Picking up a fantasy book is an investment, one that may or may not pay off, but usually requires putting lots of time into reading very large books and then even more time waiting for the next book in the series to come along and continue the story. However, there are occasionally exceptions that break this paradigm and offer a fantasy experience in a single volume. Books like Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Scott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char are oddities of the fantasy world that are both wildly popular and without sequels. Reading either of these books is an experience of becoming quickly immersed and attacked only to be confronted with a letting go that isn’t normally required at the end of a fantasy book.
World building is about making the setting of a book seem just as believable and consistent as the real world that readers are moving away from. The Night Circus and The Library at Mount Char both abut the real world, with characters moving between the reality readers will recognize and something much more unique that the author has constructed. This actually changes very little of what is required to make the world believable. Instead of worrying about geography between cities these authors must create a sense of space inside a building like in The Library at Mount Char or a feeling of connection through a sprawling city of tents in The Night Circus. The consistency of these details is much easier to maintain over a single book than a multi book series which is ones of the great benefits of single book works. And a single book is certainly enough time for a reader to fall in love with a world. Ultimately these authors are very successful, they draw readers in an create worlds that are memorable, believable and very consistent.
For a reader who enjoys fantasy and tends to read a great deal of it these kinds of stand-alone books can be a shock to the system. There is an immediate urge to find the next book, if not in that series than in that world, but that book ends up being absent and you feel stranded in the real world since the prospect of future escapism to that particular local has been ripped away. Readers of fantasy are used to epic sagas that take potential decades (and possibly multiple authors) to complete like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time or George R.R. Martin’s as yet uncompleted Saga of Ice and Fire. There are also authors like R.A. Salvatore who create immense worlds that unrelated stories can take place in while still providing the enjoyment of that particular fictional universe. Even stories that are fantasy only in the loosest sense like Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone are expanded to a series where the mechanics of magic and other strange happenings are consistent with that first book. If fantasy is about heading into a different world than stand alone fantasy places tight restrictions on what is possible because in the end there is a limit on what you can fit into a single physical book.
In this way stand alone books are also a commentary on the author and the world building process. It isn’t necessarily that the author is lazy or unwilling to put the work into world building, The Night Circus and Library at Mount Char both contain incredibly compelling settings and magic as established earlier, so the choice to abandon those worlds is actually impressive. Hawkins hasn’t published anything since Library at Mount Char but Erin Morgenstern actually has a new book coming in November of 2019. World building once is hard, so it is unsurprising that most writers of fantasy spread that development over a whole collection of books rather than starting from scratch for each project, but Erin Morgenstern has done just that. She has left the much beloved world of the circus and has instead started building anew. The book isn’t out yet so it is impossible to say how close it will be to the world of her first novel but the simple choice not to write a sequel says something interesting about Morgenstern as a write. Just as the reader reaction will say something about what people look for when they become invested in a given author’s creation.
The value of reading fantasy fiction is often debated but regardless of what is decided in that discussion of value there are general things that most fantasy readers expect from the worlds that they enter. Singular fantasy books move against the grain of these expectations and show how fantasy cn be successful even without the promise of multivolume series of epic novels. Books like The Night Circus or The Library at Mount Char demonstrate the depth which is possible even within a single book. The worlds in these books are still incredibly enjoyable despite the fact that there are no follow ups, but the stand-alone nature of their stories leaves the reader with a great sense of loss at the end. The sense of loss reinforces the idea that reading fantasy is a form of escape, but the popularity of Morgenstern and Hawkins work shows that singular fantasy fiction offers an experience that is enjoyable on its own.
P.S. I am about to post this and was googling to check spelling on Scott Hawkins’ name only to discover that at some point while I wasn’t looking (ie this summer) his website got updated and apparently, he to might have another book coming. It isn’t a direct sequel to Library at Mount Char so I think this post still stands but maybe not with the kind of strength the idea had when I originally started writing this post.
Novels that also serves as religious commentary have a long history and a continuing relevance in a world where religious extremism or intolerance are growing problems. However, the strength of these books, whether they be reflections of history or a fictional construction that mirrors the real world, lies in their believability and internal consistency. When that element of consistency is lacking the characters come across as flat and their faith as patronizing. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a masterpiece of early American fiction that captures a journey that is heart wrenchingly plausible. In contrast Samantha Shannon’s recent fantasy novel, The Priory of the Orange Tree has characters who abandon their beliefs at a moments notice making them feel contrived and sometimes frustrating. Reading these novels sets up a stark dichotomy of what a success representation of religion looks like and why these narratives are compelling.
There is a wide range in the level of restriction in any given religion or religious community but in both Hawthorne’s and Shannon’s novels the religious attitudes are conservative and fairly extreme in their reaction to different beliefs. Hawthorne is drawing from historical Puritan communities in late 17th century Massachusetts and as such doesn’t have as much work to do in his world building because his audience is already familiar with both Christianity and the extreme interpretations that the Puritans favoured. Shannon on the other hand is working within a fantasy world and, although there are strong similarities with Christianity, she has to build a religious world that is believable to her readers. For the most part this is fairly well done, her characters call on religious figures in normal conversation and show clear aversion to any form of ‘otherness’. Some of this may be that the reader is filling her constructed faith in with elements that are familiar from the real world, but there has also clearly been attention paid to the norms of Virtudom and their relationship to the world outside.
Despite extreme environments, both historical and fictional, there is change that occurs as new theology is developed and the old becomes less relevant. This is where Shannon’s construction falls apart as unlike the consistently fanatical figures of Hawthorne’s characters the supposed faithful of The Priory of the Orange Tree are quick to let go of their beliefs when an alternative is presented. In the Scarlet Letter it is only Hester’s belief that manifests meaningful change over the course of the novel, and it is a change that only happens when she is forced away from her previous beliefs. She becomes more liberal because her options are either to change or to accept herself and her daughter as products of sin that are headed for damnation. This is not an abandonment of Christianity; it is just a softening of her Puritan beliefs to adapt to the situation. It is this kind of transformation that Shannon was probably trying to achieve but her characters lack the motivation arcs that make Hawthorne’s characters so successful. Meg, Loth, and other characters who are initially presented as faithful followers of the Saint are willing to accept the validity of the alternate history that Ead presents even before there is any indication that this is going to be vital to the world’s survival. These are not characters that are being in anyway victimized by their faith, which is the impetus that makes Hester’s transformation believable, which makes their change feel arbitrary and hard to invest in.
Individual spiritual change is often contrasted with larger societal change on that front, or lack there of. It is actually a lack of change that feels more realistic when reading about extreme religious communities because of how firmly held the beliefs tend to be. Hawthorne constructs this fairly successfully in The Scarlet Letter as it is small moments of ‘mercy’ that represent the extent of the change characters are capable of. These are moments like allowing Hester to keep her child or her estranges husband’s moment of calm after Dimmesdale’s death. For a modern reader these are basic acts of common decency but with the context of the historical setting Hawthorne is creating it is realistic and powerful. Shannon also seems to realize that full scale conversions of entire nations would be unbelievable and jarring for a reader but there are still moments when the realism of a religious nation is pushed. History is full of moments where interfaith cooperation could have saved millions of lives, such as the Crusades which seem to inform parts of Shannon’s novel, but unwillingness to accept religious difference resulted in even greater violence. This however is not the world that is reflected in The Priory of the Orange Tree where alliances are made with relative ease and only minor backlash. It is not that the politics of Virtuedom and Seikii are boring to read, this is the climactic part of the novel and is executed well in other ways. Rather, the quick cooperation by not just individuals, but nations of differing faiths makes a truly immersive experience impossible to achieve.
The ways in which Shannon’s novel fall flat or the rigid puritan world that is maintained through A Scarlet Letter are not arguments that extremely strict religious communities are impossible to change or interact positively with. Instead the reading experience of these books shows demonstrates that questions of religion are complicated and difficult to handle even in fiction. By thinking about what makes representations of religion in fiction effective some of the real world challenges of inter-faith communication are made clear. Fictional worlds are made believable by their internal consistency and any discussion of religion is shaped by a willingness to consider complexity.
An element of the past is often central to fantasy texts, they are set in worlds where characters fight with swords rather than guns and cell phones are more impossible than magic, but the degree of history that slips in shifts a great deal with the author. Canadian writer Guy Gavriel Kay is praised for his fantasy novels and one of the unique elements of these books are the degree to which they are steeped in the history of our world. This is a world building choice that gives Kay’s novels a distinctly different feel to the more traditional fantasy works of Lewis, Tolkien, or Martin. This difference sets Kay’s work apart from much of the contemporary fantasy scene but it is an incredibly effective way to address history in a way that is appealing and accessible to a different kind of reader.
Despite being categorized as a fantasy book, those who are familiar with European history will immediately recognize the setting of Kay’s most recent work – A Brightness Long Ago – as being set in Renaissance Italy. Perhaps most obvious is Seressa whose canal’s and business economy match almost exactly with the vision of Venice that most readers would come to the text with. Even the major event which the book revolves around, the fall of Sarantium, is clearly the Kay’s parallel to the fall of Constantinople. Kay isn’t trying to hide the historical basis for what he is writing about, he leans into the style that he has been using since the publication of A Song for Arbonne in 1992 and even includes what amounts to a works cited at the end of the book. A Brightness Long Ago, like the novels that proceeded it, draw in a reader who already loves history with the joys of trying to match figures and families in the book to their historical equivalents while Kay’s fantasy setting creates the kind of immersive veneer that makes the history compelling in a way that no textbook ever could.
Kay never claims to be writing an accurate history and it allows him to write characters who are entirely a part of their world rather than having the kind of distance that historical writing requires. Books that seek to be factual and educational are written with a kind of distance, they describe the beliefs of the Ancient Greeks without really believing in the Greek pantheon and come with the implication of misplaced faith that comes with describing what is now a long dead religion. Even historical fiction novels are written with a kind of awareness of the reader, the characters do really believe in the world their story takes place in, but the books often feel like the are turned towards a voyeuristic reader who wants to look back on history. By setting his novels in a fantasy world Kay removes that pressure, he writes about Christianity or Islam without really writing about those faiths and it makes the character’s faith feel more real because they simply run in parallel with the religion’s the reader knows. History is close enough to Kay’s fantasy that it is recognizable but not so close that it entirely breaks the immersion of the world, rather it makes the world feel deeper and more complex with what the reader brings to the story.
The immersive fantasy experience actually brings the reader closer to what they are reading than a pure history would. There are many people who would never pick up a book about the minor conflicts of city states in the Italian Renaissance but will find the Folco vs Monticola conflict in A Brightness Long Ago compelling. Kay’s fantasy captures the best aspects of history, the intrigues and the power and the devastating power of a single event like the fall of Constantinople without getting caught up in the details of dates, geographies and armies that people often find off putting about history. However, it is a not a patronizing oversimplification that simply assumes people are too stupid to understand history, Kay’s world is masterfully constructed around the historical fact so that history buffs are also caught up in the push towards the climatic fall of Sarantium that their history knowledge told them was inevitable from the beginning of the novel. It is hard for a modern reader to feel the shock waves that the fall of Constantinople sent through Europe but A Brightness Long Ago places them in a world that hasn’t felt that shock wave yet and then lets them feel it happen. This is a kind of closeness that isn’t possible with history but seems inescapable when reading Kay’s work.
A Brightness Long Ago is the most recent of Kay’s novel’s and is perhaps the ideal book to use for this analysis because it is set in a fantasy of Europe with its own version of Christianity, but Kay’s other works carry the same historical weight. The (unfortunately) less recognizable histories of the Near and Far East are present in his earlier novels and immerse the reader in a kind of history they may not be nearly as familiar with. The historical parallels are just as close in these books, but it is certainly a different kind of immersive atmosphere is certainly different and might offer an even more valuable experience than reading the easily identifiable history of Europe. A Brightness Long Ago is a gateway into history, but it will hopefully also be a gateway into Kay’s previous books for new readers to expand their historical horizons beyond what a single story can contain.