Things I Like About Modern Fantasy

First off, I had an interesting Remembrance day experience this year. I visited my Grandparents in the home and got to see all the older Veterans with their medals, pictures, and pride on grand display. It was an extraordinary experience, just sitting and listening to their simple stories of the war, over casual conversation at lunch.

Last week I wrote a post entitled Jersey Shore Fantasy, essentially discussing some of the things that turn me off in some Fantasy books. It was prompted by a discussion with my friend Decio, that Saturday, about how every hero these days is “from the shadows”. It may have come off a little negative, so on the flip side here are some things about modern fantasy that I really, really enjoy.

Things I Like About Modern Fantasy

1. Women, The Obvious Point

One of my favorite characters from Dragon Age II, was that bruiser of a woman named Aveline. Aveline was not pretty. She was not motherly. She was not peaceful or soft. Aveline was an uncompromising, stubborn, bully of a girl who would kick your arse if you crossed her… but she was noble, moral, and would back you to the hilt if she thought you were right. There was no one more reliable and no one you would rather have at your side in a fight. She was all this without trying to act like a guy and that one character made the game for me — even more than Isabela, the sultry pirate swashbuckler, or Verric, the witty dwarven thief and unreliable narrator.

Female characters have often been stronger in Fantasy than other forms of literature (yes, I just called fantasy Literature), and some of the best Fantasy writers of my youth were women. But modern Fantasy does it even better, with strong roles for women in Fantasy Movies, TV series, Comics, and so on. It has helped broaden the genre significantly and I heartily approve.

My tank driving, lawyer sister isn’t twisting my arm either 😉

2. I can hear the dice rolling.

When I started writing I thought that noting that I was a gamer might have a stigma attacked to it. Nope. Quite the opposite, in fact. Just last week I saw a video that was a who’s who of big names in Fantasy gathered around a table playing D&D. It has gotten to the point where I think some people might be claiming to be gamers who really aren’t. (Where were you when Silverwall fell?)

But many Fantasy writers have obviously played games, from D&D to World of Warcraft, and many lesser known games. It shows in that extra level of consideration that the author gives to systems of various sorts from Magic Systems that have coherent and sensible rules to superior world building.  Gaming is a great test space. Table top RPGs can really help you test the consequences of actions in a Fantasy world. If an action take has a consequence that feels off or isn’t cool, it will almost always fall flat at the gaming table. I enjoy running ideas past my gaming group, having the smashed and dashed, refining them and giving it another go. Bloodlust is the result of a Game that I put together when my fabled Saturday night gaming group, that ran for 10 years (not so long by neckbeard/grognard standards, but still…), started falling apart. I found that the arena allowed for a narrative that could survive people dropping in and out of the session like crazy. Turns out adding all those extra little details that are required for an RPG helped flesh out the setting enough to make the background for a brilliant novel.

Computer gaming has led to stronger action imagery in Fantasy novels as well. The brutal, bloody combat and the crazy anime/action styles of some games have obviously helped some authors create better action scenes. Stephen King has noted that visualization is the key to good writing, and I think that some of the better computer games have really helped some authors in this regard.

Of course it goes both ways, with great Fantasy books helping to influence better RPGs and computer games. Which in turn, influence the writers again, and so on. So far, this has been very good…

3. Adult Stuff, y’know…

Fantasy still has a long way to go in this regard, but more Fantasy authors are exploring sex in their writing now. From sexual politics to magic and sex, it has the potential to be very interesting and add a strong human element to the story. Sex, is on some level, vital to stories for adults, be it a lovely Romance to the pure pleasure of hedonistic lust.

Just ease up on the gratuitous rape.

4. The enemy within

Modern Fantasy has a broader range of bad guys. Gone are the days when orcs and trolls penetrating your borders are all you had to worry about. Politics, backstabbing, rebellion, disaster, and just plain miss-communication are all thrown into the mix in Modern Fantasy. Conflict has been taken to a much higher level in the Genre, with the protagonists often having to deal with shifting alliances, betrayal, misfortune and a host of other obstacles on scales both personal and epic. Protagonists in modern Fantasy often have to leverage more than just their fighting abilities which leads to creative plot points and some great brains versus brawn moments.

Often the enemy isn’t even a threat to the kingdom or even really a worse person than the hero. Villains can range from understandable and sympathetic to monstrous and unknowable in Modern Fantasy, and that is a great thing.

Revolution has become a source of conflict in Fantasy… I love this.

Because the enemies aren’t always monsters, evil gods, or invading armies the protagonists are often different as well. A musician or an artist is just as powerful as a knight against the right antagonist. This in turn, allows Fantasy to explore new areas, create stronger characters, and generally broaden in scope.

5. Complexity 

Some people criticize Fantasy for being unrealistic, too soft on characters, or simply too optimistic. I think this misses the point. One of the things that I love about Modern Fantasy is the complexity. Its not just that Fantasy is no longer about black and white struggles of good against evil; I honestly don’t think good Fantasy was ever that myopic. It is that modern Fantasy is mature enough that authors can deal with real issues in a Fantasy context now. Much of this is because the audience for Fantasy is broader now, with a demand for a larger variety of subjects within the Genre as a whole. Kudos to the pioneering authors who pushed, and still push the envelope in this respect as well as the readers who support them. I feel that Fantasy is a much richer Genre now.

6. Exploring Magic

This is pretty clear. up until recently there were very few Fantasy series where the main character was a wizard or possessed some magical power. Even if they had magic, the author would often gloss over it. Lord of the Rings, Conan, Arthurian Works, the Iliad, Lankmar stuff, and all of the old Fantasy greats featured magic but usually did not delve into it. Modern Fantasy gets into the nuts and bolts of magic. The protagonists are frequently mages or have some form of magic power. Magic systems are explore thoroughly, often having a tremendous impact on the plot and world building. This exploration of magic often leads to some interesting thought experiments that would be impossible in any other genre. Create a set of rules for powers that do not exist and then think up how they will effect your made up world… AWESOME!

7. Let’s not get Medieval

Fantasy Authors no longer limit themselves to the middle ages as a background. The castle and the village are not the only settings or departure points for Modern Fantasy. The City has made its way into the Genre. With the city has come urban themes: politics, corruption, multi-culteralism, pluralism, democracy, fascism, industrialization and so on. Orcs aren’t always evil any more. Imperialism and Colonialism can be explored. Characters don’t always have to be farmers, knights, or clergyman. Rich new territories abound.

Classical influences, from Rome to Renaissance, which have gone missing from the rest of modern life are alive and well in Modern Fantasy, even as their absence is felt in classrooms.

Victorian/Napoleonic and modern Urban Fantasy are becoming strong genres as well. Fantasy branches out into different histories and cultures and grows as it does so. The Genre has become bog, bold, and broad. I feel it is stronger now than what we call Literature. Modern Fantasy has escaped its old rules and conventions and attracted a growing number of skilled writers and astute readers. It is a complex, growing Genre where anything goes and I hope it stays that way.


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