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MIRROR SWORD AND SHADOW PRINCE—the giveaway!

by nickmamatas

We’re giving them away!

Well four copies of Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince anyway. As many of you may know by now, we run our giveaway contests in essay format. It doesn’t have to be much of an essay—just write a little bit of what you think about this question:

When readers think “fantasy” they often think of stories taking place in a pseudo-medieval Europe. Is this just due to the facts of publishing—that’s what gets labeled fantasy, and it will change with audience tastes—or does it represent a problem by limiting the field of what can be successfully published?

Let us know what you think! The four answers I like best (and I can be pretty whimsical, so feel free to creatively misinterpret the question) will get a free copy of Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince. We’ll be reading comments till noon, Pacific Time, May 13th.

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14 Responses to “MIRROR SWORD AND SHADOW PRINCE—the giveaway!”

  1. Ignatz Zwakh says:

    Ah, modern fantasy fiction, how thoroughly entrenched you seem to be within Faux-medieval Europe. Why this fetish for the land our forefathers came from? Is Tolkien to blame?

    Perhaps.

    Though, for every rote high-fantasy setting, complete with feudal kingdoms and world-spanning empire’s in the Roman mold, there are exceptions within the Western spectrum of fantasy. “Swordspoint” by Ellen Kushner for instance. A comedy of manner’s set in what seems an alternative-Universe Victorian England community where free-spirited sexuality is rampant as well as conspiracy and vague hintings of magic…or rather, I get ahead of myself, seeing as how it’s successor “The Fall of the Kings” has more to do with the intangible…

    And then there’s Steph Swainston’s excellent “Castle” series. Not quite anachronistic in it’s world-building, since it’s clear that the Fourlands are far removed from our reality, but nonetheless striking for the clash of the old world with the new. Characters strut around wearing t-shirts sporting their favorite sports teams whilst also indulging in hallucinogenics and participating in medieval-esque warfare. It’s quite the trip, especially when aforementioned drug causes our somewhat angst-ridden hero to be dropped into alternate dimensions populated by unpleasant beings.

    But all this detracts I suppose, from the initial query set forth by you, Nick Mamatas. To answer, no, I don’t think our endless fascination with dredging up our past to supply fantasy settings limits the field of what can be published. Not to say that Western authors are boors, but it is indeed easier to pull from what we know, from what we can culturally relate to. Which isn’t to say the occasional pastiche isn’t a fun diversion, as JRPG’s prove with their hopeless smashing together of various Western myths.

    And besides, if it were truly limiting the field of what can be published, then the two series I mentioned above (While they aren’t completely alien in terms of setting) might not have been published in the first place.

    But, I’m just rambling here, somewhat pompously, I feel. Alas.

  2. Sam M-B says:

    I’d say it’s largely market driven, though the market now is fractured and fragmented into a zillion pieces. Readers of English-language European medieval fantasy books who keep buying the familiar are a sizeable chunk, here, and it’s likely to continue to be — the gateway drugs for fantasy have moved on (from Tolkien to A Game of Thrones) but the mold is still a feudal one. Now, though, Urban Fantasy sells well, and Steampunk besides. The latter has a similar geographic/era laser focus on Victorian England but fine exceptions exist (Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World). For their critical quality, books like Jemisen’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, VanderMeer’s Finch, Kij Johnson’s The Fox Woman, and Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld are not settings the sales standards by which publishing decisions are said to be made. In summary: There will be periods of mass exoticism and stellar examples to be sure, and the comings and goings of subgenres like current juggernaut zombie-steampunk-punk, but medieval European fantasy is the comfort food, the steak (whether the Golden Corral or the Ruth’s Chris) of the fantasy-buying public. (Including me, getting near the end of A Storm of Swords.) It’s self-referentially the reference point of fantasy, and an American Gods or a Perdido Street Station or The Magicians or Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, while making huge, huge marks, does not change that baseline — they are so exceptional in some small part for being so divergent from it in the first place. That said, something of the familiar feudal/sword/magic can be found in medieval Japanese fantasy, while introducing entirely different relationships and value expectations, seems to be not that far a step.

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  4. SMD says:

    This is my “I’ve been in grad school too long” response:

    In all honesty, I think the Western thematic dominance of fantasy is a product of two things: 1) the fact that the largest amount of “popular” and “read” literature is produced in the West, and, therefore, is assumed to be for a Western audience over a non-Western one; and 2) the European “fragment,” as it is sometimes called in postcolonial studies, is always in the habit of making itself the center of knowledge, even within fields of fictional exploration which have traditionally been considered in the modern period to be “lesser literatures.” (By fragment I refer to the constant barrage of European methods of knowledge, culture, and so on which clearly form the basis of most Western nations despite those nations referring to themselves as “melting pots” or other derivations of the term. In the U.S., then, we have historically disenfranchised non-Western and also non-white people (i.e., foreign) and gone to great lengths to reproduce Western culture by imposing educational curriculum, deciding what is “acceptable” to be published, shown on television, and so on at home and elsewhere. That’s not to say that Western culture is bad, per se, just that our culture is one which, like many cultures in a dominant position, wants to make sure it remains in a situation of authority even while it sees itself as a utopian “better place.”)

    The first of the points is a fallacy, since a great deal of literature is produced outside of the West, but it is true insofar as the West has, for a long time, controlled what gets seen by the most amount of people. The West has always had the largest distribution channels for everything form literature to film in the modern era, and, thus, has always had the means of choosing what does and does not get seen. Couple this with colonialism and imperialism and you see the West’s attempts to reproduce its European-infused literary products elsewhere while reinforcing its appropriateness at home. To turn to film, it is amusing and somewhat terrifying to know that Rambo was at one point, and probably still is, one of the most popular American films in the South Pacific, in part because it gave a visual of an American (Western) image which had already been inserted into tutelary colonial systems (of governance).

    All this informs why publishing companies in the West typically publish fantasy with a European-influenced setting, and also why so little non-Western-esque fantasy has been written by people in the West or translated or brought over from elsewhere. It creates the conditions under which non-Western work can be considered “unmarketable” while reinforcing the proliferation of Western-influenced fantasy. Things have always slipped through the cracks (a movie here, a book or short story or what-have-you there), but never as much as they have in the last ten years.

    The good news is, as I see it, that things are changing. The SF/F community is seeing an influx of non-western writers, non-western themes, and so on. This is a good thing. A very good thing (no matter what anyone else says). We need the diversity as much as countries just now forming their science fiction or fantasy canons need the space and time and support to develop through their own Golden Ages. Let’s hope it keeps going that direction.

  5. Cliff W. says:

    I blame fairy tales! Kings and queens, princesses and princes, castles, knights, dragons, trolls, and, you know, fairies. Early exposure to defanged childrens’ lit versions makes readers equate the fantastic with medieval European settings. Disney abets this process. Tolkien and D&D only serve to solidify these images in readers’ minds.

    So one way to broaden the definition of what constitutes fantasy is to broaden the cultural and temporal settings of childrens’ books. That’s already happening. And Disney, for all their sins, has been branching out, raiding every myth history they can get their corporate paws on. So this process (both the good and bad aspects of it) may already be producing adult readers of fantastic literature who don’t automatically think about medieval Europe when somebody mentions fantasy. To my mind, that’d be a good result, however it comes about.

    On the publishing side, the popularity of Tolkien on college campuses in the 60s led the industry on the twisty path to George R. R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson. Maybe people who get early exposure to anime, manga, and books/movies/shows set in non-Western/non-medieval settings will grow up to demand more variety from adult fantasy literature.

    One can only hope.

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  7. Susanna (SusieBookworm) says:

    Hmmm….I’ve never run across readers who think of fantasy as taking place in pseudo-medieval Europe. Maybe it’s because I’m in high school and we stick mostly to middle grade/YA stuff, but the readers I know all assume that it takes place either in a modern setting that’s completely identical to our own (except for, you know, creatures of darkness, which the average person is somehow completely unaware of, running around and generally getting killed by the magical good guys in a bildungsroman plot with a fantasy twist) or some made-up world with elements of a variety of Earthling time periods (and still with a bildungsroman plot, because it’s middle grade/YA and we must have some type of coming-of-age story in there somewhere).

    Sorry for the short answer, but I’m in the middle of finals week at school. :P

  8. nice&toasty says:

    (Darn, looks like I won’t be able to make use of my margin-bloating and punctuation font size tricks in this format, heh.)

    It definitely has something to do with how long the genre has been around.

    This is just my personal pet/crackpot theory, but I think it has a lot to do with the invention of the printing press in Europe. This was during the late Middle Ages, so of course medieval European-esque literature got a kickstart in terms of how widespread it is.

    The printing press may have technically been invented in China a couple centuries prior, but it just so happened to be perfectly incompatible with the resident writing system. It’s just not practical to have to make thousands and thousands of little stamps for every word as opposed to the twenty-some letters in the Latin alphabet. So the printing press didn’t exactly take off the way it did on the other side of the globe.

    Well, back to medieval Europe. Like in any other civilization that’s been around long enough, it’s got plenty of material to draw from in terms of myths, legends, folktales, and fairy tales — in other words, “fantasy”. Because of the time period they were first written down and widely circulated in, it’s my suspicion that even the pre-Middle Ages stories were in one way or another medievalized, intentionally or not. Think King Arthur or Roland, for example. These guys were around almost a millenia before, yet medieval art tends to depict them wearing contemporary armour and such. The image seems to have stuck, because that’s how they’ve most often been depicted ever since! Plus, going even further back in time, biblical figures in medieval paintings all seem to have access to some sort of magical time-traveling wardrobe from the future (imagine a Protestant church painting frescoes featuring Moses in skinny jeans today). Likewise, when people talk about princes and princesses, the Middle Ages always come to mind, even though monarchy’s been around for thousands of years, and is still is today.

    Anyway, I don’t see this as a bad thing per se, but I can certainly see how it could be considered an obstacle of sorts. But consider this: as a fan of JRPGs, I usually go into them with a certain expectations of the tropes that’ll be used. Some I like, some I love, some I hate. I’m not saying that all JRPGs are the same, but there’s definitely a tried-and-true formula being used in a lot of them. That’s just the nature of things. If it’s not one thing that’s the norm, it’s another. It may make an entire genre seem stale to some, but you can’t have fresh air if there’s no un-fresh air, you know? I’ll admit it: I enjoy certain clichés that are stereotypical of fantasy stories. Yet it’s because I like it that’s it’s so fun to have my expectations blown!

  9. James says:

    I think that the main reason most people think of medieval Europe when they see fantasy is simply due to the fact that most fantasy they can find *is* about medieval Europe, or a pseudo-version of it.
    Most English language readers find books by English writers, foreign works are harder to find and harder to get into. Add to this the fact that different translations of the same work can completely alter the tone, with languages further dissociated from the Germanic roots often being more difficult to convey. Also, it seems that a majority of primarily English language users do not learn any other languages, since English has essentially become the international language.
    Conversely, this spread of English means that many foreign markets have imported English works, whether raw or translated, thus spreading the pseudo-European fantasy stereotype even further abroad.

  10. SMD says:

    Excuse me. I need to correct myself. I meant to say that Rambo was popular in Southern Asia, not the South Pacific. It might be popular in the South Pacific too, but I am only familiar with its reception in Southern Asia. Pardon me for the incorrect factoid.

  11. Tion says:

    Fantasy stories that are rooted in pseudo-medieval Europe have become quite popular as of late. This may explain why they are marketable and are labeled “fantasy” by publishing. However, I think that fantasy stories can take place virtually anywhere, reguardless of the time period. Most stories are inspired by folklore and myths, usually from East Asia and Europe. Nevertheless, the genre has been fused with other popular genres such as urban, sci-fi, steampunk, and horror.

    To be honest, I think it all depends on what the targeted audience wants and/or what is highly demanded from other readers. That which gets labled fantasy will change due to the audience tastes. Thus, the field of what can be sucessfully published is endless. Basically, as long as there is a need, passion, disire, or strong interest for something it will be sucessful.

  12. notyan says:

    I was going to write an essay about the market’s inherent laziness and how most of us equate fantasy with faux-medieval Europe because that’s all most of us had available growing up. I could have pointed out how the dragons you see in films are almost always the ones with wings, which is sad as Chinese dragons are awesome. Possibly, I may have even drawn an elegant curve to cultural preconceptions and how we limit ourselves by seeking solace in the familiar. Probably not, as English is not my native language and I lack the vocabulary to impress with my Amazing Insights, let alone do so in an elegant way.

    Besides. I would have been full of shit, wouldn’t I?

    Liz Williams’s Detective Inspector Chen is wonderful. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death has been on my wish list since I first heard about it. Murakami’s whimsical stories are brilliant. Years and years of the market limiting itself isn’t so much detrimental to publishing fantasy of a different sort, but rather opening possibilities to a starving audience to look beyond its own empty plate and finally notice what delicacies it passed up until now. (Look, I even worked a metaphor in there. Possibly using a wrong preposition. I’m sorry.)

    The generation that turned manga and anime into a lucrative genre is growing up. We want Real Books now. Europe isn’t cutting it anymore, not for all of us, not even in Europe. I suppose you know all that already, but you did ask for an opinion. This is mine.

  13. Brockton Shipley says:

    Fantasy covers a huge spectrum of interpretations. Today’s fantasy is built on the mythos of medieval Europe. Just as our ancestors had legends they told around the campfire; we too now have stories we can read by book lights. European fantasy is so prevalent because it is what shaped us and where we come from. The Greeks had legends of Crete and the Romans had Troy’s aftermath. What began as a romanticized time eventually became fleshed out and increasingly complicated with writers like Tolkien and T.H White. Millions of people love wuxia and kung fu films, These films romanticize the medieval past in china when martial arts seemed to dominate fighting.
    Today’s readers are lured into what they see as a reveal to a mystical lost world. Any reality has to be better than this one Right? Fantasy set in a psuedo medieval Europe is just a common reality that many want to write and read about. Fantasy offers unlimited possibilities; we are only limited by what we perceive as possible. One thing that should be noted is that even within pseudo-medieval Europe there is numerable realities and possibilities where the definitions of medieval fiction has yet to be fully explored.
    Fantasy is not really the one that is dominated by this subject, Romance is, what better setting for love that Medieval Europe. Every culture has their mythos, what is available to us is our mythos, the Psuedo-Medieval Europe. I hope that fantasy continues to have settings in the psuedo-medieval Europe because hopefully I will not be considered a hack when I write my fantasies in a different setting.

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