Flavours of Fantasy: What do you Look For?

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Sky Alton
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Flavours of Fantasy: What do you Look For?

Postby Sky Alton » Mon Jan 02, 2017 6:22 pm

There are so many flavours of fantasy.
Do you like Epic? heroic? high? low? urban, surrealist, humorous, romantic, dark, sword and sorcery, paranormal, contemporary…?
I just googled that and found a list of 73 types!

For the winter reading challenge, I decided to compare and contrast a few fantasy books I own to try to define what I like in a fantasy book. A couple I’ve read before, the rest have been on my to-read pile. I thought I’d make a few notes on their fantasy credentials! 

Sabriel (Old Kingdom, book 1) by Garth Nix
Sent to a boarding school in Ancelstierre as a young child, Sabriel has had little experience with the random power of Free Magic or the Dead who refuse to stay dead in the Old Kingdom. But during her final semester, her father, the Abhorsen, goes missing, and Sabriel knows she must enter the Old Kingdom to find him.

I’m not sure how I’d sum this up (aside from the most incredible book and series ever) but it is, I suppose, what I’d call straight forward fantasy. It’s grounded in its own internal logic and things ‘make sense’ in the world of the Old Kingdom. That world is solidly medieval-y feeling (though with an effortless gender equality that puts most other authors to shame) contrasted to the early 20th century world of Sabriel’s school. It also has a very strong and comprehensible magic system that I truly wish I was part of. Then there are animated corpses, missing royals, hard journeys, snarky talking cats, evil spirits and a very troublesome bronze sarcophagus.
All in all, a fantasy world you can truly dive into. Though my re-read was specifically to try to work out the fantasy mechanisms at play, I have to admit I kept getting sucked in.

Mr. Monday (Keys to the Kingdom, book 1) by Garth Nix
Arthur Penhaligon's first days at his new school don't go too well, particularly when a fiendish Mister Monday appears, gives Arthur a magical clock hand, and then orders his gang of dog-faced goons to chase Arthur around and get it back. But when the confused and curious boy discovers that a mysterious virus is spreading through town, he decides to enter an otherworldly house to stop it. After meeting Suzy Blue and the first part of "the Will" (a frog-looking entity that knows everything about the House), Arthur learns that he's been selected as Rightful Heir to the House and must get the other part of the clock hand in order to defeat Monday.

Contrastingly, the Keys to the Kingdom is what I’d call surrealist or more light-hearted fantasy. The house is a truly surreal universe unto itself where the door-stop is an entire hill, people get around via china plates, paper can turn into anything, rooms move and nothing is as it seems. The magic system has a certain amount of logic but its charm comes from always turning the mundane into something totally other. If Sabriel is more in the spirit of LOTR, then this is pure Alice in Wonderland.

Abandon (Abandon, book 1) by Meg Cabot
Though she tries returning to the life she knew before the accident, Pierce can't help but feel at once a part of this world, and apart from it. Yet she's never alone . . . because someone is always watching her. Escape from the realm of the dead is impossible when someone there wants you back.

Ah, the modern stuff: urban, romantic, paranormal. And this book is kind of all three, though there isn’t really a ‘city’ to speak of. There is, nevertheless a brooding, supernatural entity as romantic lead, menacing creatures with mythological roots and the underworld. Oh and teenage life. So yes, this is the fantasy firmly situated in our world, the one where well disguised creatures encroach on real life and make the familiar unfamiliar.

I have two more books to come (that I know about), a very urban urban fantasy and one I’m not too sure of yet. So far though, I’ve realised that I like a fantasy world with strong internal logic like Sabriel. I don’t particularly care for fantasy when it’s too high and world-buildy but I want a world that I can immerse myself in.
Keys to the Kingdom and books like it are tremendous fun for a change and I find them refreshing but that kind of unpredictable, conspicuous fantasy grates after a while.
My major problem with books like Abandon is that, often with romantic or paranormal fantasy, not enough attention is paid to ‘why’. The huge reveal that creatures like furies and death deities are living alongside us is all well and good but when I don’t learn much about them as individuals beyond that, it frustrates me. I love romance when it’s in a fantasy novel but I think that reading romantic fantasy will never be for me so long as the fantasy is sacrificed for the romance.

That was a very long winded way of asking you guys your opinion (sorry!). So, what do you look for in a fantasy world?
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Re: Flavours of Fantasy: What do you Look For?

Postby Sky Alton » Sat Jan 28, 2017 2:16 pm

Okay! The final entries in my own fantastical journey. I had to change last minute when I realised my Urban Fantasy novel was definitely not Hol Appropriate so I decided to look into lighter Fantasy and historical fantasy instead.

Shadow and Bone (Grisha, book 1) by Leigh Bardugo
Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.
Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.
Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.

This is what I’d call Fantasy Light but it also has some claim to being historical as it borrows (not necessarily correctly) a lot of elements from Russian history. It has a fantasy world of its own with relatively well established internal logic and no reliance on surrealism or quirkiness but it lacks the depth of The Old Kingdom universe. The world building and magic system is secondary to the characters and mostly, the romance. While there’s enough fantasy to get your teeth into, it slides by you at times rather like a back drop. The dialogue is also entirely modern which, given that the world is based on the 18th and 19th centuries, is a little jarring at times. It’s fantasy for people who don’t want to be walloped over the head with Tolkien-esque fantasy or people speaking cod Shakespearian English (and a very fun, unchallenging read) but consequently lacks a bit of bite.

Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix
On her eighteenth birthday, Lady Truthful, nicknamed “Newt,” will inherit her family’s treasure: the Newington Emerald.

When the Emerald disappears one stormy night, Newt sets off to recover it. Her plan entails dressing up as a man, moustache included, as no well-bred young lady should be seen out and about on her own. While in disguise, Newt encounters the handsome but shrewd Major Harnett, who volunteers to help find the missing Emerald under the assumption that she is a man. Once she and her unsuspecting ally are caught up in a dangerous adventure that includes an evil sorceress, Newt realizes that something else is afoot: the beating of her heart.

Now, this is what I’d call fantasy light, urban fantasy, fantasy romance and historical fantasy all wrapped up in one. It’s a light hearted romp through regency London where magic isn’t a secret: it’s an established part of life. The world is a glimmering, light-hearted one where none of the fantastical elements are taken too seriously. The romance meshes reasonably well with the borrowed setting and logic of the plot, escaping the unevenness of Shadow and Bone.

Having read these two side by side, I think I’ve decided that I like Fantasy Light when it’s not taking itself too seriously. While I enjoyed Shadow and Bone, I struggled a bit trying to work out what the book was striving to do. Whereas Newt’s Emerald is a total guilty pleasure: it’s silly and wonderful with the glamour of a by gone age which is portrayed just accurately enough not to jar you out of it while not bogging itself down too much in the source material.

Anyone agree? Disagree? I'd love to know :D
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Re: Flavours of Fantasy: What do you Look For?

Postby Maxim Trevelyan » Sun Jan 29, 2017 7:36 pm

In January, being mostly sick and/or having more free time than usual, I read two fantasy books, but with different flavors, to use Sky's words. One was a recommendation by a friend, Night Watch (and other books in the series) by Sergei Lukyanenko and the other continuation of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien.

The Two Towers continue the story of The Fellowship of the Ring with Book III: The Treason of Isengard and Book IV: The Ring Goes East. The former opens with Boromir's death at the hand of orcs and Aragorn's, Legolas' and Gimli's pursuit of Uruk-hai in an effort to save Merry and Pippin. Book IV follows the parallel story of Frodo and Sam, who capture Gollum, who has been following the fellowship and then the pair for a while and finishes with arrival at Cirith Ungol.

The Two Towers is definitely what I would call a traditional fantasy. It is set in its own world, with its own rules and 'traditional' fantasy races, such as elves, dwarves, orcs, wizards and so on. While I loved The Two Towers as much as the Fellowship of the Ring, it did seem too long at times, especially in Frodo's and Sam's story. There are plenty of scenes that even if they were cut out, would not make much difference to the overall story. However, Tolkien tells the story very beautifully and this flaw can be easily overlooked. I also do believe that you need to be in a certain state of mind or mood to enjoy this story and have a love for traditional type of fantasy.

Lukyanenko's Night Watch perfectly fits into the role of urban fantasy. The story is set in the city of Moscow, and focuses on Anton Gorodetsky, a Light Magician and a member of the Night Watch, an organization which polices the actions of Dark Others. The story of the first book centers around the conflict between Night and Day Watches, the latter being an organization that mirrors Night Watch, only it polices Light Others.

As mentioned before, the story takes place in Moscow, quite an urban place in 'present' times. Beside our, normal world, there is also the Twilight (or Gloom), a magical realm beneath all things, living or inanimate. All action in the novel is about a group of people called Others, separated into Light and Dark, who have the ability to tap into the world of Twilight. They are separated into Light and Dark Others. Light ones have a firm belief that their duty is to help the weak and powerless (aka, 'normal' humans), while Dark Others refuse all obligations and are more prone to evil deeds.

Lukyanenko has all classic fantasy roles in Night Watch, more prominent being magicians, enchantresses/sorceresses (female magicians), shapeshifters, vampires, werewolves, incubus/succubus, witches, and so on. They abide by more or less all rules that govern some of them, with a few exceptions to take in the Twilight world.

I much prefer the urban fantasy of Night Watch. With traditional fantasy, there are completely new rules, worlds, even races. However, with urban fantasy, you at least know some of the rules before hand, even if you are not familiar with a place (like I with Moscow). Even if the city urban fantasy is set in is not even a real life place, you can expect some rules that apply to our world as well. So yeah, while I quite like the traditional fantasy stories, like Tolkien writes, I am far more familiar with urban fantasy.
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Re: Flavours of Fantasy: What do you Look For?

Postby Sky Alton » Mon Aug 14, 2017 11:42 am

Another challenge and another dive into the many and varied realms of fantasy fiction. I’ve encountered a few more definite (or indefinite) ‘types’ this time and I’ll profile them below (and do my best not to spoil anything that isn't already in the blurbs).

Briar Rose by Jana Oliver
Synopsis (curtesy of me because the official one contradicts the story)
Briar Rose is a romantic growing up in a very unromantic slice of small town America. She has always relied on fairy-tales to spice up her life and harbours a secret desire to ride off into the sunset with prince charming. Unfortunately for Briar, the closest she gets to epic romance is her lying X, the arrogant new footballer and the boy her parents (for some reason) forbid her to stand within forty feet of.

However, when Briar’s over protective mother reveals the very real curse that is going to strike her dead on her 16th birthday, Briar begins to realise that magic isn’t the safe, book bound wonder she always thought. With the intervention of her friends, Briar escapes death, only to be trapped in a twisted, cold version of her favourite Fairy-tale ripped straight from the darkest corners of her imagination. She must escape not only the curse but the terrifying regent and her flesh eating living metal in order to wake up a sleeping princess and hopefully, if all goes to plan, herself too.


Fairy-tale retellings! I have mixed feelings on these. Sometimes they really work: they take the strange, vague source material and twist it or flesh it out in a way that makes you think or really care. Then there are the ones that just seem to use it as an easy, instant plot to win people over. Briar Rose could have been in danger of falling into that last camp. On the surface, it starts out pretty simple: sleeping beauty transplanted into a modern American setting. But actually the ‘teen’ bits of the book about Briars life and relationships was handled with realism and humour. Oliver actually gave you characters to root for. So when they were chucked into a truly horrible fairy-tale full of half metal creatures, it really mattered. And unlike the fairy-tale, there was no guarantee that a princes kiss would eventually get you out.

The worlds in the retellings I’ve read often don’t have as much ‘substance’ as a traditional fantasy novel (like Sabriel above or even Throne of Glass below) as more emphasis is put on following (or twisting) the familiar plot. I like retellings that give you a little more to sink your teeth into in terms of setting and world logic. Author’s like Oliver actually manage to create a world so real on its own that you don’t automatically assume that happily ever after will fix things. The trick Briar Rose pulls with the world being straight from Briars imagination is also a really interesting comment on a subcategory of Fairy-tale retellings. Those that try to look for the darkness and fear that lie behind the creation and enduring power of a lot of the stories we grew up with.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas
Synopsis curtesy of Goodreads
After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin.

Her opponents are men-thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the king's council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she'll serve the kingdom for four years and then be granted her freedom. Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilarating. But she's bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her ... but it's the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best.

Then one of the other contestants turns up dead ... quickly followed by another. Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.


I guess I’d term this ‘modern fantasy’. It is grounded in a world with strong magic and logic of its own but I feel it has far more in common with sci-fi or dystopic literature than it does with a classic tale of swords and sorcery. This is strange given that it’s full of both (swords and sorcery) but there’s just something about the way it’s constructed that gives it an entirely contemporary feel. Perhaps it’s the lack of a quest narrative with the new trope of a competition and a ‘who done it’ mystery in its place. Maybe just the modern sensibilities that the author brings to her characters. Throne of Glass is very unlike anything I’ve read: it is a modern book but set in a pre-modern, magical age. Even after two reads, I’m still struggling to decide my exact feelings about it and this new flavour of fantasy.

First Test (Protector of the Small, book1) by Tamora Pierce
Synopsis Curtesy of Goodreads
In the medieval and fantastic realm of Tortall, Keladry of Mindelan is the first girl to take advantage of the decree that permits females to train for knighthood. Up against the traditional hazing of pages and a grueling schedule, Kel faces only one real roadblock: Lord Wyldon, the training master of pages and squires. He is absolutely against girls becoming knights. So while he is forced to train her, Wyldon puts her on probation for one year. It is a trial period that no male page has ever had to endure and one that separates the good natured Kel even more from her fellow trainees during the tough first year. But Kel Is not a girl to underestimate, as everyone is about to find out...


I re-read this because I wanted to contrast it to Throne of Glass to see if I could reach any deeper conclusions about how to categorise it but instead started thinking about something very different. The Tortallan universe books have certain ‘modern’ aspects too but I think what interests me most about First Test in particular is the inconsequential nature of magic and the very ‘human’ level of the protagonist's problems. While Kel grows up in a world where magic definitely exists (and her two predecessors in Pierce’s books were very involved in the mystical side of things), she isn’t at all magical herself. Nor does magic really play a part in her early life or her training. aside from the odd battle with a magical creature, It crops up from time to time but only in a very everyday way (like when Kel has to visit a healer), as it might if magic really were a fact of life.

So First Test is a ‘fantasy book’, set in a ‘medieval and fantastic realm’ (well, it would have to be to allow Kel to make real her dreams of knighthood) but it isn’t all that deeply fantastical in terms of spells and grand destinies. It really sums up what I’ve noticed about a strong, internal logic: when you can get a fantasy world so well worked out that you can tell a satisfying, non-magical story set within it. I still haven’t decided whether this is what draws me back to this book more than almost any other or whether I just love Kel as a character and the trials she faces head on without any magical recourse or supernatural justice bringer to level the playing field.
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