Tolkien Gestures: Conclusions

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre. This week, with it all done and dusted, we wrap up with some conclusions, thoughts and other random witterings.

Well, that’s it. For a start, thanks to everyone who read or commented on these reviews (and geeksyndicate for allowing me to prattle all over their site!), I hope you enjoyed them, even the ones for books I didn’t actually like. But overall, what do I think?

At the start of this series I talked about how this is really about my own prejudices as much as about the Fantasy genre, about how its general tropes don’t really appeal to me, and its bad habits largely annoy me, and I think in some respects that still holds. I’m never going to fall in love with Fantasy for it’s own sake, I think – by large it doesn’t push my buttons enough for that. And my somewhat overstated impression of it’s bad habits are certainly grounded in some degree of truth, so we’ll start there.

The epically long story thing still annoys me. I mean, trilogies I can totally get behind, as a way of telling a longer story. Ongoing series with the same characters is a staple of pretty much every genre ever and I certainly own enough of them that it doesn’t bother me per se, but Fantasy does seem to be special in the sense that its acceptable to just start open ended stories that don’t even begin to resolve in any given book and there’s an expectation that you’ll stick with it until book 26 just to see how it all ends. Actually, I won’t. Sorry. The Malazan Book of the Fallen and Ice and Fire are particularly egregious examples of this, actually, and both are fine first books in their own right, except they don’t actually bloody finish. Telling me (as people have) that something becomes clearer in book 5 or such-and-such a character’s plot is explained in book 3 is all very well but these things are doorstops to start with! Surely part of the craft of writing is telling a story within the confines of your page count (or movie running time, or telly series order)?

And it leads me onto the other tonal issue I seem to have recurrent problems with. It’s not a crippling thing, and in some ways is great, but there is a real emphasis on world-building over character-building. This is certainly a matter of taste – the books I’ve enjoyed the most, Tigana, Temeraire, The First Law, have all emphasised character over world and the stodgier ones the other way around. I guess long series feel the need to “front load” the world-building to let the characters breathe later on, but again, I feel slightly aggrieved at the need to read so much extra material to get to the bits I want to.

But, enough niggles. What did I like?

Well as mentioned above, I loved Tigana, Temeraire and The First Law, the latter two I now own all the published series for. I’m intrigued enough to go back to The Dark Tower, as it seemed refreshingly different, and re-reading Tolkien, and reading Howard and Moorcock and some of the more “classic” writers shines an interesting perspective on the newer material, and how deep the roots of the genre are, and perhaps how little it seems to struggle away from its “sprawling low-tech epic” default setting.

All that said, I certainly consider my bad case of snobbery somewhat dispelled. After all, I’m an older and cooler head than I used to be and at the very least I’m more aware of the faults of my own pet genre and wouldn’t want to pick up Fantasy for sharing some of them! I think the big one is that I’ve always seem Fantasy’s world-building monoculture as a real straightjacket for storytelling, in thrall to Tolkien and Howard and unable to find any other frame of reference. I’ve spent so many pages in pseudo-late medieval Europe it’s all a bit wearing, as if every crime novel was set in a Country Manor and every Sci-Fi novel set in the Star Trek Universe and writers just find cleverer ways to present those settings. Of course, this has been true-ish of both genres at certain points in their histories but they’ve bucked and struggled against it. The central allegation against fantasy it that it’s not really struggling against that, and I’m not convinced that’s totally untrue, but at the same time 20 books may not be a large enough sample size to make a proper judgement.

However even in the worst assessment I’m certainly convinced that there is some quality writing in the genre that can take those elements and really make them sing.

As a final thought, I’ve really enjoyed (David Eddings notwithstanding) this as an exploration of a genre that for all my beer-fuelled postering over the years it turns out I knew little about. At the very least I can now be snippy with real facts to hand!


Next time: There is no next time!

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus. I’ll also create a post over on the Geek Syndicate forums ( if anyone wishes to abuse me in greater depth!

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