I fell in love with fairy tale spin-offs and fantasy literature somewhere between Diane Duane’s So You Want to be a Wizard series and Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci, Dalemark, and Derkholm series, all published between from the 1970s to early 1990s, with some stragglers popping up later. I loved these books because of the characters and the adventures within the pages, the droplets of imagination that spread into new worlds, both recognizable as and different to the fairylands made familiar through collections such as those by Andrew Lang.
With few exceptions, I found that more modern series were enjoyable enough, but largely disappointing. Characters were more stereotyped, authors failed to bring a world to life by relying on archetypes and pushing agendas on their characters. The books and series (I won’t mention any by name, but take a peek at what is pushed for “teen reading” at libraries and bookstores now that summer reading has arrived) largely seemed to garner success and attention because they were riding on the coattails of Harry Potter and filling a certain hole in the market: the young adult blockbuster. However, I was pleasantly surprised by offerings by Rae Carson and Catherynne M. Valente: Carson’s The Fire and Thorns trilogy (2011-2013) and Valente’s Fairyland series (2011-2015).
Valente is a researcher, on top of being an award winning fantasy writer, and it shows not only through the mythology of the world she creates but also through what she doesn’t do with her writing. She doesn’t create a jaded version of fairyland, or borderlands; her spaces are consistent in both time and place for scenes set in the real world, and the consistency in her depiction of the otherworld is fresh and unique even when utilizing folkloric figures and tropes. In short, this is SMART writing—something utterly unexpected in a world where Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey can become a major cultural phenomena, much less be picked up by legitimate publishers. To find someone who could produce the same structured, believable fantasy as writers such as Robin McKinley or Patricia C. Wrede in this day and age was a welcome addition to the ever-growing canon of modern fantasy.
Carson’s trilogy was a little harder for me to get into, but I found that what won me over was the way she depicted the growth of her protagonist: a girl with considerable power growing into herself, but without overt feminist overtones or other modern socio-political undertones. The characters were fully formed, showed progressive development, and were people with whom I could relate—something I prefer to the “strong, independent female characters” people think need to be written as role models for girls and young women. This is a stereotype that sells well, and we have seen it with series such as The Hunger Games and Divergent. But these half-archetypes are not fully formed; they are representative of what we have been crafting as the mood, drive, and mind of a modern day independent woman driven by dystopian desperation. If we had to consider these characters outside of their particular sets of circumstances, they would fail to be believable (a tip I was once given by a creative writing professor on how to test one’s character development). The writers I fell in love with bypassed what their protagonists *should* be or represent to society, and the result was that multifaceted, believable men and women (or other species depending on the book) were almost always depicted. What Carson provides across all of her characters is depth. Depth, whether the character is male or female, will always unearth appealing and unappealing traits that will not only provide a sense of realism, but also reflect the reader’s self and world.
I hope I continue to find such books and authors. Though both Carson and Valente have been lauded for “doing something new” with fantasy, it only seems new if people are unfamiliar with the authors of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. There has long been a tradition of female fantasy writers writing developed stories with beautiful, well-crafted prose before the prevalence of teenage fantasy chick-lit (which has its place, but not at the risk of the rest of the canon). Uncovering these gems once more can do much for many readers and aspiring writers.
Want to know more about these two authors? Love your library or local bookstore, and check them out. Want to keep me honest and check up on my #100bookchallenge ? Track my progress on Instagram.