Fantasy Literature Project – Part 1


This is something I’ve been working on with one of my English Literature professors, Erin G. Carlston (, over the past semester at the University of Auckland and I figured I would submit the fucker thing in instalments because of its size.

Fantasy literature is one of my favourite genres to delve into and lose myself for a while so this project was extremely personal to me.

Let me know if you dig it and I’ll upload more.

Voilà, the intro:

Grumkins and Snarks: 

A discussion of contemporary fantasy writers’ strategies for world-building

  1. Fantasy: the ‘wilderness’ of possibility

According to author and literary genius Ursula Le Guin, the fantasy genre is ‘a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe’.[1] Le Guin refers to the potential dangers of the genre in the sense of the subject matter, the reading experience, and the writing process of a fantasy text. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘fantasy’ as ‘imagination’ or ‘the process or faculty of forming mental representations of things not actually present’.[2] Yet this notion of imaginative literature is not unique to fantasy because it also applies to other literary genres. What differentiates fantasy from other genres is that the possibilities of the subject matter are unlimited. Like most genre fiction, fantasy allows the reader to escape reality for a while, yet, unlike other genres, it is highly unconventional. Of course, there are certain symbols that a lot of fantasy authors tend to use in their texts, such as medievalism, magical elements, and mythical creatures, but the strength of the genre resides in its openness. Fantasy is one of the least conventional genres because it does not have to conform to any tropes. In fact, some of the best fantasy literature does not conform to any tropes at all. For instance, in The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien depicts the dragon, Smaug, as a formidable creature with evil motives, much like in European folklore. By contrast, Anne McAffrey portrays dragons in the Dragonriders of Pern series as friendly genetically-modified creatures. In the A Song of Ice and Fire series, George R.R. Martin’s dragons are particularly interesting because they bear similarities to weapons of mass destruction in the sense that whoever wields them has the most power. Essentially, a fantasy text need not adhere to any rubric.

New authors create new sub-genres and the wider fantasy genre evolves and changes constantly. One author may write in the tradition of epic fantasy, known for its dichotomy of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’, whereas another may situate his text in the realms of urban fantasy in a world much like our own but with magic. The ‘danger’ of the reading experience is that the reader should be wary and not have expectations as to what a fantasy text should be or do. When reading fantasy, the reader suspends her imagination and is at the mercy of that of the author. This is the ‘wilderness’ of the fantasy genre because each time a reader opens the pages of a fantasy text, anything could be contained within. I would like to think of myself as relatively well-read when it comes to fantasy, except each new text that I pick up challenges any preconceptions I have for the genre. I once thought that there must be dragons in a fantasy text but then I came across Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, a text about a group of con-artists and thieves in an alternate Venice-like world without a dragon in sight. I also believed that fantasy characters should speak differently from ourselves, yet Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains proved me wrong with his modern profanities and dialogue. The danger lies in classifying this hybrid genre as if it should be anything at all. To say fantasy is this or that simplifies and reduces the possibilities of this imaginative literary genre.

2. Blurring the lines

The main condition of the fantasy genre is the creation of fantastical and imaginative worlds. Anything is possible in these worlds and the author is God, controlling what he includes. Le Guin states that a fantasy author is a ‘guide’ because he takes the reader on a journey into his mind’s creation, pulling her further into his created world.[3] It is interesting to consider what an author includes and excludes from the present world in the created world because any similarity is noticeable and draws the attention of the reader. Perhaps the characters are humanoid in appearance or the created world resembles Northern Europe. Much like how travel broadens the mind, by spending some time in these alternate worlds, one learns something more profound about the present world. The inherent ‘danger’ of fantasy is that what one learns may be hard to digest. For instance, an alternate world that appears to be vastly different, such as Kameron Hurley’s Raisa in The Mirror Empire, may turn out to be not dissimilar to our own. Hurley investigates the political movements between characters in that the oppressed people in one universe oppress other people in another parallel universe. Hurley stresses the notion that, given the opportunity, each character would manipulate and exploit others for her own gain. Perhaps Hurley shows the reader an example of human corruptibility or maybe she exposes something frightening about the human experience such as the extent someone will go to fulfil her desires. In short, these worlds provide more than a simple escape route from reality for a few hours.

Thanks to online forums such as Reddit and websites such as GoodReads allowing fantasy readers to recommend texts to each other, fantasy is no longer a niche genre relegated to the dusty corner of a bookstore. Yet, with the increased popularity of fantasy, there also comes a demand for new and inventive forms of fantasy literature. This raises the question as to how much overlapping is permitted across genres. For instance, Cast in Shadow by Michelle Sagara is a murder mystery set in a fantasy world. So, should it be classified as detective fiction or fantasy? Hurley’s text includes parallel universes and Connie Willis’ Doomsday contains time travel. So, are these texts science-fiction or fantasy? Science fiction novels normally portray a future version, or vision, of the present world whereas the created worlds of the fantasy genre often mirror that of the past. While fantasy novels often contain magic, castles and palaces, science fiction texts usually display advanced technology and hyper-industrialisation. This is already a difficult question because the lines between fantasy and science-fiction literature are blurred anyway. With all the freedom in the genre, it may be dangerous territory for a fantasy author if he cannot find his place among his peers.

3. Goals / Corpus of texts

Over the course of this essay, I will discuss the world-building strategies of several contemporary fantasy writers. Within this broad topic, I want to consider the immersive settings of these texts because this is the base structure of a created world. I am going to examine maps, how the author introduces his setting and the type of setting itself to see how the author establishes his created world. I would like to touch upon the nature of heroism and what it means to be a hero or heroine within the contemporary fantasy genre. I will examine the protagonists and primary characters within the texts to see if there is a commonality amongst them. I would like to also consider the form and narrative techniques that contemporary fantasy authors use to convey their enchanting worlds. Within this section, I want to examine how the use of language and dialogue adds colour to the created world. I am going to touch upon how the author structures his text to improve the reading experience. I will look at how character perspective gives nuanced qualities to the respective worlds of the authors.

In this essay, all the texts to which I refer contain various degrees of danger. Danger is intrinsically linked to the narratives of great contemporary fantasy literature because the backdrop of potential war or violence allows the author’s world-building to shine. The threat of danger gives the characters a reason to navigate the created world to escape from danger or to defeat its source. In a sense, the reader experiences the danger vicariously through the characters in the text.

The texts that I will use to furnish my argument are A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan, The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells, Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan, and The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley. These texts reflect the current state of contemporary fantasy and provide a balanced illustration of the different types of fantasy across the spectrum of the genre. Although many of these texts belong to trilogies or sagas, I will use the first novel in each series, because that is where the author must work the hardest to establish the setting, build his world and convince his readers to read the next novel.

[1] Ursula Le Guin, From Elfland to Poughkeepsie (Portland: Pendragon Press, 1973), 4.

[2] Oxford English Dictionary, “fantasy | phantasy, n.”, OED Online, accessed March 26, 2017,

[3] Le Guin, 4.

Fantasy literature project – Part 3

Voila part 3! Hope you enjoy!

Link to part 1 – (

Link to part 2 – (


Part 2: Heroism


i.)         Working towards a definition of ‘heroism’

In the satirical text, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones defines heroes as ‘mythical beings, often selected at birth, who perform amazing deeds of courage, strength and magical mayhem, usually against huge odds’.[1] One half of this definition pertains largely to a subgenre of fantasy called ‘sword and sorcery’, popularised in the nineteen-twenties and thirties by authors like Robert E. Howard who wrote the pulp fantasy stories of Conan the Barbarian and Kull of Atlantis. Howard’s stories depict muscular battle-hungry warriors and self-motivated men of action.[2] These heroes are unrealistic because of their unlimited free-will and near invincibility, which is a large part of the textual appeal for some readers. Wynn Jones’ definition also refers to classic epic fantasy texts like The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien in which the small but well-nourished hobbits perform brave deeds as part of their cause to destroy the Ring. The second part of Wynn Jones’ definition relates more to the heroes of contemporary fantasy. She explains that a hero usually turns out to be just as human as the reader, often ‘in the right place at the right time, (or the wrong place at the wrong time, more likely)’.[3] The heroes in contemporary fantasy texts have obligations and concerns other than themselves, such as Adoulla’s duty to Dhamsawaat, as well as experiencing very real danger, which is evident in the significant death toll in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

I have touched upon the definition of heroism but I have not yet examined what ‘makes’ a hero. Fantasy authors stretch the definition of heroism because each text sheds new light on different aspects of the ‘hero’. When every depiction of heroism in fantasy texts problematises and confuses any potential definition, it becomes difficult to work towards an idea of heroism. This is especially the case when authors of contemporary fantasy depict heroism in interesting and realistic ways. By realistic, I mean that these authors depict their heroic characters as flawed beings who often make the wrong choices, leading them into danger. That is not to say that early fantasy texts are facile but the dichotomy between protagonist and antagonist reduces to the ‘good’ hero triumphing over ‘evil’ villains while the textual focus is the hero taking control of his destiny. In contrast, the hero of contemporary fantasy often has little control over his destiny and does not fall in a simple paradigm of good or evil. This complication adds a sense of reality to the fictional world of the text.

A hero is not self-defined but constructed by those around him. This is evident in the initially negative presentation of Jaime Lannister in GOT because one of Lannister’s first scenes is when he pushes Bran Stark out of a window after Bran sees him having sex with Cersei, his own sister.[4] As well as this, Lannister is far from being a hero in Eddard Stark’s eyes; Stark considers Lannister to be untrustworthy because he murdered Mad King Aerys Targaryen despite being a member of the Kingsguard, sworn to protect him.[5] Yet Martin reveals in the third book of the series that, if Jaime had not broken his oath to his king, Aerys would have burnt King’s Landing to the ground along with all its inhabitants.[6] Perspective is intrinsically tied to heroism in the sense that perhaps, when reading the text, we are encouraged to harbour the same sentiments as some of the characters.

When an author experiments with conventions and tropes things become much more interesting. Morgan’s protagonist, Ringil, suffers from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing the execution of his lover.[7] In Crescent Moon, Adoulla regularly bemoans the fact that he has to fight ghuls instead of being able to enjoy a cup of cardamom tea and a good meal in his favourite townhouse.[8] Both these authors build upon past depictions of heroism in fantasy by portraying their protagonists as flawed human beings, liable to feeling raw human emotion or craving simple hedonistic pleasures.


ii.)        The makings of a hero

An important question here is what actions a character takes to become heroic. Does he behave nobly in every circumstance or does she negotiate a successful escape from a dangerous situation? Is there a checklist of steps a character must take to secure his title of ‘hero’ or is it something more internal, a sense of enlightenment on the part of the character?

In Wells’ and Brennan’s texts, the protagonists are selfless. Moon, the hero of The Cloud Roads, puts himself in grave danger for the Raksura, a group of people to which he does not yet belong. Yet, after seeing the Raksura’s enemies, the Fell, carrying away a group of Arbora, Moon puts aside any past conflict he has with other Raksura and chases after them.[9] In A Natural History, Isabella has no desire to claim credit for the scholarship about the rock-wyrms of Vystrana, preferring that her murdered husband’s name remain underneath the title of her research.[10] This is her lasting dedication to his legacy so that his name carries on while she furthers her own future research. Selflessness is heroic and noble because it benefits others rather than just those who act.

Ahmed’s protagonists, Dawoud and Adoulla, are in poor shape due to age and former injuries. Adoulla is described as ‘a fat old man sweating heavily though the sun was hardly up’ while Dawoud ages significantly and loses strength every time he casts a spell.[11] These characters get hurt, rather than easily triumphing over threat. Yet what makes them heroic is that they have spirit rather than brawn. Dawoud fights hordes of skin ghuls and Adoulla threatens the Falcon Prince that if he betrays Dhamsawaat, he will drink his blood.[12] Due to their weaknesses, the threat seems greater to them which makes their heroic actions more significant.

Rothfuss’ text commences upon a backdrop of gossip and hearsay surrounding Kvothe’s identity. Kvothe tells Chronicler that he is ‘the very special kind of myth that creates itself’.[13] Effectively, by telling his story, he rectifies the gossip, giving his own account of how Kvothe, the hero, came to be. In this, Kvothe makes himself the hero because he takes the reins of the story out of Chronicler’s hands and tells it in his own way. This is interesting because it emphasises the subjectivity of heroism by encouraging the reader to judge whether Kvothe’s actions are heroic and whether he can be wholly believed, as ‘the best lies about [Kvothe] are the ones [he] told’.[14]

Some texts contain no heroes; instead, some characters merely behave heroically. In The Mirror Empire, Lilia poses as a reincarnation of the god-like figure, Faith Ahya, to convince Ghrasia to allow the passage of thousands of refugees into Liona.[15] Essentially, Lilia dons a heroic ‘costume’ to accomplish what she wants. This scene is particularly indicative of Hurley’s treatment of heroism because it suggests that heroes do not exist but certain situations require heroic action. In Martin’s and Morgan’s texts, the authors both play with the notion of grey characters as heroes. In GOT, Martin’s heroes are far more complex than simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as every character is capable of both. When an incognito Lord Varys brings wine to an imprisoned Ned Stark, Varys suggests that honesty and honour do not win a person a long life.[16] Although Varys has no honour, he uses his power to ‘serve the realm, and the realm needs peace’.[17] Stark may have his honour but is powerless in a prison cell. In Martin’s world, feats of derring-do and gallantry rarely correspond with a long life. Tyrion critiques Lord Brax for drowning in his armour claiming that ‘if that was gallantry, he would take cowardice every time’.[18] Sansa even finds out to her horror that ‘in life, the monsters win’ after witnessing the death of her father.[19] Common sense and pragmatics seem to prevail over ‘hurrah-and-huzzah’ falsities. Morgan’s protagonist, Ringil, consorts with the supernatural enemy Aldrain, Seethlaw, and it is never clear to whose side he swears allegiance. By the ending of The Steel Remains, Ringil looks into a mirror and is ‘no longer afraid of what he s[ees] looking back at him’, a suggestion that he embraces his dark side.[20]


iii.)       On quests

A character requires an incentive to become heroic or display his heroic qualities. This incentive is the quest, a shared commonality amongst the heroes of these novels. The hero embarks upon a quest to defeat a tyrannical despot and his armies, to seek enlightenment or to rescue a captive royal. In a sense, the quest is the vehicle by which a character can enact heroic deeds.

The ‘saving the world’ quest involves a character or group of characters preventing an enemy from destroying the world. In Ahmed’s novel, Adoulla and his companions save their city of Dhamsawaat by preventing ghul-of-ghuls Orshado and the manjackal Mouw Awa from taking the Throne of the Crescent Moon. In Morgan’s text, Ringil and his former battle-companions rescue his cousin, Sherin, and slay the demonic Aldrain who threaten the future of the world. Within the main quest of the narrative there is also the internal quest of the hero. For instance, in Ahmed’s text, Adoulla saves Dhamsawaat so he can fulfil his oath to his one true love, Miri, and beg for her hand in marriage.[21] Adoulla regularly bemoans the fact that Zamia and Raseed take great pleasure in killing ghuls and berates the young dervish Raseed for being overzealous and refusing to partake in more sensual pleasures.[22] Adoulla takes little pleasure in killing, considering love to be a far nobler quest. In Morgan’s novel, Ringil’s quest to save the city of Trelayne becomes intertwined with the fulfilment of a prophecy told by a marsh dweller woman that ‘a dark lord will rise’.[23] Ringil undergoes a character transformation by executing his former lover, Grace-of-Heaven, for selling him to the Aldrain.[24] In this, Ringil fulfils the prophecy because he is, in fact, the dark lord risen.

The numerous characters in Hurley’s and Martin’s texts have individual motivations for personal gain or the progress of their clan or family. In Hurley’s text, Lilia only wants to find her mother, even sacrificing Gian, who helped nurse her back to health, to achieve further progress in this quest.[25] In Martin’s novel, all the families seek growth and prosperity through careful alliances. Families are even willing to betray other families for their own gain, which is the case when Robert Baratheon promises a lordship to anyone who assassinates Daenerys Targaryen.[26] The third book in the series even reveals that Littlefinger convinced Jon Arryn’s own wife, Lysa, to poison him and make up a rumour that the Lannister’s had orchestrated his assassination.[27] The identification of the hero becomes difficult when every character in these texts has a separate quest. Yet a quest purely for personal gain is not entirely courageous because it only helps one person at the expense of others. In these texts, the heroes are those who navigate the treacherous and volatile worlds contained within these texts while staying true to themselves. In GOT, Eddard Stark quests for the truth of the Baratheon children’s birth rights despite the danger of crossing Cersei Lannister.[28] In The Mirror Empire, Ora Dasai takes the blame for Roh’s letter in cipher to the Kai, their leader, even though this certainly means punishment.[29] Amazingly enough, the reward for these heroic traits is often death. Despite this, these quests of selflessness and fearlessness define the hero because he takes that path anyway although it may lead to his demise.

In Brennan’s, Rothfuss’ and Wells’ texts, the quests are more personal. In A Natural History, Isabella quests for the advancement of science in the field of dragon anatomy. Danger presents itself on her quest when she is captured by smugglers. Isabella tells the smugglers that her group of dragon naturalists will be able to stop the dragons from attacking people. By doing this, Isabella escapes with her life whilst also managing to enlist the aid of the smugglers to locate the dragons.[30] Isabella manages to get out of a bad situation and further the quest by thinking quickly and sweet-talking the smugglers. In NotW, Kvothe’s assistant, Bast, wants his master to return to his heroic ways because he seems to have ‘lost’ his heroism during his self-imposed exile.[31] In a sense, Kvothe ‘relives’ his heroic past by telling his story and, in turn, recollecting the experiences of the quest. For instance, while at university he saves a fellow student from burning alive and, later, slays a draccus.[32] In The Cloud Roads, Moon solves his initial quest of finding his people relatively early in the text. When Stone takes him to the Indigo Cloud Court, one of the homes of the Raksura, Moon’s quest then becomes learning to accept his own people and then himself as a Raksura. Moon initially has trouble finding a place within the hierarchical Raksuran society and does not want to answer to anyone given that he lived as a ‘wild solitary’ before.[33] Moon must learn to come to terms with himself and others around him figuring that ‘if [he] can’t fit in here, it’s not them; it’s [him]’.[34] When he finally agrees to be Jade’s consort to ensure the future health of the Court, he accepts their differences and sacrifices his own prior misgivings to connect with his own people, allowing himself to belong somewhere.[35] Essentially, he must overcome himself.

In these texts, there is a commonality of characters becoming heroes through a quest, yet each quest differs in how the author frames the quest and how each character becomes a hero. So, does the quest make the hero or does the character become a hero by embarking upon a quest? My hunch is that a character is not a hero until he embarks upon a quest yet the quest provides the possibility for heroic deeds.

[1] Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, (Great Britain: Vista, 1996), 92.

[2] Joseph A. McCullough V, “The Demarcation of Sword and Sorcery”, Black Gate: Adventures in Fantasy Literature, accessed May 17, 2017.

[3] Wynn Jones, 92.

[4] Martin, 85.

[5] ibid., 114-15.

[6] George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords, (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 506-7.

[7] Morgan, 49.

[8] Ahmed, 48.

[9] Wells, 634.

[10] Brennan, 331.

[11] Ahmed, 65, 272.

[12] ibid., 252-53, 265.

[13] Rothfuss, 45.

[14] ibid.

[15] Hurley, 506-7.

[16] Martin, 633.

[17] ibid., 636.

[18] ibid., 765.

[19] ibid., 746.

[20] Morgan, 344.

[21] Ahmed, 171.

[22] ibid., 272, 26.

[23] Morgan, 122.

[24] ibid., 343.

[25] ibid., 282-3.

[26] Martin, 111-13.

[27] Martin, A Storm of Swords, 1114.

[28] Martin, A Game of Thrones, 528-9,

[29] Hurley, 406-7.

[30] Brennan, 130-32.

[31] Rothfuss, 659-661.

[32] ibid., 449-50, 585-6.

[33] Wells, 175.

[34] ibid., 128.

[35] ibid., 690.

Fantasy Literature Project – Part 2

Voila paragraph 1!

Hope you enjoy 🙂

(link to part 1 –

Part 1: Setting


  1. On Maps

Maps are a helpful addition to the immersive atmosphere of the setting because they depict distance between places whilst also being a visual aid for the passage of time within the created world.  Maps also give the world a significant amount of realism because the existence of a map presupposes that somebody within the created world documented its geography at some point in time.

This is especially important in George R. R. Martin’s GOT, in which the maps of North and South Westeros are highly detailed and contain clear divisions between the different regions. Although Martin is explicit in describing journey length, both maps display the immensity of the setting. It takes Jon Snow eighteen days to travel from Winterfell to The Wall; these are two locations in relative proximity to each other. [1] The astute reader can calculate the vast length of time it takes the Starks to travel from Winterfell to King’s Landing, two locations that are a great distance from each other. Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, presented as the memoir of a dragon naturalist, includes three maps of the quasi-Slavic setting drawn by the ‘author’ of the memoir, replete with landmarks and etchings that pertain to certain moments in the text. The inclusion of diegetic maps makes the memoir seem authentic and Brennan’s world more realistic.

It is interesting when characters use these maps. Some fantasy settings do not contain the advanced technology of the present world, so it is highly likely that the making of fantasy maps in these worlds is limited to cruder or more primitive forms of cartographical technology. It is also difficult to determine whether these maps in the front or back matter of the book are the same maps available to the characters. It is likely that they are a polished professional version of the scribbled maps some of the characters have on their person. Although authors in the present world are drafting these maps as a visual enhancement for their created worlds, Martin’s map, for all its detail, contains some inaccuracies which lead to problems when travelling through the lands. When Tyrion travels North from Winterfell with Jon, he soon finds that ‘the map [is] one thing and the land quite another’.[2] Maps also contain a wealth of encoded information regarding the political environment of the worlds. In Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon and Hurley’s The Mirror Empire, each map depicts the lands from the perspective of a particular ‘kingdom’. This gives the impression that these maps are not wayfarers’ rough sketches but commissioned works of professional cartography.

Morgan’s and Wells’ texts do not include maps at all. In both these texts, it seems as if the emphasis is more upon how the character navigates and deals with the harsh and unforgiving setting rather than the setting being the vehicle for character interaction. In Wells’ text, The Cloud Roads, the protagonist, Moon, searches for self-knowledge and knowledge of his people, the Raksura. The Raksura are a humanoid shape-shifting species divided into Aeriat, those who can fly, and Arbora, those who cannot. [3] The lack of maps adds to the isolated atmosphere of the text and complements Moon’s feelings of being lost in a vast world. Morgan’s The Steel Remains is situated in a grim post-war world where displaced refugees swarm the roads between cities and power divisions are tentative at best. In this text, the lack of maps adds to the disorienting and ambiguous atmosphere of a world still reeling from a massive conflict.[4]


2. On Introducing the Setting

I define ‘setting’ as the environment of a world and the diegetic aspects of the text; that is, anything within the world that is an intrinsic part of its overall structure. Except for A Natural History, all the texts commence with a backdrop of danger. Martin’s text contains a horrifying prologue in which members of the Night’s Watch are attacked by ‘the Others’, leaving one survivor.[5] In the following chapter, this same survivor is beheaded by Lord Stark for the act of desertion.[6] The relationship between Martin’s prologue and the following chapter stresses the importance of perspective. In the prologue, the survivor, Gared, has a name, backstory and personality, whereas in the ensuing chapter he is just a deserter awaiting his execution. This dichotomy between the prologue and initial chapter firmly establishes the harsh nature of Westeros, suggesting that the world is cruel and benefits only he who manipulates the world to his will.

Rothfuss’ frame narrative begins in a local inn amongst a small crowd of five people which ‘was as many as the Waystone ever saw these days, times being what they were’.[7] This quote implies the existence of an unknown menace and a suggestion that Rothfuss’ world of Temerant has fallen on dark times. Rothfuss foreshadows danger through characters gossiping, before revealing the danger when a bloodied Carter stumbles into the bar carrying the body of a giant spider that has attacked him on the road.[8] The relationship between foreshadowing and the ‘grand reveal’ creates narrative suspense and assures the reader of the high possibility of danger in Rothfuss’ world.

Morgan’s, Ahmed’s, Wells’ and Hurley’s texts all commence with gritty and life-threatening action scenes. Morgan’s protagonist, Ringil, kills ‘corpsemites’ who have reanimated the body of his friend’s deceased mother.[9] An unknown man tortures a guardsman in Ahmed’s brutal quasi-Arabic world.[10] In Hurley’s world, the pacifistic Dhai in one universe burn Lilia’s village and kill her mother in a parallel universe.[11] In Wells’ world, another larger Raksura hunts the protagonist, Moon, giving him the impression he will be eaten.[12]

Although the protagonist of Brennan’s text, Isabella Camherst, is not in any life-threatening danger within the first few paragraphs of the story, death and danger are still present. A seven-year old Isabella finds a dead ‘sparkling’, an insect-sized dragon, on a bench, which sparks her fascination with dragon anatomy.[13] In the world Brennan depicts, which is similar to 19th century England, this is an inappropriate interest for a lady.[14] Isabella’s danger is potentially life-ruining because being interested in ‘unsuitable’ things could jeopardise her future opportunities to find a husband.[15]

It is important to consider what an author presents in the first stages of his text because the aim of the first chapter is to establish a setting that entices the reader to continue reading. This is a ‘snapshot’ of the author’s world, a brief description. The choice to include sudden danger identifies that a fundamental aspect of these worlds is the proximity and reality of death. Returning to Le Guin’s quote, not only is this ‘wilderness’ unsafe, but danger is ubiquitous.


3. On the Type of Setting

The important question here is how the author establishes his setting to paint a picture of the world. In his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’, J.R.R. Tolkien describes the difficulty of making ‘a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible’.[16] Tolkien argues that a good fantasy author presents a world that is consistent and rational but utterly foreign as well. A reader must also suspend her scepticism for fantasy settings to seem real; she must allow herself to fall under the author’s spell.

Wells’ ‘Three Worlds’ is replete with alien races, flying islands and giant predators, and Hurley’s world of Raisa contains sentient plants, gender-ambiguous characters and an interesting magic system governed by ascendant satellites. When characters interact with the settings, this brings the world to life. The possibility of flight adds an extra dimension to Wells’ mono-perspectival text. When Moon takes his first flight, further description of the hilly island setting surrounding the Cordan’s camp emerges.[17] With each flight comes more detailed description of the setting, presenting the world from a ‘bird’s-eye-view’. In Hurley’s world, there are different social customs depending upon the region. For instance, there are two genders in Dorinah, male and female; three in Saiduan, male, female and ataisa, an intersex gender; and five in Dhai, female-passive, female-assertive, male-passive, male-assertive and ungendered. The characters modify how they refer to other characters depending upon the region. When Roh, a character from Dhai observes Luna, a character from Saiduan, being dressed, he wonders what gender Luna chose. Soon after, he realises that in Saiduan, gender is determined by others, an interesting account of social difference across the various settings in Hurley’s world.[18]

Morgan, Rothfuss, Martin and Brennan use settings that are not dissimilar to present-world historical settings. For instance, Brennan’s world is almost Victorian and Martin’s world is reminiscent of feudal Europe. Given that there are multitudinous possibilities to world creation, why does an author write about a world that is not so far from our own? Perhaps an author uses settings that are not wholly original so that he can focus on a more profound concept, or to reveal something about our own world. Brennan’s text explores the experiences of a woman in a patriarchal world and Morgan’s text tackles how non-heterosexual characters navigate a world that punishes them by death.[19] Martin’s world investigates Machiavellian politics between warring families who ‘play the game of thrones [and] either win or die.’[20] Rothfuss explores non-linear structure and interesting narrative techniques by having the hero tell the story of his own legacy.

Ahmed includes a colourful epigraph of fictional verse poetry that gradually paints a picture of the city of Dhamsawaat.[21] The fictional poet, Ismi Shihab, describes Dhamsawaat as the ‘king of cities’, conveying its vast size, and likens it to a ‘jewel’, expressing its beauty and grandeur. When he explains that ‘a thousand thousand men pass through and pass in’, this conjures up imagery of overpopulation and crowdedness. He alliteratively juxtaposes ‘bookshops’ with ‘brothels’, detailing the various possibilities of this city. The final line expresses that ‘he who tires of Dhamsawaat tires of life’, suggesting that this city is never boring and can fulfil any mortal desires. Being a reader from a European background living in New Zealand, this text took me to an unfamiliar and vibrant world. Yet this might not be the case for someone living in a busy Middle Eastern city who perhaps may find that Ahmed’s descriptions of Dhamsawaat are like that of his own city. A reader’s experience with a setting is entirely relative because one reader may relate to a setting and another may find herself transported to another world.

So, why read about different worlds? To delve into an immersive fantasy world is like going diving for the first time; at once you are astounded by the new and unfamiliar surroundings but are also in a state of wonder and fear. Yet, while reading the text, one becomes accustomed to the setting and how it may influence certain choices a character makes. On the one hand, I am attracted to fantasy because of the brief respite it provides from the present world but, on the other hand, I enjoy reading how authors experiment with certain aspects of the present world in their created worlds. In the texts I have looked at, tyrannical rulers manipulate their subjects, women and minorities are oppressed, and death comes often and painfully. Despite the multitudinous possibilities of fantasy literature, it is interesting that these authors create worlds containing problems from the present world. For instance, Martin exposes the great lengths people will go to for power and Morgan creates a world wherein non-heterosexuals are executed for their sexual preferences. Tolkien argues that these created worlds make our own world seem more magical.[22] By reading fantasy, the reader transports herself into another world. These created worlds initially seem vastly different but then turn out to be not so far from our own. Although these texts are by no means didactic, I enjoy reading how characters overcome problems and navigate their created worlds. Perhaps it can be argued that, by reading about an author’s presentation of a problem that is also existent in our world, we are able to learn from and potentially figure out a solution for a problem in our own world.




[1] George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 121.

[2] ibid., 118.

[3] Martha Wells, The Cloud Roads (San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2011), 761-65.

[4] Richard Morgan, The Steel Remains (Great Britain: Gollancz, 2008), 275.

[5] Martin, 1-11.

[6] ibid., 13-15.

[7] Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind (London: DAW Books, 2007), 3.

[8] ibid., 7-10.

[9] Morgan, 3.

[10] Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon (USA: DAW Books, 2012), 1-3.

[11] Kameron Hurley, The Mirror Empire (New York: Angry Robot, 2014), 11.

[12] Wells, 8-10.

[13] Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons (New York: Tor, 2013), 1.

[14] ibid., 17.

[15] ibid., 3.

[16] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”, Tree and Leaf (London: Harper Collins, 2001), 47.

[17] Wells, 29-31.

[18] Hurley, 400.

[19] Morgan, 49-50.

[20] Martin, 488.

[21] Ahmed, 4.

[22] Tolkien, 50.

Extract from Short Story


Ch. 1

Jareth jerked upright in bed after falling through dream-world for what seemed to be an eternity. Soft skin beside him. Home. Peace. For now. He was always amused at the way Marijke’s brow creased at the middle while she dreamt. Jareth still felt the delicious sensation of desire whenever he looked at his wife of six years; a sign of a future in this uncertain world, perhaps. He nestled his face into his wife’s luscious auburn mane and inhaled deeply. He was safe, and that was all that mattered. So was she. His hands wandered under the sheets as he felt his passion rising. She grabbed his fingers and turned over to face her husband. A sultry smile crept from the corner of her lips and spread across her face. Six years had gone by and there had been no moderation in their lust for one another. Marijke stared deep into frozen iceberg eyes, Jareth drank her in. Their bodies collided; an animalistic whirl of fuck. Biting, fighting, breathing each other’s soul; Marijke screamed with delight. They were one.

She fell off him and laughed a guttural sound so primal it almost stirred Jareth again. He pulled her into the warm downy fur covering his expansive chest. Running her fingers over his numerous scars, she remembered the day she had first seen him training at swordplay in the central academy. He had always been a skilled swordsman as well as being adept at hand-to-hand combat, gaining him the favour of his instructors early on. His sly smile to her as she left the adjoining archive room had almost cost him his right eye when his opponent came crashing down on his helmeted skull with a magnificent chop; a constant running joke between the two lovers. His earthy scent rose up her nostrils and she breathed him in. To hold this moment longer, for it not to vanish into the ether. That would be but a dream.

Jareth pulled himself out of his wife’s clutches and went to fetch a flagon of mead to tide himself over until he broke his fast. The early morning air outside was crisp and full with the scent of spring-time flowers; birds circled each other in displays of affection whilst insects dive-bombed and whirled through the heady scene. Once, a nest of ants had taken over a crack in the dry ground below the marital bedroom window before being washed away during flood season. Jareth surveyed the courtyard, exhaled and was satisfied that all was as expected. He gulped a healthy mouthful of mead and let the amber liquid flow down his throat; he savoured the spicy fragrances that assaulted his nasal cavities. Lumbering back to their bedroom, he cracked his back twice. This had become a common habit after he had been unhorsed the previous summer in a friendly tourney. His pride had been hurt more.

The first explosion rocked the wooden foundations of their abode and sent Jareth backwards. Other explosions were heard farther off in the township. A scream from the bedroom made him drop his flagon and rush to the source. Pausing at the door, he considered his plan of attack. Rushing headlong into an unknown situation was unwise but had shock value. His stomach knotted when he realised he was unarmed. Inwardly cursing himself for not being overly cautious in this turbulent climate, he crept into the room with his hands raised. Jareth could smell them before his eyes made sense of the three burly figures surrounding his wife. Barbarians. Stupid and out of their depth, yes, but still armed and dangerous. He had come across bands of outlaws such as these in his expeditions further north and knew that gold or silver often sent them on their way. His wife’s face told him otherwise. The presumed leader was garbed in a whole bearskin and sported a large goat skull which protruded from his tattered tunic. Chapped fishy lips curled over two incomplete rows of blackened teeth as the leader caught sight of Jareth’s arms in surrender.

“Forest monkeys always taste better,” said the barbarian as he licked his fingers. The two holding Marijke laughed uproariously and gave her a shove. Jareth caught sight of the throwing axe hanging from his belt and knew better than to react to his comment. Marijke’s shoulders were hunched, her fists balled and her face was fixed upon the ground in front of her. Jareth felt powerless as a warrior and as a husband.
“Your life for hers,” was the barbarian’s idea of an honourable trade.
“Ridiculous. How can her safety be ensured?”
The barbarian was adamant. “Your life,” pointing with a crude dagger at Jareth’s face, “for hers”. Unarmed and half-clothed, Jareth quickly surveyed the surrounding area for weak points and sharp objects. Nothing. Habitually, barbarians were clumsy; often giving themselves away in an attempted ambush or leaving themselves unprotected during a raid. Not these. Something about their eyes told Jareth they were here for another reason other than rape and plunder. He fixed his stare on the obsidian eyes smouldering below the barbarian’s heavy-set brow. No pupils. Blacker than the deepest oceans where krakens writhe and await the unwary fleet, darker than the raven’s plumage. Unblinking, he demanded his terms once more. Jareth had to stall for time.
“I can’t…I have enough gold to satisfy you and your…fellow companions for the rest of your lives…I…” He froze.
Whilst maintaining eye contact with Jareth the barbarian leader drew the serrated edge of the crude dagger across Marijke’s throat as she mouthed “coward” at her husband. A crimson river cascaded from the gash in her neck down her body. Jareth stared on in disbelief, his knees giving way underneath him. His eyes were transfixed upon the convulsing form of his wife whilst the barbarians pushed past him and exited their home. A home they considered safe; a stronghold to protect them against the winter and those who would do them harm. But they had got in. They were inside their sanctuary and Jareth had been unable to do anything; he had shirked from his responsibility. Before Jareth slipped into unconsciousness, the last thing he saw was the word ‘coward’ engraved in his mind.