Category Archives: fantasy

Worldbuilding

My guests, at that time, were greatly interested in literature and displayed a marked predilection for works of fantasy, especially those composed in English during the twentieth century. I informed them that such works, although they had always had their defenders, were not held in high regard. It was difficult enough to make my meaning plain without insult, for the very things which captivated my guests – the maps, glossaries of invented languages and scripts, annals of kings and migrations of peoples that never were, or which were cobbled together from mythologies or revived notions of the historical past – were exactly those which seemed to the eyes of literary criticism to be trivial and childish. Once I had politely pointed out that Tolkien and his epigones, despite their popularity, were not ranked among the foremost writers, my guests (employing a grammatical mood of their language which I had always found somewhat slippery and which indicated, I think, in this case, that the question was in fact sincere in spite of its superficially seeming to be a mere act of politeness) asked for examples from the higher literary traditions of this period which would be would be more worthy of their study. I spoke of the revolution in acceptable subject matter and style which came with Modernism; of the importance of literature which allowed itself to slip the confines of suburban morality and deal with subjects hitherto barred by prudishness from serious writing. Without concealing my personal tastes, I suggested that the works of James Joyce epitomised this artistic revolution.

At our next conversation, my guests, who had absorbed the works in question with that speed and comprehensiveness which was one of the disquieting reminders that they were not, despite appearances, human, were full of enthusiasm for Joyce and particularly for Ulysses. (I did ask them, at a later date, for their opinion of Finnegans Wake, but confess that I could not grasp it, and was left with the same feeling as I have always had when an aficionado of cryptic crosswords attempts to induct me into their cult.) We talked of the stylistic brilliance and daring of the work, on the initimacy of characterisation made possible by the stream-of-consciousness technique, and of the relish which the author had for the least details of quotidian life. “And the world-building!” said one. “We now percieve that our admiration for Tolkien was ill-placed. How could one compare Minas Tirith with the marvellous city of Dublin, where the evidence of millennia is present at every turn? How delicately Joyce’s exposition hints at a whole world beyond its borders! We marvel at the subtlety and skill of his creation.”

Somewhat taken aback by what I took to be a display of naïveté, I objected that Joyce’s Dublin was no fictional creation: on the contrary, like Proust’s Paris, Dostoyevsky’s St Petersburg, or Flaubert’s Rouen, it was a transfiguration of the marvellous reality of an actual time and place into a great work of literature. I was rebuffed with what I understood to be one of my guests’ rare attempts at humour.

“Why, then, Joyce is no mere genius, but a thaumaturge of rare power, able to create real persons, a real city, an entire country with its painful and bitter history! These cities of which you speak, Paris, St Petersburg, Dublin: do you imagine that even the most obsessive novelist could represent but a shadow of their true immensity? For all that Bloom’s Dublin has an original in what your race are pleased to call ‘reality’, it is nothing more than a finely wrought tissue of words. But with such great artistry, it is understandable if you forget that even Joyce has given us only appearances.”

—from Hearn, The New Arcana Cœlestia: A Memoir of My Time with The Visitors

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The Weirdness

Jeremy Bushnell

This is a really enjoyable combination of literary satire and supernatural fantasy in which an aspiring but more-or-less unpublished Brooklyn writer is offered a guaranteed best-seller, in exchange for certain services, by Lucifer himself: a Faustian beginning, but things get more twisted than this might suggest. The tone is light and enjoyable but doesn’t stint the darker aspects of the characters or story: in this it reminded me of Robert Sheckley’s blackly comic sf stories. Also, I want the cover design on a t-shirt:

The Weirdness

Among Others

Jo Walton

I have been terrible at keeping my promise to review books as I read them this year, and I have to catch up before I can’t do them justice: which Among Others really deserves. As someone who spent the 80s reading as much sf and fantasy as its heroine, I found myself wondering, but not caring very much, to what extent the references to Heinlein and Delany would go over a casual reader’s head. It’s as good a book about growing up nerdy as I’d expected, and the supernatural elements are very well done.

It was only when I’d finished that I realised that the author was the critic who had been writing such enjoyable appreciations of classic sf and fantasy on Tor Books’ website. The title of her anthology, What Makes This Book So Great, sums up an sort of enthusiasm which is very rarely publicly expressed, for whatever socio-cultural reasons, about non-genre fiction.

Materiality: Precious

The third issue of Materiality: PRECIOUS is available now from the Pinknantucket Press!

Along with many other good things, it includes my story “The Faithful Alchemist”, set in the fabled and impeccably pretentious city of Louchébem.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve added an index to those fragments of the Louchébem corpus which have already appeared in these pages.

The Silmarillion

J. R. R. Tolkien

It must be twenty years since I last read this — one of my daughters is in the throes of Tolkien adolescent nerddom, which means I have someone to share ridiculously dorky puns with*, and I read her copy down the coast when I’d run out of books. When I was in Oxford a few years ago I saw an exhibition of 14th century hand-lettered Italian books in the Bodleian library, and the origins of Tolkien’s own invented scripts were clearly visible in their elegant red and black uncials. Similarly, now that I know something of the ancient texts and languages which constituted Tolkien’s day job, The Silmarillion seems less weird than it did to my teenage self, and more an impressive exercise in pastiche. That isn’t intended as a criticism: my taste in fantasy inclines to works which read like texts from the worlds in which they are set, or scholarly redactions of old tales, as in James Branch Cabell’s mock-medieval romances or the classicism of Borges’ “The Immortals”.

George R. R. Martin doesn’t really attempt this – his writing is all incident and plot with a sprinkling of ye olde terminologie like synthetic bacon-bits. In my youth I was prone to diss Tolkien’s style, bit in The Lord of the Rings he shifts between different registers, from cosy to epic, with unusual skill.

*”Tickle-me Ulmo”. Sorry.

The Code Of The Lannisters

Chapter One: A Game of Drones

It was one of those mornings. You know how it is when old chums get together? Last night had been several times worse than that, the upshot of which being that I woke with a fair approximation of the Doom of Valyria settled in between the old temples.

Troubling pictures haunted my memory. I was unable to shake an image of Oofy Littlefinger attempting to perform an act not ordinarily associated with domestic fowl. A sordid affair, no doubt, but one must needs when needs must, or however the old saying goes, when the schoolmates are assembled.

And when one’s family regards one as a bit of a dead loss, as I admit that mine do, one can’t complain if the boon companions of one’s youth aren’t of quite the same water as those that you get knocking about the finer jousting academies. My brother Jamie always says that I was lucky that they didn’t pack me off to the Wall and have done with it.

In my darker moments, I sometimes wonder if he were wrong. Certainly the sunlight couldn’t be this painfully bright in the North. And there seemed to be a sort of phantom that moved here and there about the chamber of its own volition, looking for all the world like a girl.

I have no objection to girls in their place, which for a man of my standing is generally somewhere in the vicinity of a receipt. As long as they don’t start mooning about dragons like that dippy blonde something-or-other – could never pronounce it – too many ‘y’s – or lording it over a chap, like certain sisters which the code of chivalry and the old feudal spirit prevent me from mentioning, except to note that they have a way of looking at their own flesh and blood that could put a chap off his whoring.

“My lord,” said the vision, wavering in a far from unattractive manner before my throbbing eyeballs. “A raven has arrived for you.”

“Not more bad news from the North?” Not Ned Stark! Always moping about like a direwolf with a secret sorrow. Winter can’t come fast enough, if you ask me.

“Try this, my lord,” said the vision. “It’s a little recipe of my own invention.” A goblet had somehow found its way into my hand, and, with all the ancestral courage of the Lannisters, I manfully got myself around the contents. It seemed to bear a family resemblance to a detonated beefsteak, and within three or four heart-stopping moments, I found that my head had cleared, my stomach had settled, and my spirits were well and truly braced. I got out of bed feeling five feet tall.

“I say,” I exclaimed, when I had regained the power of speech. “What did you say your name was?”

“Shaeves,” she said, with a smile that went all the way down to there and back again.

“Shaeves, eh? And the raven?”

“It’s from Casterly Rock, my lord. The message bears the seal of A. Lannister.”

“In that case I may need you to whip up another round of that delightful tonic. Perhaps with a small cask of wine as an afterthought.” People can say what they like about strong female characters, but I suspect that they are people who’ve never met my Aunt Agatha.

Your Game of Thrones Name

1: Pick one letter of the longest form of your first name.
2: If it’s a consonant, replace it with any other consonant.
3(a): If it’s a vowel, and you are evil, replace it with y.
3(b): If you are very evil, rearrange all the letters to make it sound as evil as possible.
3(c): If it’s a vowel and you are not evil, replace it with any other vowel.
4: If you are not evil, you can shorten the name. If the shortened form is the same as the shortened form of your real name, tough luck.

—Muchael