This is something I’ve been working on with one of my English Literature professors, Erin G. Carlston (http://www.arts.auckland.ac.nz/people/ecar949), 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
- 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’. 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’. 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. 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.
 Ursula Le Guin, From Elfland to Poughkeepsie (Portland: Pendragon Press, 1973), 4.
 Oxford English Dictionary, “fantasy | phantasy, n.”, OED Online, accessed March 26, 2017,
 Le Guin, 4.