Fantasy Anyone?

As promised, a whirlwind look at Fantasy, the younger sister of Sci-Fi.

by Theresa Flynn, February 24, 2012

Unlike hardcore Sci-Fi, which often focuses on technology and/or futuristic scenarios, fantasy tends towards the fantastical and the magical.  Within fantasy one finds dragons, wizards, fairy folk and the random princess or two (although they are often cursed in some way).  Talking animals, pseudo-medieval settings and an epic battle for a treasure of some sort are all likely to be found here.

The HobbitIt could be argued that the originators of this genre began as early as Jonathan Swift and his little people.  In the following century, fantastical stories were a good fit for the escapist sensibilities of Victorian England, although they were referred to as “nonsensical tales” at the time.  Lewis Carroll, the premiere “nonsense” writer, used his characters to gently poke fun at societal stereotypes.  The granddaddy of fantasy, however, is widely considered to be J.R.R. Tolkien; who honed the art form when he created The Lord of the Rings series, complete with a pantheon of new and unimagined creatures.  The books were a Christian allegory and were followed, a generation later, by C.S. Lewis and his Narnia tales.  (In 1996, Philip Pullman wrote a decidedly non-Christian reaction to these two series, matching their literary impact with his layered His Dark Materials books.)  L. Frank Baum closed out the 19th century, with the first “Wizard of Oz” book published in 1900.  It was the perfect family-friendly fantasy for an age where mysticism reigned.

Careening into the 20th Century, we find a sixties-era Roald Dahl reinventing the Fantasy novel with his delightful (if not seriously twisted) stories which still delight readers of all ages.  Seuss’s colorful books for children and Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are reminded us that imagination flying free is a great thing … and the 70s exploded with fantasy authors.  The Star Trek/Star Wars generations delved into these books with fervor, demanding that the tales stretch into unending series.  Lloyd Alexander set a tone that was picked up by many authors of the time.  Ursula K. LeGuin began her path as a singular writer for both fantasy and science fiction.  Her Wizard of Earthsea series remains, today, one of the classic fantasy epics of all time as does Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series.

Hero and the CrownAs the “me” decade died and the Reagan era grew, more icons of modern fantasy gained attention.  The first Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett (my favorite fantasy author of all time) began trickling into the U.S. market from England just as Peter S. Beagle’s ethereal fantasies started to hit big.  Joining them were Susan Cooper, with her Dark is Rising sequence and Robin McKinley and her award-winning titles, Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword (not to mention contributions from her husband and part-time collaborator, Peter Dickinson).  Almost in homage, Tamora Pierce hit the scene in the 1990s with a number of engaging fantasy series that included strong female protagonists.  The writing was so good that both girls and boys ate up the books as each was published.  Authors like Diana Wynne Jones and Amelia Atwater-Rhodes emerged with rich blends of contemporary life that had fantastical edges.

Peter and the StarcatchersContemporary fantasy ranges a good deal, allowing blended genre authors such as Neil Gaiman and the adult-themed Game of Thrones series to really shine.  Offbeat authors like Vivian Vande Velde joined adult authors like Stephen King and Clive Barker, who left their comfort zones in horror to play with the medium, in Eyes of the Dragon and Abarat, respectively.  Dave Barry took up the sardonic voice of Terry Pratchett in his collaboration with Ridley Pearson in the Peter and the Starcatchers series while David Lubar dipped into funny fantasy with stand-alones like True Talents.  More fun could be found in the works of Eva Ibbotson, with titles like Which Witch? and Island of the Aunts.

Arthurian legend reignited and has been explored by many fantasy authors, notably T.A. Barron and D.J. MacHale.  My favorites of these are flip-flopped points-of-view in books like Nancy Springer’s I am Mordred and I am Morgan Le Fay and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s game-changing Mists of Avalon.  Dragons are never-ending, written about by Chris D’Lacey, Anne McCaffrey, Christopher Paolini, Patricia Wrede, Jane Yolen and most recently, Alison Goodman, in her Eon series.

Fantasy has become international, with authors like Cornelia Funke and Margo Lanagan weighing in.  There is even an off-shoot of the genre called “Urban Fantasy” which mixes fairy creatures with gritty inner-city darkness.  Authors in this subset include Charles DeLint, Alyson Noel and Kelley Armstrong.  This subset, of course, is also the nexus of vampire tales.  Rampant with teens these days, it would take another whole article to explore this plethora of “creature of the night” books.  Suffice it to say that you can’t throw a stick at fantasy books these days without hitting a vampire novel.

What’s hot?  So much, and all of it heavily serialized.  I could never hit all of the favorites, but worth a try:

Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer

The Gregor series by Suzanne Collins (yes, her “other” series)

Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney

Fire Thief Trilogy by Terry Deary

Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan

Stoneheart Trilogy by Charlie Fletcher

WarriorsWarrior books by Erin Hunter

Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa

Redwall books by Brian Jacques

Princess books by Gail Carson Levine

Gregory Maquire’s “mature” takes on classic fairytales

Squire’s Tale books by Gerald Morris

Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull

Mythology-based books by Donna Jo Napoli

Wind on Fire trilogy by William Nicholson

Keys to the Kingdom series by Garth Nix

Silverwing series by Kenneth Oppel

Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage

Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson

Leven Thumps series by Obert Skye

Moribito series by Nahoko Uehashi

And, of course, everything by Rick Riordan

The ThiefA unique stand-alone:  Kringle by Tony Abbott

Most recent hit:  Matched series by Allyson Condi

Most Under-Appreciated:  Graceling series by Kristin Cashore

Best Reviewed:  China Mieville’s Kraken

Best guy series for older readers, according to my students:  Glen Cook’s The Black Company

Personal faves:  Attolia books by Megan Whalen Turner and The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Best new series, IMHO?  Patrick Rothfuss and the Kingkiller Chronicles.