9/02/2009

Recommend a fantasy novel to someone who doesn't like fantasy.

Here's the deal. I hate The Hobbit. You really seriously couldn't pay me to read Lord of the Rings. I read the first page of the first Harry Potter book and thought, well, it's for kids. Why would I want to read this when I'm not a kid? And that's not even going into what appears to me from the outside to be a remarkable lack of imagination - they're trainee wizards, so they ride around on broomsticks. Broomsticks? Are you shitting me? That's the best you could come up with?

I read Pullman's His Dark Materials and wasn't impressed. The heroine - and here I'm vaguely recalling - doesn't particularly in my recollection so much discover what's going on in her world as get told it straight out by various adult protagonists. Dull. And then there's the talking bears. Talking bears? How did they get that way? Did they evolve? Or what? Now, admittedly, this is a kid's book, and if you're young enough you're probably happy to just accept that at face value. But me? An adult? Eh. Now, I've got talking fish in my books, but they either evolved that way, or were radically redesigned by another species using highly advanced technology. I'm the first to admit to the liberal use of handwavium in my stories, but to me magic is the worst kind of handwavium - oh, it's magic, as if that explains everything. Science has a clear definition, but what, then, is magic? I have no clear idea.

On the other hand, and just to prove what an enormous hypocrite I really am, I'm a big fan of Jonathan Carroll, undoubtedly a fantasy writer. Why this should be so when I hate the former kind of fantasy isn't a question I can't immediately answer, except insofar as to say that it has something do with being set in our very real world.

It's that connection that gives me something to hold on to that Lord of the Rings does not - with the latter, my first reaction on hearing about it as a kid was, where is Middle-Earth? Is it on Earth? An alien planet? Where? And if I didn't know, I couldn't possibly figure out why on Earth I should care about anything set there.

Now, I'm not saying my position is unassailable. I just could never bring myself to believe in fantasy worlds of the aforementioned variety. SF was the literature of human endeavour, of pushing back the limits of the known world and coming to first understand and then control it. It was about the future, the coming world. Fantasy seemed retrogressive, backwards, wishful thinking for some impossible age that never could be and never would be.

Let me just stress here that I'm talking here about my feelings as a young reader. I'm not dissing the genre, just trying to say why I never really got along with it when I was growing up. If someone gave me a book with dragons in it when I was a kid, I'd say, how does something that big get airborne? How does it breathe fire? How come they never explode in mid-air?

Undeniably impossible things happen in Carroll's books, but somehow it's the dissonance with reality and the jarring effect it produces that's so effective for me. Here's what appears to be the normal world, and suddenly it turns out there's something about it you don't understand, that you can't explain, and that might be very, very threatening. That I can appreciate; that, somehow, resonates with me emotionally. The world appears to be one way, now it appears to be another. The tables have been turned.

Same with Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, one of my absolute, all-time favourite works of fiction. It's magnificent. You never, ever, ever find out just what it is haunting the echoing, abyssal halls of the endless house; you only know that its realm may be infinite. This is people from our world, exploring the edges of what constitutes our reality, and retreating in fear from whatever may lie just beyond that edge, just beyond the known, the safe and the quantifiable. Somehow, this has satisfied me entirely through several re-reads.

A work closer to traditional fantasy that is also one of my favourites is Robert Holdstock's equally magnificent Mythago Wood. But I don't think of it as fantasy, I always thought of it as science fiction. The protagonist and his father have clearly thought out and developed theories as to the nature of Ryhope Wood; they take the apparently magical and make an attempt to quantify it, to understand it and ultimately control it where a thousand lesser writers might simply have had their characters take the apparently magical at face value. They are, again, exploring the absolute limits of our reality, and looking a ways beyond into the face of the terrifying unknown.

Even closer to traditional fantasy is Michael Moorcock's The War Hound and the World's Pain. I've not really read much Moorcock fantasy, but this is one of the few. And, it's great, perhaps because it's set in our own (past) world. Somehow, that makes all the difference.

So here's a question for you. Given that I really, really don't get on very well with the traditional stuff, what would you recommend to me to read? Or, what fantasy would you recommend to someone who really doesn't get on very well with fantasy at all?

For what it's worth, I've been considering Lev Grossman's The Magicians because it's getting such good write-ups. I read an excerpt that got me interested for various reasons, so I figure it's worth checking out. Any opinions?
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