Subversive Fantasy (done right)

In my last blog post I asked whether the fantasy genre is fundamentally conservative. My aim was to show that regardless of content, fantasy is inherently subversive. The idea that the content of many fantasy books is liberal seemed so obvious as to not be worth stating. I was surprised to learn from the responses I got that a lot of people are actually not aware of the range of really interesting fantasy available beyond the bestseller lists.

All of the books below are not just ethically sound but are also great stories with well-rounded characters and compelling settings. They are also complete stand-alone novels, even though they are part of ongoing series.

Swordspoint (Riverside #1)
Ellen Kushner
Half Regency-era romance, half Renaissance political scheming. Love and sex between men is treated as completely unremarkable. St Vier the duellist is dashing and glamourous, and yet the reality of a man who will kill for money is not downplayed. It’s hard to really like either St Vier or his lover – and yet somehow you want them to end up together. This book also avoids one of the common missteps of fantasy – that of assuming that aristocratic blood is of any value at all. I have trouble caring about whether the ‘rightful’ king reclaims his throne. Why should the biological royal make a better ruler than the usurper? I’m rarely convinced he will. Neither is Ellen Kushner.

Jhereg (The Vlad Taltos series)
Steven Brust
Two parts Raymond Chandler-esque noir, one part Hungarian folklore. Instead of trying to solve a murder, the assassin protagonist has to figure out how to get away with one. Reads like it was fun to write. Smart. Deals with the problem of gender differences by ignoring them (sort of like Starship Troopers the movie), and it works well. Women and men are equally likely to be wise, graceful, brutish, soft, cunning – scholars, prostitutes or thugs. Brust is a Trotskyist, and while you wouldn’t necessarily be able to guess it from his writing, issues of class are definitely there in the background.

Someplace To Be Flying (The Newford Books)
Charles de Lint
Set in a fictional city in modern day Canada, characters from Celtic and Native mythology begin to bleed into the everyday world, along with creatures of de Lint’s imagination – crow girls, tumbleweed men and other genius loci. Raven and Coyote are refighting their old arguments and singing their old songs. Anyone in Newford might be an old god, but the characters de Lint loves most are ordinary: slum dwellers, social workers, artists and musicians, and most of all people who have come from violent and abusive childhoods. These people have no roots they can trust, and they have grown themselves new roots in the city of Newford, tangled up with the spirits of the place. There are no grand battles or bombastic sacrifices, even when the world is at stake – most of the good done is in thankless interpersonal kindness and gentleness. Read the first chapter here.

Guards! Guards! (Discworld series)
Terry Pratchett
Most of the Discworld books offer social commentary on things like privatisation (Going Postal) and the use of racism to promote war (Jingo), but what stands out about Pratchett is his humanism. The title of Guards! Guards! comes from the trope of the palace guards who are called for and then immediately slaughtered by the dashing hero. Who are these people? Why are they so disposable? Their job must not be very highly regarded. And so the Night Watch of Ankh Morpork (an amalgam of Dickensian London and Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar) are drunk, underpaid wretches with gimpy knees and ill-fitting armour. But they are people. Pratchett starts with a fantasy cliche (in this case a marauding dragon) and thinks “How would real people respond?” Some would try to get on with their jobs and some would figure out how to make a buck out of it. Pratchett reminds me very much of Vonnegut, in his great cynicism and affection for humanity, and who said “It now seems morally important to me to do without minor characters in a story. Any character who appears, however briefly, deserves to have his or her life story fully respected and told.”

I suggest beginning with Guards! Guards! His writing has evolved from simple genre parody to complex social satire, and that’s about the earliest book that’s still very good. People will often tell you to start with one of his earlier books, because they are chronology purists. But these are stand-alone books and you really don’t lose anything by not reading them first.

Conspicuously Absent

Books which are not generally classified as fantasy, despite obviously being so.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Books in which the politics of the author appears to drive the story, rather than coming out naturally in the telling of it.

  • His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman

– subcategory: allegory (that dull brute)

      •  Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift (The Chronicles of Narnia are not, I think, allegorical. They were written by a Christian apologist, and his values show, but they’re also very sympathetic to paganism)

Books that are highly critical of, for example, inequality and racism, but are set in worlds in which it is rife. I tried to focus on books that show a really different sort of society.

  • the unutterably good Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke,  and the work of Ursula le Guin.