[Note: I wrote this while tired and not feeling very well, and it came out significantly more vitriolic than I perhaps intended.
Still going to post it though.]
So a few people asked me to to do a Let’s Read of Brent Week’s Night Angel trilogy in the comments thread of the poll, and shortly after I noticed that my brother had a copy of the first book in his room. Intrigued, I decided to read it for a regular review so as to placate the demands of my legion of loyal fans.
I got about ten pages in. Maybe twelve. It was less than twenty, anyway. Specifically I made it to the part where the book goes on a tangent about the different architectural styles belonging to the random word generator fantasy civilisations in Week’s fictional universe, then I threw back my head and made a noise like “UUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH” and literally tossed the book to the ground.
I’m going to make a pronouncement here, an iron-clad proclamation to stand for all time: if you are writing a fantasy novel set in Ye Olde Europelandia about dudes with swords then you are, by definition, writing something that’s dull and banal and tired.
I dub this part of the genre “mantasy” and it is near-universally shit.
Mantasy authors keep thinking they can just reshuffle the same collection of worn-out tropes and concepts and eventually they’ll hit on some combination that doesn’t make anyone with a glancing familiarity with the fantasy genre feel as though they’re trapped in some sort of literary Groundhog Day loop, but they can’t. The constituent parts are dull and banal and tired, anything you make with them is also going to be dull and banal and tired.
Most great narrative works of art, in whatever medium, are kind of like M&Ms. You have the chocolate, which is the core of the story- the heart at the center of it all, the real human emotion that drove the story’s creator to make it in the first place. Then you’ve got all the other stuff- the world-building, the sci-fi ideas, the setting, the time period, sometimes even the specific characters. This stuff can directly intermingle with the core or it can stand completely seperate, but in almost all cases it could theoretically be removed while still retaining the heart of the story. The central emotion, when you really dig down and find what the author is ultimately trying to say underneath the artifice of the plot, usually remains the same regardless of whether the story’s setting is contemporary New York or some fantasy kingdom. This is because good authors writing stories with actual merit tend to have something they want to say or some idea or emotion they want to convey.
The vast, vast majority of mantasy isn’t like that. There’s no core. It’s all shell. The author builds up all of this setting and world-building and characterisation, but they’re building around thin air. They sit down to write A Fantasy Novel and proceed based on a) what seems cool and b) desperately scraping the bottom of the barrel for some twist on the genre conventions that hasn’t been done before.
If you don’t believe me, just look at the books I’ve been writing about on this blog. You can practically see Brandon Sanderson patting himself on the back for putting those giant crabs in The Way of Kings (ain’t no giant crabs in Tolkien!) and the funky retracting grass, because his primary concern is making sure his empty candy-shell is a slightly different shade of beige than all the other empty candy-shells. Why do you think Kvothe keeps going on about “the heart of his story” and then waffling on with pointless minutiae for hundreds and hundreds of pages? Because there is no heart of the story. It’s all pretence. It’s the vague outline of a real story that collapses with a puff of stale air the moment you look at it too hard.
And so much of it is like this. So much of it. It’s a horde of vapid hacks farting into the same echo chamber and admiring the acoustics.
Before anyone comes at me with “but not all fantasy is like that!” yeah, I know. And look, I’m not claiming that a totally bog-standard derivative sword-dude fantasy romp couldn’t be entertaining but it’s also going to be dull and banal and tired and so if you want me to read your fantasy sword-dudes novel for any purpose other than making fun of it you’re going to have to write the fuck out of that thing and give me a really compelling reason to keep going, because as far as I’m concerned the very style you’ve decided to write in is starting you off heavily in the red with the bank of Me Giving A Shit.
I would rather read ten novels written for children than a single ponderous mantasy brick, because chances are I’ll find far more entertainment and worthwhile, genuine emotion in the former than the latter, and that’s based on literal experience. I’m not joking.
And don’t think my vitriol is reserved solely for the authors. Oh no. Hardly any of these people should be published, let alone successful, but they are and it’s the fault of their fans that they are, and for that I cast judgement upon them. Yes I’m looking at you, with your beard and your love of Rich Worldbuilding and Detailed Magic Systems. The books you like are shit and are making the world a worse place by their existence, and you should feel bad.
These are the cretins responsible for building the echo chamber in the first place, the inferior readers who are happy to shovel the same formulaic tripe down their throats over and over again as long as it ticks off a certain amount of genre boxes. They prop up the sword-dude authors both financially and in terms of ego, actively taking away any incentive for them to improve move out of their creative rut. They’re like the slavering fanbase of a terrible webcomic, instilling in the author a false sense of their own talent and propping up a piece of garbage that should have languished alone and forgotten on a geocities blog into a profitable full-time occupation.
At this point you might wonder why I even bother with this segment of the fantasy market. Partially it’s because this is overwhelmingly the face of fantasy, the kind of book that lines the shelves in fantasy sections in bookstores all over the world, the kind of book that gets film adaptations and TV series. There are many authors writing excellent, original, wonderfully creative fantasy stories, but by and large they get crowded out by the gritty sword dudes. It’s also worth pointing out that many of these good fantasy authors are women, or LGBT, or people of colour or writing in languages other than English whereas the plague center of mainstream fantasy is dominated by anglophone straight white men.
I realize there’s an inherent hypocrisy here in that I myself overwhelmingly write about the mantasy authors on this blog, even if it is to mock them. That’s something I’m going to try and change going forward, and if I can extract anything positive out of all of this bile it’s the realisation that there is no point in me trying to read sword-dude fantasy unless it’s for a Let’s Read. I’ve always had this idea that I should like mainstream fantasy, that I’m the sort of person that genre appeals to and the problem must just be the specific books I’m choosing to read. Now I realize that isn’t true. It’s not me, fantasy, it’s you. And in any case I’ve seen the sort of person you appeal to and I don’t want to be one of them.
If something new comes along that really gets all the neckbeards clamouring I’ll give it a fair and honest chance, but apart from that I’m done trying to engage with mantasy. This is clearly not a section of the market that’s going to meet me halfway, and I’m yet to be convinced there’s anything much of value there anyway.