Fantasy Worlds Worth Visiting

The battle of Gettysburg, Pa. July 3d. 1863, d...
The battle of Gettysburg, Pa. July 3d. 1863, depicting the Battle of Gettysburg, fought July 1—3, 1863. The battle was part of the American Civil War and was won by the North. Hand-colored lithograph by Currier and Ives. Español: Batalla de Gettysburg Magyar: A gettysburgi csata (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?

12 thoughts on “Fantasy Worlds Worth Visiting

  1. I really like Shadowmarch by Tad Williams. That world is so believable and the characters are all really amazing. I’m with you on the Game of Thrones thing. From what I’ve learned of it, it doesn’t really seem like an actual portrayal of how things worked back in medieval times. The gore/extremes amounts of sex are just not for me, and wouldn’t be something I enjoy reading in a fantasy novel. I feel like fantasy is going down an erotica path these days and that makes me sad.

    Hopefully I can capture the kind of world you’re talking about in the high-fantasy book I’m working on. So much research is required! But it’ll get there eventually.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Glad I’m not the only one out there. I need to look at Shadowmarch again, thanks for the reminder!

      And best of luck on your story! I want to read great high fantasy 🙂

  2. Have you read Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-Stories? It’s a brilliant piece, that certainly heralded the spirit of LOTR that was to come many years later. To Tolkien, one of the chief characteristics of a fairy-story is its desirability. I fully adhere to that!

  3. I can’t fault your opinions – because they are your opinions. You don’t like to read what you don’t like to read. That’s cool. I don’t read horror and definitely do not read erotica. But I think there’s two things going on here in regards to GOT.

    First – in the books (yes, I’ve read them all and LOVE them), there’s sex, violence and realism, but there’s TONS more of other stuff. Intrigue. Heroics. Great dialogue. Profound and touching moments. Wolves. Magic. Swords. Dragons. Armies. Truly well defined and varied cultures. Etc etc.

    Second – I can’t stand the TV show because they seem to focus on the sex, violence and realism (appeals to a lot of people who haven’t read the books) and seem to forget all the rest. Each book is fat. 500 pages or more. What fills those pages is not all sex and violence (though there is that, too).

    I’m not trying to defend the books, but put them in perspective and to separate them from the TV show. Reading the books and watching the TV show are not the same experience (by far).

    1. Thanks for the comments! My post is definitely personal opinion. Lots of people love the books, the series or both 🙂

      I really need to give it a try again. I’ve got it on my kindle but can’t seem to get to much more than the 1/3 point. I’m told there are fantasy elements and heroes but it certainly isn’t apparent in what I’ve read so far. First time I tried reading it, I even went back to the web to make sure this was a fantasy book rather than just an alternative earth history!

      But I use GOT as an example. And Martin opens himself up to this criticism by citing earth history for justification for the plot twists that rub folks the wrong way (as well as the bad stuff that happens- hey there’s rape on earth so why not in my fantasy novel?).

      But there’s plenty of other gritty or earth derivative works out there, from Guy Gavriel Kay (which hews very close to Earth) to many others. I found a book flipping through the bookstore last year where the first three pages were all about some mercenaries cutting off the fingers (for rings) of farmers who had refused to pay extortion. I don’t need to turn to fantasy for that sort of stuff. Put another way, if I am going to read about man’s humanity to man, I’d rather read non-fiction or at least a fictional account that is trying to represent something that really happened. Black Hawk Down. A Distant Mirror. Edwin Campion Vaughn’s WWI diary. Ralph Peters’ book. Lots and lots to choose from if I want a dose of gore and cruelty.

      It does sound like there’s more to GOT… but how many words do I have to read to get to the good stuff? There’s a lot of material. And the reviews on (IIRC) books 4 & 5 are pretty weak. That’s about 600,000 words to plow through. Doesn’t really appeal although I keep considering it since so many people love it.

      1. If you have tried it, and didn’t like it, by all means, don’t try again. I didn’t mean for my comment to sound like you should, but just that the books and the TV series are very different – to me.

        But you are right about the gore and cruelty in what is being called dark fantasy. Some like it, some don’t.

        What I don’t understand is why GRRM feels the need to justify it. It’s his fiction. He can write what he wants!

        Anyway, good post as always. 🙂

  4. I’m totally with you on this, and I’d add an example from SF fandom. The clubs I was in that were most popular were original Star Trek and Dragonriders of Pern — for exactly the reasons you cited. There are lots of things to do/write about/imagine yourself in, and they both seem like fun places to go. Those people who say original Star Trek was goody-goody and boring? You don’t know what TV was like in those days, so you have no idea what a bolt of lightning that series was.

    Although I think highly of Martin as a person (I’ve been at the same SF conventions, and I’ve seen him visit every room party, every night, and chat graciously with EVERY fan) I only read the first book of Game of Thrones. That was enough for me.

    Like you, I strive to show my readers a good time without sexing and goring it up. I hope your book gets published some day, so I can read it!

    1. Thanks for the comment and the reminder of similar things in the SF side. (I always lump Pern with fantasy even though it is technically science fiction 🙂 )

      I don’t want to say fantasy must be about escapism but I do want the fantasy I read to have that element. For me, daydreams and fantasies are closely related. I may find reading about the poor soldiers in Pickett’s charge fascinating but I would never daydream being there. Same for fiction: I prefer my fantasy fiction to be about places and people I’d daydream about.

      Thanks again!

  5. Nice discussion going here. I definitely get what you’re saying about Game of Thrones. I finally broke down and read the first book. But because I’m not much in for epic fantasy (except LOTR), I thought that was why I didn’t get into it. For starters, the first book is SOOOO long, and with very little magic or anything indentifiably fantasy to draw me in. I agree that Martin is a gifted writer, and very good especially on character motives. But what you mention here is exactly what I missed: the higher, nobler element that drew me to fantasy in the first place. (Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories is definitely worth reading for this!) I have no issue with people liking the books (I’ve never seen the TV series), of course–but not for me. Glad I’m not alone. Thanks for the post.

    1. I need to finish the first book because he is a great writer and so many people like it. I like to finish things so one barrier is my reluctance, knowing what I know about it, to commit to getting to the end of the series but maybe it will work if I just set the goal of finishing the first novel.

      I’m also glad to see my fantasy biases aren’t entirely unusual 🙂 !

Comments are closed.