We have all read the story before. A group of people join together from various walks of life and backgrounds to journey on a quest. They may have to traverse dangerous terrain, fight off bandits, or avoid pursuit by the forces of evil. The setting itself does not matter, only that this band of adventures embarks on a journey seeking something. But a quest does not just have to a physical matter. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a quest as an act or instance of seeking. It does not state that a quest is just about the travel or that what they seek is a physical object. Oftentimes, the point of the quest is not only to accomplish a mission, but to grow as well. While a character remains in one place, they are static. It is only through embarking on or joining the quest that they can change.
Fantasy is one of those genres of fiction that can be set in any world you can imagine. Authors can take as much, or as little, inspiration, from the real world as they like. The only boundary to the world in the book is the writer’s imagination. The setting and world can be as realistic as possible, adhering to real-world physics and the like. Or, an author can go completely wild and show us something with no resemblance to our world. So, why is it that so much fantasy just looks like medieval Europe with the addition of magic or strange creatures? Many, many books are written by cisgender, heterosexual, white men and feature cisgender, heterosexual, white protagonists. There are so many other voices out there, authors of diverse ethnicities, sexualities, and an entire spectrum of genders. Their books deserve to be read too.
I have talked endlessly about the power of fantasy novels on this blog, and will continue to do so as long as this genre maintains its unique power. Fantasy is about all about creation and imagination, allowing readers to inhabit worlds wholly unlike our own. It is a measure of escapism that other literary genres can only dream of. Free from the pretentiousness of literary fiction, and liberated from the need for explanation in science-fiction, fantasy authors set their own rules in each new story. Crush the King is the third and latest novel in Jennifer Estep’s wonderful Crown of Shards series, preceded by Kill the Queen and Protect the Prince. Few would call this story literary fiction, but few series are more fun to read that the adventures of Everleigh “Evie” Saffira Winter Blair.
Every story has a theme, a focus running side-by-side with the plot that thoroughly defines the very nature of the book. When a person asks what a book is about, there are always two answers; the plot, and the themes. For example, The Lord of the Rings is about the battle between good and evil, and the nature of heroism. It is also the story of a hobbit crossing the world to throw an evil ring into a volcano. In a similar vein, Splintegrate, by Deborah Teramis Christian, is a story about bodily autonomy and the nature of identity. It is about what happens when outside machinations violate one’s body and personality without consent. It is also an engaging science-fiction thriller about a professional dominatrix charged with assassinating a mob boss. The high level of technology present in a science-fiction setting allows for a practical examination of identity outside of the thought experiments of today.
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.
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.
Fantasy is a realm of endless imagination where all it takes is one idea, one small change to our world, to create a brand-new reality unlike anything anyone has seen before. Castles can float in the sky, anyone can learn magic, and the gods walk among humankind. Fantasy is the genre for those who can dream, who can create universes in their heads and put them to paper. Despite its power, fantasy is looked down upon in the literary community. It is not “high art.” It is not literature, it is one of the “genres.” But the fantasy genre wields a power which literary novels do not: it makes you see past the words written on the page and stimulates your own imagination. In direct opposition to literary fiction, the best fantasy novels are the ones that make you forget that you are reading a book.