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Fantasy (the Genre) — The Best are Magical Exceptions

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Dec. 29th, 2011 | 09:04 pm
music: Bohemian Rhapsody

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?


The former, I hope. I am entertained best by exploring real life.

Sure, much of this exploration is mediated — guided by artistry and enhanced by narrative (and sometimes a good soundtrack). But “just fantasy” I don’t ever want. Even from fiction, I seek something imaginatively and emotionally true.

So when my friend Rose, who’s reading a lot of hard stuff at McGill, asks if I can recommend some Fantasy, I think of Bored of the Rings, a paperback Harvard Lampoon parody I enjoyed far more than the original Tolkien tome (1954-55). The latter, hugely influential, became a million-seller more than 150 times over and really defined for our time (in Oldish English) the genre’s durable dragons, demons, witches and warlords, and the lost or hidden worlds where the rough armies of Id do battle with the outnumbered heroes of Ego, at some cost to the innocents who motivate the heroes and heal them and empower them with beautiful Good Magic against the ugly Dark Forces.

And then I think of the Harry Potter series, which took these tropes and transcended them so playfully and (later) so passionately that it would seem to repel parody. But it’s over now, and I turn to my teenage friends Amalia and Dafna, who grew up with the series (initially in Hebrew) and loved them at least as much as I: Had they found something memorable to fill the void? .

Of course they had, many different things, but they were united in urging me to try Elantris, which turned out to be an improbably powerful chessgame of a novel, the 2005 debut of a storyteller named Brandon Sanderson, who brings to the board an embarrassment of imaginative riches that honor Fantasy traditions by refreshing them.

The world Sanderson creates here includes half a dozen cultures, each with its own distinct social, religious and political structures, versions of history, ways of speaking, and ways of making magic. And we get to know a few individuals from each well enough to have expectations of them, and to be surprised by what they actually do and say when push comes to shove, which it does often over the novel’s 600+ pages.

The improbable part is how suspensefully it leads these individuals into the endgame when everything around them is going to hell.

* * * * *

However, it’s only when I look at the books the World Fantasy Conventions have nominated since 1975 for their annual awards that I realize that I have read and admired scores of Fantasy novels — among them more than a few I wouldn’t have thought to include (most especially D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel, an amazing kick in the head, and the only other novel besides Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf that I think important to read in one sitting).

So feeling freer now, I nominate to my personal Fantasy Writers Hall of Fame, in addition to the above ...

Clive Barker for Imajica, and Frank & Gillian for Luminosity. Both are seductive stories that become fully wondrous, haunting invitations to consider limitless possibility. If you still have my copy of the latter, please send it home. No other book I love is so rare.

Italo Calvino for If on a winter’s night a traveler, which is a whole suite of such invitations, deliciously surreal.

Mark Helprin for Winter’s Tale, which features an immortal white horse in an alternate New York and moves in profoundly subconscious/spiritual ways.

Salman Rushdie for Midnight’s Children, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez for One Hundred Years of Solitude — the best of magic realism.

Marion Zimmer Bradley for The Mists of Avalon, the story of King Arthur and the rise and fall of Camelot powerfully re-imagined from a feminine (not feminist) perspective. And Guy Gavriel Kay for The Fionovar Tapestry, in which the Arthur legend is only one of the resonances brought to bear on the startlingly moving transformations of a group of Toronto college kids in a world where their whims have life-and-death effect.

David Grann for The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, a first-person page-turner, a non-fictional surrender to the extraordinary power of Fantasy. (Was there some Truth at the core of an explorer's viral Legend?)

Douglas Adams for parts one, two, three, and five of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Trilogy, and Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson for The Illuminatus Trilogy — strangely cheery paranoid fantasies, the former bitingly funny, the latter barkingly mad. Likewise Firesign Theatre for I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus, brilliantly absurd, must be heard to be disbelieved.

And, speaking of theatre, William Shakespeare for The Tempest, still being reinterpreted by the greatest of actors for the bravest of directors in its quadricentennial.

Finally, last but most, three Fantasy authors of multiple favorites, cult novelists I celebrate for whole bodies of addictive work — Jonathan Carroll, starting with Land of Laughs; John Crowley, starting with Little, Big; and, consistentest of all, Charles de Lint, the Canadian folksinger whose writing has been nominated 17 times for World Fantasy Awards.

Beaux rêves, chères amies ...

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Comments {4}

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from: decisioncompany
date: Dec. 30th, 2011 02:33 am (UTC)
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Dear, Chief Seeker, Now that is a list that I can print out and keep for when I really want to escape, which is most days. So happy that I am finally getting notifications of your blogs. I look forward to more on a regular basis.

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Peter Marmorek

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from: uhclem
date: Dec. 31st, 2011 03:14 pm (UTC)
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Omissions?

Le Guin, of course, and the Earthsea series to which I return every decade, finding deeper and deeper answers to the Big Questions. Lewis Carroll, of course: one never outgrows Alice. How can you, when she keeps growing? Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, at least parts 1-3. Your big "Oh F, how could I forget that?" is GG Kay, and the Fionavar Tapestry, a wonderful Jungian fantasy into the world of Archetype. Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell) might belong in the list (if not, only because it's Science Fiction, but the borders are so osmiotically permeable). And I'd make an argument for the book of Genesis....

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Epistemologist

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from: epistemologist
date: Jan. 1st, 2012 04:20 am (UTC)
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Might I humbly suggest, obviously on the darker side, Neveryon by SR Delany. I must agree-The White Hotel requires sustained focus. Claire's reading Siren by Angie Sage.

When she can be peeled away from her iPad 2.

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(no subject)

from: anonymous
date: Jan. 2nd, 2012 03:19 pm (UTC)
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If you enjoyed Elantris by Sanderson. I'd also recommend his'Mistborn' trilogy. It begins with a book called "The final empire".
Peter

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