Fantasy is a big-tent genre, and many sub-genres coexist happily within it. There’s Epic, Historical, Steampunk, Grimdark, High, Low, Contemporary, and Urban, just to name a few. The common element that unites them all is the existence of magic and/or supernatural beings. Urban and Contemporary fantasies inject those elements into recognizable modern real-world settings, usually cities, like Atlanta (Ilona Andrews’ “Kate Daniels” series) or London (Ben Aaronovich’s Midnight Riot and sequels). Fine work is being done in these sub-genres, and I have enjoyed some of it; for instance, Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook, in which superpowered individuals work to neutralize supernatural threats in contemporary England, was one of my favorite reads of 2013. But as a general rule, I prefer what I’ve heard termed “second-world” fantasy.
Second-world fantasy may be High or Epic, concerned with the doings of kings, queens, princes, and princesses, and usually featuring a great military struggle, or it may be Low, concerned with the doings of one small set of common folk in one place. But it’s distinguished by a setting removed from the world we know, with countries and towns that can’t be found on any map in a high-school geography textbook. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are second-world fantasies, as is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, as is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, as is Atterwald.
Five things I love about second-world fantasy:
The alien setting.
The foreignness of the second-world fantasy landscape and the frequent strangeness of the names of places and characters may put off some readers who aren’t used to fantasy and have trouble relating to a story so obviously “unreal.” But those weird names are among the things that draw me to the sub-genre. When I read, I like to enter a world to which I can’t travel by car, plane, or train, a world I don’t see every day from my bedroom window or on the TV news.
Of course, when I enter such a strange and wonderful landscape, I want to learn how it works. I love finding out the rules by which these magically distant societies function and watching their wheels turn. The best second-world fantasies don’t throw this information at the reader in huge chunks of exposition. Rather, they weave the details into the movement of the plot and the perspectives of the characters, so that (at least to my mind) they seem both foreign and relate-able — not as much of a contradiction as one might think.
Some social critics call my and others’ fondness for fantasy worlds “escapism,” and they usually say/write it with a dismissive sneer. Why would people choose to involve themselves in the battle for the soul of Middle Earth or the political struggles of Westeros or the quirky and unexpected struggles for justice in the Discworld, except to evade real-world concerns? Most of the time, this question and others like it come from people who have little direct acquaintance with second-world fantasy, and thus can’t understand that “real-world” concerns are very much a part of it. They may not be described or explored in literal ways, but readers with a healthy imagination and a sense of history can see that Frodo’s and Sam’s trek through the Dead Marshes in The Two Towers is drawn from Tolkien’s experiences on the corpse-strewn battlefields of World War I, and that the feuds between rival Houses in George R.R. Martin’s saga echo the infighting that destroyed many lives in England in the late Middle Ages, and that the conflicts in the Discworld offer a look at social and psychological realities. Second-world fantasy does not ignore the truth. It simply offers readers a unique prism through which that truth may be viewed.
If some readers like myself want to take a break from an excess of reality by picking up a second-world fantasy novel, is that necessarily a bad thing? On an older, now defunct blog site, I put it this way: “As long as I’m in Middle Earth, I’m miles away from Jersey Shore.” This statement may be a little dated now, as Jersey Shore is thankfully no longer airing, but nonetheless I stand by it. Visiting a land from a well-written second-world fantasy is a pleasure not unlike visiting a top-notch Renaissance festival: it’s a vibrant, colorful (though not always safe) place to spend a few wonderful hours, but it’s no place to live. As long as we know the difference, why shouldn’t we enjoy the visit?
Bilbo Baggins, the little guy who rises to the occasion of adventure (and is much more clever, funny, and central to his story than the overblown Hobbit film trilogy would have us believe). Gandalf, his inscrutable, charismatic mentor. Recovering alcoholic cop Sam Vimes, an unlikely champion of justice if ever there was one, and his indomitable Valkyrie of a wife, Sybil (Pratchett, Guards! Guards! and sequels). Honorable Ned Stark and unpredictable Tyrion Lannister (Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire). Rune, the fiddler girl whose music appeases a murderous ghost (Lackey, The Lark and the Wren). Kazul, the female King of the Dragons, and her brainy princess bestie, Cimorene (Wrede, Dealing with Dragons). I could go on all day. Compelling fictional personalities exist in all genres, but these characters, and so many others, are amazing partly because they must confront situations unique to second-world fantasy.
Here are a few of my favorite second-world fantasies:
The original Sevenwaters Trilogy, beginning with Daughter of the Forest, by Juliet Marillier. Its delights include a vividly detailed Celtic kingdom, a lyrical writing style, and active, intelligent female protagonists.
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, beginning with The Dragonbone Chair, by Tad Williams. What do I remember most about the fall of 1994? Devouring the four thick volumes of this series. The time may be ripe for a re-read. Epic with a capital E.
The Stormlight Archive, beginning with The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson. This one is just getting started. Here we have a fascinating magic system, an otherworld racked by strife, and flawed heroes worth rooting for. The way I attacked the first two volumes, despite their massive length, makes me think I may well have found my Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn of the new millennium.
The Eternal Sky, beginning with Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear. This epic series forsakes the usual quasi-medieval European setting for an Arabian Nights clime, and its world is painted in vividly gorgeous language. Compelling characters abound, including several awesome women.
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik. A stand-alone novel with an Eastern European folktale flavor, this is the front-runner for my favorite read of 2015.