Fantasy Soup – I like mine as long as it has swords and sorcerors floating in it

Sigurd and the dragon from WikiMedia.

Don’t forget dragons!

While my HEMA friends are debating whether there should be woman only tournaments, the Fantasy world is doing a little naval gazing… or should I say contemplating Karg the Nebulous’s Pit of Infinite Reflection?

“OMG! Failed Fantasy?”

What’s kicked it off is Tom Simon reposting his essay, Campbell’s Cream of Soup. In a nutshell, he accepts that premodern setting, swords and wizards are markers for the genre, but thinks a “real” Fantasy novel needs originality and proper world building as well:

We cannot now hope to exclude the cookie-cutter Fantasyland books from the category called ‘fantasy’. But I will make so bold as to call them failed fantasy, in rather the same sense that the Argonautica could be called a failed epic, or The Phantom Menace a failed Star Wars prequel. (source, my bold)

Failed Fantasy? Quick, get a UN mandate!

A failure many would envy…

There is this snag, and the essay itself points to it:

The Belgariad and its interminable rehashes make a fine example.


One finds quite a lot of this in gaming tie-ins. Ed Greenwood’s ‘Forgotten Realms’,…  is an enormous feat of world-building, far larger in scope and detail than Tolkien’s, and ought to be a masterpiece of its kind. But it falls short, because it is not based on any coherent vision of what a world could be like, but on the rules of Dungeons & Dragons.

So, Belgariad and Forgotten Realms are “Failed Fantasy”?

They didn’t exactly fail at being purchased, digested, enjoyed, shared, reveled in, did they?

You could say the same about Eregon , another series people are snotty about.

Sitting here in my poky walk-in wardrobe turned study, I have no objection to failing like that. Imagine…; “OMG I’ve written a Failed Fantasy! I think I’ll go up to our lakeside cabin and sulk in front of our massive plasma screen TV. Except first I have to answer this fan mail and take a call from a film producer….

So, what’s going on?


Could it possible be that what really matters is what IT types call the “user experience”? The… ya’know… story?

From where I’m sitting, the boring old tropes of Fantasy are actually a powerful toolkit for telling a satisfying story.

  • Build a premodern political system, and suddenly personalities matter.
  • Add magic, and knowledge matters  (not in a gosh, if we fund some scientists we might eventually get warp drive, but rather in a “OMG there are zombies on the palace lawn summon the Imperial Magus” way).
  • Give the hero a sword and the training to use it, and they matter.

So if you’re bored of Fantasy…

Really it’s no different from Westerns.

Nobody complained, “Can’t they do a Western, but without guns and shootists, and a different economic set up – I’m so bored of cattle barons and railroad tycoons?

At the same time – judging from the old Pulps – nobody felt they could read only Westerns, and that that genre should satisfy all their literary needs.

So, if you are bored of Fantasy, go read a different genre. The swords and wizards will be waiting for you when you get back.


Writer. Swordsman. CLICK TO SEE MY BOOKS !

Posted in Fantasy, Genre
10 comments on “Fantasy Soup – I like mine as long as it has swords and sorcerors floating in it
  1. Douglas says:

    On fantasy and what it “must” have: have you read “Into the out of” by Alan Dean Foster?
    It is based on Maasai rather than north west European mythology, and set in the present day. And, yes, learning is important. The story gives a lot of attention to the quality of the weapon and the importance of the weapon maker.

  2. After having read Tom Simon’s original article I have to say he comes off as rather a snob.

    To call cookie-cutter and franchise based fantasy “Failed Fantasy” is rather overly harsh. In what way does it fail?

    It certainly qualifies as fantasy, Tom does concede. It succeeds in that respect. Is it a genre bursting full of imagination, character and good writing? Probably not as it happens but what is stopping it?

    Nothing is stopping it and the occasional author has managed to get something truly great out of a franchise.

    Just because I am writing a Forgotten Realms adventure does not mean my characters are 2 dimensional and my plot is ripped off from Lord of the Rings. It’s perfectly possible to write a great and compelling fantasy story in a world where Men have manly stubble, Women wear chain-mail bikinis, Dwarves are grumpy and Elves hang around in the woods singing Jethro Tull songs.

    Conversely just because my setting stands above all others of it’s time as a work of imaginative brilliance does not mean the book is any good.

    Tom Simon in his article seems to set world building on somewhat of a pedestal. Now world building is an important part of any fantasy and can have a great impact on the quality of the final product.

    But it isn’t alone.

    It’s all well and good having a beautifully imagined setting if there is not story. A parade of dull characters can make the best built world seem dull.

    I consider A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin a prime example. I greatly enjoyed the first 3 books, considered the 4th one a bit direction-less and gave up halfway through book 5 (part 1).

    In the first 3 books, Martin took me on an epic political adventure through a highly detailed medieval world that was just strange enough to be believable but cool. His starting set of characters had a good mix of decent men and scoundrels who were all interesting (apart from Sansa). They all had stories to tell. Then Martin killed them off one by one, sometimes before the story was over, so by book 5 I realised that the only character I was really interested in was the Imp – Tyrion Lannister. So I would now have to either stop reading the series or wade through 4 or 5 chapters of filler before getting 1 of the interesting guy.

    So Martin’s world building had maybe less importance than Tom Simon suggests it should?

    World building is important to fantasy, but so is character and plot. There is no panacea which will make your book better and no poison which will make your book worse just by their presence. A good fantasy book blends all of these factors to give the reader a feel for the story and allows them to fill in the blanks.

    Tom Simon’s article reveals a little of the truth but hides more of it. Imagination is a hugely important part of fantasy but it is the imagination of the reader that needs to be inspired not that of the author. The only “Failed Fantasy” is one that does not take the reader to another world.

    • mharoldpage says:

      > The only “Failed Fantasy” is one that does not
      > take the reader to another world.

      Yeah. It think so.

      (I don’t think it’s quite fair to call Tom Simon a “snob”, though; I’m equally dismissive of Fantasy-without-plot. I think, rather, he has a passionately held viewpoint.)

      • Yes yes yes you are both right but I think you are talking about rather different aspects of the whole thing.

        HE was talking on a rather rarefied level of fantasy and its tropes and what is basically hack(neyed) to death and I am cheering for him, really, because I get so easily bored these days with a book which starts reminding me within the first twenty pages of a hundred fantasy novels I’ve read before – same old same old with the serial numbers filed off. Look, I will out myself fearsomely and admit freely and in public that I went through a heavy Barbara Cartland period in my youth when I devoured her romances by the boatload. But after a while… I just got TIRED of it. Tired of the fact that the Hero was always a brusque and disgruntled brute of a titled and ENtitled sod who was always saved by the gentle innocent naive Heroine (always a virgin, natch) at a Great Gothic Pile of an Estate – and only the names of the Hero, Heroine and Estate changed while the rest of it remained the SAME. DAMN. STORY. OVER AND OVER. There is only so much of that you can take. I think I’ve reached that point with EFP (Extruded Fantasy Product) and unless it has something new and interesting to offer me and if I get the first whiff of “I’ve read this book before” – sorry. On to the next one. It’s a “failed fantasy” for me.

        YOU are talking about commercial success, and honestly, there is no accounting for that sometimes. HOW “Fifty Shades of Gray” ever sold in the millions I do not know, but hey, it did. There are things that sell for no discernible reason at all.

        The thing that some people are passionately devoted to (i.e. meets your definition of “success”) are the same things other people recoil from (meeting his definition of “failure”) and the book(s) that bridge that for me perfectly right here and now are the RObert Jordan doorstops. I quit reading at BOok 3 because I was BORED BORED BORED BORED. Other people swear by it. Go figure. But to me that is one honking failed fantasy, despite all the enthusiasm it gets from other people.

        Takes all kinds.

        • mharoldpage says:

          Agreed. But I’m *also* saying that the tropes are tools. You don’t have to use them in the same plot time and time again. Your story can – should – be original. However, it’s OK to use stock fantasy tools.

  3. henchminion says:

    Actually, I think readers did get bored and frustrated eventually. Westerns used to have their own section in bookstores and they don’t anymore.

    On the whole, I think it’s healthy that the SF community keeps having these kinds of conversations, because it keeps us from taking for granted that the genre and its tropes will always be relevant to readers.

    • mharoldpage says:

      It’s a good point. However, I think Westerns were more constrained by setting than Fantasy. For example, James Enge’s Morlock books use hellaciously creative settings – werewolf civilization, anybody? – but still deliver the core tropes of individual agency enabled by steel and or magic.

  4. Taran says:

    Considering Tom Simon is self-published and has not attained the success of the authors he constantly criticizes, does that make him a failed fantasist?

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