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Friday, March 29, 2013

The descent of fantasy

The extent to which fantasy is in decline can be seen in this list of the 20 Best Paranormal Fantasy novels.  If this is the best, one shudders to think what could be the worse:
3. Dead Beat by Jim Butcher (2005)
Butcher’s Dead Beat—the seventh installment in his Dresden Files—was a blockbuster book when it was first released. Not only was it the first Dresden Files novel to be released in hardcover, it was a clear indication of just how much the series had expanded to embrace mainstream fiction readers. The first printing sold out in a just few days! The commercial success of the Dresden Files paved the way for countless other noteworthy protagonists, including Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt and Mario Acevedo’s Felix Gomez.

2. Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey (2009)
An in-your-face fusion of fantasy, horror, and hard-boiled mystery. It’s Kadrey’s biting wit that makes this novel so unforgettable. His blunt and acerbic writing style makes for simply addictive reading. For example, here’s how he describes Los Angeles: “L.A. is what happens when a bunch of Lovecraftian elder gods and porn starlets spend a weekend locked up in the Chateau Marmont snorting lines of crank off Jim Morrison’s bones. If the Viagra and illegal Traci Lords videos don’t get you going, then the Japanese tentacle porn will.” Classic.

1. For a Few Demons More, by Kim Harrison (2007)
The fifth installment of Harrison’s phenomenally popular Hollows saga featuring endearing gray witch Rachel Morgan and company, this novel was the first hardcover release in the series and, at least for me, heralded its ascension to elite series status. With only two novels to go until the series concludes, there is no doubt in my mind that the Hollows saga will go down as arguably the very best paranormal fantasy series ever written.
Now, I like the Dresden Files.  They're good.  They were signed by my second editor at Pocket. But they are not great. Harry Dresden's character development was apparently arrested at the age of 15; the ineptitude of his interactions with women have gone from clumsy and awkward to "I am so embarrassed for the author that it is seriously distracting from the story." Kim Harrison's books are not terrible, they are merely mediocre. I have to admit, the Kadrey sounds interesting, but I haven't read it.

If the very best of the genre doesn't rise to the level of Agatha Christie - and it does not - there is clearly a problem.

The coup de grace, though, is the fact that Cerulean Sins by Laurell K. Hamilton, (the K stands for Krazy), is actually listed in the top ten.  I actually kind of liked the first Anita Blake book, back when she was a voodoo chick and vampire hunter, rather than the central figure in an ongoing interspecies orgy.  There may be worse books out there than Hamilton's, but if there are, I haven't read them.

The fact is that paranormal fantasy is actually much worse, as a sub-genre, than the Regency romances that attempt to pass themselves off as science fiction in skirts.  With a few notable exceptions, it is outright chick porn; the claim that it is fantasy literature in the same genre as Tolkien, Lewis, and even Alexander is about as convincing as asserting that Booty Pirates XII should have beaten out Argo for the Academy Award.

There are few things I enjoyed twenty years ago as much as spending my Friday evenings with Spacebunny, circulating through the shelves at Barnes and Noble armed with fifty bucks and a coffee.  But considering that these are the sort of books they have been trying to push on the public for the last decade, even I have to conclude that the bookseller fully merits its incipient demise. It's one thing to go out because technology has changed or because an increasingly vulgar market prefers television to books, it's another thing to do so while trumpeting the merits of The Nymphos of Rocky Flats.

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51 Comments:

Anonymous Stephen J. March 29, 2013 9:48 AM  

Now if they'd picked OBSIDIAN BUTTERFLY from the Anita Blake books I'd grant them a case. That is a genuinely good book: powerful, moving, spectacular, frightening, and says something worth saying about people. (Quite possibly because its primary emotional core is not Anita herself but her fellow hunter pure vanilla mortal Edward.)

But yes, paranormal/urban fantasy has yet to produce anything I would call truly great literature. Though I would not hold that against the genre just as yet; 90% of everything is crap, modern marketing has much less interest in sifting through the crap for the diamonds, and it takes time for us to know what the classics actually will be. Look at what stays in print for twenty years first.

Anonymous Daniel March 29, 2013 9:54 AM  

Haleg scit. I read the top 3 (thinking the Butcher one was Cold Days), not paying any attention to the dates. My anachronistic brain said, "Eh, so 2013 not starting off to be a stellar year. Still plenty of time for Anton Strout to get serious or something."

A few seconds later the obvious became clear: this is the all-time list.

Dead Beat? #3? Zoiks.

Then you have to realize: if the Laundry Files aren't on here, then they aren't considered paranormal fantasy. So, paranormal fantasy = occult romance. The fact that the least of Tanith Lee's works shatters the best on this list. I mean, come on. Kill the Dead doesn't appear?

This list is worthless.

Anonymous JartStar March 29, 2013 9:58 AM  

This is very frustrating for the fantasy reader as you have to look carefully at each book to see if it is a bedroom fantasy for women or a classic fantasy. I must admit I've mostly given up on the sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Anonymous harry12 March 29, 2013 10:01 AM  

I saw the title : The Nymphos of Rocky Flats" in italic and had to Bing same. Apparently it IS an actual book title and book!

Anonymous aVox March 29, 2013 10:07 AM  

the claim that it is fantasy literature in the same genre as Tolkien, Lewis, and even Alexander…
 
Why are you comparing paranormal/urban fantasy with epic fantasy?

Anonymous Daniel March 29, 2013 10:14 AM  

Why are you comparing paranormal/urban fantasy with epic fantasy?

Visit the science fiction/fantasy bookshelf at B&N. It is considered a subgenre.

Anonymous VD March 29, 2013 10:16 AM  

Why are you comparing paranormal/urban fantasy with epic fantasy?

Because they are both subgenres of fantasy. Also, neither CS Lewis nor Lloyd Alexander were writers of epic fantasy.

Anonymous Daniel March 29, 2013 10:19 AM  

This is very frustrating for the fantasy reader as you have to look carefully at each book to see if it is a bedroom fantasy for women or a classic fantasy.

When I was a kid, the Walden's kept Gor books behind the counter with the playboys, and they didn't carry P.J. Farmer and Piers Anthony's dirty books. Purience was a hard fought thing to track down. They are making it way too easy on the boys (and by boys, I mean spinster women) these days.

Technically, 50 Shades of Grey should be on this list: it is Twilight fan-fiction.

Anonymous aVox March 29, 2013 10:24 AM  

CS Lewis nor Lloyd Alexander...

Debatable. But in any case, why are you comparing two different subgenres and applying the results to the whole?

Anonymous VD March 29, 2013 10:26 AM  

But in any case, why are you comparing two different subgenres and applying the results to the whole?

Because the one subgenre is growing considerably, in part at the expense of the other subgenres. Every paranormal fantasy published represents one less science fiction or non-paranormal fantasy that will be published.

Anonymous Anonymous March 29, 2013 10:33 AM  

OK, it's a crap list by a critic with no taste and no brains. Any good paranormal romance in thirty years?

1) 'Heartlight' etc, the stuff Rosemary Edghill wrote under Marion Zimmer Bradley's name. I liked Edgehill's Bast books too, and I don't have the plumbing for this field.

2) Harry Connoly, 'Child of Fire', 'Game of Cages', is okay. Benedict Jacka's stuff is okay. Both might be better if they weren't warped by the rules of a mediocre genre.

3) Barbara Hambly. Anything by her is good, but she doesn't much use present day settings.

4) The first few chapters of the first few Anne Rice books. Were they demos for naive editors?

Expecting women to tell good war stories from crap is a waste of time, mostly. Expecting men to tell good romance from crap is a waste of time, mostly. But crap is crap.

Anonymous Mr. Barlow March 29, 2013 10:34 AM  

I used to love this genre of books but by the time I was in 8th grade I had read through all the early novels of Stephen King and Peter Straub. Since then I haven't read anything to equal Salem's Lot or Pet Cemetery or Straubs' Ghost Story. In the intervening years I have read many more of this genre but for the most part none stand out in my memory. I do like the Dresden series but it has become a bit tedious. I'm going to try some of the authors you ilk have mentioned. Any recommendations on which Tanith Lee books to try?

Anonymous JartStar March 29, 2013 10:34 AM  

Every paranormal fantasy published represents one less science fiction or non-paranormal fantasy that will be published

Is the ratio really 1:1?

Is the change in the market due to demand, or is it driven by marketing?

Blogger jamsco March 29, 2013 10:36 AM  

"There are few things I enjoyed twenty years ago as much as spending my Friday evenings with Spacebunny, circulating through the shelves at Barnes and Noble armed with fifty bucks and a coffee."

Harmar or the one by Rosedale? And (if you can say), what year would that have been?

Anonymous aVox March 29, 2013 10:39 AM  

Every paranormal fantasy published represents one less science fiction or non-paranormal fantasy that will be published.

That’s obviously not necessarily true.   

Blogger Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus March 29, 2013 10:46 AM  

Anything by that Theodore Beale guy, you know is going to be good stuff.

Blogger IM2L844 March 29, 2013 10:54 AM  

If this is the best, one shudders to think what could be the worse

I'll be disappointed if Metaphysical Chili by the incorrigibly eclectic Doctor Port Mantoe doesn't make the list next year.

Anonymous Stephen J. March 29, 2013 11:02 AM  

"Is the change in the market due to demand, or is it driven by marketing?"

Both; publishers market to what they think is in demand, and demand is shaped in part by what is most fiercely marketed.

Anonymous jack March 29, 2013 11:03 AM  

Its been awhile but, I too, enjoyed that first Blake book. And, even the second. Now? I remember starting to feel betrayed by number three and gave it up soon after. Too bad. I suspect that these days even number one in that series would have been left unread after starting it.

Now, the likes of Wardog and Qalabe dawn. Yes indeed. Unfortunately I have already finished both. Nothing left to do but wait for the next big Solenoth novel. Or, maybe, another Stephenson of the quality of Reamde, lets say.

Anonymous Gx1080 March 29, 2013 11:05 AM  

Testing a post from my phone.

Urban/paranormal/etc fantasy is the evolution of the White "Ann Rice's cheap copies" Wolf RPG games of the 90's, specifically the World of Darkness line.

OF COURSE is shit.

Also, lol at "interspecies sexual orgy".

Anonymous VD March 29, 2013 11:05 AM  

Any recommendations on which Tanith Lee books to try?

The Secret Books of Paradys.

Harmar or the one by Rosedale? And (if you can say), what year would that have been?

Har-Mar. 1995-1997 or thereabouts. We'd work out, have dinner at Khan's Mongolian, then walk it off at Barnes.

That’s obviously not necessarily true.

Nevertheless, it is true. Especially in a market where the total number of books published and books sold is falling.



Blogger Positive Dennis March 29, 2013 11:05 AM  

Long series have a problem as the main character can not get a real significant other as it "ruins" the story lines. The author must ask themselves, do I bring the series to an end, or do I eat next year? Tough choice.

Anonymous jack March 29, 2013 11:09 AM  

Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus March 29, 2013 10:46 AM

Anything by that Theodore Beale guy, you know is going to be good stuff.


Had to laugh. But agree completely. Even what he calls his early formative stuff. Why the heck hasn't someone purchased the movie rights to some that Beale guy stuff?

Anonymous VD March 29, 2013 11:10 AM  

Is the change in the market due to demand, or is it driven by marketing?

It is driven by what the editors decide to publish. While they are responding, in part, to what they think the market wants, they also have a number of other influences. For example, Tor Books is not going to sign the next Orson Scott Card; the only reason they still publish his books is because Ender's Game is their bestselling book.

But instead of trying to find the next Orson Scott Card, they prefer to publish the Catharine Asaros and the Jane Austin wannabes.

Anonymous scoobius dubious March 29, 2013 11:15 AM  

Is "modern" fantasy (viz. this urban romance stuff you've been discussing) a robust genre in languages other than English? English has a pretty rich Gothic tradition etc etc, but I don't know whether say the Italians or the Spaniards or the Russians etc have as big a sweet tooth for it as the Anglophone world, and since our pop culture is so prodigious, do they maybe just read all our stuff in translation? Or is there a big scene in other languages?

Anonymous VD March 29, 2013 11:27 AM  

Had to laugh. But agree completely. Even what he calls his early formative stuff. Why the heck hasn't someone purchased the movie rights to some that Beale guy stuff?

Meh, maybe Wrath is okay. I'd have ended Shadow differently now. I was approached twice about selling the movie options to the EW stuff but I wasn't interested. They weren't particularly compelling offers anyhow.

Blogger Dukemandarin March 29, 2013 11:38 AM  

>Now if they'd picked OBSIDIAN BUTTERFLY from the Anita Blake books I'd grant them a case. That is a genuinely good book: powerful, moving, spectacular, frightening, and says something worth saying >about people.

I ran out of road with her when they started becoming porn - if I'm gonna read porn, I'll look for something that's more honest about it. I did try OB though because a friend rec'd it and I thought she got more back on form with that one.

Agreed about Tanith Lee. Some amazing stuff - holds up years later.

Anonymous Stephen J. March 29, 2013 11:45 AM  

You know, it wasn't the pornification that threw me off Anita Blake; it was the fact that after nine books I just still didn't like the character very much, and she'd barely changed at all, except to become *more* bitchy and unlikeable.

(For the record, I don't define "bitch" as "woman who disagrees with me"; I define "bitch" as "woman who doesn't know how to disagree with someone without assuming -- and betraying the assumption -- that the other person is stupid".)

Anonymous The Baseball Savant March 29, 2013 11:50 AM  

Butcher's last book was brutal to get through. I could barely make it but finally finished it up. I don't know if I can keep going on that one.

Blogger Dukemandarin March 29, 2013 11:51 AM  

Yeah, I'd agree with that. I got tired real quick of the 'feisty' heroine generally in urban fantasy because they're always so one-dimensional. I thought the early Blake novels really scored on pace above anything else.

Blogger jamsco March 29, 2013 11:54 AM  

"Har-Mar. 1995-1997 or thereabouts. We'd work out, have dinner at Khan's Mongolian, ..."

So... not Fuddruckers?

Blogger Nate March 29, 2013 11:55 AM  

ok... Its not fair to call Butcher lame for Harry being a delta... When observable reality is... the vast majority of men... are Delta.

Harry being a huge pussy about women and sex... is in fact entirely realistic.

Yes. Its irritating. But its like complaining that people in horror movies are stupid because they go and try to see what the creepy sound they heard is. I have news for you... people are stupid. I had a house keeper that told me a story about hearing something late at night... and going to see what it was. Alone. In the dark. Without a gun.

People are stupid. Its not unrealistic to portray people as stupid. In fact... Neal Stevenson is unrealistic for not portraying people as stupid.

Blogger Nate March 29, 2013 11:59 AM  

Also...

This list is totally freaking stupid... Because Monster Hunter International is totally freaking stupifyingly awesome... and not only is it number 1 on the list... and it should be... it isn't even listed.

Morons.

Blogger Nate March 29, 2013 12:01 PM  

And I am not just saying that because MHI is a bunch of subversive redneck libertarian gun nuts from southern alabama.

I totally have other reasons for liking it besides that...

Anonymous Jill March 29, 2013 12:02 PM  

The Gothic has a long tradition in English society (as somebody pointed out above), but the Spanish jumped on the tradition way back when it was hot in England in the 18th C. The Latin American world later created magical realism, which correlates to our slipstream. However, it seems to me that most of the trash being published today is cut off from its literary roots and doesn't remotely rise to the level of the best Gothic fiction. It lacks subtlety and nuance. Granted, Walpole wasn't exactly subtle in his early Gothic works, but he was playing around with ideas, establishing a new way of writing. The books listed above bore the living daylights out of me (rather than scaring). I suppose, if you used a Venn diagram, this genre would overlap with fantasy or sci fi, but why it has taken over the speculative market is beyond me.

Anonymous joe doakes March 29, 2013 12:19 PM  

Hated the last Dresden novel. It quickly sold out because fans liked the series so far. Character development of the lady cop and the apprentice had me more interested in them than Harry and in Dead Beat, he turns out to be an unforgivable asshat.

When the hero annoys you so much you're glad he's dead so you can read more about the bit players, it's time to end the series.

Liked the Kim Harrison book, though. That series was still going along okay.

And Vox, not all Agatha Christie is wonderful. Tommy and Tuppence are morons.



Anonymous Darth Toolpodicus March 29, 2013 12:36 PM  

"I actually kind of liked the first Anita Blake book, back when she was a voodoo chick and vampire hunter, rather than the central figure in an ongoing interspecies orgy."

Ok, since Anita Blake has gone on to the romance shelves...I've been leery of even admitting to have read them. I agree, the first couple were decent, I hung on for awhile hoping they would turn back to "normal"...skipping over & blowing off the several 3-4 page sex scenes per book. The last straw was when Anita heard tell of a vamp with a crank the size of a 2-liter coke bottle. Seriously. Put it down and haven't looked back since.

Anonymous Jill March 29, 2013 1:14 PM  

"not all Agatha Christie is wonderful. Tommy and Tuppence are morons."

She was attempting Wodehouse type comedy with Tommy and Tuppence. She even dedicated the stories to Wodehouse. I've heard others disparage those characters, and I agree they aren't her best. But taken as comedy, I accept them as moronic.

Anonymous whatever March 29, 2013 2:19 PM  

Well if this proves anything, it proves that the stupid lower classes will work as hard as they can, at the most difficult and risky jobs, for whatever tiny amount more their masters choose to pay. Cause 50 cents more an hour than a burger flipper at McDonalds is SOMETHING.

Nobody can't be replaced. And damn cheap to. Those stupid b*tches are probably just glad to get their name on a cover.

And they are in every way the equal of Tolkien.

Is it funny now? Is the JOKE made?

Anonymous Asher March 29, 2013 2:52 PM  

@ VD

Why do you even bother to read fiction anymore? Isn't the entire notion of fiction passe at this point? Is Prometheus Bound fiction? I would argue that it is not.

Anonymous Daniel March 29, 2013 2:59 PM  

Is that the theme to Alfie I hear?

Anonymous Sojourner March 29, 2013 3:21 PM  

OT: But will we see a discussion of Bioshock Infinite here? I'm dying to see what the Ilk think of it considering that absolute treasure trove of subjects it covers.

Anonymous VD March 29, 2013 3:32 PM  

Speaking of world domination, does anyone know when SFWA votes are counted for the presidency?

End of April.

Why do you even bother to read fiction anymore?

It is more relaxing than reading non-fiction. It is not more entertaining than non-fiction, but it is a different, less rigorous form of entertainment.

Anonymous James May March 29, 2013 3:33 PM  

Hahah. I love that one commenter says this: "Wow...several authors I've never heard of (and I'm a public librarian who reads this stuff all the time)."

You bet your ass you've never heard of them. You will soon be able to marry your pick up truck but that truck is about the only thing not writing fantasy. Throw a dart into a book store and that's an award winner.

When we're young our dream is that everyone should experience what we did and make movies and TV shows from the books.

Well they did, but instead of making an awesome "Dunwich Horror" or Fafhrd they gave us Xena and her gay minion and 19 million zombie movies.

Be careful what you wish for. The mainstream entered. Vance, Lovecraft, Dunsany, C.A. Smith, were a refuge from the mainsteam. Where's a frickin' Ship of Ishtar?

I don't blame folks with mainstream interests - that's just the way the world works. But even the old Outer Limits and Thriller you can see on youtube looks like Shakespeare compared to this stuff, and you have as much chance of encountering a prose stylist like Vance, Lovecraft, Smith or Bradbury as you do of finding an ultra-feminist without mental health issues.

I'd bet money a female detective who's also a werewolf will be the next big TV show.

Anonymous RedJack March 29, 2013 4:34 PM  

I like the Dresden files, but they have gone the way of so many series. In short, I don't know if Butcher really has any idea of where the plot is heading.

It seems the goal is get darker and stupider.

Anonymous jack March 29, 2013 6:04 PM  

@Vox: It is more relaxing than reading non-fiction. It is not more entertaining than non-fiction, but it is a different, less rigorous form of entertainment.

You said it Brother! I like this and will, shamelessly, plagiarize the thought. I might even give attribution. Maybe.

Anonymous Stephen J. March 29, 2013 8:26 PM  

Powers, I had forgotten about, and I am embarrassed. Yes, some of Tim Powers' stuff might actually meet the "literature" test. DECLARE certainly does.

Blogger Justthisguy March 29, 2013 8:51 PM  

Oh, c'mon, Vox! Larry Correia's stuff is pretty good, and funny, and has lots of guns and kabooms in it. It also gets into the issues of marrying a woman whose Mom and Dad are murderous vampires, and whose great-granpa is a werewolf.

Also, before I read Monster Hunter International, I had no idea that the Queen of the Elves lived in a trailer park in Mississippi.

Anonymous Ain March 30, 2013 2:20 AM  

I've read the first two books of the Dresden Files. The stories are entertaining, but I've already found his interaction with women to be extremely detractive. Murphy is an obvious author's pet, and Dresden's inability to ever feel the slightest bit of annoyance with her makes him look like a fool.

Anonymous James May March 30, 2013 2:23 AM  

Monster Hunter International is like the children's Classics Illustrated comics version of Mad Magazine.

Anonymous Tarmogoyf March 30, 2013 9:49 AM  

I'm apparently the only person who still likes where the Dresden Files are going. I thought the latest was good, if only because we finally got some interaction with faeries. Harry gets on my nerves sometimes, especially the plot-derailing chapter where he decided to beat into our heads that BEING GAY IS A-OKAY, but I think he's still relatable enough for me to still like him.

That said, I am getting a little sick of Murphy being completely flawless. It's certainly not my favorite series, but I still rather enjoy it. Especially since Butcher writes Christians better than most Christians I've read.

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