While Angry Robot gets ready to relaunch its publishing programme in September, we thought things might be a tad quiet around here. So we asked some of our favourite bloggers to pop by our gaff and tell us something interesting. This first article is courtesy of Un:Bound‘s Adele Harrison.

As others see us

I read a lot. I always have done and the people around me have noted this. I have been left pondering from time to time though when a friends  examination of my shelves (or latest purchases) has caused the response “you don’t look like a fantasy fan”. I am not sure whether they expect me to be wearing elf ears and a hooded cloak to work or line up my novelty D20’s on the top of my PC (it would be a short line for the record), or to have tattoos in visible places stating that “I <3 D&D” or something. Apparently looking like a slightly casually dressed office worker isn’t enough warning for some people. Perhaps if you are going to be a fantasy fan you have to look the part not go around sneaking it up on people. Once you’ve been neatly pigeon holed as normal it’s just inconsiderate to expect others to shift you into the fantasy geek hole just because you didn’t have the good good grace to be obvious about your furry hobbit feet and dragon breath.
 
It’s interesting to me that people assume fantasy fans have a type and I concede the point to some degree. It’s easy to stereotype fantasy as swords and sorcery within some sort of feudal system. It’s all a little bit He-Man to the casual observer. Tolkienesque tropes of heroic quests and epic battles are not suggestive of engaging with the real world. It’s possibly asking a lot, expecting people to take on board whole worlds and social systems in addition to magic and mythical creatures and they lose track of what to me is the key draw of any kind of fantasy, the characters and their personal struggles.I think it’s often an unfair assessment, but I can see where it comes from and what the genre is up against in terms of winning acceptability.
 
There have been changes to the fantasy genre in the last few years though. It’s spawned a series of new sub genres in the post Buffy world. Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance have taken supernatural elements from horror and fantasy and planted them in a modern setting, with modern characters.
 
Moving magic into the everyday has its own issues of course, and a couple of key strategies have emerged for dealing with that.  Kim Harrison’s “The Hallows” books use an alternative human history that diverged from ours long enough ago for new systems to have settled in. series. Everything flows naturally, it makes sense there would be war when the supernaturals declared themselves, the system of parallel law enforcement agencies, one dealing with human crime and business as normal, the other managing paranormal threats is entirely in keeping with how bureaucracies deal with things and the world is well thought out, detailed and all the rest we can fill in because, well, we live here.
 
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher are an excellent and popular example of the other key option. This world, now, but people are largely oblivious. This brings a different complication. The author must explain how the world can almost come to an end and people carry on as before. This is very much in line with what Buffy had to deal with. People may be good at ignoring what they don’t want to see but there is only so long that will work for.
 
The characters then, have to be relatable in a here and now context, their motivations and actions have to gel with our own xperience of the world much more and the supernatural creatures have to function with enough humanity to have allowed them to be inconspicuous throughout much or all of our history. It’s no good sticking the young hero’s mother/girlfriend in the (proverbial) fridge and expecting him to go off on a quest for vengeance with nothing but a magic sword in Chicago or London. He’d get arrested (dangerous weapon) or shot (valuable antique for pawning) before he made it three blocks. Modern heroes have to work inside, with, or around the law
 
Even if the supernatural is out in the open and is accommodated by the legal system there are still police and prison terms to deal with. Anita Blake (Laurell K Hamilton) was a licensed Vamp Hunter and Jill Kismet (Lillith Saintcrow) is a sort of demon-hunting sheriff with an area of jurisdiction. Even Harry (Dresden) is a consultant, although he’s not always the flavour of the month with the local law enforcement. Where the supernaturals pass for human there are other issues to deal with. Seanan McGuire has a neat solution for dealing with fae corpses; the natural clean up crew devours them and adopts their faces for a while, vamps and demons are often dealt with by turning to dust or sludge of some description, weres revert back into the human form. It’s the challenge of urban fantasy to resolve these issues smoothly and believably.
 
Perhaps in all of that, by bringing the myth and magic into the here and now, it has been made more accessible. You don’t have to try and connect with a feudal system or great armies whose motivations mean nothing to you. You connect with an individual in your own world or something very like it and simply accept a few additional features. It’s requires less suspension of disbelief to consider vamps in our world among us now, especially when all the hard work of the practicalities is done for you. The success of True Blood as a TV show and the massive popularity of Twilight and the more innocent version of  paranormal romance that is sweeping the YA market is a pretty clear indication that those who think it’s weird to dress up as dwarves and battle in the woods, can handle hot werewolf boys fighting pasty vamps over a girl. The Sookie Stackhouse books have been reissued here with slick TV show covers – much sexier and more palatable than the cartoony sketches that suit the tongue in cheek fun of the novels. It’s everywhere, shiny images and shows that are effectively subgenres of fantasy and people love them.
 
So is the fantasy genre finally losing it’s stigma? Maybe not, but I think it’s gradually leaking into people’s lives without them really noticing. I’ve noticed lots of people buying True Blood books for family member who “love the TV show” in my local Waterstones, (they are obvious because they are attended by staff members) but I think if you said to the same people who devour Twilight, True Blood and the variety of similarly packaged UF that they are reading fantasy and it has elves and vampires and isn’t so far removed from y’know, LOTR they’d pull the lemon face and back away quickly hands up in a pacifying gesture. Sadly I believe the stigma is still there but hey if they want to read the books and delude themselves that they aren’t fantasy fans let them, anything to stop the genre section shrinking further and just think of the fun you can have when you catch them reading “Club Dead” or “Hush Hush” and say “you don’t look like a fantasy fan”.
 
“Women in Refrigerators” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Refrigerators 
Anita Blake by Laurell K Hamilton http://www.laurellkhamilton.org/
The Hollows by Kim Harrison http://www.kimharrison.net/
Dresden Files by Jim Butcher http://www.jim-butcher.com/books/dresden/

6 Comments

  1. Thanks Katie, love a recommendation so will take a look at that. 🙂

  2. Great post! I loved your insights. I also have to agree with Ros that supernatural creatures do get a bit tiresome. I just picked up a great one, Minder , that is a paranormal romance that focuses on humans only. I strongly recommend it.

  3. Pingback: World Wide Wednesday: Tia, Torrent, & Tacky | Fantasy Literature's Fantasy Book Reviews

  4. Hi both, thanks for your comments.
    Roz – I agree that Urban Fantasy writers have it easier in terms of relating to people who are not established fantasy fans, but think it brings it’s own set of difficulties. They have to work inside the existing world where more traditional fantasy only has to function within its own logic. Also very pleased to hear City is good since it’s in my TBR stack. 🙂

    Liz – you could try hiding your comics inside The Sun. ;p Also, my confession… I have three folders of long unused Magic the Gathering cards I can’t bring myself to get rid of and a latex meatcleaver from the Elf Fair 2004 (Holland).

    Obviously I agree that more genre readers is a good thing even if their interest is limited. My local Waterstones has more than halved it’s genre section in the last few years and much of that is paranormal romance.

  5. Hai! Very concise article and one I agree with. I am this utter inner geek girl when it comes to fantasy, urban fantasy and reading and yet, I don’t own a single item of pop-culture clothing or a latex sword or a cape. And that’s what people think of when they think about fantasy readers.
    I must confess, that I do however have an entire lunchbox of dice and can roll them with the best of rpg players.

    Similarly, now that I’m more comfortable reading graphic novels on the train, you can see people look at me, my clothes, the fact that zomg, I’m a GIRL! and I’m reading comics and clearly I’m an office worker..it just does not compute. I sometimes check around me to see if someone has hauled out a collapsable pitchfork or something.

    But you know what? If people get into reading urban fantasy and then move onto fantasy or science fiction, because they’ve allowed themselves to discover something new and challenging then who are we to stop them? Especially if it’s commercial stuff! Bring it on, people! Read it, love it, try something new.

  6. In terms of accessibility, urban fantasy writers have it easy, and it’s no wonder they’re enjoying a surge of popularity. These stories are also cheap to televise, and that helps.

    However there comes a point when you’ve read a lot of vampire and werewolf stories, and you start to crave something even more different. So this glut of accessible fantasy could be a good thing, if it succeeds in bringing a lot of new readers to the genre. I rececently read City of Dreams and Nightmare, and that’s the kind of story that caters for people who can handle a little more strangeness. Not only is it not in this world, there’s a whole new ecosystem of creatures in it. I love that kind of stuff, but I suppose we’re still a long way from a time when most readers will be open to otherworld fantasy. Baby steps.

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