fantasy for the flawed characters, for the disturbingly human conflicts and for the quality of the writing. I don’t enjoy gore for the sake of gore. I know that this is the reality of war and of violence, but it can be executed with a lightness that doesn’t turn the reader’s stomach.
So that brings me to the other end of the “fantasy spectrum”. There isn’t really an established sub-genre that conveys exactly what this is. Maybe heroic fantasy? Basically, good guys vs. bad guys. The Lord of the Rings. The Wheel of Time. Sword of Truth. Shannara. I believe that this style of fantasy is at the heart of the genre. Just about every fantasy-themed video game takes inspiration from works like these. There’s always a clear set of heroes and villains. It’s perfect, impactful stuff for gamers to get stuck into. But in the world of books, this style has diminished, overtaken by works promising “grey characters” and those trying so hard to distance themselves from the traditional fantasy model that they’ve become almost too dark and hopeless. You end up with a bunch of characters that are not grey, but pure black.
What next for fantasy, then? Some have said it’s going to swing back the other way and we’ll have a resurgence of traditional fantasy. Others reckon we’ll still have gritty tales for a while yet, with things only set to get darker and bloodier. And, of course, there’s the camp that foresee steampunk taking off in a big way. I’m not so sure. I can see steampunk gaining traction, but I don’t think it will be as much of a genre-dominating powerhouse that gritty fantasy has been. It’s too much of a sub-genre, if you know what I mean. It’s almost a genre all by itself.
Here’s my prediction. Forget grey characters; this is just a way of saying that everyone’s a little bad and a little good inside. Newsflash! That’s just about every human being in the history of everything… ever. And while we’re on the subject, Tolkien did it in LOTR with Boromir, with Denethor and even Saruman. The man knew what he was about. If he was writing in this day and age, we’d be hailing him as the new wave of fantasy. And there’s my key point. I think we’re headed for fantasy of much more nuance and “light and shadow”.
We can have heroes who fight for justice just because they want a better world. We can have villains who are reborn dark gods or power-hungry necromancers and are evil “just because”. Not everyone needs that grey treatment. But on the flip-side, we can also have the tortured souls, the kind-at-heart barbarians and the self-absorbed promised ones. We don’t always need blood spurting in our faces for us to appreciate a well-crafted fantasy story that isn’t just a Tolkien clone.
I truly believe that we’ve now been to one extreme and seen what it had to offer. We scaled the mountain and then we descended to the deepest parts of the world. It was different down there, if a little dark, but now we want to see that mountain again.
Over the next few days I’m going to be compiling a brief list of fantasy coming out this year which I think is attempting to lead the genre down a new path. Could they be a sign of things to come? I’ll let you decide when the post goes up later this week.
As always, thanks for lending your eyes and your minds. You can have them back now. They’re all gooey…