Tag Archives: fantasy

Warrior. Iconoclast. Unicorn.

botfUnicorn stories.  The topic seems geared towards wish-fulfillment for little girls, a more fantastical rendition of the “horsey” books so popular in the 1980s.  As a child I consumed mountains of these books, about both horses and unicorns, until I stumbled across a completely different animal:  Birth of the Firebringer by Meredith Ann Pierce.

This is not a story about what it’s like to ride a unicorn.  This is a story about what it’s like to be one.

From the first page I was catapulted into a world unlike any I’d ever imagined.  There are no human characters in this book.  The unicorns of the Vale are a people, a culture unto themselves (though notably not the only unicorn culture), and the narration is sprinkled with examples of their religion, their storytelling, their singing.  The main character, Jan, is torn between a desperate desire to win the good regard of his father the prince, and to follow his own heart, even when it conflicted with his people’s traditions and teachings.  This conflict leads him to question everything he was raised to believe:  about his faith, his people’s history, and his destiny.

These unicorns don’t lounge about in meadows waiting for beautiful maidens to happen by.  Their story is one of struggle:  driven from their homeland by the wyverns, they settled in a Vale across the Great Grass Plain.  As Birth of the Firebringer opens, their numbers have grown and they await the coming of the prophesized Firebringer, who will lead an army back to their ancestral lands to reclaim what is theirs.

Pierce layers the narrative with hints that the unicorns’ version of history might not be as true as Jan has been taught to believe.  The legends, for example, always describe the Vale as “empty” when the unicorns arrived.  Later, Jan will realize that the Vale was a hunting ground for the gryphon clans, and when the unicorns invaded and drove out the native game, the gryphons, as a people, suffered.  I still remember the shock of realizing, along with Jan, that the antagonistic gryphons might actually have a legitimate reason for the attacks they launched against the Vale–something beyond a thirst for cruelty.

firebringer1I was thunderstruck.  And I wanted to tell stories like that.  My play with My Little Ponies changed from saddles and bridles and combing hair into epic quests and wars against dragons, incorporating world-building, history and mythology, involving prophecy and politics and revelations.  Unicorns were serious business.  I no longer wanted to be a princess mounted on a unicorn.  I wanted to see a world through a unicorn’s eyes.

I was an adult before I realized that Birth of the Firebringer was in fact the first in a trilogy.  Dark Moon addresses the question of humanity, previously only hinted at in Firebringer — an alien and powerful species that sees the unicorns as fabulous beasts.  The Son of Summer Stars brings prophecies to fulfillment in a way no one imagined, and takes Jan from youth into adulthood.

The Firebringer Trilogy is classed as young adult fantasy, but reading the last two books as an adult, I have no reservations about recommending them to other adults.  The story remains powerful, and the language beautiful.  Pierce chooses words to enhance the conceit that the reader, along with Jan, is listening to a unicorn storyteller’s tale; and yet the tale remains easy-to-follow rather than getting bogged down by its own description.

If you’re ready to leave your humanity behind and take a look at the world from the point of view of a creature who is utterly unlike you – if you are ready to question your leaders, your faith, and your role in the world – if you are prepared to set aside the preconception that unicorns are fluff for little girls – then enter the world of Meredith Ann Pierce’s Firebringer Trilogy.

The Wonder of Fantasy

Gust Post by David D. Levine

David D. Levine Fantasy is, of course, an enormous genre. Definitions of fantasy vary, but the key concept that distinguishes fantasy from all other forms of fiction is the presence of at least one element that does not exist in the real world. By this broad definition, all of science fiction is a subset of fantasy, and indeed many stories usually described as horror, thriller, mystery, and even literature can be classified as fantasies of one sort or another, because they contain references to supernatural phenomena, nonexistent technologies, or impossible materials. But if you’re trying to write and sell fiction under the rubric of “fantasy,” the mere presence of a fantastic element is not enough; it needs to be integral to the story.

If you took the fantastic element away from your story, could it still take place in fundamentally the same way? Would the characters be the same people, would they do the same things, would they have the same priorities? If so, then many fantasy readers would say that the story is not really a fantasy. You need to think through the implications of the fantastic element and consider how its presence would affect every person, thing, and event in the story.

Even a well-integrated fantastic element is still not sufficient, though: the story also must have a fantasy “flavor” — by which I mean its vocabulary, diction, tone, pace, and conventions of character and plot.  However, because fantasy is such a large genre, it contains many distinct subgenres, each of which has a flavor of its own. Epic fantasies, for example, are painted on a large canvas; they typically have a large number of point-of-view characters and very high stakes. The setting is often medieval or pseudo-medieval and the prose, both dialogue and description, may be somewhat archaic and flowery.  Urban fantasy, on the other hand, is gritty and personal. The setting and language are typically contemporary and, even if the fate of the world is at stake, the characters’ personal issues take center stage. (These descriptions are crude and exaggerated, of course; a successful epic or urban fantasy is far more sophisticated than this sort of two-sentence sketch can convey.)

The various subgenres of fantasy do share a few characteristics.  All fantasy readers, I would say, expect and desire the extraordinary in their fiction. They want not only the well-drawn characters, coherent plots, strong emotions, vivid descriptions, and insight into the human condition they could get from non-fantastic literature, they also want a “sense of wonder” — an experience of something outside the mundane world. This is often provided by highly evocative descriptions of the story’s fantastic elements, whether they are settings, characters, or ideas. But “evocative” need not mean “overblown” — a few carefully-chosen but commonplace words can provide as much of a sense of magic and mystery as a paragraph of purple prose.

One common tool in the fantasy writer’s toolbox is “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”  If, early in the story, you describe the character’s world (whether fantastic or mundane) with sufficient carefully-chosen telling details that the reader can easily and thoroughly envision it, you create a sense of trust in the reader that will then pay off when you later introduce a fantastic element. The reader must believe in the laboratory before she will believe in the monster that emerges from it.

Fantasy readers today generally expect fairly tight control of point of view (PoV), with a limited number of PoV characters and crisply demarcated PoV shifts. The more fluid PoV used in many romance stories will be derided by fantasy readers as “head-hopping.”  Also, though some non-fantasy readers sneer at cliché fantasy’s apostrophe-laden names and other invented words, the fact is that fantasy readers expect the story’s voice and vocabulary to convey some of its otherworldly feeling.

Of course, genres can be mixed. Bookstores have shelf after shelf of fantastic mystery, science-fictional horror, and romantic fantasy. But very few stories are equally successful in more than one genre at a time. There’s a difference between a romance story with fantastic elements and a fantasy story with romantic elements; a story that tries to be both at once will probably not completely satisfy habitual readers of either.

So what’s the difference? The key, in my opinion, lies in the story’s climax. What matters most to the characters? What is the most important problem that they have to solve?  What is the event which brings the story to a resolution? The answers to these questions determine the story’s core genre. Even if the characters realize their love for each other at the very same moment they save the world, one of these will matter much more than the other to the characters and the reader, and that fact determines whether the story is a fantasy or a romance.

It may seem that I’m being flip here, but I’m not. A successful climax is the culmination of every other element of the story. Every event, description, and character decision in the story contributes to it directly or indirectly; even a completely separate subplot helps to lead up to the main plot’s climax by reinforcing, echoing, or contrasting with the main plot. If the relative importance of the romantic and fantastic elements of the climax is unclear or muddled, or if that relative importance doesn’t match the relative importance of the romantic and fantastic elements in the rest of the story, the reader will likely be dissatisfied with the story as a whole. (If the story lacks a distinct climax at all, it is probably experimental, literary, or magical realism rather than fantasy. Is magical realism fantasy? Better critics than I are still arguing that one.)

To write and sell a fantasy, you need to be familiar with the fantasy subgenre in which you are working. Read widely and deeply in your field, so that you can be aware of the trends and tropes your editors and readers are already familiar with. You don’t want to repeat an already-too-common formula, but you also don’t want to stray too far from the reader’s expectations without meaning to. Truly unique stories, which defy conventions and expectations, can become breakout smash hits, but they often fail to sell or find an audience. If you’re going to break the mold, you need to understand exactly what you are breaking and why.


David D. Levine 2 David D. Levine is the author of over fifty published science fiction and fantasy stories. His work has David D. Levine-SpaceMagic_600x900appeared in markets including Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, and Realms of Fantasy and has won or been nominated for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Campbell. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife Kate Yule, with whom he co-edits the fanzine Bento. His award-winning short story collection Space Magic is now available as an ebook from all the major ebook stores, and his web page can be found at http://www.daviddlevine.com.

Self-consistency and Maintaining the Fourth Wall

When many, if not most, readers enter a fictional world, they want to stay there until they’re ready to leave. For us writers, that means having to avoid doing anything that pulls the reader out of our world. Failing in this task may make it difficult for a given reader to buy into our creation. They may set it down and move onto something else. If this happens, we’ve lost them.

Any aspect of storytelling is vulnerable to this. Someone breaking out of character, the introduction of a deus ex machina, and even poor handling of point-of-view are all good ways of infuriating readers, and rightly so: they are violations of an unspoken trust with our readers that the stories we are telling them are self-consistent.

Setting is an aspect of storytelling which is particularly vulnerable to this kind of violation, especially in genres where setting is important, such as in fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction (by setting, I mean all things related to world-building, such as culture, dress, geography, the laws of physics or magic, etc.). Read enough reviews in any of those genres and you will see that one of the widest criticisms is that the author described some event that could not or would not have happened in that context, and thus the reader was pulled out of the story. There’s a good reason for why this can be such a problem for a writer: setting, by its very nature, consists of a vast number of interrelated concretes. Consider the difference between a character arc and a city, full of people, buildings, roads, belief systems, cultures, and so on, and you should see what I mean. It’s very possible (and necessary) to track the shape of a particular character’s arc, but far more complicated to track the goings-on of every person and thing in a city. There are many ways we can forget a detail that affects the story later on, and thus cause one of those reader-losing violations.

Of course, simply not knowing how an aspect of your world works can also do this. Many of our readers are smart enough to know that you can’t ride a horse at a gallop while swinging a fifty-pound sword for five hours straight. As most writers should by now know, doing some research solves most of these problems.

But there’s another related issue that can be a little subtler, and it relates purely to a world’s self-consistency. Unless you’re writing an alternate history or time travel yarn, your Imperial Roman soldier isn’t going to call his wife on his cell phone, since cell phones didn’t exist back then. An obvious example, but things get a little trickier when you’re writing in a purely secondary (or, purely imagined) world.

I once wrote an epic fantasy story in which one of my characters was exhausted, and was described as feeling as if he had just run a marathon. While it seemed pretty innocuous to me at the time, someone in my writing group couldn’t buy into it, because the word “marathon” is named for the run of Greek soldier Pheidippides during the Battle of Marathon. And since such an event never occurred in my world, he argued, how would the concept of a marathon in the normal sense even arise?

Hearing his criticism was a bit of a wake-up call for me, and now I sometimes find myself watching out for the same thing with books that I read (as much as I’d rather just sit back and enjoy them). Of course, in my hierarchy of priorities, I’m going to put a satisfying plot over catching myself using the word “marathon,” but I still keep an eye out for something like that slipping in. Whether or not you’re that meticulous about your world’s etymology, rest assured that some of your readers will be.

* For another interesting post on the topic of word choice, check out the earlier post by Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl, if you haven’t already.