Sunday, September 18, 2005

Fantasy for Grown-ups

Susan over at Chicken Spaghetti brought this to my attention: Amanda Craig talking to fantasy author Robin Hobb in yesterday's Times. Craig observes: It is a paradox that, while children's fantasy writing has soared in public esteem, fantasy for adults remains in a ghetto. With our leading imprint of fantasy, Voyager, celebrating its tenth anniversary this month and the genre dominating British and US fiction lists, the time has come to ask whether it should be put away with childish things.

To which Robin Hobb replies "I'd say literary fiction is a sub-genre of fantasy, trying to mimic real life at its most depressing and oppressive. I'm mystified as to why people think fantasy is only for children."

Hobb's is a view I've been expressing in private for a while. I've noticed that even those reviewers who like Harry Potter are often quite sneering about fantasy for grown-ups; it rarely gets reviewed in the broadsheet press, and when it does, the reviewers are not often positive about it. Of course, the sneering reached its height when The Lord of the Rings kept winning the readers' polls. The Tolkien Society was accused of organising a voting campaign to propel the book to the top of the Waterstone's poll. Terry Pratchett is quite scathing on this particular topic in Karen Haber's Meditations on Middle-earth (a volume in which Robin Hobb's own paean of praise to Tolkien also appears); his own essay is called 'Cult Classic'.

I've read little in the way of non-fantasy fiction over the past few years because too often what I have read has been negative, if not outright depressing, whereas fantasy is often optomistic and inclusive. Many fantasy authors now create reluctant heroes, rather than the traditional heroes with the bulging biceps and shiny swords, and these heroes are often more likeable and more credible as people than the traditional heroes who somehow seem to be too good to be true.

Craig compares the plotting of Robin Hobb's trio of trilogies to King Lear and talks of Machiavellian scheming on the part of the relations of the young hero, FitzChivalry Farseer, and says the books are "as addictive as morphine". Whilst I wouldn't go quite that far (I found them less addictive than Juliet E McKenna's 'Tales of Einarinn' and 'Aldabreshin Compass' series), they are certainly compelling, and I found myself getting quite caught up in them. Politics plays a key part in the two trilogies that feature Fitz (as he's usually known), and there's nothing escapist about someone being beaten to death, not once but twice. (In case you're wondering, magic is used to bring him back, although, strictly speaking he doesn't quite die the second time.) Like Tolkien (in 'On Fairy Stories'), I object to fantasy being labelled 'escapist' as if escaping from something that is depressing, painful, crippling, or wholly negative, is a crime. Fantasy should be celebrated for its liberating qualities, which is a far more positive way of looking at it than claiming it is escapist.

The trio of trilogies from Robin Hobb consists of:

The Farseer Trilogy: Assassin's Apprentice, Royal Assassin and Assassin's Quest.

The Liveships Trilogy: The Liveship Traders, The Mad Ship and Ship of Destiny.

The Tawny Man Trilogy: Fool's Errand, The Golden Fool and Fool's Fate.

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