There is nothing particularly wrong with young adult fiction, it makes readers out of people who might not otherwise pick up a book, but it does rely on a different set of tropes. The ‘magic pixie dream girl’ trope is one of many to becoming a mainstay in teen books and is also the subject of mocking from the wider literary world. Some of that mocking is well deserved as it speaks to the continuing unrealistic representations of young women in media, but other aspects are just traits that make characters interesting to read about – especially in the kind of light fantasy that dominates YA books. The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater makes at least a marginal attempt to subvert this trope by having a cast of magic pixie dream boys instead. The boys are the compelling characters of the story and have the kinds of quirky, forceful personalities that are associated with the dream girl trope. Whether it is an intentional subversion or not, the Raven boys show off the best of a trope at the heart of many light fantasy books where traditional fantasy archetypes would seem out of place.Read More »
Lord of the Rings is not known for its subtle layers of moral complexity. There is no flicker of doubt regarding Sauron’s evil plans or the innate goodness of hobbits. JRR Tolkien was consistent in his use of clear moral coding both with characters and with world building which is particularly clear in the contrasting forests of Mirkwood and Lothlorien. It is a view of nature that is either wholly malevolent or wholly benevolent. There is a power in Tolkien’s forest that moves a reader to either fear or awe and occasionally a bit of fearful awe. The forests of the real world are not accompanied by such clear moral coding but is often able to provoke very similar emotions when one is immersed in them. The nature of the real world is indifferent to people, beautiful without the implication of virtue and dangerous without necessarily being out to get you.Read More »
The notion of alternate universes lives in a strange place in popular imagination. It is used by popular movie franchises, debated by science and the topic of the occasional joke. The multiple universes of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia predate most of these interpretations and their presence is often forgotten within the wider image of Narnia. This image was somewhat reworked in Lev Grossman’s Narnia inspired Magicians books but the utilization of the multiverse remained quite similar. These books demonstrate the limitations of the notion of alternate universes because the readers are only able to focus on these worlds one at a time. So, in these conceptions the multiverse becomes a kind of back closet where characters and ideas can be shoved for later use before being pulled out at the appropriate moment. Both Lewis and Grossman us this strategy to great affect with good writing making the movement in and out of the multiverse feel smooth and blended with the more singular world of their stories.Read More »
One of the consistent motifs in the short fiction of H.P. Lovecraft is the description of creatures and spaces as non-Euclidean. Most readers are still able to identify the horror of these creations (as well as the rampant racism in the stories) but the description itself is highly academic. For many readers this isn’t enough to build a mental image on, most of us couldn’t tell you what makes geometry Euclidean or not. However, Lovecraft’s work remains an icon of the horror genre that continues to be the inspiration for all kinds of stories in a wide variety of media. His use of highly intellectualized descriptions are given enough context that they still have an impact for a lay reader while leaving a deep well of symbolism for more in depth readings.Read More »
Whether drawn from faiths in the real world or completely constructed by an author, divinities of all sorts are a useful way to explain the source of a character’s power. The ways in which these characters are positioned in relation to their presiding deity allows for different kinds of conflicts. In novels like R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy war the gods are distant and must be channeled through a person in order to operate in the real world. This model stands in opposition to that of series like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books where the power is innate to the character and cannot be revoked even if they should displease their patron (or in the case of the Percy Jackson books, their parent). The world and relationships enabled by these systems have very different feels and both Kuang and Riordan are able to use them to great effect.Read More »
There is no wiki for Jo Walton’s Among Others and even if there was it probably would not be particularly helpful. This is because unlike many other, more well-known fantasy stories, the magic the novel is not something that can be codified for fans to pour over the technicalities of. Instead Among Others is built around an informal magic system that the reader experiences only through Mori, the first-person narrator. Walton is very successful in moving focus away from the minutia of magic systems that are often at the heart of fantasy novels towards the ways in which Mori’s magic integrates with the real world. This is a novel that is successful in its world building choices but that also runs the risk of disappointing readers who expect to find a complex system to engage with.Read More »
Books or movies are often described as an immersive experience but the ways in which these works are discussed means that it is difficult to consider whether a visual artwork could be similarly engrossing. In the world of contemporary art there are works that are truly immersive in that the viewer must directly participate in a performance or virtual reality program but there are also older, more traditional, works that build an immersive reality for the viewer. The example that comes up most commonly in art history classes is the Diego Velazquez painting “Las Meninas” but the Jan Vermeer work “The Milkmaid” provides and interesting contrast while still providing a similar viewing experience. The strategies that allow these paintings to function are often not immediately obvious as a viewer but they still give a sense of reality and physical space that is absent from other works. It is this sense of reality through artificial constructs that is worth considering not just for their use in visual art but also for the implications on other artificial environments.Read More »
In gaming jargon, it’s called being overpowered but even if the discussion around fantasy literature lacks the vocabulary to pinpoint what makes certain book series loose their appeal, over powered characters are often at the heart of the issue. The way that fantasy stories tend to develop, both with larger plot points and the arc of the protagonists, often lead towards overpowered characters which then have to be somehow managed by their creators. J.K Rowling gave Harry that incredible power, but she also didn’t allow him to keep it – this was a well executed and mostly well liked as a strategy, but it is perhaps the obvious narrative choice. In contrast Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy gives Quentin near absolute power but rather than confiscating the power Grossman turns the narrative focus in such a way that it is not longer the great concern of the plot. The efficacy of these strategies is tied to the ways in which the authors tie magical ability to their character’s personality as well as the impact on the emotional moments of the story. It is a moment where the world building must integrate with the events of the text seamlessly and for maximum effect.
The culmination of this effect in the Harry Potter books is at the very end of the series as Harry fixes his own wand with the Elder Wand just before the end of the Deathly Hallows. It draws together world building elements that have been building since the moment Harry gains his wand in Ollivander’s and is told that his wand has a brother that will try and kill him through the irreparable damage to Ron’s wand in the second book and into the story of the terrible power of the Elder wand. Ultimately, Rowling is using these threads to bring a satisfying conclusion to the magic of her world without leaving Harry as some kind of god with a target on his back. There is no sense of loss when Harry chooses to set the Elder wand aside, rather she ties it to victory as that unlimited power is used to break the world building rules that made wands unfixable and give Harry a trophy of sorts. It is a masterful demonstration of what is possible when world building is well done and when the power that a character holds is well managed.
There was no way for Rowling to turn the series away from Harry as a hero or the Elder wand as a tool, but Lev Grossman’s Magicians is far less dependant on Quentin as savior so instead of placing limitations on him Grossman instead turns the reader away from Quentin’s arc. What makes Quentin successful as a narrator of Grossman’s world is his awe, and desire for absolute power without necessarily being a villain. Quentin’s awe made him a good student, it led him into Fillory and helped him become a magician for whom little if anything is out of reach. Early in the series Alice describes this state as the “wasteland of adult magic” and Grossman is faced with the challenge of creating tension in the conclusion to his trilogy even when his protagonist has few limitations. The solution that Grossman utilizes is not one of imposed restrictions on Quentin’s power, rather Quentin’s journey of magical learning begins to play second fiddle to the quests of those around him. While serving in a teacher role to Plum, the true protagonist of The Magician’s Land, Quentin’s power is far less of a concern. He has his own narrative arc in this book that considers how to use that virtually unlimited power but much of the character growth is centered on his place as mentor.
Both Rowling and Grossman are capitalizing on the elements of their world building that are unique and captivating for the reader in order to solve inevitable problems with over powered characters. Readers are still able to enjoy the connection between wizards, their wands, and the lore of the wizarding world at the end of the Deathly Hallows. There is a sense that these elements will continue to exist in balance with each other and that there may be future stories to come. Similarly, the joy of magical discovery is not lost in Grossman’s world even though Quentin is past the point at which his primary goal is the acquisition of skill and power because he is facing the new challenge of how to pass that power onto a student. Quentin takes his place in a chain of teachers and students that was obscured by his perspective in earlier books but is the bigger picture conclusion that the trilogy needed. These successes are built on the back of masterful world building by authors who take the time to consider the ways in which their world operates and how to use their own rules to shape characters who seem to have moved beyond limitations on their power.
Note: I have not watched the Magicians television show and am only speaking about the books.
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.