Saturday, June 21, 2008

Fantasy and details

I once critiqued a story that combined romance and mythology – like a secular version of Orson Scott Card’s Women of Genesis. Something about the critique bothered me, though. I had the feeling I’d missed something, though until today I didn’t know what I’d missed. The story had plenty of references to myths, but they were all to do with the romance. If a character from mythology was mentioned, it was because they had fallen in love (or had not, and were lonely); if a place was mentioned, it was because the lovers had visited it.

It’s one thing to have a strong theme in the story, but to have everything single-mindedly focusing on love made it a grand orchestra playing one note. Plus, many smaller features of the myths – which I found as fascinating as the tales of heroes – fell by the wayside, since they didn’t have much to do with romance. The actual myths incorporated magic and fanciful animals and strange customs, and these were the little telling background details that made up the fabric of another world, but the story maintained a relentless focus on romance.

Imagine a Song of Ice and Fire novel without any references to the Doom of Valyria or the exotic food or even “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”, because everyone had only the civil war in mind. It wouldn’t be the same. This problem just stood out more strongly with a background of mythology, since I’d read so much of the mythology beforehand and was hoping to see more of that in the story. A fantasy novel is a world with NPCs and ecosystems and superstitions that may go unexplored by the characters but which nevertheless exist (and which do their own thing quite happily while the characters do theirs). But the reader will never be aware of these if the story doesn’t make even a casual, offhand mention of them.

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