Scandinavia can at times seem like a harsh and unforgiving land, but people have called it home for thousands upon thousands of years. Now broken up between Sweden, Norway, and Finland on the mainland, the Nordic people also settled into Iceland Svalbard, Jan Mayen, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. This is a setting which as gripped popular culture for years, with many authors choosing to pull from its rich history. The origin of the Vikings, some of the fiercest raiders the world has ever known, they revered a uniquely flawed pantheon of gods and goddesses. Unlike pantheons around the world, the gods of the Norse could be killed. Their names have long since transcended folklore, appearing in everything from science-fiction anime to fantasy novels set in new worlds. Even existing franchises once known for other settings, such as the God of War series of video games, has moved into the north. And influence of the Norse is not diminishing.
Science-fiction is one of the most versatile genres of fiction around, capable of combining settings with any other tale. Science-fiction as a genre is also a bit of a misnomer. The average science-fiction story is not just science-fiction. Tales can be action films, adventure stories, romance, horror, and more. From Blade Runner to Black Mirror, from Polaris Rising to Foundation. Science-fiction can be defined by both fun and thoughtfulness, and there is always a place for a fun adventure that does not require readers to analyze every paragraph. Books like The Forbidden Stars, Tim Pratt’s third novel in the Axiom trilogy, show the importance of such escapism while also taking the opportunity to define a possible future. While entertaining, the novels also take some time to normalize behaviors and lifestyles, sexual orientations and body modifications. Science-fiction lets us see all futures and revel in them.
There is a certain amount of joy gained in reading some fiction. Fiction meant to entertain, to transport the readers to fantastical worlds and witness the deeds of heroic peoples. Where literary fiction tends to prioritize specific word choice and meaning over plot and character, many authors realize that there can be greater value in drawing in and entertaining your audience. Sometimes the best books are the ones that make you forget that you are reading words on a page, instead conjuring images in your imagination. These are the kinds of books that are hard to put down, and you wonder how you managed to read through them so quickly. These types of books thrive in science-fiction, where most things, if not all things, are possible. The only barrier is the author’s imagination.
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Folklore is ingrained in cultures around the world and is one of the most common inspirations for fantasy fiction around. For as long humans have been curious and looking for explanations, folklore has been there to fill in the gaps. Human minds created thousands of fantastical creatures and unique worlds, separate from our own in an effort to explain the workings of the world. A family with an unruly child might be nurturing a changeling, while the striking of lightning might signal the fury of a grand spirit. When items went missing in a house, there were stolen by gremlins or other creatures. These beliefs used to be common knowledge, known to be true around the world. But there comes a certain point in every culture when people stop believing, when the explanations for phenomena are found to be mundane. The belief may be gone, but the influence of these stories lingers.
A certain amount of pressure is placed on an author’s second novel, especially when the first novel gains the level of attention and acclaim of R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War. A second novel, whether it be the second ever or the second in a series, is expected to be better written than its predecessor. A second novel is expected to have a better understanding of plot, of its characters, and of its readers’ expectations. A second novel is expected to improve upon the first in every conceivable way. This is easier said than done for most authors, and is easier to accomplish in the beginning of a career, where there is still learning to be done. The longer an author writes, the more series, they craft, the greater the risk of sequelitis setting in. Sometimes, the second story is worse than the first. The Dragon Republic, R. F. Kuang’s second novel, is a sequel done absolutely right.
Time travel is one of the best travelled staples of science-fiction, from books to television shows to movies, it is the ultimate form of exploration. The concept of time travel is almost as old as the history of writing, with the first known written example dating to around 400 BCE. In the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, King Raivata Kakudmi journeys to heaven to meet Brahma, the Hindu creator god. When he returns to the moral world, centuries have passed. Time travel in fiction, from this ancient epic to Stargate and Doctor Who, usually involves physically transporting one-self through time, bringing your body and memories with you. Threats include meeting your past self, or encountering the grandfather paradox, or making changes to the past which may affect the future. Very rarely do we get a novel in a similar vein to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, where time travel is a person journey into your own memories.
Some of the best novel series understand that, in order to keep a fictional world interesting, they need to change or play with the genre in some way. A novel is never just science-fiction, it can be a mystery set in a science-fiction universe. Or the first novel can be hard science-fiction, where the second brings fantasy elements into the mix. With The Outlaw and the Upstart King, Rod Duncan’s follow up to last year’s steampunk adventure The Queen of all Crows, he takes readers away from his sci-fi Victorian setting and to somewhere new. The setting of this second novel resembles a more medieval, violent Arthurian wilderness with none of the first novel’s trappings of setting.
Fantasy is a versatile genre. There is classic fantasy, high fantasy, grimdark fantasy, science fantasy, urban fantasy, industrial fantasy, and more. Any other genre can be combined with fantasy in ways that improve both genres. The Lord of the Rings is thought of the epitome of classic fantasy, but even that combined a gritty war drama, politics, environmentalism, and linguistics into its story. The Dresden Files is the quintessential urban fantasy, taking elements of modern-day noir and crime drama alongside its elements of high fantasy. Then there is industrial fantasy, the combination that often seems the most contradictory. When we think of elves and gnomes, it is not the natural inclination to imagine their industrial age. Yet imagining an industrialized fairy tale is exactly what Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Mother accomplishes.
A good fantasy series can potentially go on forever. Series like the The Wheel of Time or The Dresden Files easily tell a dozen books worth of story. However, a great fantasy series knows it’s ending, even if takes a while to get there. Jim Butcher has stated he knows the ending for The Dresden Files and how many books the series will contain. The reader can see that the story is leading somewhere definite. Even if the ending suggested in book one is now the ending for the entire series, it still suggests a finality. Jennifer Estep’s Crown of Shards series is only two books in, but we already have a sense of where the ultimate plot is going. Machinations have already begun and there is a clear-long term villain. Ultimately, it is always possible for a series to arrive at its first ending, and realize there is more story to tell. With great fantasy, there is a sea of endless possibility that allows characters to develop and keep the plot always interesting.
Pulp fiction is a relatively new genre of fiction, originating in the late eighteen-hundreds, at the height of Western colonization. The sun never set on the British empire, and they (along with the Americans) ransacked the world in an endless hunt for artifacts and remnants and ancient civilizations. None of them held a greater allure than Egypt. While the genre was popularized by Indiana Jones, it predates the archaeologist by many years. The tales of Allan Quartermain and She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard really brought pulp fiction into prominence. Ancient tombs and treasures were being discovered every day, and the world was much larger than it is today. At the turn of the century, the Western world became obsessed.