47North, Amazon Publishing, Anti-hero, Classic Fantasy, Classic hero, Game of Thrones, George RR Martin, GrimDark Fantasy, hero mythology, The Dream Stewards, The Keys to the Realms, The Red Viper of Dorne, The Viper and the Mountain, The Well of Tears, Tor.com
My editor, Alex Carr, recently tweeted that my Dream Stewards series is “a return to classic fantasy and a step forward for the genre”.
In less than 140 characters, Alex summed up everything I ever set out to accomplish with my debut series. But then, he’s always understood and championed my vision. As usual, I’m a little out of sync with the current trends – especially when it comes to grim-dark and grey fantasy. Some people think I’m too old school. Maybe that’s true.
Critics often remark that my heroes are one dimensional because they are not morally compromised or ambiguous, or nearly irredeemable self-serving souls who may or may not have a moral epiphany just in time to save the world. They also scoff at my villains for being too recognizably evil and obviously motivated, but we’ll save that discussion for another blog post.
In recent years, the anti- hero has become iconic in fantasy fiction – and understandably so, to some degree. The idea that an every day person might, in spite of his or her lack of heroic qualities, do heroic things is actually quite inspiring. But even more recently, the trend has taken a darker turn. The anti-hero has devolved into a near-villain whose conduct is more often than not despicable if not reprehensible – who then experiences a moment of clarity in which he ultimately does the right thing, if only once. And more and more often, the anti-hero fails not only to win, but even to rise to the challenge. I give you Jamie Lannister (George RR Martin’s GAME OF THRONES) as a most obvious example. And of course it follows that evil overpowers righteousness. Darkness trumps the light.
The popular explanation for why this kind of fantasy is so appealing is that it is more realistic and reflective of the truth of human nature than the classic hero mythology. Many people see the classic hero as an archetype that is unattainable for them – so far out of reach it makes them feel small, while the anti-hero is more relatable to most of us.
But isn’t that more than a little sad? Is it really so unfair to hold ourselves up to a higher standard than we are ever likely to achieve? How is it heroic to lower the bar just to lessen the sting of failure?
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp – or what’s a heaven for?
I have had this Robert Browning quote sitting somewhere on every desk I’ve owned over the last 40 years. It is the motivations behind every challenge I accept, and an appropriate allegory for every story I write. To my mind, fantasy is at its very core an exploration of the unreal, the unexpected, the unexplained, and the unknown. To my mind, heroism a testament to ideals and aspirations. Of course story must always examine the dark side, even wander around in it a bit, but in the end the better angel has to triumph. Hope simply must prevail, because in reality, it so rarely does.
I’m a reluctant fan of Game of Thrones (the HBO series, not the books), but I watch it religiously because there is so much incredible storytelling going on. Last night’s episode (The Mountain and the Viper), however, has finally turned me cold. The Red Viper of Dorne and his righteous retribution were squashed, quite literally. And once again, a horrifyingly dark and disturbing force has dominated. As I get older, I realize more and more how broken and misguided and morally ambiguous the human condition has become. The last place I want to see this harsh reality reflected is in the fantasy I read. I am so weary of wallowing in the dark. Aren’t you?
As a result, I feel duty bound to offer an antidote, which is why I wrote THE WELL OF TEARS and THE KEYS TO THE REALMS. I’m not old-fashioned, I’m forward thinking. I am all for the tortured, conflicted hero, but most of all, I’m all for the hero – in the classic sense of the champion who recognizes right from wrong and chooses right even when it is hard, even when failure is guaranteed. Even if we are lost in the dark, we should always, always be looking for the light.
Recently, Tor.com posted a list of life-affirming fantasy books – it’s a great list, even though mine aren’t on it. Check mine out if you haven’t already (just click the cover images in the left hand column), and then take a look at this list for some more great reads: Looking For a Light at the End of GrimDark? Check Out These 13 Life-Affirming Fantasies