It’s sort of part of the package, really. Punk rock, comic books, science fiction and horror movies, and fantasy novels/games. It’s the stuff that gets thrown into the soup that creates guys like me. At least that’s how I see it, that weird wishlist of things from the backs of comic books put into human form with black t-shirts and too many thoughts about owning a sword.
Still, despite the fact that I really love the genre and definitely consider it a huge part of my web of influences, I didn’t actually read that much fantasy as a kid, when I think back on it.
I read Tolkien, but I didn’t really like it, too caught up in the language. I read and enjoyed C. S. Lewis, weirdly, I don’t know why, but I had all of his “Narnia” books, reading and re-reading them religiously (pun intended). Of course there were comic books, an inherited stack of Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian and The Savage Sword Of Conan from the 70’s that blended the no-man’s land nihilist fantasy of Howard’s creation with pulp insanity. I read King Arthur stories in a ratty Penguin Classics paperback a lot (I had a bunch of those, but that’s another story). I read a lot of Raymond E. Feist, who I randomly stumbled upon in an English-languae bookstore in a foreign country randomly (I still consider him a master and constantly go back to his work for comfort reads.) Through Feist, I found Janny Wurts and a few other people, but for the most part I didn’t fall as crazy into so much of the genre (which is vast, wide, and deep with both great stuff as well as a lot of shit) as I feel like a lot of others who are avowed fans of the genre did. I never read “Dragonlance” stuff, I never read any “Shannara” or “Wheel Of Time” books (gasp! I know, I know), and I never heard of any of the “A Song Of Ice And Fire” books until the TV show (I’ve since read them and they’re alright, but the TV show actually works better).
It’s weird to think of fantasy novels as intrinsically a huge part of me because of that, like I’m a poser in a weird subculture for a subgenre that catered to people who forever felt like posers. Still, they kinda are, and I think it’s because I think back on how some of the first forays I took into reading work that pushed me away from just male authors and cliched stuff was in fantasy, in particular the work of Robin Hobb, Jeanne Kalogridis, and Jacqueline Carey. Those three (Hobb and Carey in particular) were instrumental during my late teens/20’s as fantasy writers, authors I searched for.
Hobb’s “Farseer” trilogy was amazing, a perfect turn on conventional fantasy tropes in an arguably better take that Martin does (in particular the whole “bastard of nobility” thing). I vaguely remember seeing ads for the first book, Assassin’s Apprentice, in the back of other books I had, and reading her books about Fitz and his world, a complex world that led to dumb broken messy endings and broken people who don’t mend, who suffer and have to live with consequences, something that fantasy (and fiction) at that time, in my experience, hadn’t really exposed me to in that type of escapist writing, the kind of stuff I craved to help calm down my brain. Fiction was always about wrapping up loose ends for a story to finish in a grandiose fashion, and leaving those ragged ends frayed and unable to be incorporated into an ending acts leaves a heavy impression on someone who is constantly used to those types of complete endings. I loved, and still love, that there are no heroes in Hobb’s books about her character Fitz. The heroes are other people’s stories, hers are about the others, the people at the fringes with messy lives and no grand plans or huge endings. They’re about real people, as real as they can feel in a world with dragons and magic telepathy.
Then for some godforsaken reason I ended up in a B&N browsing the “fantasy” section and, fucking Satan forgive me, I stumbled upon the work of Jacqueline Carey, a frankly bizarre alternative medieval Europe that delves heavily into espionage, queer-themed BDSM, and anathema Christian theology. To this day I don’t know what possessed me to buy those first two books of Carey’s first trilogy of work, “Kushiel’s Legacy”, because I was probably mortified the clerk would look at me weird for buying what I felt was basically smut.
It kind of is, to be honest, like my exposure to Kalogridis’ work, which I felt was horror but looking back, is basically early vampiric smut that I threw myself into one summer when it was all I had to read (along with a dog-eared copy of Puzo’s The Godfather, which I found…weird, but that’s another story).
How the fuck did I read all this stuff, which borrows liberally from a long history of bodice-rippers and before 50 Shades of Gray introduced housewives to what BDSM actually meant?
Don’t answer that, the answers are a little to obvious and I don’t wanna admit that right now.
Anyway, going back to those books, these bodice-rippers, smut wrapped up in battles between Viking stand-in cultures and some sort of analogs for what I think are Lutheran warrior-priests, they’re…kind of groundbreaking, actually. Carey’s research kung-fu shows in a lot of the work, not letting what bogged down a lot of detail-rich fantasy happen where story suffers. Also, despite basically being softcore porn with swords and magic, there’s an interesting point to observe in her work, in that the offshoot of Judaism that replaced the rise of Christianity in her alternative-history world is a notably queer and socially progressive one, with a lot of thought (at least in my mind at the time) put into creating a faith that somehow put “have sex with whoever” at the top of “how we show our version of God we love him” list. And when I say “whoever,” I mean “whoever,” with same-sex relationships being a norm of her work, and you know what?
That’s probably the first time I saw that in genre work. It was in Carey’s trashy romance fiction that I saw it normalized, stripped of the “queer villain” or “foppish side character” tropes that fantasy fiction conventionally depended on. Interestingly enough there were also elements of queer nontraditional romances in Hobb’s work between the protagonist Fitz and another character (so not just some side characters), and while the world she created wasn’t the all-accepting fantasy land of Carey’s, it did deal with the fallout of that kind of “nontraditional” relationship and how others might see it, explain it, and care or not care about it.
Those two (three if you count Kalogridis and her “Diaries of the Family Dracul” series) were probably the last “straight fantasy” (no pun) authors I discovered just randomly pulling at titles on the shelves of a bookstore, a practice I don’t really do much anymore. They’re not even “old pulp” trashy as books, they’re just kinda trashy, and Cary and Kalogridis skirting dangerously close to the line “out” of the genre (something that actually helps those works stand out by not being bogged down by genre expectations). Well, Robin Hobb isn’t trashy like Carey’s “fifteen different words for bodices” trashy, but once you get beyond the stuff she does to advance and challenge her genre it’s still a whole bunch of other fantasy tropes, with fantastic stretches of magic and battles between grim swordsmen and plucky boys with wolf sidekicks.
Fuck it, I still love ’em. I love my trashy fantasy novels, the ones that, like so many other pieces of media, helped carry me through some weird times, a lonely childhood, and continue to be something I can go back to for a quick nostalgic fix, a form that I can slide into again like a sword into a scabbard.
I brought that original trilogy of Carey’s books from my parents’ house to our apartment recently, re-reading sections of it in bits and pieces. I re-taped the cover of one of the three books back together, the spine of the paperback long-disintegrated. Know what? It still holds up, in all it’s faux-porny romance goodness, complete with cliches about sword-fighting warrior priests and everyone wearing doublets, an article of clothing I constantly have to re-look up because I never remember what it is.