Monday, September 06, 2010

Myths & Fantasy Fiction: Trying to Spot the Trends

The mythologies of various cultures and popular fiction are a natural fit. Early storytelling was often based on creation myth and those stories have had incredible staying power and it's not unusual to see elements from various mythologies pop up in popular fiction. I've never been particularly knowledgeable about where the creatures that inhabit my favorite genre come from as I was only acquainted with Greek mythology as a kid. And I really never thought about the fact the elves came from Norse mythology (at least that's what a cursory internet search tells me) as there has been such a huge overlap in mythical creatures in pop culture-- especially modern paranormal fiction-- that has elves inhabiting the same worlds that include everything from vampires and werewolves, to angels and demons.

But I have noticed over the last year or so that more books are popping up that seem to be picking one mythology and sticking to it. Not that they're faithful renderings of the particular myths that they pull from, as some are set in the modern world, but that they're acknowledging the roots from which they come. Greek myth has always been represented in modern fiction in a noticeable way (as the remake of "Clash of Titans" demonstrates) but it seems that now Norse gods are also making their way into popular fiction and not just showing up in comic books featuring Thor. American Indians are also getting some overdue love of their own thanks to authors like Caleb Fox and C. E. Murphy as they sit on the shelves next to new authors like Kasey MacKenzie who are putting their modern spin on Greek mythology.

I don't know if there are enough of these books yet to qualify myth-based popular fiction as a trend, and I'm not sure it hasn't qualified as its own sub-genre all along. But it interesting to try to spot the next big thing as one or two books can explode into a bona fide craze as we've seen with vampires and zombies.

These are the titles I've spotted recently-- and I'll be interested to see if they're the leading edge of something bigger.

The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan

All year the half-bloods have been preparing for battle against the Titans, knowing the odds of victory are grim. Kronos's army is stronger than ever, and with every god and half-blood he recruits, the evil Titan's power only grows. While the Olympians struggle to contain the rampaging monster Typhon, Kronos begins his advance on New York City, where Mount Olympus stands virtually unguarded. Now it's up to Percy Jackson and an army of young demigods to stop the Lord of Time.
In this momentous final book in the New York Times best-selling Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, the long-awaited prophecy surrounding Percy's sixteenth birthday unfolds. And as the battle for Western civilization rages on the streets of Manhattan, Percy faces a terrifying suspicion that he may be fighting against his own fate.

Zadayi Red by Caleb Fox

This magnificent retelling of a Native American hero cycle brings to life an ancient people and a time of magic. Dahzi is a child of prophecy, born with magical powers but also with deadly enemies who will stop at nothing to kill him and everyone he loves.

Publishers Weekly
In this thoughtful debut, a retelling of an ancient Cherokee myth, Sunoya, born under a sign revealing that her life would be either one of great blessings or darkness, sets out on a path toward becoming her tribe's medicine chief. When she is grown and a vision shows her people facing destruction, the responsibility to save them-at the cost of a great sacrifice-falls first on her and then, years later, on Dahzi, a boy she's rescued and adopted. Dahzi struggles with his heritage and typical teen desires as he fights for his people and eventually confronts the Immortals, the beings who created the world. Fox elegantly blends the old tale and contemporary fantasy without being anachronistic or plodding, bringing depth and humor even to often-clich├ęd elements such as Sunoya's spirit guide.

All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear

Campbell Award-winning author Elizabeth Bear takes us to the end of the world in this post-apocalyptic Wagnerian steam-punk science-fantasy. Muire is the last of the Valkyries, survivor of Ragnarok, and because she has lived, the world of Valdyrgard lives.

Publishers Weekly
Hugo winner Bear (Undertow) perfectly captures the essence of faded hopes and exhausted melancholy in this postapocalyptic melodrama based loosely upon Norse mythology. On the Last Day, the historian Muire fled the battle, leaving her sibling Valkyries to die. More than 2,300 years later, only a single city, Eiledon, has survived as the dying world slowly turns into ice. Ashamed of her cowardice, Muire now vows to keep the last humans safe, but as she slowly pieces together the horrific truth behind the magic that has kept Eiledon standing, she must decide whether it's worth the price. Readers will be captivated by Bear's incredibly complex, broken characters; multilayered themes of redemption; and haunting, world-breaking decisions. While stilted prose slows the beginning of the tale, its finale is both rewarding and compelling.

Ice Land by Betsy Tobin

A beautiful epic of love, longing, redemption, and enchantment in the tradition of Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon Iceland, AD 1000 Freya knows that her people are doomed. Warned by the Fates of an impending disaster, she must embark on a journey to find a magnificent gold necklace, one said to possess the power to alter the course of history. But even as Freya travels deep into the mountains of Iceland, the country is on the brink of war. The new world order of Christianity is threatening the old ways of Iceland's people, and tangled amidst it all are two star-crossed lovers who destiny draws them together-even as their families are determined to tear them apart Infused with the rich history and mythology of Iceland, Betsy Tobin's sweeping novel is an epic adventure of forbidden love, lust, jealousy, faith and magical wonder set under the shadow of a smoldering volcano.

From Publishers Weekly
Tobin's second novel (after Bone House) is set in Iceland, A.D. 1000, just as Christianity is taking a foothold and the volcano Hekla is growing restive. In this slick re-imagining of Norse myth, humans, dwarves, giants and gods differ superficially but suffer life's trials equally and are susceptible to love, loss, violence and even the weather. The central character, Freya, is an Aesir (a god), who is essentially human but for her ability to fly and her address: she notes that her kind occupy the space that men create for something larger than themselves. (In Freya's case, she occupies the tainted realm of love.) Among numerous subplots, Freya's story follows her quest for a powerful gold necklace, the Brisingamen, accompanied by a love-torn human teenager named Fulla. Tobin's rich understanding of the source material, backed up by deft historical touches—beds made of moss and skins, turf-roofed houses, earthenware cups—brings the narrative to life. Though women take center stage, Tobin sketches the thoughts of both male and female characters with skill. With an introspective dwarf, the god Odin and a fearsome band of giants, Tobin has this one aimed squarely at the Mists of Avalon audience, and she hits big.

Black Blade Blues by J.A. Pitts

Publishers Weekly
Pitts brings Norse mythology into the modern world in this amusing debut. Blacksmith, props master, and semicloseted ex-Christian lesbian Sarah Beauhall is struggling to master her craft, push aside her self-loathing, and make time for her girlfriend. Unfortunately for Sarah, not only is her favorite sword actually Gram, the fabled blade that once slew the dragon Fafnir, but an affably evil shape-shifting dragon and the semisenile Corpse Gnawer are coming to take it from her. Sarah soon finds her romantic life in shambles and her jobs under siege as she struggles to comprehend the responsibility that she has been handed. The final battle is twice as long as it should be and some of the coincidences are painfully contrived, but there's enough entertainment and romantic tension to keep readers interested in the planned sequels.

Titans of Chaos by John C. Wright

Titans of Chaos completes John Wright's The Chronicles of Chaos. Launched in Orphans of Chaos--a Nebula Award Nominee for best novel in 2006, and a Locus Year’s Best Novel pick for 2005--and continued in Fugitives of Chaos, the trilogy is about five orphans raised in a strict British boarding school who discovered that they are not human.

The students have been kidnapped, robbed of their powers, and raised in ignorance by super-beings. The five have made incredible discoveries about themselves. Amelia is apparently a fourth-dimensional being; Victor is a synthetic man who can control the molecular arrangement of matter; Vanity can find secret passageways through solid walls; Colin is a psychic; Quentin is a warlock. Each power comes from a different paradigm or view of the universe. They have learned to control their strange abilities and have escaped into our world: now their true battle for survival begins.

The Chronicles of Chaos is situated in the literary territory of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, with some of the flash and dazzle of superhero comics.

Demon Hunts by C. E. Murphy

Seattle police detective Joanne Walker started the year mostly dead, and she's ending it trying not to be consumed by evil. Literally.
She's proven she can handle the gods and the walking dead. But a cannibalistic serial killer? That's more than even she bargained for. What's worse, the brutal demon can only be tracked one way. If Joanne is to stop its campaign of terror, she'll have to hunt it where it lives: the Lower World, a shamanistic plane of magic and spirits.
Trouble is, Joanne's skills are no match for the dangers she's about to face—and her on-the-job training could prove fatal to the people she's sworn to protect….

From Publishers Weekly
In Murphy's oddly fuzzy fifth mystery featuring half-Cherokee, half-Irish Seattle police detective Joanne Walker, the usually feisty urban shaman and her psychically gifted partner, Billy Holliday, confront the Seattle Slaughterer, a cannibalistic serial killer who might also be a banshee or a wendigo. Joanne's beginning to appreciate her gifts of healing and Sight, as does her boss, Capt. Michael Morrison, but it's the anniversary of her mother's death, and she's still grieving the loss of Coyote, her Navajo mentor and boyfriend. She's delighted when Coyote suddenly returns, and less thrilled that the investigation requires her to travel into the eerie Lower and Middle World to save victims and confront the monster. Unfortunately, the romantic reunion with Coyote generates few sparks for this low-key installment, and the killer, who should be terrifying, comes off as a scenery-chewing conundrum.

Red Hot Fury by Kasey MacKenzie

As a Fury, Marissa Holloway belongs to an Arcane race that has avenged wrongdoing since time immemorial. As Boston's chief magical investigator for the past five years, she's doing what she was born to do: solve supernatural crimes.
But Riss's investigation into a dead sister Fury leads to her being inexplicably suspended from her job. And to uncover the truth behind this cover-up, she'll have to turn to her shape-shifting Warhound ex for help.

Norse Code by Greg Can Eekhout

Is this Ragnarok, or just California?

The NorseCODE genome project was designed to identify descendants of Odin. What it found was Kathy Castillo, a murdered MBA student brought back from the dead to serve as a valkyrie in the Norse god’s army. Given a sword and a new name, Mist’s job is to recruit soldiers for the war between the gods at the end of the world—and to kill those who refuse to fight.

But as the twilight of the gods descends, Mist makes other plans.

Journeying across a chaotic American landscape already degenerating into violence and madness, Mist hopes to find her way to Helheim, the land of the dead, to rescue her murdered sister from death’s clutches. To do so, she’ll need the help of Hermod, a Norse god bumming around Los Angeles with troubles of his own. Together they find themselves drafted into a higher cause, trying to do what fate long ago deemed could not be done: save the world of man. For even if myths aren’t made to be broken, it can’t hurt to go down fighting…can it?


Jamie Gibbs said...

An excellent selection. I'm fascinated how the mythology of different cultures can get into someone's writing, and I love it when authors stick to a single set of mythological concepts within their novel. I'm really interested in reading All The Windwracked Stars, there isn't enough good Norse fiction around. The Native American mythology of Zadayi Red sounds quite interesting too. What I would like to see is an author using Celtic mythology in their work, since it seems a perfect blend for a sword and sorcery novel.

SQT said...

Jamie-- I thought of including Juliette Marillier because she does use some Celtic myth in her books, but it's not as strongly featured in all of her titles. I think "Sevenwaters" does have more overlap with the fae (though I haven't read it in awhile) but not so much in the way of any kind of deities. She seems more interested in the human side (druids play into all of her stories) and some aspects of sorcery. So they have a Gaelic feel, but they're not as specific as I was looking for when I wrote this. I'm not aware of anyone else who is using it either... Which is a shame.

Budd said...

Boston has a chief magical investigator. I was aware of the detectives, but I had no idea there was a chief. A couple of these look pretty good and some have won me with their covers alone.

Charles Gramlich said...

Descendents of Odin. Cool. The native American tie in book also looks very good.

BStearns said...

Very interesting indeed. I would like to read something from Urban Fantasy, especially something Greek, but I find that they all either cover kids growing up or are really heavy on the romance. I want ass kicking badass guy kicking ass.

ShadowFalcon said...

I can understand the fascination with mythology, its a goldmine of ideas and amazing tales. There are so many books influenced by myth and folklore its probably I have to think that it must be a sort of unspoken genre.

I really liked Dan Simmons take on the Iliad and there are so many brilliant re-imaginings of Arthurian legends. Not to Mention American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Phillip H. Tang said...

Have you ever read Tolkien's (long) essay, "On Fairy Stories"? In that essay he goes in depth of a borrowed idea that all stories in the fantasy realm (myth, legends, and fairy tales) come from the same pot of soup. The bones of the soup are your source material (Greek Mythology, King Aruther, etc) and every author pulls stuff out of the soup and adds his or her own spices.