Tag Archives: fantasy

A World of Your Imagination: On Worldbuilding

There’s nothing quite like a good setting. Previously on this blog I’ve talked about characters and clichés, and that hasn’t really left a lot of time to talk about the other elements of a good story. Setting is one of them. It’s easy to forget that the right setting for a novel can transform it, elevating the events of the plot into something really special. Rebecca would be nothing without the vast, chilly halls of Manderley. Dracula would not be nearly so frightening if the Count’s castle was a three-room flat in east Croydon.

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Although those London house prices are pretty terrifying. (image: giphy.com)

Setting is a hugely important part of writing. In fantasy and sci-fi, the term gets all fancy and becomes ‘worldbuilding’, although it’s essentially the same concept. There’s just more of it, because instead of telling the reader where your characters are, you also have to tell the reader why they’re all holding laser swords and why it was a bad idea for them to steal the unicorn’s bouquet on a full moon. Worldbuilding can be one of the most memorable things about fiction. It can take on a life of its own, allowing the setting to be examined and discussed apart from the characters who inhabit it.

The basic elements of setting and worldbuilding are pretty similar. No matter what genre you’re writing in, you still need to know where your characters are standing. Broadly speaking this can cover a lot of different elements – culture, geography, climate and the physical layout of the scene would all come under this umbrella. These elements make a story convincing regardless of its genre. They get included in most stories that aren’t about two characters having conversations in featureless white rooms. Of course, rather than just having big lumps of description sitting around uselessly these can then be used to reflect mood and create atmosphere within the story. As a general rule of thumb this is true of both setting and worldbuilding – the only real difference between the two is that in worldbuilding, the author tends to make more of it up.

So – how do you actually go about creating a rich and compelling setting? Description. While it can get quite frustrating to pause the action and set the scene, it’s impossible to have a complex and detailed setting without settling in for a paragraph of description every now and then. But when it’s done well it doesn’t feel like a pause. In some of the best fantasy settings – like Middle Earth, Discworld and Hogwarts – this scene-setting feels more like an opportunity to explore than something that has to be skimmed over.

Real talk: this is super hard.

giphy dont wanna
But I don’t wanna… (image: giphy.com)

Obviously writing is pretty tricky to begin with, but worldbuilding is a whole other level. Setting a scene can be difficult, but if it is set in some variation of the real world it’s easier for the reader to make assumptions based on the details of the scene. For example, if a writer describes a group of people all in black heading for a church, the reader is likely to assume that they’re heading to a funeral. It doesn’t always have to be the case – in fact, turning assumptions on their heads is one of the most fun things an author can do – but the assumptions have to be there for that to happen, and details from the setting is what plant such ideas in the readers’ minds. You have none of those connections to rely on if you’re building a fictional world. If writing is like learning a new language, then putting a fictional world together is like making up your own language from scratch.

There’s a couple of forms this tends to take.

 

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image: buzzfeed.com

The Pocket Universe

These are fictional universes that have their bases in the real world in some capacity. This is where you’d find stories that diverged from the real-world timeline – where the Titanic never sank, or where the Germans won the Second World War. This is also where you’d find stories about worlds within the normal world, such as Harry Potter – stories about unusual societies that have been kept secret and are stumbled across by some hapless protagonist.

Pocket universes have a lot of benefits. As they are rooted in the real world, it’s easy for the writer to draw on a lot of common cultural touchpoints, which requires less explaining to the reader. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time making up fictional animals for your characters to eat, or describing the odd clothes they wear, you don’t have to – you can cut straight to the plot. However, they’ve got a lot of drawbacks as well. Rooting your pocket universe in the real world will usually mean that at some point, you’ll have to deal with all the boring parts of reality. This pops up a lot in the Harry Potter universe, when everybody wonders why wizards don’t have formal education for their kids before the age of eleven. In alternate histories pocket universes present another problem – the vast amounts of research a writer has to do to make them convincing. It’s not enough for an author to say that the Germans won the war: readers will want to know how, and when, and who is alive now and who isn’t, and whether the Sixties still got to happen. Don’t write one of these unless you’re prepared to hit the books.

 

A Whole New World

image: denofgeek.com
image: denofgeek.com

This is the other kind of worldbuilding and it’s exactly what it sounds like. These are the fictional universes that have no link to the real world whatsoever. They can be inspired by real-world societies, and often a lot of them are, but they are emphatically not on Planet Earth in any kind of capacity. This is where you’d find a lot of fantasy stories – anything from Game of Thrones to Discworld to the entire works of Tolkien – and some sci-fi stuff as well.

Starting from scratch also has its own particular set of benefits. As an author you have complete creative freedom: anything goes. Terry Pratchett proved this when he created the Discworld – the planet is a giant flat disc, supported by four massive elephants all standing on the back of a cosmic turtle swimming through space. As I said, anything goes. It’s also easier to suspend disbelief. The lack of cultural touchpoints works in your favour here, as the reader isn’t automatically comparing it to things they’re already familiar with. However, these also have drawbacks. Making up a fictional world from scratch is so much work. You have to come up with vast amounts of detail, most of which may never make it into the finished book but you just need to know they’re there. You’ve got to establish your own cultural touchpoints and make these clear to the reader, but you’ve got to do it in a way that doesn’t seem stilted or weird. And you’ve got to make all of this completely watertight, because there is nothing readers (and editors) love more than poking holes in things.

 

So. Which is better? That depends: on your preferences, on the story you’re trying to tell, on the kind of readers you’re writing for. These things would also affect the level of detail you go into when setting the scene. But no matter which one you choose, the most important thing to remember is this: it doesn’t stop at description.

One of my favourite kinds of worldbuilding is when an author can do it through their characters. It’s a lovely way of integrating scene-setting with character development. Characters are products of their worlds, therefore their thoughts, actions and beliefs are a part of worldbuilding. This is particularly important in historical fiction. Choice of language can make or break both the scene-setting and the character’s internal monologue – if an author picks a phrase that sounds too modern, it can completely smash the readers’ suspension of disbelief. In historical fiction this presents its own set of problems as of course, modern and historical thoughts and beliefs are wildly divergent.

One of the easiest ways to illustrate this is the way that historical fiction treats corsets. I was talking about this with my colleague the other day (thanks, Cat) as we’ve both worked on historical fiction before. Corsets in fiction have become more symbolic than anything else. They’re something for the feisty heroine to cast aside before she becomes a pirate or rides off into the sunset. But this wouldn’t work in reality. Corsets were structural underwear and all the rest of a woman’s clothes were designed on the assumption that a corset would be worn. They make you stand and move differently and if you’d worn one all your life, taking it off would feel really strange. Casting the corset aside is a nice piece of authorial shorthand – look at how emancipated our female lead is! – but without it all the seams of her clothes are in the wrong places, everything is scratchy and she’s going to get terrible back pain from having to use underdeveloped muscles all of a sudden.

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Actual footage of post-corset muscle deterioration. (image: giphy.com)

My point is this: clothes are worldbuilding. The way characters think about clothes is worldbuilding. The way they care for their clothes is worldbuilding, and so is what the clothes are made of. Worldbuilding is not just about describing landscape and weather – it’s about clothes, food, slang, morality, social norms, marriage, relationships – I could go on. In short it’s about how characters fit into a setting as a context, and how that context affects them. Take, for example, Terry Pratchett’s description of the dwarves of Ankh-Morpork. Pratchett’s dwarves only acknowledge one gender, and thus most of the dwarves in the Discworld series present as male. When one of them decides she wants to present as female, it causes a massive cultural uproar, going against centuries of dwarf lore and tradition which go on to affect later books in the series. This introduces the reader to a whole new section of Discworld society, the factions within it, the conflict this brings about and how this manifests to other characters. This is very detailed worldbuilding, and it’s all done without a landscape in sight.

Worldbuilding is incredibly hard. It requires a lot of work, careful thought and research, all of which can really get in the way when you just want to jump to the plot. But it also helps make better stories. When the characters and the setting work in tandem, that’s when the setting feels the most vivid and a book really comes alive. It makes for rich and rewarding stories that a reader will remember. Despite all the hard work, I think it’s always worth it.

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Book Recipes: How to Write an Epic Fantasy

Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at epic fantasy. Put on your questing helmet and let’s get started!

 

Ingredients:

  • An assorted mix of noble adventurers. Choose your own flavours from any of the following:
    • The long-lost heir to the throne
    • The wise elf-mage
    • A drunk, angry guide
    • A spunky warrior-princess
    • A charming but slightly morally dodgy rogue
    • Dwarves
  • The Sacred MacGuffin
  • One Evil Overlord
  • One slightly less evil overlord, for target practice
  • Expendable armies
  • A magic sword
giphy lightsaber
OK, you know that’s not what I meant. (image: giphy.com)
  • A series of oddly-named kingdoms
  • A handful of magical creatures, for set dressing

 

Method:

  1. An Evil Overlord has risen and the kingdom is in peril! Only one thing can stop him: the Sacred MacGuffin.
  2. Assemble your heroes! It’s questing time. Pack your magic sword and we’re off!
  3. Have your heroes amble along towards the MacGuffin. It’s a race against time, but no-one’s really going to care about that until after the halfway point.
  4. Time for group banter. If the warrior-princess is in your band of heroes, it’s also time to start setting up the romance. It doesn’t matter if there’s no chemistry at all. Of course she can’t be single!
  5. Have an amusing tavern scene to pass the time. Make sure to include a bumbling, fat innkeeper.
  6. First encounter with the hordes of the Evil Overlord! The heroes win, and it’s all very exciting.
  7. Keep on questing. Remember that the questing decisions don’t have to make logical sense. They just have to lead your heroes into exciting and difficult situations. Logic is for losers.
  8. A thing has happened which makes questing so much harder! Maybe someone forgot to take their horse in for a service or something. It doesn’t matter as long as the reader knows that now Things Are Serious.
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Put on your serious face, it’s about to go down. (image: giphy.com)
  1. The slightly less evil overlord pursues the heroes. Kill one of them off if you want to show how serious things are now.
  2. The heroes are having doubts. Now is an excellent point to mope about the lovers/families/favourite pizza joints they left behind.
  3. A trap!
  4. The heroes are saved with the help of some magic stuff. Elves, swords, unicorns, take your pick.
  5. The group is fractured! The noblest and most attractive ones decide to continue the quest, while the others go and do something else.
  6. Have a deep and meaningful conversation about duty, honour, sacrifice, and other things that must be discussed with a very straight face.
  7. Our heroes have found a magic sword, or a secret prophecy, or a helpful dragon – the point is, they’ve levelled up for some reason! Hooray!
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I mean, I guess you’re on the right track. (image: picquery.com)
  1. The slightly less evil overlord is defeated! Make sure to take notes, as that was only the warm-up.
  2. The MacGuffin is recovered! Time to limber up for the final battle – and for the group to be re-united, because they clearly overheard the conversation in step 14.
  3. EPIC BATTLE. SWORDS. MAGIC. DRAGONS, PROBABLY. THE ULTIMATE SHOWDOWN.
  4. The MacGuffin does its thing and the Evil Overlord is defeated! Give your armies the day off.
  5. Peace is restored to the kingdom! The rightful heir is back on the throne, the warrior-princess has got married, and the dwarves are drinking themselves into a stupor.

THE END. Serve dusted in a fine layer of magical background creatures.

 

Tips:

  • Language is super important – it’s got to sound epic as well as look epic. People don’t ‘look for’ stuff, they ‘seek’ it. Never, ever use contractions. It’s not ‘because’, it’s ‘for’. Basically, if it doesn’t sound like it’s written on parchment, go back and start again.
  • Make sure you give your characters the right names. Barbarians need names with lots of consonants in. Elves need names with lots of soft sounds in. Evil Overlords should have names made up of all the difficult bits of the alphabet. If in doubt, spell a normal name badly and stick ‘Brightblade’ at the end of it.
  • Stuck on what magical creatures to use? Anything that could be airbrushed onto the side of a van is fine.
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That wasn’t quite what I had in mind… (image: pinterest.com)
  • Horses are basically happy, furry cars with four legs. Don’t worry about making sure they’ve got enough food, water, rest etc. – that would just get in the way of the plot!
  • Kingdoms are good. Simple country villages are good. Councils are almost always bad or inefficient, and Republics should be treated with suspicion. Empires are stone-cold evil.
  • Never trust a Grand Vizier.
  • Fantasy races are a must, but you really only need two or three. Elves are wise but kind of girly. Dwarves are silly. Orcs are bad, stupid and ugly. Goblins are the worst. For anything else use this rule of thumb: if they’re attractive, you can trust them.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

Alyss Brightblade tugged her hooded cloak a little closer and hammered on the tavern door. Behind her, her companions shivered in the rain. Apart from Wolf. The barbarian, who had come from the wastes of the frozen north, had stripped down to his fur-lined underpants again.

A wooden panel slid open. Alyss caught a glimpse of a jowly face. “What d’you want?”

“We seek shelter from the storm and a hot meal for our bellies, innkeep.”

The innkeeper opened the door. He was a fat man with sideburns and a large white apron. “Come in, then. And tell your barbarian to put a shirt on.”

Alyss glanced back at Wolf. The rain glistened on his chest. She wouldn’t tell him to put a shirt on just yet.

They filed into the inn and huddled around the fire. Durdon, the dwarfish axe-master, made straight for the bar, tucking his beard into his belt and rolling up his sleeves as he went. The rest of them found a table in the corner.

Lorrolarriel looked around the inn with barely-concealed distate, his elfish nose wrinkling. “Must we really seek shelter in such rude accommodations?”

Wolf grunted. Alyss blushed. He was so strong and silent. And stoic. And tall. And –

Lorrolarriel leaned forward. Behind him, Durdon tossed aside an empty horn of mead and called for another. “It pains me to allow you to travel in such squalor, Princess.”

Alyss shushed him. “I thank you for your courtesy, wise elf-mage, but it is necessary. If I am ever to reclaim my father’s throne, I must seek the Grail of Antioch in secret. Lord Kraegorn can never know of my plans.”

“You are wise beyond your years, my lady. But still, this place is so…sweaty.”

The innkeeper came over with a tray of bread and cheese and three flagons of ale. He slapped them down on the table and bumbled back to the bar, tripping over a table as he went. At the bar, Durdon finished his second horn of mead and laughed.

Alyss picked at her bread and cheese. “I would walk into a thousand sweaty taverns if it meant restoring my birthright, Lorrolarriel.”

Wolf grunted. Alyss smiled a secret smile. She knew he’d understand.

Durdon slumped onto the bench, a drink in each hand. One of them had a twirly straw. Alyss beckoned her companions closer and spread her map across the table.

“We are here, at the tavern of –” she checked the menu “– the Monkey’s Wineskin. Lord Kraegorn and his forces hold the Pass of Antigorr, here.” She pointed. “That way is barred to us. To the west is the Bog of Kra’ka’harrgh – impassable at this time of year. To the east are the Mountains of Prigwyth, but I fear we will be too late. Winter is coming, and the snows will make crossing the mountains impossible.”

Durdon hiccupped and moved onto his second drink. Wolf nodded at the map and grunted.

Lorrolarriel gave a disdainful sniff. “We do not all have the constitution of Northmen, barbarian.”

Wolf growled and reached for his warhammer. Durdon slurped his drink through a straw. Alyss raised a hand.

“Good sirs, please. We have foes enough without fighting amongst ourselves. Now, as I see it we have but two choices. We can travel to the Republic of Syssyss and request an audience with Grand Vizier Qrix. He could grant us safe passage through the Pass of Antigorr. Disguised as Syssyssian emissaries, Lord Kraegorn would not attack us.”

Lorrolarriel frowned. “Can he be trusted?”

Wolf snorted. Alyss flushed. She’d made herself look so foolish in front of him. He must think she was nothing more than a child. He’d probably put his shirt back on now, just to spite her.

“I fear not,” she said. “But our other choice is far more dangerous. If we hired a guide, we might be able to skirt around the edges of the Bog of Kra’ka’harrgh and pass through the Very Dangerous Desert.”

Durdon wandered off to the bar to get some shots. Lorrolarriel leaned forward and peered at the map. “But my lady, that is marked with a skull and crossbones. And if you look here, in the margins, the cartographer has added a little note. It says ‘don’t go here, ever’.”

Alyss rolled up the map. “I fear we have no choice.”

“Yes, well,” Lorrolarriel muttered, “I cannot help but muse on our quest ahead, my lady. Might we not be better placed to seek the help of the Griffins of the Tiny Forest? With their aid, we could fly straight to the Holy Citadel of Ka’bathor, retrieve the Grail and avoid spending six months camping in the woods.”

Alyss blinked at him.

“Well of course we can’t do that, Lorrolarriel,” she explained, “it wouldn’t count.”

 

Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

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Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

Fantasy Fiction – A Closed Book?

I’ve always been a big reader. I’m one of those people who always has their head in a book, and I do mean always. Just last week I walked into someone getting off a train because I wanted to finish my chapter. But the one genre I’ve never really been able to get into is high fantasy. When I pick up something like The Lord of the Rings, I have to force myself to finish it, and even then it can take me weeks. To put that in context, I once read five books in a weekend, and that was fitted around getting a haircut, going for a meal and going on a long walk with my family. I practically eat books.

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Mmm-mmm, tasty words. (image: giphy.com)

But high fantasy has always been the exception for me. When I pick up a book called something like ‘The Noun of Nouns’, or ‘The Somethingborn’, I can feel my enthusiasm shrivelling up. When I flick through the first few pages – and see maps, character lists, timelines, translations and glossaries, all with apostrophes sneezed all over them – it’s a safe bet to say I won’t be picking that book up again.

And, to be honest, I’m not really sure why that is. High fantasy has some incredible stories, rich and varied world-building and memorable characters. Look at The Lord of the Rings: it’s a story that has endured for decades and completely reshaped the genre. It’s an epic tale of good vs evil and the heroics that ordinary people are capable of. I know I should like it, but a couple of pages after the hobbits meet Tom Bombadil and my eyes glaze over.

Before we go any further, here’s a quick run-down of the different types of fantasy stories. I’ve missed a lot out for brevity’s sake, but hopefully the following definitions might be useful:

  • Comic fantasy: does what it says on the tin – fantasy fiction that’s also funny.
  • Epic or high fantasy: set in an alternate world and dealing with themes and characters on an epic scale. Battles of good vs evil are a pretty common feature. Tends to be very long
  • Gaslamp fantasy: fantasy fiction set in Victorian or Edwardian-inspired worlds. Often crosses over with steampunk.
  • Magical realism: a few fantasy elements incorporated into a real-world setting.
  • Urban fantasy: fantasy fiction set in cities. Can often cross over into YA
  • Weird fiction: basically Cthulhu.

Most other types of fantasy I don’t have any problems getting into. Discworld, one of my favourite series ever, fits comfortably into the comic fantasy niche. I’ve read gaslamp fantasy on and off since the age of about twelve. Magical realism and urban fantasy have some incredible writers in their stable – Neil Gaiman, China Mieville and Angela Carter, to name a few. And weird fiction is one of my favourite things to read, as long as I can keep all the lights on and I’m not in the house all by myself.

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I mean. (image: vsbattles.wikia.com)

But I’ve never had that same draw to epic fantasy. Looking at the basic elements, I don’t really know why. Battles on grand scales are great! Good vs evil? Sign me up! Incredible world-building? Yes please! But apart from a few exceptions (GameofThronesGameofThronesGameofThrones), if you put these elements in a fantasy setting they just lose their appeal for me.

I think a part of this comes from the style in which most fantasy books tend to be written. A lot of well-established fantasy writers draw on historical and mythological text for their source material, and the style can seep into the writing. It’s often very stiff, formal language. You’ll have seen it before: authors will say ‘for’ instead of ‘because’; characters are not ‘drunk’, they are ‘in their cups’, and a lot of things tend to get prefaced with ‘the very’, as in “it was as if the very soul of the land cried out for vengeance”. That’s a style that doesn’t sit well with me, even though it’s true to the old sagas or epic poetry that the stories are based on. I find it very dry and convoluted, and personally I don’t think that’s what you want when you’re describing orcs hacking each other to bits.

But a much bigger part of why I’ve never got into epic fantasy as a genre is because a lot of the time, I just don’t feel welcome there.

When I look at the majority of epic fantasy stories I often find it incredibly hard to relate to the characters. A lot of epic fantasy stories, particularly the swords-and-sorcery type, focus on warriors and wizards battling it out. Most of them are men, and what female characters there are can be fitted into a few very limiting categories: captured princess, quiet healer, booby sorceress or tavern wench. And that’s when they’re included at all. In The Lord of the Rings, the Bible of epic fantasy, there are three speaking female characters. They’re great characters with meaty storylines, but there are still only three of them. Considering The Lord of the Rings was basically a template for epic fantasy for decades, this didn’t get much better. There were some exceptions, of course, but as a general rule women in epic fantasy were there to be rescued or married. They couldn’t go on the adventures – what if their boobs got in the way?

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Heh heh heh. Boobs. (image: giphy.com)

As the genre has progressed this has become less of a problem, but the problem does still exist. Modern fantasy stories often make a huge effort to include diverse and complex female characters who fit a range of roles. However, in the vast majority of fantasy stories, the society in which these characters exist continually holds other women back. The protagonists are exceptions, and we’re never allowed to forget that. This is where fantasy world-building can let its characters down. These protagonists can be brilliantly written and interestingly flawed women, but if all your background characters are demure ladies or cackling tavern wenches, the reader can still pick up a subtle whiff of disdain.

The most common justification for this goes as follows: epic fantasy is based around a specific time and place, namely Medieval Europe (and more specifically, Medieval Europe from about 1150 – 1450). Societal and gender norms were pretty rubbish for women in this period, and it’s often seen as a matter of accuracy for this to be reflected in fantasy fiction based on the period. But there’s two main arguments against this. The first is that epic fantasy’s version of the Medieval period isn’t all that historically accurate. We have plenty of historical evidence of women in the Medieval period kicking arse: Joan of Arc, Isabella of France, Black Agnes and Christine de Pisan, to name a few. There’s further evidence of ordinary women owning businesses, winning court cases and being respected figures in the community. The second argument is this:

…it’s fantasy.

Why should epic fantasy have to be historically accurate? It isn’t historical at all. It’s perfectly fine to use historical settings as a basis, but there’s no real need to stick to them. I mean, if you can include dragons and wizards and magic, why can’t you include female characters who get treated with respect? People say that’s not realistic – well, neither are enormous fire-breathing lizards who talk, sleep on piles of glittery treasure and fly on wings that physically cannot support their weight.

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In reality they would just crawl about like big spiders. (image: bt.com)

And female characters aren’t the only characters that often get shafted by works of epic fantasy – everyone does. Homosexual characters are rarely represented in the classics. There’s all sorts of weird racial stuff going on in a lot of classic epic fantasy as well. But when you have an entire genre that bases its characters on the archetypes you see in centuries-old legends – which weren’t exactly known for their strong characterisation – those are the kind of characters that are always going to be a part of that genre.

It must be said that more modern fantasy has made a tangible effort to break away from these kinds of stereotypes. A Song of Ice and Fire, for all its (many) flaws, includes a variety of female characters in nuanced and compelling roles. N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy has a mixed-race female protagonist and deals with racial prejudice as well as gods kicking each other’s teeth in. Lynne Flwelling’s Nightrunner series is set in a world where bisexual and homosexual relationships are treated exactly the same as heterosexual relationships. And these are just a handful of books – there are plenty more epic fantasy novels out there which make a conscious effort to move away from the archetypes that have defined the genre for decades.

All of this is a really positive step forward. With more representation in fiction we get better and more original stories – if your fiction all comes from the same group of people, sooner or later it’s all going to be the same. But there’s still a certain amount of gatekeeping that goes on with epic fantasy fiction – just look at what’s been happening with the Hugo Awards. I do wonder if this is reinforced by the way that some of these books are written. The convoluted language, the pages of maps and heraldry at the beginning of every book and the endless appendices can really put people off. It’s often these kinds of books that are seen as the most ‘worthy’ among fantasy fans, and I do have to wonder if that isn’t because they’re so difficult to get into.

But that’s all by the by. While epic fantasy might not always be for me, I’m always willing to give it a chance. And there’s plenty of other subgenres to keep me interested in fantasy as a whole – even if some of them do include weird tentacle-faced monsters.

bYggEeT
Apart from this little hell-angel. (image: imgur.com)