fantasy criticism

Shedding art’s symbolic skin

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Fall of Light: Book Two of the Kharkanas Trilogy

As I have begun to read the second book in this trilogy, what has struck me as an inherent challenge, and by extension an underlying theme, is the idea of rendering the abstract into words, into something known, concrete. To sculpt something tangible from abstract ideas, making physical change.

Of course the voice must be the blind poet’s, for how better to represent the challenge of making the abstract comprehensible, when that in itself cannot be seen. Without objectivity, there can only be subjectivity, and in subjectivity, there is all manner of truth.

At the beginning of this second instalment, we are confronted with the difficulty of facing the real, the concrete, the brutal truth, and in fact we shy away from it—much like being confronted by the blood of violence as opposed to the revelry in pronouncements of war. Not only is it impossible to portray the concrete, even when an attempt is made it is bound to fall short. It must be couched in known, shared terms. The symbolic lies between abstract and concrete, like shadow between dark and light.

I wrote in Sleight of Hand that the underpinning thesis of the Malazan Book of the Fallen was that no experience can be related, without living it itself—and so the journey of those books was the journey of the reader, becoming by doing. Here we are being shown a corollary of that idea, that the abstract cannot be portrayed or related—only the true experience holds the full effect.

And in the voice of the blind poet, the ink of this writer, we are seeing that problem laid bare, even as the very point necessitates its impossibility. The writer is discovering, reflexively, as this story progresses. The question now is, like in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, do we come along for the ride, do we live something in the concrete by experiencing this journey? Will we flinch from its truths even as it is dressed in a poet’s flourish? That is the holy grail for the artist—to communicate in the concrete, stripping away the symbolic layers and making it real.

There is of course a lot more going on here, but I’m interested to see if this thesis holds through the remainder of this book and the end of the trilogy.


A critical issue in fantasy?

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I have been dancing around the idea of reflexive authorship in the fantasy genre, calling for conscious, empathic work. This rarely happens in isolation, and I would argue that strong critical voices are vital, perhaps necessary, to fostering that reflexivity in the genre.

If fantasy is to maintain any sort of standing as a subversive literature, there must be critical foundations to build and break. We must demand, as readers and writers, for critical voices, to foster our own reflexivity, and advance the conversation. There is no point becoming involved in a circular conversation—the best you can do is recite the known lines in unison. You must shift the conversation, intercept it, subvert it. Read the rest of this entry »

Fantasy as creation and subversion

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I have recently explored the idea that fantasy may consciously or unconsciously reflect aspects of our ‘real’ world. I argued that the more important reflection is of the unconscious reflecting of the writer’s culture/boundaries etc (their ideology) in the shape and form of the fantasy.

There is a notion of the fantastic as being the unreal—impossible—the ‘not’. But I think fantasy is most effective not when it merely creates impossibility, but when it defies the real. When it accepts and explores its boundaries, and challenges them fundamentally. That requires reflexive authorship. Again, this strikes at why horror can be so effective, because it works within the confines of the real, (presents the bounds) and then defies them by allowing the horrific (the fantastical aspect) to break through. This perturbs the psyche of the reader/characters. Read the rest of this entry »

Shattering the fantastical mirror

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Writing about escapism, I asked in a roundabout way how we might escape in fantasy, when the fantastic is the accepted structural norm. When fantasy is no longer an escape in and of itself, but a paltry reflection of ideology, what then is the route of escape from what is purportedly already an escape?

Well, psychoanalysis has a response—and it deals with the fantasy under which we live, not those we write.*

Read the rest of this entry »

Escapism and the genre wheel

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I want to continue this exploration of genre and how it functions as both a flavour of writing, and as a structural concept that informs both the subject of a piece of work or writing, and how it creates boundaries for that—what do those boundaries mean, and how do they inform us about the ideologies under which the writer strains? I’m exploring this not because I have a grand idea to organise these thoughts, but to help in finding one.

Generalising excessively, we can think about three broad genres of literature that are often considered to have at least some connection: fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. Of course, like so many other aspects, these bleed into one another, the boundaries are blurred, etc., but at their most basic, every reader has some broad concept of them as distinct. We can think of them as proto-genre. Each has become, in a way, a caricature, a defining structural characteristic, rather than an adjective that describes an event, or a theme, or an intrusion.

Each to some degree functions as a form of escapism—and also as a set of boundaries. But I think the most curious, and somehow defining, aspect is how they create escape by pushing against boundaries. Horror confronts fears, sci-fi seeks utopias (of course, I generalise), but fantasy is a more pure escapism, by virtue of creating a new set of boundaries.

Why? What do we need escaping from? Those are the questions that fantasy as a genre should probe. It is the safe dream that can drift away on gossamer threads on waking. Read the rest of this entry »

Fantasy as the unconscious dreamworld

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Fantasy, or the fantastic, can be read as a projection of our ideals, of our dreamlike ideologies. If we focus on fantasy literature, it raises interesting notions about why so often that limitless creative space (limitless by its very nature, the fantastic) is so often constrained by tolkienesque, mediaeval derivative settings.

Is it simply that we have romanticised that setting, or that time period? Is that a limitation of our dreaming? I would contend it is revealing of limitations we impose upon ourselves.

We often talk about fantasy in some ways reflecting the world we live in (let’s call it the real world, for simplicity) – and that notion of reflection, of mirroring, is crucial. It is interesting then to consider what values are reflected in the creation of a setting, or a culture, or a storyline, that are not done consciously. We must necessarily, and subconsciously, write in our own prejudices, our own judgments about the world’s limitations. Rather than simply treating fantasy as that mirror on the real world, it should be treated as a lens. In this way, we can better appreciate the limitations, our own prevailing ideologies that we unknowingly include. And by doing that, we can push back against them, as part of the very act of writing. Is that not a special power of any art?

But this must be a reflexive process: in writing, we consider the values and limitations we create and imply, and work through them not as the point of the writing, but as part of the act of writing. This self-criticism should be an ongoing and necessary part of the act of writing. So breaking the stereotypes and cliches, and considering our own ideologies in writing becomes not the end goal of the work, but something integral, freeing up the end goal, wiping the smudges from the lens.


In all spheres of human endeavour (especially creative), we should constantly try and break those boundaries we unknowingly impose, else we merely echo history and hegemony. But first we must recognise them, examine them, find their weaknesses (and their strengths). Again, I contend that fantasy provides an ideal setting in which to explore this process and carry it out.

If we don’t question our beliefs, they become self-reinforcing. They become assumptions – cliché and trope work this way. So if we don’t question why fantasy is enamoured of certain settings, we come to assume that they are a defining aspect of it.

As I have discussed previously, fantasy/the fantastic is a ripe field/genre for exploring our world and our assumptions, because it is a direct link (perhaps the most direct) to understanding our ideology. Like Freud thought dream was to conscious behaviour. This is not endorsement of the popular overgeneralisaton of Freud’s views, rather a recognition that in this convalescence between writing (the most direct form of self/auto-communication), and fantasy/genre (the most symbolically potent form of the art) we have a safe space to explore, we are not censored by ideology (rather, we are, but we can work through and around it by writing it in), just like dreams are seen as a safe space for the mind to explore emotions and actions and conceptions and fantasies that (more) conscious waking minds inhibit.

It is not that sex and death are the primal, underlying forces that drive all else, but that they are the most emotionally potent (the most intensely conditionable and the most primally feared); it is not that mediaeval settings are the most romantic and desired, but that these are the most able to directly solve the subconscious censor of our ideology, or so we think. The setting is also somewhat recognisable, relatable, and it echoes prevailing mythologies – of heroes and kings, and such. And while this creates great possibility, I feel it is also a dangerous lure – like a goldfish in a bowl, that thinks it swims in the sea.

We must always resist what comes easily, for that tells us something about our assumptions.

So not only is the content a lens on our world, the building blocks of that world are a lens through the writer. It is imperative that the writer is aware of what he or she is writing through.

The time is at hand…

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Sleight of Hand has gone live on the Amazon platforms. Also available on Smashwords.

The Books page has been updated with links.