Oh, Fantasy Novels.

I’m not going to lie, I don’t like most modern fantasy novels. Not that I find the old ones any better—it’s hard to deny Robert E. Howard was a misogynist racist, product of his time or no; and too much fantasy output is rehashing the same insipid tropes robbed from Tolkien. (David Eddings and Terry Brooks, often as not, read as Tolkien fan-fics.) Granted, a blanket statement, and one which I can point to many exceptions, but I’ll stick by it. By contrast, modern epic fantasies have carved out their own niche which partially bucks the Tolkien trend, and don’t always read like bad D&D campaigns transcribed into 600+ page tomes.

No, what I really hate about modern fantasy novels is their low quality of writing. Fantasy fans may vehemently disagree with me here, fantasy is one of the most denigrated genres within the genre-fiction ghetto. And in some cases, there’s a reason for that. Every now and then I’ll get a recommendation for a new fantasy novel, another five-star bestseller, and half the time the result is disappointment—due to the author’s inept prose, trite dialogue, flat characters, stock plot, flaccid developments, overuse of description, the author’s disturbing rape/torture fantasies, etc.

(I donno, maybe my tastes are too specific and I’m too hard to please. Lord knows I’ve had enough writing workshops, which are death on trying to read anything without a mental red pen in hand.)

So, when I see a capable, objective, coherent review that negatively criticizes a bestselling fantasy novel, I take note. (In part because far too much criticism comes from fictionalized fan-base infighting.) This would be Liz Bourke’s review for Michael Sullivan’s Theft of Swords; Sullivan was a big hit self-publishing his own work, and Theft collects his first two self-pub’d novels under the banner of an actual publishing house. By contrast, of the 45 Amazon reviews, only five are three-star or less.

At this point, whatever opinion I’d have had otherwise, the fanboy commentators have told me everything I need to know. What happens when someone has an opinion different from your own? Why, there must be something wrong with them. Let’s insult the reviewer, some kind of female historian intellectual who failed to objectively review even though she used objective data. (My personal favorite: taking quotes “out of context” makes any author look bad—of course, that’s exactly why I do it on my book review blog… not.) Two things strike me:

  1. Objectively – I do not think this word means what you think it means.
  2. To paraphrase Yahtzee: the objective for a critic is to critique, not put people’s balls in their mouth for a living.

This, as a whole, is my problem with the fantasy genre today. The review includes a number of “bad writing” examples which exceed anything I can pull out—“His father is a chivalrous knight of archaic dimensions. (p. 174)” is killer.

But more than that, my problem is with the fans; not just the stupidity in the comments section, but the fact that this is a bestseller. People continue to buy, defend, and propagate bad high/epic/fantasy works. It feels like the specific elements, the aesthetics and world-building and story arc, are promoted at the cost of quality and originality—in other words, popularity isn’t based on the novel’s merits but by its degree of catering to the genre’s tropes. That can’t be good for the genre.

To subvert this old article, which I more or less agree with: familiarity is what’s wanted, but only that which is familiar within the fantasy genre. And people wonder why fantasy is often so denigrated.

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