On a transatlantic flight last weekend, I finished reading Cain at Gettysburg by Ralph Peters. It’s a novelization of the battle of Gettysburg from both rank-and-file and senior officers’ perspectives. I found it quite enjoyable and superior to Killer Angels, with which it has inevitably been compared. While some of the soldiers seemed a bit caricatured and the battle descriptions can be quite gruesome, I thought the generals were much better drawn than Killer Angels (where most of them did not ring true to me) and the gore, while disturbing and not for every reader, felt like it truly captured the horror of that battlefield. I read a lot of military history, including Civil War history and in sum, it seemed to capture that time and the horrors of war in general.
The man beside me on the flight was reading Game of Thrones. That’s a series I just can’t get into, partly because of the sordidness that Martin is intent on capturing. Within the last month, as he was defending the last episode of the season that just finished (no spoilers here!) he commented once again that equally sordid things happened in real history although as an amateur historian, I didn’t find the historical precedence he cited all that convincing. But whether or not things close to what he depicted really happened, it certainly isn’t hard to find equally horrible and depraved historical events so that isn’t really the point. For me, the question is if I can enjoy Cain at Gettysburg, why can’t I enjoy similar horror and sordidness in something like GOT?
My answer is, perhaps, goofy but nonetheless key to what I look for in fantasy. Similarly, it is fundamental to what I want to write. I even suspect I’m not alone in this: my silly secret is that I want to read fantasy set in a world I would be happy to visit. I read lots of gritty, grim historical novels and non-fiction. I’m fascinated by what life was like in many ages and on many battlefields. But offer me a magic portal to such a time and place and I’ll turn it down. Curious about life in ancient Rome, very much so. Do I want to live there? No.
But when it comes to fantasy, I don’t read fantasy just because it is fantasy. In fact, my average book isn’t fantasy: it’s history, an historical novel, maybe a thriller or murder mystery. Those provide all the sordidness I could ever want. When I turn to fantasy, I don’t mind gore or evil (go Sauron!) but I’d like it to be in a place that offers a bit more: characters that are noble, a world of wonder where I would take that magic portal. Not saying I’d necessarily volunteer to be Frodo but I would hope to be a passable enough Pippin or Merry should that portal appear and give me a chance to live in Middle Earth. Same holds for Pern or Amber or a host of other classic fantasy settings. These are places where there is something markedly different and uplifting from good old Earth and its often pointless squabbles.
This is, of course, just my personal opinion. Others, many others, differ. That’s fine and clearly there’s enough of those readers for some writers to be wildly successful. But I personally won’t read that. If I want gritty, there’s plenty to choose from set on Earth. For a fantasy author to tell me “but it happened on Earth” is beside the point. I don’t want to read a rehash of history when I can read the real thing. For fantasy, I want something different from, and yes, something more noble, than Earth.
In the end, fantasy is a bit different for me than other genres. As escapist literature, I want it to be about a place a want to escape to.
Anyone else make a similar distinction?