Fantasy: What’s Next?

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.

fantasy priest

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…

12 thoughts on “Fantasy: What’s Next?

  1. leeduigon 20-Jan-2014 / 14:32

    Unlike many of your readers, I mostly read old stuff. With very few exceptions, when I sample new fantasies–I consider it part of my job to do that–they put me off: especially those created as Young Adults fiction.

    I’ve just finished reading “The King of Elfland’s Daughter” by Lord Dunsany. Try fitting that one into any category!

    The thing about “gritty” fantasy, a la G.R.R. Martin, is… it doesn’t feel like fantasy. It feels more like dreary news reports from another world as fucked-up as our own.

    • James 20-Jan-2014 / 16:56

      Good point. I think there are some modern fantasy works that lose that sense of wonder and fail to send chills through your body when discoveries are made and battles fought. I feel that fantasy such as ASOIAF can be pretty pessimistic. Good stuff that happens is always offset by tragedy and victories that are won are never celebrated as there’s always some great loss round the next corner. Realistic, maybe, but our own history also contains moments of glory, happiness and enlightenment. If Earth had played out like Westeros/Essos I don’t think there would be any of us left hundreds of years later. Thanks for reading!

  2. cajradonich 20-Jan-2014 / 18:30

    Your prediction that High/heroic fantasy will make a come back is heartening. I have been working on one for 6 years now and am almost to the publishing process, but I’ve been a bit worried about the massive trend of dark or grim fantasy. All stories have a certain amount of darkness in them, but I perfer a bit of redeeming light as well.

    • James 20-Jan-2014 / 20:28

      You never know what’s going to be popular until you put it in front of an agent/publisher. Look at Harry Potter. It released into a market almost devoid of childrens’ fantasy. And authors like Joe Abercrombie put their much darker work out there when not much of that really existed.

  3. xanderpayne 20-Jan-2014 / 20:48

    Cool post! Personally, I reckon grey/gritty fantasy will reign for a bit longer; the phenomenal success of Game of Thrones will see to that, in no small part, and I’m pretty happy to let it (I love the grey stuff). I’m sure, thought, that heroic fantasy isn’t properly dead. Eventually, something will come along to change things up – audiences are fickle, always looking for a change, and grey fantasy might just be starting to overstay its welcome.

    Really interested to see your list on potential trendsetters – I’d suggest the Kingkiller Chronicle as one, seeing as it feels like proper fantasy (even if it’s still pretty dark…) 😀

    • James 21-Jan-2014 / 07:15

      Glad you enjoyed it! The list is coming very soon and is pretty much compiled right now. Its all debuts for 2014 though, so no Pat Rothfuss. Maybe I need to do a second list of established ‘alternative’ works… 🙂

  4. Carl 21-Jan-2014 / 05:01

    Extremes create drama, and middle-grounds craft melodrama. I like the idea of wickedly wired wacked-out villainy. I think the struggle for a writer comes that with the ultra-good guy dominating over the ever-evil creatures of the dark: it’s obvious the good guys win in the end.

    Then, there’s the story of the evil guy, where we go and show a “soft” side of them. That, they, too, are human. Angels of the clouds beware: you have much in common with the devil in the dirt. What I mean is: authors today seem to believe that in order to bring depth to a story, you must expand the stories of the characters. I feel that’s entirely false, and dangerous for the craft.

    What arises is more understanding of the unknown, which reduces fear of said evil. That, inevitably, creates melodrama. Here’s the trick: you should not provide understanding of the motives / goals of the antagonist. They seem more wicked and fearful the less we know about them.

    Jason Vorhees. If he was “just” a psychotic murderer with no background told to us, well, shoot, Friday the 13th would still be one helluva scary story.

    I suppose to make it simpler is this: A good author knows what to write, and excellent author knows what to leave out.

    • James 21-Jan-2014 / 07:13

      I really like your point about holding back on the antagonist’s backstory. I like fantasy to have an element of mystery – of things far greater than human concerns that may even be beyond our understanding. The same is true of Gandalf, who is always rather vague about just what he is. It adds to that feeling of awe and wonder.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. leeduigon 21-Jan-2014 / 18:29

    Fellow commenters, I hate to toot my own horn, but there’s no one else to do it, so here goes.

    The books of my “Bell Mountain” series (five in print, with #6 to join them soon) are big on redemption: it’s a major theme. Unfortunately, my publisher is very new and very small, and hardly anyone has heard of these books.

    Find out all about them by visiting my blog, , and click “Books” for covers and sample chapters. All are available from, paperback and kindle.

    James, I hope I haven’t broken your rules or cheesed you off by posting this. I promise not to do it again for a while!

    • James W Shortland 22-Jan-2014 / 09:40

      I’ll let you off… this time 😉 Seriously, I really don’t mind. I’m all for championing new authors. Best of luck with your series. You may want to check out Michael J Sullivan’s blog for some really good advice on self-publishing and especially on using a series to build your readership.

      • leeduigon 22-Jan-2014 / 19:06

        Oh, I don’t need to publish them–they’ve been published, and not by me. See Storehouse Press. Only two authors so far, me and another guy. They turn out a beautiful product, though. The downside is, they don’t do publicity.

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