This is excepted from my 2009 book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, now available as a Kindle eBook.

Magic Realism

The fourth ring [of five I discussed in this chapter] of fantasy, Magic Realism (also called Magical Realism), produces stories in which fantastic things happen, often unexpectedly, in the midst of realistic everyday settings and events. These marvelous occurrences may be quite mysterious and capricious. In these stories, magic is more likely to act as an independent force rather than a tool used by the story’s characters.

As Sheila Egoff points out in her study of fantasy literature, Worlds Within (1988), a characteristic feature of “enchanted realism” is that, unlike in classic fantasy or fairy tales: “The [protagonists] of enchanted realism do not change the world; instead they themselves are changed. . . .”

In Gabriel García Márquez’ novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), the people of José Arcadio Buendía’s village are enchanted by a sudden onslaught of magical gypsies.

. . . whose dances and music sowed a panic of uproarious joy through the streets, with parrots painted all colors 
reciting Italian arias, and a hen who laid a hundred golden eggs to the sound of a tambourine, and a trained monkey who read minds, and the multiple-use machine that could be used at the same time to sew on buttons and reduce fevers, and the apparatus to make a person forget his bad memories, and a poultice to lose time, and a thousand more inventions so ingenious and unusual that José Arcadio Buendía must have wanted to invent a memory device so that he could remember them all.

In an instant they transformed the 

The inhabitants of Macondo found themselves lost 
in their own streets, confused by the crowded fair.

Then, in a passage which reveals another trick of magic realism, the tables of magic are turned. Before the gypsies depart, they offer the townspeople one last wonder. Inside a tent, guarded by a giant with a shaved head and a copper nose-ring, sits a large treasure chest. Inside is nothing but an enormous translucent block of ice, revealed to anyone who will pay to touch its cold surface.

This, too, is magic realism: the fantastic is transmuted back into the ordinary. Surprises, revelations, visions, and paradoxes are the coins of the genre. Everyday reality is magical and vice versa. In this back-and-forth trapeze act, magic realism offers the “Consolation” that Tolkien found in fantasy – the return home to normalcy – only here found throughout the story, rather than only at the end of the book.

In novelist Jonathan Carroll’s writings, for instance, talking animals, dreams, and strange apparitions mix easily with the mundane:

God’s office was nothing special. By the way it was 
furnished it could just as easily have belonged to a 
North Dakota dentist or some comb-over in middle management. The secretary/receptionist was a forty-something nondescript who told [Simon] Haden in a neutral voice to take a seat. “He’ll be with you in a minute.” Then she went back to typing – on a typewriter. God’s secretary used 
a manual typewriter.
Glass Soup (2005)

The story’s protagonist, Simon, finally gets called in to see God.

 A giant white polar bear sat behind a giant black 
desk across the not so large office. The animal’s size and 
that of the desk made the room appear much smaller. The bear was looking at a white paper on the desk. It wore 
rectangular black reading glasses perched on the end of 
its fat black nose.

The desk was empty except for that single sheet of paper and a copper-colored name plaque on the right front corner. The name engraved on the plaque was Bob.

God was a polar bear named Bob?

. . . Looking up, it saw him and the bear’s features 
immediately softened. “Simon! Wow. Wow. Wow. It’s 
been a lonnng time, eh?”

Glass Soup (2005), Jonathan Carroll

Diane Schoemperlen offers another example in her novel, Our Lady of the Lost and Found (2001). In the story, the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, appears one day in the corner of a writer’s living room, for an extended surprise visit with the single woman, the narrator. In the first chapter, the arrival is foretold in a string of odd household events:

Seemingly trivial, apparently unconnected, they were 
not even events really, so much as odd occurrences, 
whimsical coincidences, amusing quirks of nature or fate. 
It is only now, in retrospect, that I can see them for what they were: eclectic clues, humble omens, whispered heralds of the approach of the miraculous.
Our Lady of the Lost and Found (2001)

These fairly ordinary events are clearly not magical . . . or are they?

The kitchen faucet, which had been dripping for a year and half, stopped.

The toaster, which for a month had been refusing to spit out the toast (thereby necessitating its extraction by means of a dangerous operation with a fork), repented. That morning the toast popped up so perky and golden, it fairly leaped onto my plate.  . . .

The answering machine, which had been recording my callers as if they were gargling underwater or bellowing into a high wind, recovered its equanimity and broadcast my new messages into the room in cheerful, dulcet tones.

. . . The next day, Friday, I had several errands to run.  . . . There were parking spaces everywhere I needed them, some with time still on the meter.

At the bank, I got the friendliest, most efficient teller after a wait of less than five minutes.  . . .

At the library, all the books I wanted were in and shelved in their proper places.

At the bakery, I got the last loaf of cheese bread.

At the drugstore, all the things I needed – toothpaste, shampoo, bubble bath, and vitamins – were on sale. . . .

Our Lady of the Lost and Found (2001)

In a 2001 interview, Schoemperlen discussed the techniques of magic realism, its interplay of normal and magical.

Magic realism is indeed a type of fiction where the 
protagonists are the ones affected by the mysterious appearance of the fantastic. And that is what happens in my book. . . . the Virgin Mary appears in the middle of the narrator’s ordinary life and then takes part in ordinary life.

. . . I wanted to play around with the connections 
between ordinary and extraordinary.
– interview (2001), with Philip Martin

Magic realism crosses over readily into modern “mainstream” fiction. The term is used to describe the writings of Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Haruki Murakami, Louise Erdrich, and many others whose works are seldom found in fantasy sections in bookstores or libraries. Yet these stories are clearly a branch of fantasy. They deal with the same issues of good and evil, seen through the filtered light of magic, wonder, and belief.

In magic realism, sometimes the magic is for the good, as characters are overwhelmed by moments of beauty or passion.

 On her the food [quail in rose petal sauce] seemed 
to act as an aphrodisiac; she began to feel an intense heat 
pulsing through her limbs. . . .

[After eating] The only thing that kept her going was 
the image of the refreshing shower ahead of her, but 
unfortunately she was never able to enjoy it, because the drops that fell from the shower never made it to her body: they evaporated before they reached her. Her body was giving off so much heat that the wooden walls began to 
split and burst into flame. Terrified . . . she ran out of the little enclosure just as she was, completely naked.

By then the scent of roses given off by her body had 
traveled a long, long way. All the way to town, where 
the rebel forces and the federal troops were engaged in 
a fierce battle. One man stood head and shoulders above 
the others for his valor; it was the rebel who Gertrudis had seen in the plaza in Piedras Negras the week before.

A pink cloud floated toward him, wrapped itself around him, and made him set out at a gallop toward Mama Elena’s ranch . . . without knowing why he did so. A higher power was controlling his actions.
Like Water for Chocolate (1989, English transl. 1992), Laura Esquivel

In other stories, tricks trip up human protagonists, playing on their greed or other foibles, bringing the high and mighty face down in a puddle. Magic realism draws on the ancient mythic tales of Trickster, known to different cultures as Coyote, Anansi, Loki, Hermes, and so on. Trickster is a complex shaft-shifter. Terri Windling calls him:

 . . . a paradoxical creature who is both very clever and very foolish, a cultural hero and destructive influence – 
often at one and the same time. In the legends of many societies, it’s Trickster who is responsible for giving humans fire, language, hunting skills, or even life itself . . . but he’s also the one who brought us death, hunger, difficult childbirth, illness, and other woes. Alan Garner (the great British fantasy writer and folklorist) calls Trickster: “the advocate of uncertainty. . . . He draws a boundary for chaos, so that we can make sense of the rest. He is the shadow that shapes 
the light.”
– “Wile E. Coyote and Other Sly Trickster Tales,” 
in Realms of Fantasy magazine (1997)

In magic realism, the world contains both black and white, yin and yang. These stories often avoid a simple division into good and evil. They suggest that, as in the yin/yang symbol, each half has the seed of the other within it. The two natural forces ebb and flow, in a mysterious dance, achieving a balance that might be unclear to the story’s characters.

The line between good and evil is often blurred, as are the lines between reality and dreams, history and story, actual events and metaphysical truth.

Magic realists raise the question that Jorge Luis Borges asked: What if that which we believe is reality is some sort of dream? If so, who is dreaming it? Louise Erdrich echoes this question in the closing page of her World Fantasy Award–winning novel, The Antelope Wife, with its central image of Native American floral beading.

Did these occurrences have a paradigm in the settlement of old scores and pains and betrayals that went back in time? Or are we working out the minor details of a strictly random pattern? Who is beading us? Who is setting flower upon flower and cut-glass vine? Who are you and who am I, 
the beader or the bit of colored glass sewn onto the fabric of this earth? . . .  We stand on tiptoe, trying to see over the edge, and only catch a glimpse of the next bead on the string, and the woman’s hand moving, one day, the next, and the needle flashing over the horizon.
The Antelope Wife (1998)

In magic realism, abstract thoughts and concepts can become real. Something intangible is given visible form, like the pink cloud of passion in Like Water for Chocolate that pulls the revolutionary soldier to Gertrudis, or the concept of transformation, as when Gregor awakes in Kafka’s novel to discover he is a really big bug.

But absurd it is not. These are not the melted shapes of surrealism. On the contrary, magic realism often seeks to refine and express concepts more purely than in the murkiness of real life.

One writer suggested that Tolkien fantasy is inherently Protestant, with its belief in the profound impact of each individual’s actions, in assuming that characters can influence the outcome. Magic realism on the other hand is more Catholic, with a belief in miraculous transformation from outside, in mysterious powers that strike unexpectedly. In any case, magic realism is indeed fantasy, simply one in which the rules are often invisible to the human characters involved.

Are we the beader – or are we just a bit of colored glass, following a dancing needle?

[This is an excerpt from the chapter, “Types of Fantasy: Five Rings of Tradition” in A Guide to Fantasy Literature by Philip Martin (Crickhollow Books, 2009), which examines the significant differences between sub-genres of this literary field, named here as High Fantasy, Adventure Fantasy, Fairy-Tale Fiction, Magical Realism, and Dark Fantasy/Horror.]


Here are links to two recent posts I did on my Blue Zoo Writers blog, a site that focuses on the writing process.

Secrets of Goblins and Good Writing

William Alexander’s debut fantasy novel Goblin Secrets recently just won a National Book Award for Young People’s literature, and it’s a wonderful piece of literary storytelling. Goblin Secrets is a book that adults will enjoy as much as young readers. And for writers in particular, it offers many noteworthy examples of delightful prose and approaches to captivating storytelling.

Six Writing Tips from J.R.R. Tolkien

Are you a fan of The Hobbit? A Lord of the Rings geek? Perhaps you just enjoy a good story, well told.

For writers, here are some tips drawn from Tolkien’s work. Attention to these principles will improve your writing.

This is excepted from my 2009 book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, now available as a Kindle eBook.

Fairy-Tale Fiction

A third ring of fantasy [of five discussed in this chapter], in many ways distinct from the sweeping canvas of High Fantasy and the rollicking escapades of Adventure Fantasy, is the delicate canvas of the Fairy Tale. While in many ways a smaller canvas, it is no less ambitious; think of a miniature painting, which still contains an entire world within its borders.

As a branch of fantasy literature, fairy-tale fantasy serves up a cluster of psychologically rich stories. These deep tales are rife with domestic problems, dreadful challenges, and astounding transformation and redemption.

The term “fairy tale” is misleading, as only a small number of such stories actually involve fairies. The German term for such stories is Märchen, freely translated as tales of wonder.

Fairy tales, and fiction that draws on those themes, range from “once upon a time” bedtime stories like Cinderella or The Little Mermaid, rooted in polished literary collections by writers such as Charles Perrault in the late 1600s or Hans Christian Andersen in the 1800s, up to modern stories by Angela Carter, Jane Yolen, Patricia McKillip, Donna Jo Napoli, and others.

While fairy tales were demoted in Victorian times to the nursery, their original sources in oral lore were powerful, often gruesome cautionary tales. Even the fairies for whom the genre is named were once held to be dangerous, annoyed if crossed, and prone to taking revenge in dreadful ways. Early collections of such tales by folklorists such as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who collected Germanic tales in the early 1800s, were full of awful, cruel behavior, mostly used to scare children into being good.

Over time, the fairy-tale stories in published forms were cleaned up and sanitized. In sweeter renditions, fairy tales made perfect bedtime stories for the child, nicely tucked into the cozy bed, on the boundary between being awake and crossing into the magical world of dreams.

Fairy tales have several significant features. First, they tend to deal with personal transformation. People (or creatures) change in dramatic, often miraculous ways. The ugly duckling is transformed into a beautiful swan, the toad into a prince, the cinder-maid into a princess, the fool into a wise person.

Second, these tales are easily recognized by their domestic settings, close to home, full of familiar detail. But in fairy tales, these are homes or villages full of shadows and sometimes hidden malice. On a very personal, psychological level, fairy tales explore some invisible boundary between the safety of home with proper behavior – ideally a place of good parents, obedient children, a loyal spouse, a protective lord not far away – and what happens when some boundary is overstepped.

Capricious dangers abound, in the dark forest nearby, or force their way into the cottage or manor house itself, to lurk in dark corners until the wrong word is said or wrong deed done.

The traditional tales so often introduce dangers from within or very near to home: the careless or evil parent, the jealous sibling, the scheming spouse, the old crone or strange man at the door.

In some cases, the transgression is caused by our own penchant for foolishness, vanity, greed, or curiosity, to transgress a command or forget a promise, to open the door or talk to strangers or look into the forbidden chest or mirror or behind the locked door.

When the stories venture outside the home, they quickly leave the relative security of the cottage, village, or protective castle to cross the boundary into the dark forest, the foreign land, the wilderness full of monsters.

The old versions of Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, or Little Red Riding Hood were full of this legacy of terrible deeds, dark shadows, and uncontrolled passions. As Donna Jo Napoli said in an interview:

Fairy tales deal with the evils we know exist in the 
world around us and in ourselves.
– interview (2001), with Philip Martin

Today’s authors use resilient forms of these old traditional tales to explore modern relationships. Their stories blend fairy-tale themes of mischief, malice, and moxie with contemporary issues of dysfunction, alienation, disenfranchisement, poverty, abuse. The evil stepparent, the child bride, the wicked witch, are reinterpreted to expose social injustices and evil deeds.

As Midori Snyder notes, in modern fiction today, Sleeping Beauty takes on new forms “as a helpless 1950s stay-at-home girl, a bold space opera heroine, an oppressed time-traveling queen, a stoic Holocaust survivor, a sexually abused child, and myriad others.”

Jane Yolen’s 1992 book Briar Rose, for instance, tackled the subject of the Holocaust with a fairy-tale approach, using not only themes from the Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty story but also what Yolen called “fairy-tale logic,” which allowed her to imagine an escape from a concentration camp where in fact there had been none. In a 2001 interview about the novel, Yolen noted:

The idea for an adult novel on the subject “Briar Rose,” 
had come to me when I was watching the documentary “Shoah” in which the concentration camp Chelmno was described – a camp in a castle. Castle, barbed wire, and the gassing of innocent folk. It suggested the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” in a horrible way.

Even the Disney versions, those versions of fairy tales so popular with young viewers, often present a fairly evil villain. But the commercialized versions dilute the raw power of the tales, falling into a routine of sappy romances, comic sidekicks, and formulaic endings. As Jane Yolen pointed out in an essay, “Once Upon a Time”:

Cinderella, until lately, has never been a passive dreamer waiting for rescue. The fore-runners of the Ash-girl have 
all been hardy, active heroines who take their lives into their own hands and work out their own salvations. . . .

To make Cinderella less than she is, an ill-treated but 
passive princess awaiting rescue, cheapens our most 
cherished dreams and makes a mockery of the magic inside us all – the ability to change our lives. [The Disney film 
version] set a new pattern for Cinderella: a helpless, hapless, pitiable, useless heroine who has to be saved time and time again by the talking mice and birds because she is 
“off in a world of dreams.”

. . . Poor Cinderella, Poor us.

– Quoted by Terri Windling in “White as Snow: 
Fairy Tales and Fantasy,” introduction to Snow White, 
Blood Red (1993)

Fairy tales, and their modern expressions in fiction today, deal ultimately with choices we make every day: to help a stranger, face a fear, stand up to the powerful, or conquer our base instincts. The fairy tale often comes down in the end to a practical lesson, usually learned the hard way, of personal or household value – about the difference between foolishness and wisdom, cowardice and pluckiness, laziness and industry, dumb luck and just desserts.

They also explore the eventual redemption found in tales of wonder – the transformation or wisdom gained from fairy-tale’s school of hard knocks needed to live “happily ever after” in today’s uncertain world. Next time, we won’t waste our three wishes on sausages or make fun of the village fool or forget our promises.

While High Fantasy describes great battles to ultimately defeat great enemies, and Adventure Fantasy teaches codes of behavior to keep at bay the pesky and everpresent forces of chaos, Fairy-Tale Fiction reveals the closest evil, that dwelling within us, or within those in our immediate surroundings.

As Terri Windling wrote, a fairy tale “goes to the very heart of truth. It goes to the very hearts of men and women and speaks of the things it finds there: fear, courage, greed, compassion, loyalty, betrayal, despair, and wonder.”

We have met the enemy and he is us. Fairy tales have given us our most memorable villains: the jealous witch in Snow White, the stepsisters of Cinderella, the wolf of Little Red Riding Hood who takes the place of sweet grandmother. Are they not so villainous precisely because they reside so close to home?

[This is an excerpt from the chapter, “Types of Fantasy: Five Rings of Tradition” in A Guide to Fantasy Literature by Philip Martin (Crickhollow Books, 2009), which examines the significant differences between sub-genres of this literary field, named here as High Fantasy, Adventure Fantasy, Fairy-Tale Fiction, Magical Realism, and Dark Fantasy/Horror.]

In Lev Grossman’s delightful, if slightly disturbing, 2009 book, The Magicians, the author draws high fantasy’s sword from the stone one more time, but manages to sharpen and harden the edge to slice and dice a re-imagining of a fantasy world that is tougher, more mature, and more realistic than, say, the high-school world of Harry Potter or that of Narnia’s more innocent children.

Grossman’s modern setting begins in New York, then moves to a pastoral college for magicians in upstate New York on the Hudson. In fact, the literate students refer to both the Harry Potter body of fiction and to a Narnia-like set of book called the Fillory chronicles, Fillory and Further, a set of five novels for children “published in England in the 1930s.” In his fresh, post-modernist look at fantasy, Grossman manages to both playfully mock the conventions of fantasy, and yet to draw from it and add his own vision to that grand literary universe.

A central conceit is to seriously tackle the implications of magic on these young adults. What would these awesome powers of manipulation do to a person’s emotions, to his/her ethics, to daily motivation, to long-term ambition . . . if so much could be conjured and controlled? The characters at Brakebills College suffer a realistic cycle of doubt, exhilaration, ennui, insouciance, personal bonding and betrayal, all pulled down by the hedonism of booze and sex, the difficulty of taking anything seriously when so much is variable.

In particular, Quentin Coldwater and his colleagues struggle with the challenge of imagining any career after school that would have the artificial intensity and systems of expectations and rewards as the world of rigorous academia.

Grossman shows at least one set of parents, magicians themselves, who have descended into apathy, near lunacy, and he talks about other magical graduates with great powers and low ambitions that spend their time in irrelevant pursuits, working at hedge funds making easy money or randomly tinkering with magical problems of insignificance.

What is the motivation for a magician, if they don’t believe in a Narnia-like goodness, with Aslan to reassure in times of doubt? What if they don’t have the slightly narrow-minded pluckiness of Harry Potter and his buddies, ever fighting the good fight?

In The Magicians, the secret for genuine success as a magician is a difficult combination, and there seem to be as many who fail as those who succeed. Magic is tougher than it looks, especially for anyone who’s read the fantasy books — as have Quentin and his friends, as have we all — where stories fall into place, where plucky, good-hearted individuals wend their way through plots designed to challenge, motivate, and ultimately lead to success.

The “real world” of being a magician just isn’t so pat.

From The Magicians (p. 44):

“You don’t just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin. There’s reasons why most people can’t do it.”

“Which are what?” Quentin asked.

“The reasons why most people can’t do magic? Well.” Eliot held up a long, thin finger. “One, it’s very hard, and they’re not smart enough. Two, it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to do it right. Three, they lack the guidance and mentorship provided by the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. And four, they lack the tough, starchy moral fiber necessary to wield awesome magical energies calmly and responsibly.

“And five”—he stuck up his thumb—”some people have all that stuff and they still can’t do it. Nobody knows why. They say the words, wave their arms, and nothing happens. Poor bastards. But that’s not us. We’re the lucky ones. We have it, whatever it is.”

“I don’t know if I have the moral fiber one.”

“I don’t either. I think that one’s optional, actually.”

The moral-fiber part of the equation is the key to Grossman’s literary questioning of fantasy. What if it’s not all so clear?

Amazingly, he manages to let us inside the questioning, while not kicking away all of the parts of fantasy that we love so much.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

This is either just a curious coincidence . . . or . . .

I happened to notice that three blockbuster works of fantasy all got published, at least according to the stories told by their own publishers, when a young reader of the manuscript (or self-published book in one of the cases below) happened to recommend the work to an adult parent who was influential in the literary world.

One somewhat recent case was the acquisition of young author Christopher Paolini’s first book, Eragon (the first in an eventual four books in his bestselling Inheritance cycle).

According to the UK’s The Guardian:

Novelist Carl Hiaasen was on a fishing holiday in the area; his stepson saw [Paolini’s self-published] book in a shop, read it, loved it and showed it to Hiaasen who immediately contacted his publishers [Knopf, where it ended up on the desk of Michelle Frey, who ended up making a mega-offer to Paolini]. Paolini’s feet have barely touched the ground since.

A similar young-reader-as-advocate story is told about the publishing of J.K. Rowling’s first Happy Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S.). According to Bloomberg Businessweek:

It’s not every exec who turns to his 8-year-old daughter for advice. But that’s what publisher Nigel Newton did when he received a manuscript from an unknown children’s author in 1997. The founder of Bloomsbury Publishing PLC handed Alice a sheaf of papers and asked her to read them. “She came down from her room an hour later glowing, saying: ‘Dad, this is so much better than anything else,”‘ says the 49-year-old Newton.

The third example: the decision to acquire J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was similarly influenced by a very young reader. Here’s the story, from the New York Times:

Rayner Unwin took charge of the publishing house George Allen & Unwin in 1968 after the death of his father, Sir Stanley. The senior Unwin paid his son a shilling when he was 10 to write a reader’s report on a manuscript by J. R. R. Tolkien called ”The Hobbit.” The title, published in 1937, became a classic. . . . ”My father still has a copy of that reader’s report,” said Merlin Unwin, who noted that it included observations in schoolboy handwriting like: ”This is an excellent book. This will appeal to all children between the ages of 7 and 9.”

Out of the mouths of babes . . .

I do suspect this is more than just a coincidence. It says a number of things about how fantasy novels (and many other works of fiction) are chosen for publication. First, for the work of new, unknown authors, it’s a non-scientific, somewhat random process of luck. Many good works, undoubtedly—and perhaps some great ones—never make it out of the slush-pile oblivion for lack of an enthusiastic and well-connected advocate.

It also says something about the basic appeal of fantasy and how it often crosses the “intended recommended age-categories” often assigned to books. The Harry Potter series and The Hobbit are preeminent examples; both were marketed at first as children’s books, but have achieved a devoted readership among adults.

And of course, good works of fantasy (like many good works of genre-based literature) are much-loved by readers, who appreciate a good story and the richness of adventure, magic, and all that . . . but this may be under-appreciated by acquisitions editors seeking more “literary’ (i.e., non-genre-tainted) standards. (In the case of Tolkien, The Hobbit helped to established its genre. But at the time, many literary reviewers did not know what to make of this strangely appealing tale.)

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from these three bonanza-blockbuster tales of publishing serendipity.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

This Sunday, HBO will air the first episode of Game of Thrones, HBO’s take on the epic fantasy book series A Song of Fire and Ice, written by American fantasist George R.R. Martin.

According to an advance review by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Duane Dudek, after screening the first 6 of 10 episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones, he “was struck by the way the story expands like a sponge in water.”

Co-producer David Benioff jokingly referred to it with the tagline, “The Sopranos in Middle Earth.”

Indeed, this George R.R. Martin series is one of the bodies of work I used in my book A Guide to Fantasy Literature to illustrate the sub-genre of Adventure Fantasy.

Similar in many respects to high fantasy, the adventure version of the genre has a different core philosophy. Unlike high fantasy, which tends to elevate its story to noble Crusade or Quest, the distinguishing characteristic of this second great cluster of fantasy is that it embraces the notion of adventure for its own sake.  (. . .) The episodes in adventure fantasy are shaped mostly by the internal desires of their protagonists, rather than epic struggles between Good and Evil.
. . .
Adventure fantasy is driven by the core desires of its diverse characters and the situations their interactions create. As author John Marco said in an interview about his first fantasy adventure novel, THE JACKAL OF NAR (1999):

“I wanted to tell a multilayered story . . . but also wanted to create a unique world and fill it with diverse people, all of whom had their own sets of goals and problems. . . . I wanted to avoid the archetype of the strong hero and the evil villain. . . .”
– 1999 interview with Claire E. White, The Internet Writing Journal

One of the bestselling practitioners of adventure fantasy today is George R.R. Martin, whose lengthy books in his series, A Song of Fire and Ice, are filled with the goings-on of an astoundingly numerous cast of characters, most of whom would be minor in other works.

Martin admits he has a fondness for such minor characters and is intrigued by their unique traits, desires, favorite weapons, foods, songs, and such . . . a fondness he follows through hundreds of pages (800+ for the hardcover version of A Game of Thrones).

In a passage from A Feast for Crows (2005), the fourth book in his cycle (which reached the No. 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list), Martin describes a board game that might be a metaphor for his own adventure stories:

He had left her [Princess Myrcella] in her chambers, bent over a gaming table opposite Prince Trystane, pushing ornate pieces across squares of jade and carnelian and lapis lazuli.

. . . Cyvasse, the game was called. It had come to the Planky Town on a trading galley from Voltanis, and the orphans had spread it up and down the Greenblood. The Dornish court was mad for it.

Ser Arys just found it maddening. There were ten different pieces, each with its own attributes and powers, and the board would change from game to game, depending on how the players arrayed their home squares.

Adventure fantasy is closely linked to the patterns of comic-book heroes and fantasy gaming. These are genres driven by endless serial possibilities, with a focus on rules of engagement and the quirky and personalized powers of individual characters.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reviewer Dudek called A Game of Thrones a “complex and sprawling fantasy epic,” with, by his count, at least 92 characters with speaking roles.

This is perhaps the very point of adventure fantasy . . . it’s ability to spin out a seemingly never-ending series of escapades, based less on great issues of Good and Evil and more on the machinations of the players in the games. The George R.R. Martin series is an excellent example.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Here’s a new & recommended blog for speculative fiction writers, the Clarion Blog, “discussing the art, craft, and business of speculative fiction.”

Started this May, it offers posts with titles like: Is Your Lizard-Man a Close Talker? (by Kater Cheek). It also has guest posts from agents & editors, and offers frequent writing prompts/story starters. Stuff to tickle the imagination of any writer!

It’s connected with the well-known Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Based at UC San Diego, 2010 sessions start end of June. Too late to register for this year, but consider it for a coming year.

For more, here’s how the Clarion Writer’s Workshop works and why so many participants go on to literary success.

It’s a famous program; it offers the chance to learn (about craft and career) from the best writers of fantasy and science fiction. (For decades, Clarion was at Michigan State University in East Lansing. In 2007, it relocated to the San Diego site.) Faculty writers in residence for 2010 include Delia Sherman, George R.R. Martin, Samuel R. Delaney, and Jeff VanderMeer. From the workshop’s website:

Clarion is an intensive six-week summer program focused on fundamentals particular to the writing of science fiction and fantasy short stories. It is considered a premier proving and training ground for aspiring writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Instructors are among the most respected writers and editors working in the field today. Over one third of our graduates have been published and many have gone on to critical acclaim.

(I also enjoy a book on my shelves called Storyteller, by Kate Wilhelm, who co-founded and taught for many years with her husband Damon Knight at Clarion. Kate is the author of more than 30 novels; her book is chock-full of detailed tips for good storytelling, along with a behind-the-scenes look at the early years of Clarion.)

Note: Two other spin-off, independent workshops exist: Clarion South in Australia and Clarion West in Seattle, Washington. Founded by Clarion alumni, the workshops follow “the Clarion model.”

So check out the new Clarion Blog . . . if you want to connect with a high-powered community of writers with the right stuff!