Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Fond Memories of a Lost Subgenre

Browsing the shelves of the Fantasy & SF section of your local bookshop, a certain category of novel now seems conspicuous by its absence: the heroic high fantasy trilogies (or multi-volume series) which so characterised the 70s-90s and probably peaked circa 1985. A Song of Ice and Fire - that's all there (though increasingly marketed as "Game of Thrones"). "Dark fantasy", which I think means "Twilight with the serial numbers filed off" - that's all there. Weird fiction (China Mieville and imitators) - that's all there. Apparently there's somebody called "Trudi Caravan" or something who's been writing lots of stuff lately. But whither David Eddings? Whither Julian May? Whither Anne McCaffrey? They are as the dinosaurs to us now; occasionally you find part 2 of some forgotten fantasy trilogy lying under a pile of Catherine Cookson and Stephen King novels in a charity shop or flea market stall, like a piece of a tyrannosaur jawbone poking out of an eroded badlands plateau. Other than that, they have vanished from the popular imagination.

Some favourites spring to mind - favourites not because they were of exceptional quality (I haven't read them in so long that I can't really form a judgement anymore) but because I remember enjoying them as a 12- or 13-year-old desperate for follow-ups to The Lord of the Rings.

Julian May's Saga of the Exiles. I was befuddled and amazed by this series when I first read it - a fantasy series about time travel! With aliens! In the Pleistocene Epoch! With maps of a dried-up Mediterranean Sea in the front covers!



David Eddings's The Malloreon. Eddings wrote such balderdash but I do have fond memories of devouring the five books in this series. The first volume, if I recall, is a gratuitous comedy of manners mainly about the marital problems of the king; there isn't an action sequence until the very end of that installment and the plot doesn't actually get going until the second book. But still.



Weis & Hickman's The Death Gate Cycle. You don't even hear of these books nowadays, but in my distant memory they were a curious but strangely successful mishmash of influences: a world split into fragments signifying earth, air, fire and water in an ancient confrontation between rival races of sorcerers... but also there are elves and dwarves in it. As though Weis and Hickman couldn't quite escape the influence of D&D. Clearly could have been turned into an RPG (and maybe was?).



Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. It stands out to me now as a sort of proto-A Song of Ice and Fire - something grittier and more "realistic" than the other high fantasy series around at the time. I remember vivid and sensitively-written descriptions of combat, psychological complexity, and something to do with magic swords.


There were times when the words "Book One of....[such-and-such a series]" held such excitement and promise. Is that phrase itself doomed to die, as unmourned as the old high fantasy works of yesteryear?

22 comments:

  1. I loved Memory, Sorrow & Thorn when I was about 14, I think I might even have read it twice. Nostalgia brought me back to them a couple years ago, they didn't hold up.

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    1. That's a shame. I was going to dig them out at some point.

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  2. To be honest, I'm glad that this Tolkien-imitation style of fantasy is finally dying off. They've had their time, and now that they are fading away I feel that the fantasy genre may finally see some interesting changes as it takes its baby steps away from Tolkien's shadow. However, I can't quite quell the hope that one day in the future some new author will come along and put out a whole new spin on this older style of high fantasy. I suspect the possibility of that ever happening would be close to zero, but who knows.

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    1. I'm not sure that's happening, sadly. A lot of what's being published seems to be trying to replicate what GRRM has been doing - or Stephanie Meyers.

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  3. Sean Robert Meaney7 June 2017 at 12:36

    Did you read Belgariad (the precursor to Mallorean)?

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    1. No. I don't think it harmed my understanding much though. Something to do with a quest or something right?

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  4. What's with all the melancholy post this week. Must be something in the air...

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  5. The Death Gate Cycle was a very good read, especially the first four books. I wish hadn't gotten rid of my copies years ago during a move.

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    1. Glad I'm not the only person to have read them!

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  6. I devoured all of Eddings, beyond the Belgariad and Mallorean, even to the extent of reading his book of worldbuilding and supplementary materials. There is some interest in how he lays out quite clearly the formula he used (with variations on a theme) in all the series he wrote.

    Eddings was remarkably entertaining to read - if not always terribly substantial. The underpinnings seemed sound however.

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  7. I'd recommend the 10 (!) book series MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN by Steven Erikson. It's maybe the most epic of all epic fantasy series. :)

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    1. Seconded. Erikson is the best I've read in the genre in years.

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    2. I tried one ("House of Chains" possibly?) and liked and disliked elements in equal measure. I've got the first one waiting to be read though.

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    3. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a fantastic series, but it's ... kinda brutal. A real slog to read - high effort, very high reward kinda deal. And the first book? It's totally sink or swim. Almost like he was trying to weed out readers not capable to follow along.

      Ancalagon

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  8. Was Death Gate Cycle the one that had its own RPG in one of the books? I remember there was one Weis/Hickman series that had that...

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    1. Nope, that was the Dark Sword trilogy. It had a companion paperback volume with lackluster RPG rules. Also by Weis and Hickman.

      Eddings and Raymond E. Feist were interesting in that you could almost see D&D campaigns behind the novels.

      I still hate Shannara.

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    2. It was the "Darksword" series which had its own RPG.

      Then there was "Star of the Guardians" which had its own collectible card game.

      I never read either of the series nor played any of the games. I just remember the advertisements in issues of Dragon Magazine from the early 1990s.

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    3. Death Gate cycle would be quite a cool setting for an RPG but it's a bit like a poor man's Planescape with the inner planes.

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  9. I'm reading Raymond E Feist's Magician at the moment. I heard a few days ago that there WAS a D&D campaign behind it - it was called the Midkemia campaign, which is the name of the world the main characters live on.

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    1. I'm fairly sure there was a GURPS Fantasy campaign behind The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

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  10. I would recommend the Stormlight Archives as a modern inheritor to this style of Fantasy. Brandon Sanderson is the author that finally finished the massive series, The Wheel of Time.

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