Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My "Good Fantasy" Checklist

Have you ever read a book and though this book tickles my fancy in every way possible? Well, I just did. I received an ARC of Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick and LOVED it. Love love loved it. I'd like to put up a review right now but the book doesn't come out until April, so I'll have to wait until it's closer to it's release date before I post.

The reason for my digression, and the point of this post, was that as I was reading the book I kept thinking who wouldn't love this? It's so great... And I ticked off the points of excellence in my head. But it also occurs to me that what makes for great fantasy in my mind isn't going to work for everyone else. I don't know how that could be-- but still I must acknowledge that we all have different tastes. So I thought, what the heck, I'm going to put up my bullet points. The things I look for in a in a good fantasy.

  • Different-- But Not Too Different: The great thing about fantasy is that it can take us into new worlds and introduce us to new things. I grew up on sword and sorcery fiction with elves and princesses- and I'll probably always have a weakness for that. But familiarity breeds boredom and it's inevitable that authors are going to experiment with the genre. This often results with fantasy worlds with vaguely humanoid creatures that might have antlers or carapace but still speak the same language as human beings. Sometimes this works but I usually find it off-putting. The scenery can go off-the-rails too at times with floating cities and skies that aren't blue-- or whatever. I don't always dislike that, but it's rare to find an author that doesn't go overboard with their creativity. 
  • Magic-- But Not Too Much Magic: Most writers get this. But every once in awhile you get a book that bleeds magic from every page. Every character has some wizardly power. Or they may be a witch or a demon or something that can shoots flames out of their hands. I don't know. But after awhile the overuse of magic gets boring. It's like the last "Star Wars" trilogy-- the lights sabers aren't that interesting if you have a bunch of Jedi masters whipping them out every few seconds. 
  • A Character Should Know Their Limitations-- and Stick to Them:  Why does everyone have to be a badass these days? I have never seen so many characters who are experts with samurai swords in my life. Everyone knows as least two forms of karate and has been studying since they were two. They also look spectacular at all times and turn the head of every opposite-sexed character they see. Because it's so much more interesting when the main character is perfect. Only not so much. I actually like to worry about the main character a little. I want to root for the underdog and it's hard to do that when no one is average anymore.
  • Action With Purpose: One of the things that drives me crazy about some fantasy, and paranormal fiction is biggest offender here, is the tendency to have the characters blunder from one precarious situation to the next without any real direction. Often it's the female lead; the one with the snarky sense of humor who can't seem to walk into a room without shooting her mouth off and needing the handsome hero to swoop in and save her. These books are full of dues-ex-machina moments because there's no logic to them and the only way to pluck the character of their newest impossible mess is to think of an impossible solution. A good writer knows how to set things up so they follow a logical path and reading a well-crafted novel with a tightly woven plot makes me very, very happy. 
  • Complex-- But Not Complicated: This is a tough balance to strike. Even books I really like can venture into overly complex territory. I like big, epic fantasy. But it's hard to keep a story that requires maps and a list of characters to an acceptable level of intricacy. My personal preference is that a book should have a solid core of characters and not venture too far from maybe 5 or 6 main characters. Maybe that's simplistic (you can tell me what you think) but I have a hard time keeping track when the number gets too much higher. I also can't keep up when there are great gaps in time when a storyline is dropped and then later picked up. Though that could just be a sign that my age is catching up with me.
  • Take Time Developing the Story: This is probably the thing I loved the most about "Among Thieves;" the author didn't rush the story. Action is great when it moves the story forward. But there are times when characters need to be developed and the stage has to be set. That doesn't mean the author needs to fixate on every piece of furniture in the room when the main character walks in; but I do appreciate a few details to get a general sense of the surroundings. I like meeting the characters in their comfort zone and seeing how they relate to each other rather than the busy rush of some books that mistake action sequences for storytelling.  
  • Surprise Me: I love a good twist. But it's hard to make a sudden turn of events credible. It's really easy to fall back on clichés that have characters coming back from the dead thanks to some magical voodoo you just knew was going to happen. I like it when an author sticks to the human story and doesn't resort to magical trickery to force a solution. 
  • Be Consistent-- But Diverse:  Have you ever read a book that frustrated you because you couldn't get a handle on the main character? I've read books that described a character as brash only to have them back down from every confrontation. Another pet-peeve of mine is when all the characters speak in the same way. I read one book that had every character cursing up a storm. It didn't matter if it was a lowly soldier or a high-class matron-- they were all fond of four-letter words and it made no sense at all. Different people need to have different personalities. 
There's my checklist. If you read a review of mine, and I rave about a book, there's a good chance I was able to check off the bullet-points above. My list may look very different from yours. And there will always be exceptions to the rule. But this is generally what I look for.

What would make your list?

12 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I like your list. Matches mine very well. I really am getting tired of the perfect kick-butt characters.

M. McGriff said...

I found myself nodding my head to every point you made here on this list! I know if I'm reading a book that has a world that requires me to take notes in order to understand it, I'm turned off. I also don't want to read about an entourage of completely flawless and kick ass characters. I need at least someone I can relate to!

Blodeuedd said...

Interesting list. I do get the whole too much magic thing (and might have chuckled at that Sw saber thing ;)

5-6 characters..oh well Jordan did not listen to you there. I am so glad they have that list at the back of his books. My poor brain can't keep up either

SQT said...

I'm probably being unreasonable when it comes to the number of characters. Maybe I should break it down between core and secondary characters and bring the number up to a dozen. More than that and I can't keep up.

TheMoose65 said...

Your list is great. I have a recommendation. Read Abercrombie's First Law trilogy. I know you weren't too impressed with his short story in Swords & Dark Magic, but I think you'll be surprised at his novels. I was introduced to his works by the anthology as well, and I liked it, but it has nothing on his books. In the last week I have finished the first two novels of The First Law and most of the third.

His character's are well written, and have a myriad of flaws, making them quite realistic. Sometimes a character might seem to fit a stereotype, but as you see more of him/her they seem more real and less two-dimensional. A cynical, disfigured torturer that makes for one of the most memorable fantasy characters alongside a barbarian every bit the match of the infamous Conan (the barbarian, not the talk-show host) yet who is actually quite weary of violence. All in all there are several characters you will find yourself liking, even though some of those have some pretty bad qualities. It's definitely a world of gray and not one of black and white.

All three books have excellent pacing. The characters and story grow and develop, keeping a complexity that's not quite complicated. I'm most of the way through the third book and I still don't know who you can actually trust and who you can't, keeping a nice bit of suspense. Some things you can see coming, and others are a surprise twist, but always believable.

Definitely check it out. I put it off for awhile, and haven't been able to put them down, and I read a various selection of authors. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how well it fits your list, and I look forward to reading your review on it.

-Justin

SQT said...

Moose-- I think you have me confused with someone else. I really like Abercrombie and gave very favorable reviews of the first two books in the trilogy. I just got "The Heroes" and I'm really looking forward to it.

TheMoose65 said...

Oh wow how embarrassing. I only recently subscribed to this blog and I didn't realize that review was posted by Jim Haley. Sorry! I was just reading your checklist and thought that comment on Abercrombie's story strange, it was a fun story but not as great as his longer work. I can't wait for the Heroes, I ordered Best Served Cold before I finished The Blade Itself and I can't wait. Such a fun read.

The only thing about your checklist I don't totally agree with is the different/not too different point. I think some stories can be told that involve a LOT of imagination and are very strange and turn out totally fine. As long as it doesn't seem forced I think it's ok. I'm a big fan of The Dying Earth stories by Jack Vance, and that's a pretty strange/unique setting, with it's mixing of sci-fi and fantasy yet I find it works quite well.

What other fantasy novels/series would you say fit your checklist? I'd like to check some out.

-Justin

SQT said...

Moose-- It's easy to get confused when there are more than one reviewer.

I think the "too different" thing applies to fantasy more than sci-fi. Science fiction can get pretty bizarre before I tune out. But I need something to relate to when it comes to fantasy. It's kind of a magic vs. technology thing. I can deal with alien creatures in both fantasy and sci-fi, but fantasy rarely has the set-up where humans are venturing to an alien world that's magical and totally foreign. Some writers can cross the line really well. I think Adrian Tchaikovsky succeeds at that with his Shadows of the Apt series. It's different but I can relate to it. That's hard to find.

Lately I'm into zombies and steampunk more than anything. I think Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century series is great and I loved "The Reapers are the Angels" by Alden Bell. "Julian Comstock" still stands out as great fantasy to me-- though it probably should be categorized as dystopian.

TheMoose65 said...

Cool, I have the first two books of Shadows of the Apt. I just finished The First Law trilogy about 10 minutes ago. Awesome. About to settle down and read a little bit of Best Served Cold.

Sci-fi is definitely more off the wall, but I think something like Dying Earth is more fantasy than it is sci-fi, but accurately it's kind of blend of both. I have Priest's Clockwork Century novels as well (Clementine too) but haven't read those yet, although I hear good things.

Have you read any of Malazan Book of the Fallen? I liked Erikson's short story Goats of Glory in Swords & Dark Magic so I bought the first two Malazan books.

SQT said...

Moose-- I hate to admit it, but the Malazan books are in my 'pile of shame.' I've tried to read the first book at least twice and never finish. It's not bad, it just gets long.

Everyone tells me that I need to get through that one and keep going because the first one is the slowest and the rest are awesome. I know I'll go back at some point when I have the time to get away from my TBR pile.

TheMoose65 said...

Yeah, I've heard mixed things, mostly that it gets very complicated (which I can handle) and that the first one or two get kind of bogged down. We'll see how I get through it, I really liked his Goats of Glory story, thought it was a perfect example of sword & sorcery, where quite a few of the stories in the book weren't actually so (albeit they were mostly all still entertaining, definitely a fan of the anthology).
Started Best Served Cold, really enjoyed the opening chapter, and eagerly awaiting Heroes!

Jaedia said...

Totally writing this down somewhere just to double check I've ticked all of these things off when I write my own story. Pretty much spot on, nobody wants to read the same clichés over and over again.