Today I'd like to welcome Dirk Strasser, who is talking about the difficulties of categorizing fantasy fiction. With all the confusing and overlapping fantasy subgenres, this can be a real problem for authors and readers. Be sure to check out Dirk's series, The Books of Ascension.
Friday, March 21, 2014
What sort of fantasy is that?
The question I most dread coming from publishers about my fantasy work is: “What other novels would you say yours is like?” It means that, despite their best efforts, they haven’t been able to categorise what I’ve written. And if they can’t put it in a box and stick a label on it, they can’t sell it.
The fiction publishing game is an art form, not a science. In spite of claims by some people, you can’t really predict what will be successful or how something will sell. All a publisher can do is try to find something similar to a new work and claim that this new work will sell at the same levels. Sometimes this pays off. Sometimes it doesn’t. However, this approach gives a publisher nowhere to go when faced with a work that defies comparison.
This practice of seeking comparisons is magnified with fantasy. There are so many sub-genres now. You can’t just label yourself simply as a fantasy author. Do you write urban fantasy or paranormal romance? Horror or dark fantasy?High fantasy or epic fantasy?Steampunk or New Weird? In fantasy you have even more avenues of comparison, such as the supernatural creature you’ve focussed on. Is yours a ghost story? A unicorn tale?Dragons were in for a while, thenlost favour, but now could be on their way back again to claim the treasure that is rightfully theirs. Vampires are still hanging on in there despite recent overexposure. Werewolves seem to be eternally roaming around on the periphery, and not quite in the centre of publishing. Zombies are remarkably persistent – they just keep on coming at you with those dead eyes.
So how do I answer that publisher question about what I would compare my novels to? I usually have to fudge the answer by picking the best selling fantasy author I can think of and qualifying the comparison. My novel’s like George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones, I would say,but with more likeable characters and genuine romance (which is, of course, saying it’s not like Game of Thrones at all, so I’m not lying). Or it’s likeThe Lord of the Rings but with strong female characters. Or it’s Harry Potter without the wizards.
What I would really like to do to answer the question is to create my own unique fantasy sub-genre labels for my novels. I would love to be able to say TheBooks of Ascensionare “mystic fantasy”, that is, fantasy infused with eastern mysticism that involves the uncovering of deep secrets. I could also coin the term “sand and sorcery” to categorise my Seven Prophets series to suggest it’s sort of like “sword and sorcery” but set in the desert and drawing on Arabian Nights mythology. My middle grade fantasy series The Guardians of Wyrlandcould be pigeon-holed as “suburban fantasy”, where fantastical elements encroach on an average middle-class suburb.
I can’t be the only one who wants to create their own unique marketing labels for their work. If I’m going to be put in a box, I want to make the box myself so that it’s comfortable, and allow myself enough wriggle room so that I can get out.
So, what sort of fantasy do you write?
Can you see the story breathing?
A mountain so great it takes a year to travel from base to summit
A sun so powerful it drives you into madness if you look at it
An ascent so vital it determines the fate of the world
A summit so precious it holds the key to the divine
The world of the great Mountain is unstable. Giant pillars erupt from the surface and yawning chasms form unpredictably underfoot. Since the Maelir first stood on its slopes in the distant past, they have sought to still its anger and control its power. Each year, twin brothers are chosen to make a perilous journey to the summit. If they survive they will be witness to Zenith, and the secrets will be revealed to them.
When Atreu and Teyth embark on their Ascent, their Talismans lead them onto conflicting paths that will ultimately set brother against brother. And this time the Ascent itself is in peril as unknown forces that have long craved the power of Zenith will stop at nothing to make it their own even if it means destroying the very thing that sustains all life the Mountain itself.
Can you see the story breathing?
The most beautiful city on the great Mountain
The pinnacle of Maelir culture
The home of the Inner Sanctum
The place where secrets hide
The fate of the Mountain hangs in balance at the time of Equinox, and even the Keep can no longer remain untouched. The Maelir are desperate to defend it, the Faemir to demolish it, the windriders to claim it. But unknown to them all, a dark force has already emerged from the chaos to seize power.
As Atreu and Verlinden strive to decipher the power of the Talisman that has defined Atreu’s Ascent, Teyth and Valkyra are locked in a desperate battle that neither of them can win. At a time when darkness and light are in perfect equilibrium, when Maelir and Faemir must find a way to break the deadlock and avoid annihilation, the world’s fate lies in the Book of Ascension.
Can you see the story breathing?
What happens if after the winter solstice, the days keep getting shorter?
Until there is an eternal night?
What happens as the darkness grows?
And the creatures of dusk take control of the Mountain?
And the quest for the third Book is the only hope?
The Mountain is in its death throes as the Nazir send their wraiths to finish what the dusk-rats and grale had begun. Soon there will be no daylight to protect the Maelir and Faemir, and with each twilight there are fewer places to hide. Will the Mountain finally collapse under its own instability or will Atreu and Verlinden’s descent find the words of salvation in the Lost Book of Ascension?
Zenith excerpt: Chapter Four
Metheus walked over to the fissure and beckoned Atreu to follow.
‘Stop there,’ commanded the old man. ‘Do not get too close.’ Metheus was a step away from the fissure. ‘Now, watch and believe.’
He approached the large crack, and Atreu stared as the old man closed his eyes and bent his head over into the steam. Atreu could just make out his lined features which were softened by the haze. Metheus was inhaling deeply. He then slowly stepped back from the fissure, his eyes still closed. Bending his neck back, he exhaled towards the ceiling.
A cloud issued from Metheus’ mouth and floated upwards. As it floated it took the form of a small boy. And as soon as the image was complete, it changed. Now it was a serpent writhing with life. And then a fish.And a leafless tree.And a geyer with wings beating gracefully.And then something with long teeth dripping with blood.And then a woman. And finally an old man, fading as the image struck the webbing on the ceiling of the cave.
The air was shrouded in silence as Atreu slowly bowed his head and looked at the ground.
‘This is my art,’ said the ancient voice.
Atreu lifted his head and looked Metheus in the eyes. ‘I … I didn’t know,’ he stammered.
‘Come here,’ said Metheus. Atreu walked towards him, the old man put his hand on his shoulder and they both sat down. ‘You see, Atreu, it is in your breath that all answers are found. I have not devoted my life to nothing. You take what the Mountain offers you, and you create so that it belongs to both of you. Inhale, exhale. They belong together, you see.’
Atreu nodded. He was suddenly very aware of his own breathing.
Equinox – The Second Book of Ascension
Equinox excerpt: Chapter One
The Keep was much higher than he anticipated, and the giant pillar seemed to widen as they ascended. Atreu’s flight was not as exhilarating as his first one. Riell’s strange silence made it seem like an eternity. At times the sporadic winds buffeted them so close to the smooth rock that Atreu was sure they would be crushed, but Riell’s skill was such that he managed to avoid any damage. Occasionally he would be so close to the wall that he had to kick off, but he did it with such precise timing that Atreu soon ceased worrying about it.
He watched the mists wrap their tendrils along his arms and legs, only to release their hold as the two flew higher. Now and then small particles of ice would prick his face and he would have to close his eyes, but he couldn’t keep them shut for long. He wanted to see all he could.
The ground had disappeared quickly in a swirl of white below them. Atreu looked up, trying to will the mists to part so that the top of the pillar would be revealed.
And Riell spoke not a word to him.
There was a wild rushing sound and Atreu was thrown left and then right as he gripped tightly the wooden bar in front of him. A million grains of ice stung his face, and suddenly the mists seemed to clear around him.
They had reached the top.
In front of him lay what looked like a vast flat plain ringed by a halo of white cloud. Although twilight was deepening, he could see a sprawling city in the middle of the plain. On the periphery were low single-storey buildings which seemed to crouch in darkness, standing silhouetted against the sun’s after-glow like an army of sentinels. And in the centre was a vast conglomeration of spiralling towers, turrets and flying buttresses. Tower after tower shone with the silvery sheen of the most exquisite gemstones, tapering into feather-like fineness as they reached for the sky.
Atreu gasped, unable to believe what he was seeing. ‘The silver spires,’ he whispered.
Eclipse – The Lost Book of Ascension
Eclipse excerpt: Chapter One
‘Run,’ cried the Watcher. ‘They’re coming again.’
The cobblestones shifted under them and several of the soldiers lost their footing.
‘Run!’ cried the Faemir again, and Hrulth led the charge towards the Maelir stronghold. All around them, buildings were collapsing in the darkness. Cluric had sheathed his sword to allow himself to run more freely. Somehow he knew instinctively that if this came to a fight, he would be lost.
Horrific bellowing noises, which he knew from bitter experience were grale, filled the night sky. This time they were accompanied by a droning undercurrent that was totally unfamiliar. Cluric didn’t look back. He kept his eyes on the street, watching for the potholes and chasms that opened up in his path.
The Maelir barricades were in sight now. Cluric saw the torches burning in front of him. More bellows vaulted into the sky, and he felt his shoulder aching as he ran.
Not far to go, he muttered, as he felt himself dropping behind the others. Not far to go.
The street under his feet buckled and he fell.
‘I’m all right. Go ahead.’ But Hrulth was already by his side, helping him up.
‘Are you hurt?’ asked Hrulth.
‘I think I bruised my knee,’ said Cluric, ‘but I can still put my weight on it. Come on.’
They dashed for the Maelir stronghold, aware that just behind them, Dusk creatures were pouring out of the ground and into the streets of Peleusar.
The rest of the patrol cheered as the pair finally reached the barricades.
‘You are fools,’ cried the Faemir Watcher. ‘This is only the beginning. Get the fires started. It’s the only thing that will stop them.’
Hrulth spoke frantically to the other battalion leaders and the orders to start fires were given.
As Cluric stared out into the blackness, he could see blood-red eyes moving like disembodied spectres through the alleys of Peleusar. The Faemir Watcher, the hated enemy, stood next to him, and he felt her fear.
‘You are the first Faemir I’ve ever seen who was afraid,’ he said.
She looked at him, shivering. ‘Am I also the first Faemir you’ve seen without a weapon in her hand?’
‘Then I don’t see why you’re so surprised.’
‘You said you were attacked by something worse than grale and Dusk-rats,’ said Cluric. ‘What is it that terrifies you so much?’
The Watcher closed her eyes as if she was trying to ward off a vision, and uttered a single word: ‘Wraiths.’
DirkStrasser has written over 30 books for major publishers in Australia and is an Active Member of the SFWA. He has won multiple Australian Publisher Association Awards, a Ditmar for Best Professional Achievement, and has been short-listed for the Aurealis and Ditmar Awards a number of times. His short story, “The Doppelgänger Effect”, appeared in the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology, Dreaming Down Under. His acclaimed fantasy series The Books of Ascension – including Zenith and Equinox – was originally published by Pan Macmillan in Australia and by HeyneVerlag in Germany and has been re-published by the Macmillan Momentum imprint, this time including the “lost” third book. His fiction has been translated into a number of languages. His short stories include “The Jesus Particle“ in Cosmos magazine, “Stories of the Sand” in Realms of Fantasy, and “The Vigilant” in Fantasy magazine. His most recent sale was “The Mandelbrot Bet” to the 2014 Tor anthology Carbide Tipped Pens, edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi. He founded the Aurealis Awards and has co-published and co-edited Aurealis magazine for over 20 years.
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