reading fantasy

the craft of storytelling

As of two weeks ago, I’ve read 38 of the 41 “Discworld” novels, a massive and intricately detailed fantasy series written by the late and intensely wonderful Terry Pratchett. My older sisters gave me the sixth book, “Wyrd Sisters,” as a Christmas present when I was in my early teens. It was the first book that ever made me laugh out loud—and not once, but many, many times.

 This first foray into fantasy literature evolved into a love for the genre that is intense, obsessive, and pure. Intense because I am one of the biggest advocates for the genre and will embroil myself in any argument to defend it. Obsessive in the sense that the other day I sat down to read the 760 pages of “The Hero of Ages” by Brandon Sanderson and stood up six hours later. And pure because it is the one genre of literature—and I am open to and have favorites in all kinds—that consistently overwhelms me, in the best way possible. Fantasy novels, the best ones, offer the complexity of myth, the narrative crafting of fiction, and the emotional resonance of nonfiction. But the worldbuilding in fantasy is, I think, what sets it apart from other genres. Not to negate the creativity that goes into the creation of spaces in other fiction, but the breadth of creative thought that goes into fantasy is often astounding.

I’ve mentioned Brandon Sanderson, the author of numerous epic series (my favorites are the “Mistborn” series and the as of yet unfinished “Stormlight Archive”) and the author I would most recently credit with helping me procrastinate doing my homework. He spent over a decade doing the research required to create the series’ world, including developing the realm’s geography and weather patterns, the details of a complex religion and a culture’s societal structure, and the minutiae of the magic that exists in the domain of the story. His worlds are so careful and precise, and the narratives so well crafted, that it is hard not to feel as if these places exist in reality, but perhaps somewhere outside of the space and time we live in now. But the fact that they don’t actually exist, apart from inside the imaginations of author and readers, is a testament to the transcendent quality of this literature. When I read the stories of these worlds, these magical, complicated worlds, am there.

 The complexity of the worldbuilding in fantasy novels often means that the books themselves are quite long—Patrick Rothfuss’s first novel of “The Kingkiller Chronicle” trilogy clocks in at around 660 pages. But the investment is worth it because the stories in the best fantasy novels are so damn good, so engaging and transporting and fascinating, and somehow so real, that the pages fly. They are really an investment of your emotions more than your time, for no matter how impossible the powers and deeds of the characters in these novels are, you journey with them. I have read Guy Gavriel Kay’s outstanding fantasy novel “Tigana” (almost 700 pages) at least four times, and the last few chapters make me weep—not cry, weep—every single time.

“The Kingkiller Chronicle” is also a good example for demonstrating the dedication of a fantasy author to bringing his readers into the world of the book. In this series, Rothfuss takes the time to construct a narrative schema that parallels the action. Each book in the trilogy is presented as a “night,” wherein main character Kvothe sits in his inn after hours and recounts the story of his life to a man known as the Chronicler. These parts are told in the third person and from the perspectives of a myriad of characters. The other parts are Kvothe’s life story, told from his perspective, and also contain other stories-within-stories told from the perspectives of other characters who play some part in his life. This construction of narrative may seem complicated, but it works, really and truly, and the intricacies of the narrative edifice are matched by the detail of the world that it shows us. It is a truly amazing series and deserves a read by any who value the craft of storytelling.

But despite the popular success and television and filmic adaptations of such fantasy epics as George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice” series, or, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” a kind of stigma seems to persist when it comes to fantasy novels. Too often have I heard people say that they would never read a fantasy book because it’s “nerdy.” Yes, it probably is, if the definition of “nerdy” is something that is intelligent and passionate. I don’t believe there is anything socially inept in admiring the worlds and stories of fantasy novels. It is not anything less than humbling to witness the work and effort of fantasy writers to create those worlds. I understand that some genres of literature simply do not appeal to some people, and the sheer length of many fantasy books can seem particularly daunting. But I will never sit by quietly as someone dismisses a fantasy novel—which I have read and know to be good—as too geeky to warrant an attempt at reading.

I asked my older sister Amy, responsible for my introduction to many of the fantasy authors I now love greatly, for her thoughts on why fantasy novels deserve a reader’s time and obsession. Amy, who wished to be sourced as noted tea drinker and professional grammar buzzkill, told me:

“I think [fantasy novels] have real value for kids and teens—that’s when I first started to love them. Probably starting with the Narnia series when I was six or seven. I think the exposure to that kind of breadth of worldbuilding is incredibly beneficial in terms of imagination and creativity. But [it] also offers a safe space for kids. It certainly did for me. And as you get older, I think you realize that that power extends to de-creating too. That instead of imagining an alternate world from whole cloth, you can break down your actual world. And understanding that you can change your world is fundamental.”

(As you might be able to tell, Amy is an exceptionally smart cookie, who, to date, has only ever recommended one book to me that I haven’t liked.)

 She also said: “For kids and young adults who don’t grow up within a religion, there’s a lack of richness of story and myth and rules and legend. But fantasy novels give you structures for how magic works in any given world; they are often mythic—they have hierarchies and genealogies. I liked that feeling that you’ve understood a system. And that always spilled over into real life. I researched witches and magic and read all kinds of Wiccan how-to books and wanted to learn Norse runes.”

While I never tried to learn Norse runes, what Amy says about fantasy creeping into real life rings true: I think reading fantasy novels, where magic and dragons and witches permeate the richly complex worlds, allows one to look at this world with wider eyes. And even if the magic or the dragons don’t seem possible in this world, it is the qualities that they share with us that resonate with us. Courage is courage, and love is love.

Reading good fantasy is, I think, similar to reading epics like the “Odyssey” or the “Aeneid.” The journeys that Odysseus and Aeneas undergo in Homer’s and Virgil’s stories are incredible and implausible, including gods and goddesses, Cyclopes and ghosts. But the themes within these works are timeless—overcoming hardship, trying to find home, the consequences of unrequited love—and find echoes in our own lives. Some fantasy writers also draw on existing histories or mythologies, like Guy Gavriel Kay. Each of his novels deals with a different time and place that exists within our history, like Moorish Spain, or the troubadour culture that rose in Provence during the High Middle Ages, or Tang Dynasty China. What I admire most about Kay is his ability to spin out documented and existing beliefs about mysticism into magic. His own stories, unbounded by the practicalities of the real world but drawing upon real history, expose the reader to the details of distant times, and make the past seem just a little bit more transcendent.

When Terry Pratchett died, his assistant took to his Twitter account to announce his death, but he did not write in his own voice. He instead used the voice of the character of Death, who speaks in the “Discworld” series in all capital letters. When I read the tweets, I cried because of his passing, because he was the first fantasy writer I ever loved, because he would never write again, because it was so poignant, so perfect, that a character from a fantasy world he created and gave to us as a gift would lead him out of this one.


Tweet: Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

Tweet: The End.