Living Empires and the High Fantasy genre
To close out this week I would like to chat some about Living Empires and how it fits in to epic fantasy as we have come to know the genre. (art depicted here is done by the amazing LostInLimbo).
Tolkiensian fantasy (works derived from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings) is a genre staple for us in the West. Most everything we might classify in pop culture as "fantasy" is rooted deeply in what Tolkien's works made popular in the mid 1900's.
These fantasy worlds are often populated by long-lived and aloof elves, dour and gold-digging dwarves, glamorous warriors in armor and old white dudes in pointy hats with magic staves. Tolkien's works were shockingly devoid of female characters so maybe we have Disney to thank for the "princess needing rescue" trope?
As a kid and young adult I avidly read most all the epic fantasy I could get my hands on. Aside from Tolkien's books - which got me started - a few of my favorites and most significant in my memory (which should not be confused with what I would consider to be the "best" the genre has to offer) are:
• the Dragonlance Chronicles by Weiss and Hickman
• The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander
• the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis
• The Belgariad by David Eddings
• The Shannara series by Terry Brooks
• all the Dragaeran books by Steven Brust
• the Riftwar Cycle by Raymond Feist
• everything Stephen R. Donaldson has to offer
• The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (blessedly finished by Brandon Sanderson)
• and most anything by Robin Hobb
As an adult, I think I became rather jaded by what the genre had to offer. I truly could not name for you all the series I have read and since forgotten and how many more I have started but failed to finish because I found nothing new or interesting in them.
I found Game of Thrones to be refreshing in that it's characters seemed not to have the comic book/Hollywood/Disney safety net cast over them; that their lives are never truly at risk in their adventures. I have come to appreciate the clean wiring and accessibility of Brandon Sanderson's works and his unending new takes on magic systems.
But what reinvigorated my passion for the genre (and has subsequently ruined my taste for most any other fantasy) is the Malazan Book of the Fallen, a monumental epic by Steven Erikson and Ian Esselmont. It's not palatable for everybody and truly deserves to be read multiple times before grasping the full scope of what is going on, but I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Topics and themes I was already starting to explore with my various incarnations of what has now become my Living Empires saga, Erikson and Esselmont depicted in their creation. Read this article (https://www.tor.com/2018/10/22/diversity-and-equality-are-foundational-concepts-in-malazan-book-of-the-fallen/) if you are interested to know more about their works, but this bit encapsulates much of what I am sewing into the fabric of Living Empires:
"What if magical abilities could be learned by anyone, regardless of age, gender, intelligence or skill? As Erikson states, “It occurred to us that it would create a culture without gender bias so there would be no gender-based hierarchies of power. It became a world without sexism and that was very interesting to explore.”
So not only do I look to explore a world more or less devoid of intrinsic sexism, but also lacking in racism since the world of Evorstrom is divided by elemental Sign (somewhat akin to our own astrological signs) and not by tired trope such as the goblins and elves have been at war with each other for millennia. It's much more likely in my world that all the people of Flame Sign (elves, goblins, humans and all the rest) have been at the throats of all the Wind Sign people for generations on end (and there are biological and cultural reasons for this).
I want to explore what a world might look like if it were not shackled with the same inequalities as our own. I want to build in realistic explanations for why people of all gender identities are free to love whomever they want. Maybe these kinds of stories can not only provide representation of characters that are not commonly seen in the genre, but can help shed some light on the type of world we are striving to create in real life.