Thursday, August 20, 2009

Rea-dying

Read since the last update:

Book: Book 25 of '09. A Short History of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James.

I picked this up in WorldCon and started it on the flight back. Any attempted history of the fantasy genre is an ambitious project, even if it includes the word "short" in its title. Amazingly, and quite enjoyably, this book does manage to cover all the essentials in about 215 pages of actual text. I'm much more of an SF reader than a fantasy reader, which was part of my motivation in reading this: to learn more about the history of fantasy and its most important works (beyond the obvious ones), and to get a better understanding of the relationship between SF and fantasy, as demonstrated through examples (not theory).

And boy did I get my wish, specially on the second count. Examples of all sorts more than abound. Every couple of pages contains half a dozen titles and authors, and as the history approaches current times and the authors quote Locus figures (460 fantasy books listed in 2007, for example, with 185 being YA) it's understandable that the most they can do is apologize for the numerous omissions and provide a few representative recommendations of recent trends and sub-genres, such as the New Weird. (With so many fantasy books being published, they quite rightly point out that a lot of them are "a great deal of dross": this simplifies their task a bit, but not too much).

The structure is chronological, with a special chapter in between the 90s and 00s dedicated to Pullman, Rowling and Pratchett. I found this chapter well-done, with James and Mendlesohn including publishing realities and other extraliterary forces in their discussion and helping to explain Rowling's success in these broader terms. They also observe that they are "fans of fantasy … who can't quite see the appeal" of the Harry Potter books, which I'd wondered about, and makes sense to me, given the ridiculously little I know about HP. The authors' perspective tends to lean a little more towards the British side of things, which I naturally found appealing and wanted to discover more about anyway, though on the whole I think they balance their catalogs admirably and include plenty of Canadians, Australians, and non-Westerns etc. in the picture. Edward James is a Professor of Medieval History and his expertise and enjoyment of the subject in the discussion around medieval fantasies shines through. There are a few instances where the authors slip away from the chronological, as when introducing fan fiction in the chapter on Pullman et al, but these are unobtrusive and easy to parse out.

After getting about halfway through the book, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on the tone, which is much more relaxed than author's previous academic outings -- this seems meant as a more user-friendly, user-focused historical reading guide than a true history -- but in the latter chapters I was a bit thrown-off by what seemed increasingly fannish airs. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and the flipside is a better understanding of the author's love for the genre and enthusiasm towards its best works, but it just took me a bit to get used to. When they note "We could quite easily write an entire chapter on Buffy, since we are both hardcore fans, but sadly there is not the space," it's endearing, but I'm certainly thankful they didn't!

With the numerous texts quoted, paragraph transitions and sometimes mid-paragraph transitions in theme can be a little abrupt, again specially in the latter chapters which cram so much in. There are other small inadequacies, like no mention of Koontz or Saul in the comments on horror and the overlap with dark fantasy. But these are all quite inoffensive, considering how much good stuff there is. Rather than trying to remember all the information, or even a part of it, this is the kind of text where mental placeholders work best.

And there are supplemental helpful tools: a chronology, glossary, a huge reading and viewing list (30 pages long!), and two indices. Anyone interested in a better understanding of the origins and present-state of the fantasy genre ought to read this delightful account, and can look forward to years of new discoveries based on the author's immense reading backgrounds in the fantastic.



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