It might seem weird that for all I read it, I tend not to write much that is what I would call High Fantasy. I’m talking Feist, Hobb, Goodkind, Gemmell, Le Guin, Rothfuss, Martin, Jordan… epic world-building and magic and dragons and warriors and all that. I think the trouble is, I’m too afraid of either completely ripping them off, or not being up to that standard.
Fantasy novels (mostly Gemmell and Pratchett) were a massive part of my adolescent development and influenced my philosophy of life. Kids need to read more fantasy, as a side note, when they’re young enough to not be total bags of disillusioned cynicism yet. A good dose of good-vs-evil, honour and chivalry (NOT equivalent to sexism, btw) would work wonders.
Anyway… I don’t write high fantasy. I did start one, once, back in my Gemmell years, that I had a good plot lined up for. I have a similar outline for a different book with the same plot mechanisms in a notebook somewhere. But they’re just random doodles, anomalies. I greatly admire those who can fully immerse themselves in such an epic.
I don’t have the discipline for that. I don’t have the patience. I live in the real world too much, even though I don’t think I do (can’t remember the last proper social occasion that wasn’t online or with Rivka and Ivory) and I can’t block it out. That’s precisely the reason I read high fantasy. I get that escapism while I’m in the pages and I come out feeling refreshed and ready to hit 21st century Scotland in the kilt. But to devote that much time and effort to a whole different world is too daunting. Maybe if I had the luxury of writing full time and very understanding supporters who paid my rent while I spent weeks on research.
That doesn’t work for me.
I am happy writing what I’m writing. Quril is set in and around a city in which I lived for four years. I don’t need to spend hours on Google maps: I know the streets I’m writing about. Likewise for a lot of Once Bitten, I’ve been to the places I’m writing about. Some geography might get a little blurry for the sake of narrative causality but it’s a world I know well enough to write about. The research has been done already by dint of it being physically in existence.
I know if I were inventing my own fantasy kingdom or world that I would know it well enough to write about it, and no one else could tell me it was wrong because it’d be my world and my rules. This is the one area where my massive control issues work in my favour. Not only can what I decide never be wrong, but it would be completely made up so no one could challenge me on it either.
I’m also too lazy to want to bother with producing a map. In a hypocritical twist, one of my favourite soundbites is to declare that I don’t like fantasy books that need a map and a glossary and a character index. Too complicated! But then with worlds with no maps, or at least not detailed ones, I scour the net looking for them, official or fan-drawn.
As a sop to my fantasy-longing brain, here are some of my favourite fictional worlds:
Stewart & Riddell – THE EDGE/Edgeworld. My uni lecturer once referenced Sanctaphrax and I was the only one who got it. That made us both sad. I started at the beginning, with Beyond the Deepwoods, and this weird world with woodtrolls and slaughterers, banderbears and shrykes… there was nothing saccharine about it. This fantasy world is dangerous. If the trees themselves don’t drug you, the wig-wigs will eat you alive, the shrykes will sell you into slavery or perhaps the Gloamglozer will take your soul. There is rock that is lighter than air – a whole city floating above the land and secured with massive chains – and timber that becomes buoyant when it is burned. Sky ships that are kept in the air because of a flight stone that rises when cold and sinks when hot. For kids’ books there is an awful lot of full-on heartbreaking tragedy. But that’s awesome.
GRR Martin – WESTEROS. Has to be on the list. Summers and winters that last for a decade, all the best and worst of the high medieval period, and also dragons. I did get to this quite late, so it’s not a part of my teenage DNA, but I can understand why each book takes so flipping long to write.
C S Lewis – NARNIA. Can’t miss out Narnia. Sentient animals, fauns, a massive effing Lion! And children get taught to use weapons and can grow up to be Kings and Queens! MUCH better than the Famous Five. I do like Narnia a lot, and am quite happy to read the stories with or without Christian overtones. When I was ten and reading them, I had no clue about all that and still managed to read through them alright. The idea that time passes differently was a curious one for me as a child but is clearly a help if you want to start writing about different characters. It also gives a lot of history for the country. I love the idea that the first King and Queen of Narnia were a London cabbie who was dragged in by accident, and his wife. And the lamppost tree! And the way you can either stumble into Narnia by accident through a portal (though as every child knows, you must NEVER shut yourself into a wardrobe) or be called there in times of need. I can be a bit grumpy about real-world/fantasy world overlap and interaction because sometimes it doesn’t really gel at all well, but it works with Narnia.
Scott Lynch – CAMORR. The Lies of Locke Lamora rocked my world and the setting is a major part of that. Lynch started with Venice and then made it a bit cockney and a bit piratey and a bit alien. I love the Revels and the Shifting Market and the catbridges and the Elderglass towers and the districts and the Floating Grave. Execution by shark and alchemical plants and all the flavours of liquor anyone could want. There are street gangs and priests and a weird calendar system and what I like most, I think, is that the rulers of the City aren’t really involved. They’re mentioned, and they’re in the background, but the story is all about the underlings. The two worlds overlap and come very close to colliding. But they don’t. It isn’t about overthrowing the establishment. It’s about the power struggles lower down the food chain.
Stephen Hunt – JACKALS. I read the whole of The Court of the Air getting to the end of each chapter with no idea what the hell any of it was about, but being sure that the next chapter would illuminate. Jackals is a steampunky, chunky, riproarer of a kingdom. If John Bull had one too many stout ales and vomited up a country, Jackals would be it. Woven within this classic – and potentially pantomimic – Victoriana is a strong element of sci-fi, but also Earth magic. It’s so delicately balanced. There are insectoid creatures below the ground trying to take over, and their clinicial, pheromone-driven lifestyle is at odds with the bluff and boisterous Jackelians. Add to that the weird, folk-legend magic of the Feymist, the sentient machinery (steamdriven, of course) and Crustaceo-humanoids and there’s a whole lot of themes going on. Any two of these in conflict would be enough for a decent plot, but Hunt rams them all in and shakes them up and throws them all over the reader and leaves them to sort out all the pieces and sponge the stains from their clothes.
Sidenote: Also loved the Napoleonic style, raised sea level islands of Britain from For the Crown and the Dragon, though I hated the abrupt ending with no chance of resolution. Going back to that at any point, Hunt? Hmm? OK it’s been twenty years, but dammit, what happens????
Terry Pratchett – The Discworld. I started reading Discworld novels when I was fourteen. Back in the year 2000 there were a fair few to go at. So if we’re talking Addison’s-development-curve, the Disc is about sixty percent of that. Come on – it’s a flat slab of a world, carried on the backs of four elephants, who themselves are balanced on the back of the great Turtle A’Tuin who is slowly swimming through space. Duh. The different countries or states themselves are twisted versions of some semblance of reality – Lancre is a tiny mountain kingdom that is sort of like Switzerland but with a strong element of Yorkshire and Scotland; Ankh-Morpork is any major city (London or New York) with real-world name-checks (Lancaster street names! I’ve seen them!); Ephebe is Grecian; Fourecks is Australian… there is magic and weird science and a lot of cynicism. But it’s almost a second home for me. Daylight moves like treacle, sometimes an extra continent rises out of the sea, and above all else… The Turtle Moves.