March 6th, 2007

Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

Server down

...and my website(s) are out of the count for the moment. Normal service will resume ASAP.

Thank you for your attention.

Perhaps, later, if the sites are still down, I'll trawl for some amusing links to keep you occupied in the interim period...
Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

The Good Stuff

hawkwing_lb reviews (by proxy, as it were) "Eragon"

Point of order: I haven't myself, read the book. But if half of what's described on these pages is remotely correct... well... shall we say I've put bigger bestsellers down in despair. On the strength of what I've heard about the movie (although, granted, it's a GIVEN that movies-made-from-books tend to suck in sometimes quite unimaginable ways, so we'll cut that a little slack, right there) and from any reader who happens to be above the age that the author of the original book was when he wrote it (i.e. mid-teens), I don't think that "Eragon" and I, despite my admitted love affair with the fantasy genre, would be a good fit.

Which leads me to cogitate on the Matter of Fantasy.

I've just done an interview for a German fantasy magazine, and hey, there it was again. The Question.

Fantasy is overrun with the tropes - with its elves (sorry, Elves, can't not capitalise that), Dwarves, orcs (oh dear GOD, Tolkien, what have you started with THOSE?..), unicorns, dragons, evil kings, long-lost and unwitting pawns of prophecies which had been (often thankfully) forgotten by the time the scion who's supposed to fulfill them comes ambling along whistling something vaguely resembling the cheerful theme tune from the Andy Griffith Show.

The classic, in other words, EFP, or Extruded Fantasy Product as it has been dubbed in rasfc, my home newsgroup, which really has some amazingly clever people in it when it comes to term coinage.

Let's talk about something else just for a moment. Let's talk about chocolate. When I was young and innocent and naive and lacking either experience or the proper taste buds, I loved MILK chocolate. You know, the really really SWEET stuff. The stuff that cloys and sickens, if taken in large quantities. And still I loved it, the sweetness of it, the giddy taste of it, and I could have more more more MORE. As I grew older - and more discerning - I began to leave the sugar-added candy to the next generation of kids, and gravitated more and more to the stuff that was as unadulterated as I could find. The rich dark chocolates. The more EXPENSIVE chocolate. The stuff that had a memorable taste, a hint of bitterness, something that left the mouth feeling satisfied and not sick and sated.

I was the same way with fantasy. Okay, we all start with the milk chocolate. The classic stuff. We ALL love our dragons. But Eragon's dragons are apparently vintage sweet milk chocolate EFP with flavour added. It takes someone like Naomi Novik and her dragon-enhanced Napoleonic wars to make dragons start to taste like 70%-cocoa bitter dark chocolate again, and even she is constrained by the milkchocolateness of the trope to a point where she sometimes slides back into that (although she fights free of it, when she does).

What I said in my German interview is that fantasy tropes are Legos, and it's what you BUILD with them that matters in the end, not what they are. A badly written EFP - even a decently written EFP with absolutely no leavening of trying to do something *else*, something *different* with those tropes - and it all comes back, the memory of the milk chocolate cloying sweetness. And the effect is instant, both on the experienced readers in the genre and in the newly-arrived ones - on the former, the reminder is too much, and a book turns into "yet another generic"; for the latter, if they have any kind of ear at all, they will "hear" the main notes of that particular song, and if only because in today's over-subscirbed information age, will recognise them even if they haven't been exposed to much of the same before. And there'll be a recoil, a feeling of ennui and annoyance, even though they won't even know why, not really.

Fantasy is a vibrant, vivid, tremblingly alive genre. Done well, there is nothing to touch it. The Guy Gavriel Kays of this world, the Ursula Le Guins, yes, even the JK Rowlings-wannabes who realise that whatever else she has done she has single-handedly revitalised the genre by the simple dint of using the old Legos in a way that makes the material she is writing about at least SEEM fresh and new. There is nothing like fantasy to put forward a bitter truth with its own aftertaste - the 70%-proof bitter chocolate - and make your tastebuds, your reading self, sit up, and notice, and learn, and gasp, and laugh, and cry, and feel all the passion and the power of worlds that never were, that could never be.

But it takes some effort.

There are readers out there, of course, who read things like fantasy for the fluff factor. They exist in sufficient quantity, and their dollar is sufficiently powerful, for truckloads of EFP to be published every year, and take up valuable shelf space in bookstores. The presence of such unadulterated and unleavened EFP, if it is picked up as an introduction to fantasy by unwitting newbies, is a real danger - because it is quite capable of turning potential readers of the GOOD stuff off the genre in droves before they've even had a chance to FIND the good stuff.

And my definition of fantasy is broad, here. It includes things like the so-called New Weird (e.g. China Mieville, who uses language like a scalpel), the urban fantasy (which is a very broad category - from old hands like Charles de Lint to up-and-comers like Kat Richardson), the indefinable writers like Neil Gaiman who are a genre unto themselves.

The message is... if you start with something along the lines of what "Eragon" (apparently) is, at least according to this one reader, and you think that no fantasy writer has ever written a word that's powerful or original - don't stop there. Seek out the Good Stuff. If you have no clue where to look, there are lots of lists out there which will go something along the lines of, if you like X then you will like Y. Ask your more experienced friends. Ask employees in independent bookstores (not so much the Barnes and Nobles of this world, their book choices are made at the Head Office and you're extraordinarily lucky if you find someone on the ground in your local branch of the store who is really savvy in the SF/Fantasy genre.

Bad fantasy is often simply appalling.

Good fantasy, GREAT fantasy, is addictive, heady, powerful stuff. Hold out for the good stuff. You may have to eat a certain amount of milk chocolate before you get to the real thing - but honing your palate is something you may have to do before you can truly appreciate the tingle of the good stuff. Persevere. No genre rewards a reader like this one can... if you take the time to find the right road into its magic.