I headed to Amazon. Searched for fantasy fiction lists. Searched the internet for the best high, epic fantasy releases within the last three years. The results were (mostly) like this:
King of Shadows (Dread Lord Trilogy)
Rising Shadow (Annals of the Dark Lord)
The Dark is Coming (Shadow Shifters Chronicles)
And so on ...
I have actually made up all these titles, so that I'm not slurring any authors. But you can get a pretty good idea of what I found from this little list. Many summaries also read something like this:
"Eyara, daughter of an ancient king, returns to her home city to discover a new and dark force has risen up. Now she must become who she was born to be - but does she have the strength to do it? And if she does, will she drive away Anfalgard, a young werewolf? Anfalgard sees Eyara in ways that no one else does. He believes in her. Will the cost be too much for Eyara?"
After reading twenty summaries like this, I feel like tearing my hair out ... or scalping myself, depending how desperate I am. What is this? What happened to this genre?
I feel a bit like Gandalf: "I have no memory of this place."
When I browse through the YA section of the library, I discover an increasing number of books with young females on the front. They wear various tight-fitting dresses and pose against a smoky background. Taglines often read like this: "Will Freya survive the coming darkness?" Sidekicks invariably include hot young werewolves, kelpies, and vampires - and they're not always male either. A list of the words I am currently sick of includes the following:
"Mage, mages, wizard, magic, sorcery, darkness, shadow, shadows, dark lord, dread lord, shadow lord, dark knight, enchantress, kingdom, werewolf, werewolves, vampire, vampires, evil, dark."
I could go on. Some of these words have been used to wonderful purpose in previous fantasy sagas. For instance, Rowling has managed to use a number of these ideas in an original way. So too did J. R. R. Tolkien. But unfortunately, a unique stance with regards to these concepts is becoming rarer. The use of abstracts is on the rise as well. I recently picked up a fantasy book that had the vaguest descriptions of magic. It spoke about things resonating within the heart. What on earth does that look like? How is anyone supposed to visualise that? The main character was also called Glorianna Belladonna, which was enough to make me want to shut the book.
Another rising trend is that of bad-stuff-is-actually-just-misunderstood. The Twilight series is a perfect example of this. Vampires (which are sort of animated corpses, and traditionally feed by killing and sucking blood) are shown to be misunderstood and actually quite beautiful. For heaven's sake, they sparkle. They must be misunderstood. Kelpies, which steal people away or drown them underwater, are actually mysterious lovers. Werewolves are glorified. Again, Rowling succeeded where many authors have failed in this area: she showed a werewolf who hated what he had become, and who longed to conquer his nature. This is a different thing altogether. But I'm talking about modern werewolves who are quite clearly very cool. Werewolves who are lovers.
The idea used to be unique. But even then, it wasn't that good. It was just another ploy of our modern culture, which is steadily turning morality on its head. Nowadays, however, the idea is so overused that it is a trope.
Where is the fantasy that had new countries with unique names? And not names that all sounded like the same Welsh variant either. Really unique names. Beautiful names, but easy to look at. Where is the fantasy with strong characters that don't need the foundation of the cliché figures previous authors have established? Where is the fantasy with a unique concept of magic? No enchanted swords, no wands, no wizard's apprentices. Something unique, like what Paolini did. Where has that gone? Where is the fantasy that had grit and spark and a good story with a stirring ending? Where is the fantasy that doesn't exalt romance to a ridiculous level? Where is the fantasy that means something?
Maybe it's just me, but it looks like this stuff is becoming rarer. There are few fantasy books that meet the above standard today. They're vanishing.
I'm beginning to understand why some of my friends say: "Fantasy is dumb." I'm beginning to understand why people I know look at the genre with disgust - even condemn it. I don't know what I write any more, because it doesn't fit properly into the modern standard of fantasy. It has mythical influences. It has Biblical influences. It has historical references and homages to other classics concealed in it. It doesn't use the word magic ever. There are no wands or enchanted swords. There are very few magical creatures. So what the heck is it?
I don't know, but I frankly don't care. For selling purposes, it will be classified as a fantasy series. But to my mind, it is (I hope) something different. And I like it that way.