Sunday, August 28, 2011

Current reading: A cultural clash in fantasy

So I just finished reading The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman, the middle book of the His Dark Materials trilogy. I'm waiting until I read the concluding volume, The Amber Spyglass, before I write a review of the series, so more to come on that later.

I finished The Subtle Knife on Friday and my local library is unfortunately closed on the weekends until September ("summer hours"--when most people have more free time and opportunity to read--go figure), so I pulled the L. Sprague de Camp edited The Fantastic Swordsmen off my shelf and read it in the interim.

Holy cow, what a contrast.

I know some people have no use for genre labels, let alone puzzling out the various sub-genres of fantasy, but if you can't tell the difference between these books beyond the fact that one is a collection of short stories, and the other the middle novel of a trilogy, you must have a tin ear. There's a gulf of difference. Reading these books back-to-back emphasized the stark contrast of epic/high fantasy vs. swords-and-sorcery at its most extreme. Children with mysterious origins and complex destinies involved in a world-spanning conflict against God himself, vs. muscular, wolfish heroes battling Cthulhu-eseque horrors and mad sorcerers... yeah. Describing both with nothing more definitive than "fantasy" is like using the term "sports" to delineate football and golf.

I enjoyed both, though in general The Subtle Knife was a bit of a letdown after the high bar set by The Golden Compass. The Fantastic Swordsmen was almost uniformly excellent, marred by one rather grating flaw. More to come on that book in a review which will appear Thursday on Black Gate.


Fred said...


I think some readers' objections to genre is that it isn't a perfect system. Many works fit easily into a category, while others perch uneasily on the boundary between two or even three categories.

This ambiguity disturbs those who like black-and-white situations and can't handle the greys (grays?).

For me, genre labels are a quick way of identifying/describing many works but that's about it.

Brian Murphy said...

I agree Fred, there is a fair degree of overlap, and more than a few works of fantasy that defy any genre label. I do find these distinctions helpful, both in terms of studying influence (i.e., works derived from Weird Tales vs. Tolkien, for example), and also for referring like works to other readers.