Fantasy books are like music

It struck me recently as I was deciding what to read next, that it was like deciding what music to listen to next.

Should I read / listen to something new and modern, or go for a well-known classic? Something to relax into or feel stimulated by?

For example, if Tolkien is to Mozart as David Gemmell is to Led Zeppelin, what music fits Brandon Sanderson?

MozartJRR Tolkien

Tom Bombadil – the terrible secret?

I’m a life-long Tolkien fan, but not one that bemoans the adaptations for the films – different perspectives can be stimulating.JRR Tolkien

So  Oldest and Fatherless: The Terrible Secret of Tom Bombadil  was really interesting – thanks to my son for drawing my attention to it.

I don’t agree with the interpretation of Tom Bombadil as an evil force and don’t think Tolkien intended this either (nor does the writer). I saw Bombadil as a wild force, completely unconcerned with other people, and to be honest I didn’t really miss him in the films. But fantasy is about ‘what-ifs?’ and this post develops one of the great ‘what-ifs?’ of all time (Lord of the Rings) along a new direction (for me at least). It’s intriguing to consider this speculation and the comments it generated. And though I’m not convinced, it is a clever and very convincing argument.

Imagine what it would be like to discuss this with Tolkien himself over a pint of beer whilst sitting in front of a log fire…

Today is Tolkien reading Day!


Today is Tolkien reading Day!

The Tolkien Society says

“Tolkien Reading Day is an international event held on 25 March – the day of the destruction of the One Ring – each year. It is held to promote interest in the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien, with many local groups putting on events at local library and book-stores.”

Reading The Lord of the Rings (the first time) as a young teenager was inspirational – it had a lasting effect that is still with me now (a few years on, let’s not be too specific). Reading, writing, nature, nobility of spirit, morality, strength of character – all hugely important aspects of life Tolkien touches still, long after he left us.

JRR Tolkien
JRR Tolkien

I love that the theme this year according to the Society is ‘hope‘ (I missed that above). He managed to take his characters and readers to places of such despair – but there was always hope that somehow shined through.

Taking fantasy seriously.

cliveanthony smallEver noticed a speculative element in a book being treated in a cursory manner, or not taken too seriously? I have and it’s a problem for me. Fantasy and science fiction books are my favourite reads and are hugely popular with many – but obviously are not to everyone’s taste. So is it good news when a mainstream author dabbles in fantasy or sci-fi? In theory yes, for example bringing some wider audiences along and reducing the stigma, but in practice I’d say it doesn’t always work.

For me when an author doesn’t take the fantasy element seriously enough it can damage the story’s credibility overall. Credibility in fantasy? Absolutely – I would say it is even more important than in contemporary fiction. Fantasy is a medium for what-ifs, but that doesn’t work if the characters are not believable, or if the make-believe world is poorly imagined. For example you might say it is relatively easy to set any story in a dystopian world to give it a twist, but is it so straightforward? I loved Ursula K Le Guin’s recent review in the Guardian (On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee) where she addressed this issue excellently. Although I haven’t read the book she reviewed, I found myself cheering as I read her words.

Perdido Street Station (New Crobuzon, #1)

Contrast this dabbling with the skilful writing of China Miéville for example. He is able to hop genres and craft fantasy that if you described it out of context would sound preposterously unbelievable. And yet he achieves highly credible and thoroughly engaging stories. I found that giant moth creatures sucking out sentience from people was highly believable, because they were embedded in a great story and written in a way that made you somehow unable to doubt it.

Tolkien was a master of course – everyone knows Middle Earth exists.

Stephen King is another example, topiary hedge creatures moving when you aren’t looking – absurd mentioned here and yet in The Shining it becomes chilling. Oh and Peter V Brett convinced me that demons rise at night, I had no time to doubt it in a such a believable world filled with scintillating action scenes.

So inspired by these examples I have a plea in two parts:

Let’s take fantasy seriously

      • as writers because it is not just something to spice up a story or appeal to a different audience
      • as readers because it can be so immensely rewarding to suspend that disbelief!


I’ve deliberately avoided negative examples above (apologies to Chang-rae Lee) but would love to hear more positive examples of authors who make you believe irrational things….