A Movement Within Fantasy?

Posted on July 4th, 2013 in process, The Inquisition

I’m not even a third of the way through the Inquisition’s gruelling range of questions, but I’m still doing my best to confess, preferably while implicating everyone I can think of, innocent or guilty.  Inquisitor Colm asks:

A pretty art-w*nk question here:

Do you consider yourself as part of a general movement within fantasy (Third Wave?) and do you find yourself consciously comparing your work to traditional fantasy, or even some other new strands of fantasy (e.g New Weird – Mieville springs to mind)? Or do you just write what you know and others have imposed these tags/descriptions on you?

I think these ideas of movements naturally appear some time after books are published, and therefore necessarily a long time after they were written.  It may be that some writers come to the job with an explicit mission statement, but my experience was that I started writing with only the vaguest ideas of a purpose beyond producing the sort of book I’d like to read.  With time you maybe see a lot of readers making similar statements about your intentions and goals and approach and start to think, ‘yeah, they’re right, that is what I was doing, I AM A HIGHLY POLITICAL GAME-CHANGING VISIONARY.’

The truth of the matter, as far as I can remember it, is much less impressive.  I played a lot of role-playing games and read a lot of epic fantasy as a kid, got a bit bored with the way it seemed to stick closely to a predictable formula, largely stopped reading it at the start of the 90s and read other things.  Then I read GRRM’s Game of Thrones and saw that it was possible to do something daring, unpredictable, gritty and character-centred while still writing in the commercial core of the genre – I saw a lot of what I felt had been missing very clearly expressed in that series.  Some time after that, in 2001, I think, and largely because I found myself with time on my hands as a freelance TV editor, I started trying to write, initially without the slightest expectation of being published.  My aim, insofar as I had one, was to produce my take on a classic epic fantasy trilogy, very much in the vein of Lord of the Rings, David Eddings or Dragonlance, but with a tight focus on vivid characters with setting very much a backdrop, a grittiness and hence a punch and drive to the action, a lot of twists in the plot (almost a mystery plot, in a way), a stripped-down modernity to the prose, and above all a sense of humour.

I wanted to write gritty, honest, truthful, funny, surprising, exciting, entertaining, thought-provoking epic fantasy.  Whether I have succeeded in any of those aims is, of course, for others to judge…

Other than Martin, I was pretty ignorant of what had been going on in the genre during the previous decade, let alone of what people were writing at that moment, but it does seem that there were quite a few people with similar experiences and approaches to me, because around the time I was published in 2006 a whole crop of other authors appeared who have gone on to be very successful by employing various twists on epic fantasy – many gritty, many witty, many surprising in all sorts of ways – and I’ve heard quite a few of them give very similar answers about their influences and intentions to the one I just gave above.

So I guess you could say I’m part of a movement to that degree – a loose group of authors who write similar kinds of work based on similar experiences and intentions.  Is that “third wave”?  No idea.  Certainly the First Law was very consciously a take on epic fantasy – an experiment with and a comment on the form, as well as hopefully an entertaining example of the form.  The three standalone books have been slightly different, tinkering with combining epic fantasy with other classic forms and structures.  New Weird I know much less about, and has always been hard to define, but I’m less interested myself in that which deliberately eschews familiar structures and aims at something almost disorientingly strange, surreal and fantastical, than I am in twists and reinterpretations of the well known and well understood.

Art-w*nk enough for ya?

36 Comments So Far... (join in)


Display an avatar in the comments by signing up at Gravatar.

  1. So, ‘Yes’, basically…

  2. Some Art, lots of w*nk, should do the trick! Actually I like the mix up of genres that you are doing but it does seem to be very en vogue at the moment/over the last few years in many areas not only books but also video games, film, TV, comics etc.

    Whether this therefore describes a ‘third wave’ in genre fiction or part of a wider movement to grit/reality and mashups, as you say Joe, only time will tell.

  3. This is great! I think it is tough (and possibly dangerous) for any author to go on record with an interpretation of their own work or their place in a “movement”, but this is really thoughtful and interesting…

  4. I love GRRM’s work, truly, but I find it a bit sad that every fantasy writer is compared to him or every fantasy writer compares himself to him.

    Truth be told, GRRM is very light on fantasy, very heavy on character development and political intrigue. I barely consider him a fantasy writer at all (but to be honest, I’ve only read the Ice and Fire books). He is just hugely popular because of the hit television series.

    I wish writers like Steven Erikson would get that kind of recognition, whom I consider to be an evil genius. He is pure fantasy, and he, in my opinion, is the benchmark young writers should be compared against.

  5. I wrote that whole thing, and here sits Deadhouse Gates on a table and right on the cover some dime store critic says Erikson is “reminiscent of George RR Martin.”

    So what do I know?

  6. @Self Important Duck

    “I find it a bit sad that every fantasy writer is compared to him or every fantasy writer compares himself to him.”

    I still find it positively refreshing coming from the genre that compared everything to Tolkien for 60 years….

  7. Bloody genres though. People define themselves by them. I have a friend who loves books and I was encouraging her to read Joe’s books knowing she would enjoy them, but alas she “didn’t like fantasy” so wouldn’t read them. I just bought the blade itself for her birthday forcing her hand. She read it of course loved it and has since read all the rest.

    My point is there is too much score put on finely categorising the genres which in turn potentially alienates people.

  8. Self Important Duck,
    I mention GRRM because he was a big influence on me and the clear key precursor of the recent wave of gritty, realistic fantasy, regularly cited by other writers of my generation. This was true long, long before the TV series was ever whispered of. He is probably the most important epic fantasist since Tolkien. Anyone seriously disagreeing with that?

    Sittingduck,
    Amen to that…

  9. “Anyone seriously disagreeing with that?”

    Oooh, it’s getting a bit lairy!

  10. Your story sounds very much like mine, though I started later than you. As you did, I grew up playing role playing games and reading lots of fantasy, and though I enjoyed it, I felt something was missing from it. Only when I read Martin’s ASOIAF series did I see what it was I had been wanting but missing. My personal take was that I wanted D&D/Tolkienesque-style worlds but done in a gritty, realistic fashion rather than the standard black/white style that seems to be the only way they are done (or the more childish official D&D books). So my first novel set out to do precisely that. Being a first book, it is not perfect (we all learn how to write a novel that first time), though it did what I wanted.

  11. “I still find it positively refreshing coming from the genre that compared everything to Tolkien for 60 years….”

    That’s a really good point, but there has been plenty of dark fantasy writers since Tolkien and before GRRM. Glen Cook, for example.

    And Joe, I didn’t say that to downplay GRRM in any way, I’ve just wanted to have this conversation with fantasy lovers for a while. Why is GRRM so popular? You can’t deny it’s because of the TV show. That said, no one disagrees that he has been extremely influential. “The most important epic fantasist”? No.

  12. GRRM was huge before the TV show. The show might have taken him through the roof as it hit the magic button and got non-genre fans buying the books but certainly in the fantasy world ASOIAF has always been absolutely massive.

  13. GRRM and Game of Thrones was pretty popular before the TV series came along, within the genre at least. Sure the TV show has opened him up to a wider audience but dare I say that the audience that counts, the one which is most likely to feed back into the genre and become the next gen of writers, didn’t need the TV show to be influenced by him!

    Personally, I can’t think of (m)any other writers of EPIC fantasy from the last decade who have had such an impact on me (other than Steven Erikson who I happen to prefer) but then I’m hardly qualified to comment as just a reader and not a writer. Joe’s suggesting that within his peer group he is hearing similar stories from all over and GRRM is a common thread.

    Love to hear of any other suggestions that may have passed me by. :)

  14. @Self Important Duck
    As a huge fan of Erikson, I have to disagree with you. Malazan has one of the steepest learning curves in the genre. It requires your full attention and is at its best when the reader is extremely meticulous. I find the experience much more similar to reading, say, Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum than reading Best Served Cold. Is Malazan fantasy ? Sure, but is it commercial fiction ?

    Fantasy doesn’t offer something similar to Malazan yet, and most (among the ones I know, all) young writers tend to write like GRRM, not Erikson, thus the comparisons.

  15. If you aren’t part of a movement in fantasy I’m happy with where its at, if you are part of a movement I can’t wait to see where it goes. Keep writing!

  16. I finished “Red Country” a couple of days ago and, guess what?, I loved every minute of it. What makes JA’s books really stand out in a crowd – to me, that is – is the endings, they never disappoint. There are plenty of authors out there who clearly have the craft, they can write an’all but, when it comes to the “closing”, they just leave you with a bitter taste. That “Wait up!” at the end of “The Heroes”, for example, is 24 carat gold. It’s just the right thing. That said, I guess I’ll leave all the the wave-ish talks where they are. Genres are generes, I just like good books myself.

  17. Self Important Duck,
    There are loads of important writers of dark fantasy both before Tolkien and since, but none of them have had anything like the commercial penetration or widespread influence Martin’s had. Nothing like. The TV series has brought him to a much wider audience, and redefined the way fantasy is seen to a degree, but he was a no. 1 NYT bestseller long before that. No disrespect at all to Erikson, he’s a very successful and respected writer, and he came along a few years after Game of Thrones so he’s had less time to make that impact, but I don’t see writers citing him as an influence to anything like the same degree. His sales were a fraction of Martin’s even before the series, but there’s no shame in that, everyone’s were, except Robert Jordan, maybe Brooks, Goodkind, a couple of other highly commercial writers. After the series? Over the past few months Martin’s sales have accounted for a third of the ENTIRE SF&F GENRE in the UK. That’s how big he is now.

  18. I heard of Martin when I was actively NOT following the fantasy genre, after growing up with it. So there’s no doubt he was big before the show, because his name was popping up regularly outside of typical fantasy circles. Robert Jordan basically killed fantasy for me. 3-4 years ago I started picking up Martin’s books in MM as they showed up at my local used bookstore, but was still wary. Still haven’t read them, in fact, though I love the show.

    The first actual fantasy book I picked up and read in probably the last ten years was The Heroes (paid full price too, didn’t get it at the used shop, so don’t set the hounds on me, Abercrombie!) and I loved it and was reminded exactly what was great about fantasy all over again.

    So that’s my story that nobody asked for.

  19. Well said, Joe. I concur. I spent my lunch thinking about the word “influential” and agree with you.

    He might not be in my top three (Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Steven Erikson), but he is definitely in my top 10. And my opinion has very, very little to do with the extent of his influence.

    Cheers

  20. “Malazan has one of the steepest learning curves in the genre.”

    Another good point. I think I was simply saying GRRM is very light on fantasy, heavy on policital intrigue, where Erikson is heavy on fantasy, heavy on being an evil, unforgiving author.

    You are correct, Erikson will never be as widely accepted and easily digested as GRRM.

  21. SimonCG, if you like Erikson, you should try R. Scott Bakker who seems to be absent from this convo so far. I started with Salvatore, moved on to Martin, and then Bakker and Erikson. R. Scott Bakker has been MY most influential author. Just my two cents! Great post!

  22. You’re writing should always be exactly what you want it to be without worrying about genre, alleged movements, or what’s trending. I love the style of writing you employ and have found each book thoroughly entertaining. I enjoy the gritty characters and the realistic worlds they inhabit (fantasy notwithstanding). I like that the endings are always pat and predictable. It reminds of the Thomas Covenant books by Donaldson, gritty, unpredictable worlds and characters. Keep it up and I look forward to the next book!

  23. Many thanks Ross, I have heard of R. Scott Bakker but never read any of his stuff. Much as I love (and my wife hates) my book collection, I find it’s getting easier to try out new authors due to the wonders of Kindle! I will give him a go just as soon as I finish Evolutionary Void :)

  24. I think if you look at the fact that Joe has made no secret of exploring the whole western genre for inspiration should show he’s not overly bound to fantasy and no more should he be. For me I couldn’t give a shit how someone classifys anything. I’ll more than happily sit and watch a chick flick with the misses, cartoons with the kids or a full on blood drenched war movie. Simerly I’ve read chick lit the good lady suggests, percy jackson and the lightning thief with the boy’s or as all of us here love a five finger facefucker of a book from Joe frankly who cares so long as it’s good!

  25. Having not yet delved into Martin (either the books or the TV series barring the first episode), my intro to I suppose what is considered this “Third Wave” of Fantasy has been Joe Abercrombie. The way the “Epic” genre was played with in the First Law got me hooked right away and the characters were what cinched it for me. Hell, Sand dan Glokta (and Joe’s take on the police procedural) alone was worth the price of admission. I look forward to reading these other authors especially Erickson but I have so many books to read right now that I may need a second lifetime.

  26. Not that I constructed this, or necessarily agree with its formulation, but here’s one attempt to relate authors in this space.

    http://literature-map.com/joe+abercrombie.html

    I follow many of these, and have my faves (Cook, Erikson, Lord Grimdark) and others that always seem to find the bottom of my stack (Bakker and Jordan/Sanderson; although the sunk costs in both are a significant incentive).

    I guess my point is, where do you draw the boundaries of such a “movement?” Are Tad Williams, Janny Wurtz, and Guy Gaveriel Kay in? Or out? Or does it matter?

    I am simply most grateful that there are a body of authors (and a market of readers) who moved beyond the coming-of-age-good-over-evil stories written for the YA crowd (although I do, at least occasionally, like to see the good-over-evil line play through).

  27. “Influential” is a very different measure than “Favorite.” The latter is exclusively personal preference. GRRM is not arguably influential regardless of one’s personal preference or top X favorite writers. I don’t like being out in the sun either, but it’s still really bright regardless.

    Unrelated, I like the general thrust of this question. It highlights potential horse versus cart positional quandaries. It’s interesting to think about perceived movements in the sense of the subset of all literary reactions to the status quo that resonated most broadly with those that consumed them. Less did a set of authors set out to “change things” but that a set of authors were co-inspired by circumstance (and maybe each other) to do a thing, and then that thing struck a chord in the market. You could make that case that the movement then isn’t about the authors, but about what we as a population of fantasy consumers are hankering for. That leads to I think much more interesting “why” questions about ourselves and the world around us.

  28. Pigeon holes? We don’t need no stinking pigeon holes……just keep doin’ your thing Joe, lovin’ it!

  29. I wouldn’t say that GRRM created this ‘third wave’ (itself a dubious title) of epic fantasy which tends towards more realstically-motivated characters and ‘grit’ (or Joe’s favourite phrase, ‘grimdark’). This style of fantasy has been around for ages: Poul Anderson’s THE BROKEN SWORD is an arguable forerunner of it and that came out the same year as LORD OF THE RINGS.

    If we count the birth of the ‘modern’ epic fantasy genre as being in 1977 with the arrival of Brooks’s THE SWORD OF SHANNARA and Donaldson’s LORD FOUL’S BANE, you can see that this type of fantasy has been around all along (that was also the year of THE SILMARILLION when even Tolkien did incest and morally ambiguous protagonists). It was always lower-key than the bright ‘n’ sunny cheese fantasy of Eddings and early Brooks, but still gave rise to some well-known names such as Glen Cook and David Gemmell and some chronically underrated ones, like Matt Stover and Paul Kearney.

    What GRRM did was represent a change in focus. A GAME OF THRONES just happened to be the book to popularise the ‘grimdark/gritty/whatever’ movement and move it into the mainstream. I see a whole bunch of authors since then either using GRRM as an influence (though usually just one amongst many) – Bakker, Joe, Scott Lynch – or even reacting against him, such as Sanderson (who eschews the grimness and low-magic stuff in favour of advanced, complex magic settings) and arguably Rothfuss (who de-emphasises battles and large-scale events). Erikson I think is trying (with variable results) to do something completely different altogether, fusing epic fantasy with more literary concerns and language.

  30. Fascinating to read about Mr Abercrombie’s influences and route into authorship. I’ve only just had opportunity to explore his work and have just finished the second and am about to start the third. I’m enjoying them hugely and will no doubt now work my way through them all.
    Having been a fantasy fan since the start of the 70s, reading LOTR while my classmates read the Hobbit, I think it’s just great that that we now have such easy access to such a large number of interesting authors with often very different styles. I loved Tolkien and his incredibly developed world and characters but was was equally blown away by the power and focus of say Robert E Howard, and the invention of Donaldson. All authors have strengths and weaknesses and I’d hate to see the genre dominated by just one author or style. I remember well the days where every new author was Tolkien ‘s heir. Personally I have been a huge fan since he started, but I also love GRRMs work and all he has brought to the party.
    Joe’s books remind me somewhat of the late lamented David Gemmell but have their own strong style and feel, as they should! I look forward to reading more.

  31. Sorry should say a huge fan of Erikson since he started!

  32. It seems that most authors answer this question in much the same way. Which makes me wonder whether it was publishers having a hand in this spate of “gritty, realistic” fantasy authors, or whether readers were just on the same page the authors were.

  33. I would have to say that your books are a nice change to the fantasy “genre”. I picked up your books and the Brent Weeks novels at the same time when I was getting tired of the typical scorned hero coquers the big evil books. I used to be a fan of Forgotten Realms books, War Of The Spider Queen, old Drizzt books, etc… but eventually got bored. Do you see yourself going “darker, grittier” with your style? I do like the comedic intelligence as well as the realism of the characters, much more believable than the demi-gods in most books. I must say, I’m a big fan of all the books and characters you have written!

  34. Hmm, when I was reading the First Law Trilogy it occured to me that the author was writing what China Meiville defines as Weird Fiction, wether he was aware of it or not, just purely because it was written as fantasy but had a real darkness to it, strong horror elements and some neatly implied Sci-Fi (its not specified exactly what the nature of the weapon Bayaz wields at the end of the series but you know that it could probably be explained using the word isotope somewhere…) and also that it had the subversive political sensibilities I personally associate with the genre.

  35. Joe,

    I was wondering if you could comment on the similarities between your work, and the work of Bakker/Erikson/Martin?

Trackbacks

  1. Quando la fantasy incontra il realismo/1 | librolandia

Add Your Comment: