Greg Bear (born August 20, 1951) is an American writer best known for science fiction. His work has covered themes of galactic conflict (the Forge of God books), artificial universes (The Way series), consciousness and cultural practices (Queen of Angels), and accelerated evolution (Blood Music, Darwin’s Radio, and Darwin’s Children). Greg Bear has written 44 books in total. His most recent work is the Forerunner Trilogy, written in the Halo universe. Greg Bear was also one of the five co-founders of the San Diego Comic-Con. While most of Bear’s work is science fiction, he has written in other fiction genres. Songs of Earth and Power is an omnibus edition of two classic fantasy novels from the eighties. In The Infinity Concerto (1984) Michael Perrin endures years of captivity and deadly struggles in the Realm of the Sidhe, a fantastic, beautiful and dangerous world. In The Serpent Mage (1986) he returns to Los Angeles – but the Sidhe are following him. Greg Bear’s land of elves is not the pretty, enchanted place of so many fantasy novels but is an oppressive, menacing land of cruelty and fear, ruled by the unfeeling fair folk of Celtic mythology. His brilliantly descriptive narrative draws the reader in until you feel part of this world. Songs of Earth and Power isn’t an easy or comfortable read but it is one that is well worth the effort.
Following on from last month’s post on the lighter side of urban fantasy, I will now turn to that sub-genre of fantasy whose protagonists initially believe themselves to inhabit a world of consensual mundane reality then to their terror learn otherwise – the Dark Fantastic. In what follows the term dark fantasy is used to describe that particular sort of urban fantasy which standardly consists of a series of thrillers/detective stories that are set in, and whose plots are determined by, a mundane world entirely, but not always visibly, permeated by the worlds of faerie or the supernatural. A product of the 1980s and authors such as Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman, Dark fantasy could in a sense be regarded more as an evolution of horror than of fantasy. It also includes what is in many ways a sub-sub-genre within Urban fantasy, Paranormal Romance, which dilutes the peril of the undead with romantic, vampiric anti-heroes. The protagonist of standard dark fantasy makes the discovery of the real, non-mundane nature of the world as an existential crisis, and thereafter learns more in the course of solving puzzles, or acquiring refinements of technique for living in such worlds. Whether these protagonists are wizards, like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, or exorcists, like Mike Carey’s Felix Castor, they are cousins to Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and inhabit the same mean streets, even if they do so alongside vampires, ghouls and the more sinister denizens of faerie.
This is the first of two linked posts about the sub-genre of urban fantasy, in which the tropes of pastoral or heroic fantasy are brought into a modern setting. Within the elements common to all urban fantasies – a city in which supernatural events occur, the presence of prominent characters who are artists or musicians or scholars, the redeployment of previous fantastic and folkloric topography in unfamiliar contexts – there are two fundamental strains of urban fantasy. In the first, a more or less recognisable city – New York or London, Minneapolis or Galveston, Newford or Bordertown – is revealed to be in contact with the realm of Faerie, or some magical realm, and the resultant narrative redeploys the tropes and characters of older fairy tales and folklore, forcing them into collisions with a contemporary urban milieu. This I have termed the ‘Light Fantastic’, as it tends to involve a strong element of wish-fulfilment. In the second, what I have termed the ‘Dark Fantastic’, a greater debt is owed to the gothic or horror genre – the distillation of mankind’s greatest fears and nightmares rather than hopes and dreams – but more on that next time.
Paul Kearney is an author who is perhaps best known today for his Monarchies of God series, a fairly standard epic of sword and sorcery that will be familiar to many readers of the genre. However, back at the start of the 1990’s he wrote a far more intriguing set of novels, each stand-alone but linked thematically – A Different Kingdom, Riding the Unicorn and The Way to Babylon. The most notable common thread in this ‘Different Kingdoms’ series was Kearney’s use of a hero from our world who journeys into a fantastical one. Despite strong reviews, these books had commercially disappointing sales, and Kearney was asked to consider a more traditional fantasy epic, hence the Monarchies of God was born. Although I can completely understand the decision of Kearney, his publishers and his agent from a commercial perspective, for me it is most unfortunate that the author was not allowed to pursue his original vision – after all his concept, known as the ‘portal quest’ theme in fantasy literature, has a venerable history.
A sad tale’s best for winter… or so they say. I thought I’d round off the year with a post about one of my favourite seasonal fantasy novels, and the one that I almost invariably read at this time of year, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. In case you wondered, yes, this is the same story that was adapted into a film starring Colin Farrell a couple of years ago but the movie really does have very little to do with this unforgettable book. Helprin’s novel has a variety of inspirations, not least among them William Shakespeare’s 1623 play of the same name. Mostly set in a kind of mythical New York City, the story covers so many characters and interwoven tales that a plot summary is nearly impossible. Although ostensibly set at the turn of the last century, in reality the setting of Winter’s Tale bears little resemblance to any time or place that our world has ever known. Magical horses, roguish heroes and enchantment abound in this, the perfect fantasy tale for the festive season.
As Fabulous Realms has today reached the milestone of one hundred posts, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to do something that I’ve been planning to do for some time. Long-time followers of this blog will be aware that I regularly put the spotlight on a ‘mythic archetype’ or fantasy genre, draw out its identifying features and provide what are in my view some of the finest examples of the form. Along the right hand side of this blog site, you’ll see that I’ve grouped my posts into general categories, many of which are self-explanatory but some of which may require a little more in the way of explanation for the casual reader or non-fantasy fan. What do I mean when I talk about ‘Sword & Sorcery’, for instance, and is this the same thing as ‘Epic’ or ‘High’ fantasy? What’s the difference between ‘Urban fantasy’ and ‘Contemporary fantasy’, and where does ‘Paranormal Romance’ fit in? Is ‘Dark fantasy’ the same as horror and is ‘Science fantasy’ the same as science fiction? These questions may or may not have exercised you at one time or another but I thought that it might, all the same, be interesting to explore the – not quite one hundred – ‘Fabulous Realms’ of fantasy fiction in search of answers.
I thought I’d try something a little different with this post. Instead of looking at a specific fantasy theme, author or book, I wanted to take a look at three books, each written in a very different era but all nevertheless having a great deal in common. Robert Holdstock’s World Fantasy Award-winning Lavondyss can be read as a stand-alone novel as well as forming part of the Mythago sequence. A product of the drab, materialistic eighties, much of Lavondyss is set in a much earlier, but still recognisable age – rural England in the forties and fifties. With much of the action centering on deep woods and wild, hidden places it almost seeks to re-establish a disappearing link between the modern era and a more innocent age that has virtually been lost beyond the possibility of recall. Jan Siegel’s Prospero’s Children appeared a decade later, at the end of the nineties, and in common with much of the fantasy fiction from that time it brims over with epic, apocalyptic themes, perhaps reflecting the uncertainty surrounding the rapidly approaching end of the millennium. The setting, however, is solidly small scale: a house in the wilds of Yorkshire that straddles more than one world. This house becomes the focus in a struggle between the ancient forces of good and evil and a young witch girl’s coming of age. Freda Warrington’s Elfland is a 21st century novel, filled with modern characters with current concerns, yet whose lives are touched by the irresistible lure of the twilight realm of Faerie. Somehow, despite the fact that a gap of over twenty years separates Lavondyss from Elfland, both novels – together with Prospero’s Children – can be seem as forming part of the same tradition. Located on the elusive boundary between mythic fiction and urban fantasy, Holdstock, Siegel and Warrington’s work also represents the very best in a peculiarly British approach to fantasy. Let’s take a closer look at their books.
Exactly what is it that allows the fairy tale, a story archetype that by all rights should have disappeared with powdered wigs and petticoats, to survive, and even thrive, in the new millenium? Perhaps it’s because they concern important lessons – warnings, morals, aspects of the unknowable, ancient folk wisdom – or maybe it’s just for their pure entertainment value. Whatever the reason, fairy tales, in one form or another, are still enjoyed today. Whether it’s classics collected by the Brothers Grimm, Andrew Lang and Charles Perrault, or new tales, such as Charles de Lint’s Newford stories or Neil Gaiman’s tales of American Gods; fairy tales, stories of fantasy, myth and legend, are still creating wonder and magic for people around the world. Perhaps this is why they survive, because no matter when or where a fairy tale is first told, they embody universal images and truths that, over the centuries, have passed beyond time or place, and become one with the vast tapestry of human consciousness. But naturally, as times change, the stories people tell also change. Cities give rise to their own types of stories – the urban legends that make the rounds from time to time, stories that utilize elements of the old ways, but with a metropolitan spin on them that just didn’t exist until the modern city was created.
It’s been a while since I read an entire book in a weekend but that was the case with the advance copy I recently got my hands on of James Treadwell’s debut novel Advent, partly because I’ve been waiting for someone to write a book like this for what feels like a very long time! Regular readers of this blog will be aware of the high esteem in which I hold The Dark is Rising and that is perhaps the best comparison to make at the outset – reading Advent is like re-visiting an older, darker, more mature version of Susan Cooper’s famous novel. Treadwell’s book is brimming over with all of the elements that fans of everything from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen will know and love – ancient magic, a struggle between good and evil, burgeoning wisdom and a young man’s coming of age. What I particularly like about Advent, though, is that the novel isn’t merely derivative and that its author mines less familiar areas of fantasy and mythology such as alchemy, necromancy and the Faust legend.
Charles de Lint’s urban fantasies, including Moonheart, Greenmantle and Yarrow, have earned him a devoted following and critical acclaim as a master of contemporary mythic fiction. At the heart of his work is the ongoing Newford series. Familiar to De Lint’s readers as the setting of the novels Memory and Dream, Someplace to be Flying and The Onion Girl, among others, Newford is the quintessential North American city, tough and streetwise on the surface and rich with hidden magic for those who can see. The fictional city of Newford could be any contemporary North American city… except that magic lurks in its music, in its art and in the shadows of its grittiest streets, where mythical beings walk in disguise. Newford is populated by a regular cast of characters not too different from you or I, each looking for a bit of magic to shape their lives and transform their fates. There is Jilly Coppercorn, painting wonders in the rough city streets; Geordie Riddell, playing the fiddle while he dreams of ghosts; Angel gathering the waifs, strays, poor and lost to her homeless shelter; Holly Rue and her antique book store complete with hobs and brownies and a dozen others. Their lives intertwine with the fey beings with whom they share Newford – gemmins who live in abandoned cars, mermaids who swim in the grey harbour waters; desert spirits who crowd the night; crow girls; wolf men; vengeful ghosts and many more. I challenge anyone who has read any of the Newford books or short stories not to fall under De Lint’s unique spell.