Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wizardry and Wild Romance

I always love finding a good critical book about fantasy. I love reading fantasy and I love reading about it. I love hearing what authors and established critics have to say about the genre and its craft. That said, how could I not read Michael Moorcock’s WIZARDRY AND WILD ROMANCE: A STUDY OF EPIC FANTASY? I really had to read this. And I did.

Originally released in 1977, Monkeybrain Books re-released an updated version in 2004. This book did not go on about the forgotten greats of the genre, it commented on the best Epic Fantasy of then and now. It focused on what makes them great, and noted that the things that make books and authors great changes over time. This is a true study of Epic Fantasy.

Moorcock begins explicitly with a warning in his foreword. He is only writing these collected essays from his own opinion and observations of currently available romantic epic fantasy, he is discussing it and not defining it. He was wise to do so. I always get a little leery when anyone, even experts, start spouting about what they think is great without explaining themselves. As much as I want to take their well-learned word for diamonds, sometimes I only see dust.

Moorcock’s discussion is separated into six different categories: origins, landscape, heroes/heroines, humor, children’s books and genre deviations. Perhaps these are the most important craft elements of epic fantasy? In each section, Moorcock highlights the authors and books that represent the best work in each.

Despite being discussed in separate essays, his opinion is the same throughout. He asks for more. More attention to the landscape of a story, more attention to the characters, more consideration of humor. He lauds the authors who do it well, frequently the same people across the categories. And what is more, he provides excerpts! I wish more critical work about fantasy would do this. Moorcock says something is great and then says look at it for yourself so you can see how he formed his opinion of it. Nothing explains the quality of the words better than the words themselves.

While he mostly focuses on the strongest examples of the literature, he frequently reminds that there are hoards of imitators out there, looking to get rich from an easy, formulaic story and diluting the good reads. These are the authors who pay little or no attention to the above categories. He occasionally provides excerpts of these as well, for contrast.

By the end of the book, Moorcock has shown a timeline of the life of the genre within this book. Beginning as riffs on the gothic novels and chivalric romances, squalling through Sword and Sorcery, finding a firm foothold on the Tolkienian other-world stories, and coming into maturity within the walls of urban settings. At each point, Moorcock describes the genre’s historic connection to humanity, be it reactionary to a war or a specific artistic movement.

Where will epic fantasy go after the city? Out to space? Or even further back, to the dinosaurs? One thing is for sure, literary forms frequently change, but good craft will always hold a book together.

this review is cross posted at Wandering around the Words