The magic of fantasy – or sometimes not

misty sunrise2As a science fiction writer I’m intrigued by sci-fi’s cousin, fantasy. I’ve read a lot over the years and compared to science fiction I’ve found it more unpredictable/more varied in terms of quality. I’ve read some excellent work such as that by Raymond Feist, David Gemmell and of course the currently trending George RR Martin. But I’ve also come across the bad in terms of the Lord of the Rings rip-offs and the ‘magic solves everything’ books.

I find it fascinating that so much is based in a medieval society.  There are exceptions of course, such as with David Gemmel, there are stories based on a Roman society and also a post apocalypse series (both of which I highly recommend).  However, most are based in a world of knights swords and usually sorcery possibly with dragons elves, goblins and other mystical creatures thrown in. Which is one reason why, it seems to me at least, you see the same basic plots cropping up again and again i.e. land under threat from an evil empire and the good old quest, not forgetting the boy magician, who can of course be part of either of the other two. If you want the best boy magician story, if you haven’t read it, read Raymond Feist’s ‘The Magician’. The thing is with that, is that it’s so much more. There is depth to the characters and plot and if you read it you’ll want to read all of the ‘Drift War’ series, believe me.

I think one of the problems with fantasy is that once you introduce magic you have to be careful not to fall into that ‘magic solves everything’ trap I mention above. It’s a dilemma. As a reader you look forward to that next magical episode, but also start to feel cheated when it’s used to get out of every impossible situation. I enjoyed the first few of Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ series. It’s well written (in my opinion) and has many fans, but by about book four it did seem to me that towards the end of every book the hero would get into that ‘impossible situation’ and then TaRa!, low and behold, he would discover a fantastic magical power he didn’t know he had. Problem solved. Then onto the next book where he’d flounder around most of the time making mistakes until.., well you’ve guessed it.

French ChateauI’m currently reading the first of another long series where a boy (of course) finds out of the blue, when in mortal danger, that he has fantastical powers, which he then later uses to save the life of a famous knights and becomes favoured by the King. Oh, and the realm is under constant threat from creatures and god’s knows what held back by a magical power. I’m only half way through but I think I can see what’s coming. The characters are thin and unbelievable, the plot is predictable. I should have consulted the reviews on Goodreads first, I won’t be reading the rest. But, from what I can tell, it (and the rest of the long series) seem to be successful, so good luck to the author. I guess I’m just looking for something more original and involving. Maybe that’s why I like David Gemmel and George RR Martin, they are fantastical but they don’t rely on magic. There are definitely good fantasy books and authors out there as well, but perhaps because of e-publishing (and I know I’m a beneficiary of that as well), there is much more ‘formulaic’ fantasy, as if rehashing every cliche is a road to success.

Good fantasy can be brilliant and I’ve listed a few above and in my ‘Inspiration‘ section.  So I issue a call to all fantasy writers, be original, take a risk. Find a different world. Use magic by all means but be careful. As for fantasy readers tell me your favourites so I might find them. Or even your bloopers, so I can avoid them.

Author: Ian Martyn

Science Fiction Writer

2 thoughts on “The magic of fantasy – or sometimes not”

  1. I agree that many of the true fantasy titles tend to outdo JRRT and are not as well written. I am never sure about the division between SF and Fantasy, and there is definitely a middle ground of SF/F where the stories are better. It is interesting that you highlight that most heroes are male – there are very few women in Fantasy and they take a secondary role. That is not so true in the interface where you have one of the best SF/F writers, Anne McCafrey, who has many of her characters female, does not use magic, and is not medieval, although her scenarios are in reality translocated medieval. Certainly her early books are worth reading although I think she overworked the idea in the end, and it is now continued by her son who is not as an accomplished wordsmith. I see this as fantasy, although one could argue that it is really SF.

    1. John, I know what you mean. I have read some of the Ann MacCafrey and as you suggest, like Robert Jordan, I thought she strung it out a bit too much with the later books. I have also read some Trudi Canavan, where it is a magician heroin, worth a look. As for the dreadful one I’ve just read, I don’t like to be too negative in my blog, but I will post a review on Goodreads, one to avoid.

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