Adult Fantasy: Is There Such a Thing?

Video games, graphic novels and comic books and manga, and fantasy literature continue to share the same criticism from those who are neither fans nor creators: they are for children and/or they have no place in a classroom or in an academic setting. The fact that such notions continue to be made is a disconcerting atrocity; and yet, hip-hop continues to gain recognition and acclaim for its role in the music industry and in the rest of society. Pop culture is what it is, popular culture, but there is a difference between an ephemeral fad and a transcendent impact. All of these genres of various entertainment have succeeded in being true art forms, although there are some who continue to ignore the value of these works and what they mean to the fandom and the creators.  

            In the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal for July 18-19, 2020, there was a review in the Books section of The Nine Realms tetralogy by Sarah Kozloff. I read and reviewed all of the books in the series—both on my blog and for Fantasy-Faction—and, they are worth reading. However, the author of the review had more things to say other than praise for the book series. 

            During that same weekend, I learned of the review due to all of the retweets about what the author said about the series in relation to his personal feelings about the fantasy genre. I noticed that several authors, bookbloggers, and readers were angry by what was written in the review. Even one of the authors stated they were going to cancel their upcoming interview they had with The Wall Street Journal. Then, I saw who wrote the article. It took some time, but I found myself as annoyed as everyone else eventually. And, I’m still annoyed.

            Tom Shippey, the world-renowned Tolkien scholar, should be ashamed of himself. Writers, creators and fans of fantasy and other genres in speculative fiction have minimal expectations of The Wall Street Journal publishing anything with an open mind else besides economics. Yet, Tom Shippey presented a negative nostalgia of the fantasy genre, also known as stagnation. After everything Shippey has said about Tolkien taking fantasy to new heights—even though that wasn’t Tolkien’s intent—while writing the sort of tales he wanted to read himself, Shippey’s statement about The Nine Realms is an insult to Tolkien’s legacy—including all of the authors that were influenced by Tolkien—but an insult to Sarah Kozloff in which Shippey seemed to use in order to publicize his viewpoints about the genre. As a fan of The Nine Realms, the author deserves more praise than from someone who has been searching for Tolkien. Not only stating that “fantasy has grown up,” but also calling Tor a “sci-fi publisher” tells me that the quest for “adult fantasy” has managed to overlook Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb and Brandon Sanderson amongst numerous other authors as contributors to the genre. 

            The problem with Tom Shippey’s statements regarding fantasy is that after spending years discussing Tolkien, he neglects to recognize all of the fantasy works that came after Tolkien. Not to mention, Shippey made it sound like the genre has not made ANY progress since the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977. His beliefs on the genre demonstrate how other people—those in the out-group—continue to view fantasy as “kid’s stuff,” but to have a Tolkien scholar categorize which fantasy work is “adult fantasy” because that story reflects Tolkien’s “fantasy,” which Shippey spent his entire career hanging on to instead of admitting that the genre has continued to expand, to evolve, and to go beyond everyone else’s expectations. To say that Shippey is “missing out” on what “adult” fantasy has become would be a huge understatement. 

            Although fantasy continues to evolve and to be read by fans ubiquitously, the genre continues to receive harsh criticism, especially when compared to both horror and science fiction. Fantasy has gained more recognition because of the success of movies, television and video games, but to have the genre get identified based on age group adds another layer of prejudice to a genre whose progress remains unrecognized. People are willing to watch it and/or to play it, but reading fantasy remains to be an issue that needs to be addressed constantly. So, this all goes back to literature and answering the age-old question: Who reads this?

            Fantasy, or “myths for adults,” has been around since the beginning of humanity, going back to oral tradition. Even now, myths, legends and other folklore continue to entertain us through all styles and formats. Fairy tales are told and watched, movies allow actors and actresses to become those characters, graphic novels and manga and comics present non-stop illustrations, and video games give players an immersive experience. How is wanting to explore another world different from space travel and/or escaping from a haunted domain? Is it because space travel have become a reality? Is it because we all know what it feels like to experience fear no matter where an individual is? Maybe the issue with fantasy is that it remains open to interpretation. Maybe your personal fantasy world doesn’t match mine. Maybe, you wish to attend Camp Half-Blood over the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Or, you wish to go further and create your own fantasy world and share it with others who share your imagination and curiosity, like Tolkien did then, and what N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman and M.L. Wang continue to do now. 

            As for the concept of “adult,” “children’s,” and “YA” fantasy, we should refer to J.R.R. Tolkien and some of his critical essays. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford University—alongside C.S. Lewis—whose edition of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are still considered to be some of the “preferred” translations by (some) scholars. Maybe if Shippey recalled Tolkien’s professional works as much as his creative works, then maybe he would have remembered one essay of his in particular. 

            J.R.R. Tolkien wrote On Fairy Stories, and in the essay, he states, “the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history,” and “only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them…it is a taste, too…one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.” In other words, if children do not show any interest in fairy tales, then they are not interested in them at all. If an individual is interested in those stories as a child, then do not assume that they will outgrow that interest as an adult. Hence, this is why Doctor Who and James Bond have been around for over 50 years! And before you quote that infamous line from 1 Corinthians 13, remember Tolkien was a devout Catholic who created his own fantasy world and inspired millions! Yet, similar to comics, superheroes, animation and fairy tales, fantasy continues to be criticized as being “too silly for adults” and labelled for children. 

            Yes, Disney altered our perspectives of how fairy tales are told, but the studio continues to water (most of) them down. Only the young readers with enough curiosity and imagination will search for the older (and the more violent and the more tragic) variants collected by the Grimm Brothers, those written by Hans Christian Andersen, and others. Nowadays, those children can read Harry Potter and Alanna of Trebond alongside the books written by Rick Riordan and Holly Black as adolescents. Afterwards, as adults, they can read the stories written by Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden and Neil Gaiman. Then, they can (and will) read all of the “adult fantasy” that is not based on folklore directly. As for the maturity content found within (most) adult fantasy, let me put it this way: Shakespeare is required reading in many secondary schools, and many of the plays that are read and/or performed tend to be from the “tragedies” catalog, not the “histories” or the “comedies.” And yes, I just brought up Shakespeare in an essay about Tolkien! Deal with it!

            Tom Shippey is one of the most informed Tolkien scholars, but his knowledge and his interests are limited to Tolkien. The Wall Street Journal tries and fails, constantly, to present insight into other topics besides economics. The newspaper has more than enough resources to gather authors and scholars of the fantasy genre, but wish to limit themselves by delivering something that reflects American society from the 1960s. Jack Zipes and Elizabeth Tucker are prime examples of scholars of folklore and children’s stories. If you want to discuss how much video games have evolved, then read what Frans Mäyrä, Nick Yee, Mia Consalvo, and other game studies scholars have to say and what they have researched. As for scholars of fantasy literature, you can start with Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn and Nnedi Okorafor.

            Ironically, this essay was written and posted during Worldcon 2020, which presents the Hugo Awards to authors in recognition of their achievements in science fiction or fantasy works for (mostly) adult readers and are chosen by its (adult) members. As I await the announcement of the winners, I’ll be reading N.K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, S.A. Chakraborty, John Gwynne and other authors of “adult fantasy.” If either Tom Shippey or The Wall Street Journal are interested, then I can offer a galaxy of books for you to choose from; and, you will find them all to be magical and extraordinary. 

            The peculiar quality of the “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly), “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, Epilogue

Why You Need to Read: “Witchmark”

The Kingston Cycle: Book One: Witchmark

By: C.L. Polk

Published: June 19, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, LGBTQ, Mystery, Gaslamp, Military Fantasy

            “She gave no outward sign of her effort, but her Secondary’s knees sagged as she took as much of his strength as she pleased. I shuddered. That would have been me, if I hadn’t escaped. Nothing but a Storm-Singer’s minion, my own gifts dismissed as useless,” (Chapter Two).

            2018 was an immense year for the speculative fiction community. Several novels novellas, short stories, graphic novels, etc. were released, read, and enjoyed by fans and critics alike. In fact, so many works of the genre were released that it was difficult to keep up with all of the new releases. Luckily, recommendations and award nominations forces readers to catch up. That being said, I’m glad I got to read and to rate C.L. Polk’s Witchmark. This novel is one of many that I didn’t get to read when it was released in 2018.

            Dr. Miles Singer—the protagonist—is a psychiatrist and a veteran of the war that just ended between Aeland and Laneer. He is making his rounds when a man stumbles into the hospital carrying a man who claims he’s been poisoned. The dying man—Nick Elliot—calls Dr. Singer, “Starred One” and “Sir Christopher,” then transfers his power to Miles before dying. All of this happens in front of the man who brought Nick Elliot into the hospital—Tristan Hunter. Dr. Singer is worried that his cover is blown and his true identity—Sir Christopher Miles Hensley—is known to both strangers, one of whom is now dead. Dr. Singer and Tristan Hunter must explore the societal world of Aeland in order to solve the mystery of Nick Elliot’s death and what’s causing the hallucinations in the veterans at the hospital. It is revealed that Dr. Miles Singer is from a powerful family of magicians; except, he didn’t inherit the powers of a “mage.” Instead, Miles is a “witch”; he has a lesser power and it is believed, even by him, that all he’s good for is to be a “Secondary,” or an enslaved magical source for mages. Miles—knowing it was either enslavement, or commitment to a witches’ asylum—ran away from home and joined the army, where he used his healing power to become a doctor. Nick Elliot’s death reveals that Miles’ life is in jeopardy. Tristan Hunter is an Amaranthine, a celestial being with more power than any witch or mage. He was sent by his Royal Court to solve a mystery that is tied to Nick Elliot’s murder. During this investigation, Miles is recognized by his younger sister, Grace, who is both a mage and the heir to their family’s legacy, and Miles’ “Superior.” Grace needs Miles’ help to secure an election so that she can make reforms for Secondaries like him. Of the three characters, it is Grace who develops the most and it’s because of all of the revelations uncovered by the trio. This unraveling of political conspiracies presents the corruption and the fear that led to Miles fleeing his previous life. Yet, it is more than Miles, Tristan, and Grace knew about beforehand. 

            The plot involves a mystery within this fantasy story. Nick Elliot knew he was dying, and he sought out Dr. Miles Singer. In his last moments Nick Elliot says, “They needed the souls,” and transfers his power and his soul to Miles. Tristan Hunter is from another realm and he’s trying to solve the mystery of these lost souls. Miles, in keeping with appearances, attends a dinner in which he is reacquainted with his sister, Grace, who thought he was dead. Miles now has to solve a mystery, stay away from his family to avoid bondage, and make sure that none of his patients become mass murderers due to their PTSD. Meanwhile, sparks fly between Miles and Tristan, which is an issue. Not because of the homosexuality—the magic world is open to all forms of sexuality—but because relationships between mages and witches, and Amaranthines are taboo. The romance is as beautiful as it is described by the author and is appropriate for an alternative Edwardian English society. Even though this is a fantasy, the mystery is central to the plot of the novel. In other words, Witchmark is a mystery novel set in a fantasy world. Once this is comprehended by the reader(s), then the plot begins to make more sense and continues at an appropriate pace. Besides the romance, the societal world of Aeland is the subplot of this novel. The author wants the reader to know that the magic world is just as power hungry, corrupt, and prejudice as the human world. And, similar to other subplots in other novels, this subplot will not be resolved by this novel’s end but will become ubiquitous to everyone living in those societies. The denizens have to decide whether or not it should be resolved. 

            The narrative follows Miles’ P.O.V. Throughout the novel, Miles’ feelings and emotions about his past, his family his career, his choices, and his love for Tristan presents the narrative to be stream-of-consciousness. All of Miles’ thoughts, fears, and knowledge is presented to the reader. It is through him that the readers learn about the setting, the magic world and its rules, and the multiple conflicts. Miles being a victim of his family’s and society’s abuse make him both a sympathetic and a reliable narrator. The fact that Miles uncovers more of what has been happening in secret as he unravels Nick Elliot’s murder and the horrors that lead up to it allows the readers to have a mirrored reaction to Miles’. As long as readers remember that the novel is both fantasy and mystery, the narrative is easy to follow. 

            The style of writing C.L. Polk uses makes her debut novel captivating. First, incorporating PTSD in the veterans of the war provides realism to the readers. Miles being a psychiatrist during an era in which both the medical community and public society chastised such notions surrounding mental health and war veterans is commendable. Next, magic systems and hierarchy are part of both the plot and the mystery in this story. Secondaries being seen as a source for magic for mages provides a different outlook on magic and its societal norms. Polk’s tone of this “magic system” reflects English history and how they always felt they had to conquer another group of people in order to feel powerful. The mood within the novel illustrate why Miles—and other Secondaries—fled their homes. This magic world is as corrupt and stringent as ours, but with harsher abuses of power. Last, Polk’s writing is as much of a political statement as it is an immersive fantasy story. And, magical gifts are as essential as the witch, or the mage who wields it.

            The appeal surrounding Witchmark is well-deserved. Polk does an amazing job of combining history, psychology, mystery and romance into this all-around fantasy novel. It’s been nominated for several literary awards including the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 2019 Lambda Literary, or Lammy, Award for Best LGBTQ SF/F/Horror (Book). This lets speculative fiction fans know that this book should be read. The follow-up to Witchmark, Stormsong, will pick up where the last novel left off. This will let readers—who are interested—know whether or not the author will build-up on her world. I hope she does because it will let us know what happens next. Witchmark is an amazing addition to the literary canon! 

            C.L. Polk’s debut novel is a multi-genre text that can be read and enjoyed by readers, and not just fantasy fans. Witchmark provides a beautiful romance readers of all sexualities can relate to including the numerous mentions of marriage. The balance between fantasy and mystery presents Witchmark as a unique reading experience to everyone who reads it. The characters, the plot, the narrative, the setting, and the style fit together as you continue reading the story. You will find this book to be as enjoyable as I did, with the reminder that magic is what the user makes of it.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!