I Read Fantasy. Just Not The Fantasy You Like.

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Let me start off with a confession. Well, not so much a confession as an explanation. See, because I write roleplaying games and work in video games, many people assume that I’m a huge fan of fantasy. Regularly I’ll get people telling me their impressions of this fantasy author or lamenting that book ninety-seven of that fantasy series still isn’t out yet or asking my opinion on the casting for this other fantasy series that’s been optioned.

The truth is, I don’t really dig fantasy all that much.

Now, I know I’m going to get called on this, so I need to explain. I don’t like 700-page novels where the plucky hero goes out to save yet another fantasy world that’s totally not ripped off from Tolkien and Gygax we swear honest. Odds are good there will be a love interest that may or may not be self-sufficient but will eventually need rescuing. There’s probably a sword somewhere that have a compound name and a destiny associated with it. Could be an evil race of beings that have no other purpose than to be evil. And there is always always always a shit-ton of words that I’ll pronounce wrong in conversation.

All that being said, I’m sure I can find examples of exactly those kinds of stories that I actually liked.

For a while, I thought it was high fantasy in general that I didn’t like. I mean, I like the Discworld books, but that’s because they’re parodies of high fantasy, right? And yeah, I’ve read Tolkien a few times, but that’s because of the resonant echoes of blah blah blah literary theory. (Bullshit — I liked the fight scenes when I was a kid, and skipped over the boring singing bits.) And I like D&D, which is high fantasy, but I don’t have to read a trillion pages before the story starts in a D&D game: “You’re a warrior. Here’s a sword. There’s a dungeon. Have at.”

And during that self-justification of my loathing of all-high-fantasy-but-the-bits-I-liked, someone introduced me to sword and sorcery (via the Conan stories), which I liked much better. Another person introduced me to low fantasy, which I also liked. And I absolutely adore some of the Victorian fantasy I’ve read. So, I couldn’t say I hated all fantasy.1

Maybe it’s just medieval fantasy I don’t like? Elves, dwarves, swords, kings, and all that crap? That can’t be right, either. I’m playing in a couple different Dungeons & Dragons games right now, and I’m working with Russell on my own fantasy heartbreaker. Is it specifically heroic fantasy, where the hero kills the villain and saves the world? Well, I guess, but if the John Carter of Mars series isn’t heroic fantasy, I don’t know what qualifies.

So I tried to pull back, find what I liked, and give fantasy another chance. I kept hearing good things about the Song of Ice and Fire series, and people kept telling me how it’s something I would love. And there are bits of it that I do love. But still, I find myself struggling through every book. Why?

I think a lot of it is due to how a particular genre of fantasy has evolved — the so-called “doorstop fantasies.”2 I can certainly sit through long books, but I don’t think I have the tolerance to sit through a long book that acts as set-up for another long book which in turn might actually get the plot moving on a third long book. No matter how interesting it might be, if I have to muddle through five hundred pages of people talking to each other using funny words and explaining the basics of their world just to get to the first plot point, I’ll probably give up. I would do the same for sci-fi, historical fiction, espionage, whatever.3

And yet, there’s an entire genre of fiction that’s grown up in where this format is not only profitable, but encouraged. Fantasy authors seem to brag about how they have to divide their books up into smaller books because they’re so epic. All I keep thinking is why their editors let them get away with that shit. I don’t get it.

But many of my peers assume that I’ve spent the requisite fifteen years reading millions of pages of the same old story over and over again, and seem confused or alarmed when I explain that I have not only no knowledge of the books they speak of, but no interest in borrowing their copies to “catch up.” Of course, they seem equally uninclined to read the original Ian Fleming James Bond novels (often dismissively saying “I’ve seen the movies”), and it’s only recently that many of my peers have shown even the slightest interest in revisiting the original Sherlock Holmes canon, so I do understand the need to share stuff you like with people you like, and how frustrating it is when they dismiss it out of hand.

I’m sure after I post this I’ll get tons of Facebook messages and Twitter responses and comments on this post recommending books of exactly this type, because I haven’t read “good fantasy.” I’ll be polite and nod and go “Wow, that sounds great,” and I won’t read them until and unless I find the motivation to read them on my own.4

I may some day discover a love of this kind of fantasy. But if you try to force me to read one of your books, you’d better be ready to read obscure Victorian literature in return.

And I’ll want a fucking book report, too.

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  1. There’s also an argument that a lot of the things I like that I consider science-fiction are, in fact, a form of fantasy. But then you could say that much of what I like is fantastic and therefore part of fantasy, but now we’re getting into nitpicky semantics. So, fuck that.
  2. As in, “books so big and heavy you can use them as a doorstop.”
  3. And yes, that includes Harry Potter. Haven’t read it, no interest in reading it.
  4. For example, I do read such books that friends of mine have written and get a different enjoyment out of them — usually because I get a glimpse into how their mind works as a result, which I always love.