In my last review, I mentioned the difficulties I had in getting used to being thrust into an alien culture as a reader. This response via Twitter made me question whether perhaps we’re so used to the typical fantasy tropes that it’s becoming limiting?
— Jonathan Oliver (@JonOlivereditor) July 24, 2014
The more I think about it, the more I wonder how much of the responsibility lies with us as readers. On the one hand, a common statement made in support of fantasy fiction is that it allows us to escape the every day, the familiar, the humdrum. But if we settle for the same formulaic plots involving white farmboys saving the world with the help of greybeard wizards that spells aside could have walked out of an academic basement at any time in the last 100 years or so, don’t we deserve to feel bamboozled when something new comes along?
And if the plots remain largely static, doesn’t that also potentially limit the range of authors? Sure, a good author can write about things that might not immediately relate to their everyday lives – I’m fairly sure Tolkien didn’t actually live in Middle Earth. And Emily Brontë hasn’t been recorded as going round digging up graves or obsessively pining after lost lovers. But if we only look for the familiar, we’re depriving writers of telling the stories that are bursting out of them. And missing what might even be much more satisfying and rewarding fiction to boot.
Ready to step outside the confines of your typical fantasy read? Here are 5 suggestions to get you started…
Fantasy goes wild west
One Night in Sixes by Arianne ‘Tex’ Thompson is a densely packed first part of a series. It introduces Elim, a mixed race horse tender, who is pulled across the border from the familiar environs of the South Western town he knows, into a land where nobody and nothing is as it seems. Taking in elements of the Western novel, Native American deities and fish people, it’s certainly a long way from the beaten track!
Fantasy goes to Africa
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord weaves the Anansi tales of West Africa into the everyday. Paama, a woman trying to escape her good for nothing, greedy husband wants to find a way to be independent. But when Anansi and the djombi get involved, things don’t quite turn out the way she planned! I love how this story incorporates the more humorous, earthy aspects of Anansi the Trickster, reminding us that the Gods in fiction don’t always have to be solemn, white bearded, omniscients.
Fantasy goes to the Middle East
Yes, I’ll admit that Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed is a sword and sorcery fantasy. Well, scimitars and sorcery might be more accurate, since this book has a definite Arabian feel. Elderly Doctor Adoulla Makhslood wants nothing more than to be able to hang up his ghoul hunters robes and spend his days drinking tea and chasing a local widow he has his eye on. But instead he’s drawn into a power struggle between Khalif of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms and the mysterious thief, calling himself the Falcon Prince.
Fantasy goes to East Asia
One of my favourite reads from last summer, The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo tells the story of 17 year old Li Lan; a 17 year old girl in 1880s Malaya. Her opium-ruined father tries to persuade her to become a ghost bride to the son of a rich family, who recently died under unusual circumstances. Li Lan accidentally uncovers a mystery and spends the book trying both to escape the unwanted marriage and to get to the truth. This is one of those stories that paints a picture of the setting so vividly you can almost taste it.
Fantasy does diverse relationships
Unlike the other books on the list, New Amsterdam actually takes place in America. But, it’s an alternative history America that never gained independence from Britain. In this new world, sorceror Abby Irene plays the part of a paranormal Sherlock Holmes, aided and abetted by an old world wampyr. But what gets this series of vignettes on the diverse list is that it’s no tale of besotted young girls bewitched by smouldering-eyed vamps. The main characters are middle aged and upwards, sharp and in control of their own affairs. And same sex relationships pass without the blink of an eyelid; integrated fully into Elizabeth Bear’s world without additional drama.
What’s your favourite diverse fantasy read? Let me know what I should add to my reading list!