Fantasy and tough subjects

19 October 2012 15:00

** Warning: this post may contain spoilers for a wide number of fantasy novels by various authors **

I’ve been reading fantasy novels since I was 8 or 9 (I’m not exactly sure about the exact age really - if you count children’s novels and fairytales it was quite a bit earlier). Among the first books I read were books by David Eddings, Terry Brooks, and Tolkien. Most of these fantasy books are rather benign in their subject matter. Sure they’ve got armies of invading demons, dark lords wanting to subjugate the whole world, and plenty of people dying, but generally the stories were "suitable" for "young Jeroen". Sure, they made an impression, but they didn’t leave me feeling bad about the books I was reading.

More recently however, many fantasy novels I have read tend to be a lot more gritty. The best known is probably A Song of Ice and Fire, which many people now through the Game of Thrones series by HBO. Here we have decapitations, graphic depictions of sex (the series is infamous for the boobs per episode ratio), incestuous relations and several instances of rape, and let’s not forget to "let’s sell my 14-year-old sister to a barbarian to regain my throne"-plot we have going with Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen.

Another good example is the First Law series by British writer Joe Abercrombie, which has a notorious cast of morally ambiguous characters. Among others, we have an expert torturer (whose practices are of course depicted in detail), a berserker who has trouble telling friend from foe in his rage, an ancient wizard with a grudge who will happily ruin entire nations and irradiate most of a besieged city just to strike a blow at his opponent - and of course the opponent isn’t much better, commanding an entire army of mages whose primary source of power is devouring human flesh.

And more recently I’ve started reading the Night Angel trilogy by Brent Weeks, which features quite a few sadistic bad guys. Especially the exploits of Roth and Garoth Ursuul, not to mention what happens to Cenaria after the invasion, I found particularly hard to read. The atrocities committed by Khalidorian soldiers are bad enough, but I definitely could have done without Garoth’s treatment of Count Drake’s daughters.

And don’t even get me started on Terry Goodkind and his Imperial Order.

The thing is, while these atrocities might make sense for the universe in which they’re written, and I find them entirely believable (and they definitely serve to strengthen the various characters), they are definitely not necessary, and are in fact detrimental to my enjoyment. There are plenty of examples of fantasy that is not gritty (or less so), that I find far more enjoyable.

Let’s take Terry Brooks for example. He’s been writing his Shannara books for well over 30 years, and even in cases where horrible things do happen (such as what happens to�Cinnaminson at the hands of Aphasia Wye in the High Druid series), they are implied, not described. And there are plenty of other writers who create compelling works of fantasy (Brandon Sanderson, Robin Hobb, Robert Jordan, Patrick Rothfuss), without the large-scale atrocities.

And I guess this reflects on my own work as well. I simply do not feel comfortable describing atrocities in detail. I tend to focus more on the fantastical and the adventurous. I’m not saying that my approach is perfect, but the things I write would be very suitable for "young Jeroen" at least.