Great Britain

The bold new wave of fantasy writers

O

n 1 August, as the Hugo Awards for fantasy and science fiction were broadcast online, author Rebecca Kuang took her dog for a walk. While she was out, it was announced that she had won the prestigious Astounding prize for Best New Writer. Nominees had been asked to pre-record acceptance speeches in the event they were victorious. Kuang’s heartfelt yet unflinching remarks, delivered to science fiction and fantasy’s equivalent of the Oscars, echoed around the world of genre publishing.

“If I were talking to a new writer coming to the genre in 2020, I would tell them, ‘Well, if you’re an author of colour, you will very likely be paid only a fraction of the advance that white writers are getting’,” the 24-year-old Chinese-American writer says in her acceptance clip.

“You will be pigeonholed, you will be miscategorised, you will be lumped in with other authors of colour whose work doesn’t remotely resemble yours. The chances are very high that you will be sexually harassed at conventions, or the target of racist microaggressions, or very often just overt racism.”

Today, Kuang says her one regret about that speech is that she thinks “it comes off as overly pessimistic”. She notes that when writing it she was mindful of the chequered history of the Astounding Award, originally named after Golden Age of Science Fiction editor John W Campbell, until disquiet began to be expressed about his racist and sexist views.

“I ended it saying something like, ‘I don’t know if I would have entered publishing if I had known about all these barriers’. I should have mentioned all the reasons why I stayed. Which is that there are some really wonderful people in publishing who are actively looking out for marginalised writers and trying to promote their work. So there’s lots of wonderful progress being made and I think I should have acknowledged that.”

As Kuang says, fantasy, as with publishing more generally, still has a way to go in terms of diversity. Yet it has unquestionably come on hugely from even a decade ago. Historically it was dominated by white men: Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E Howard, JRR Tolkien, Wheel of Time author Robert Jordan, George RR Martin and Game of Thrones.

Yes, there were always women in fantasy. But, with the exception of perhaps the great Ursula K Le Guin, they were forced into the margins. Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mercedes Lackey, Robin Hobb, Anne McCaffrey, Margaret Weis, etc, were never part of the canon of authors you “had” to read (there is also JK Rowling – but she is better thought of as a children’s writer). Nor were minority novelists, who stood about as much chance of landing a fat publishing deal for a doorstopper trilogy as a pacifist dwarf had of surviving the Mines of Moria.

That finally has started to change. The most acclaimed science fiction/fantasy author writing today is probably African-American NK Jemisin, whose Broken Earth trilogy uses dystopian tropes to explore racial, gender and environmental issues. A recent Time Magazine countdown of the 100 Best Fantasy Novels of All Time, meanwhile, gave prime billing to new authors including Kuang, who had two books on the list – more than George RR Martin or Robert Jordan.

Not that she needed the publicity. Kuang has become a sensation in fantasy with a trilogy of novels, beginning with 2018’s The Poppy War, set in an epic reimagining of ancient China. Her books are inspired by real-life historical events such as the Opium Wars and the Nanjing Massacre. Yet they are proudly and unabashedly in the fantasy milieu. There’s a complex magical system and scintillating action scenes that give the Siege of Gondor or the Battle of the Blackwater a run for their gold pieces.

“I grew up reading a lot of fantasy,” says Kuang. “I took it for granted that all the characters I was reading were white, just like I took it for granted that I had only a few costume options for Halloween… I could dress as Cho Chang from Harry Potter. I thought it was totally normal because I was one of the few Chinese-Americans at my school.”

This historical bias against writers of colour was one of the reasons Evan Winter, born in London and raised in Zambia, self-published his debut, The Rage of Dragons, in 2017.

It is a wide-screen fantasy, brimming with heroes, monsters and conflict on a grand scale. The big departure is that the setting is not a variation on Middle Ages Europe but on pre-industrial Africa.

‘The Rage of Dragons’ author Evan Winters

Rage of Dragons went on to become a word-of-mouth success. It has since been picked up by a mainstream publisher. But Winter feels the book would have been overlooked had he not first demonstrated the existence of a huge potential audience.

“I did not believe that the traditional publishing establishment would be particularly interested in an epic fantasy focused on black people,” he says.

In the great fantasy sagas, minorities were inevitably pushed to the side and rendered as “the other”. Consider the swarthy Easterlings in The Lord of the Rings – barbaric hordes in league with the evil Sauron. Even in the more recent Game of Thrones, the eastern continent of Essos is a place of mystery populated by strange, superstitious inhabitants.

“It was frustrating to only see people like me as the villains from the shady empire over in the ‘south’ or ‘east’, absolutely,” says Tasha Suri, a Londoner whose Burning Kingdoms trilogy draws on her Indian heritage and south Asia’s rich and vivid mythology.

“Growing up, I didn’t see people like me in anything, apart from [the BBC sitcom] Goodness Gracious Me, really,” she says. “Fantasy was just like everything else. So for a long time I accepted that this was normal, even if I didn’t particularly like it. I loved fantasy despite its flaws: for its inventiveness, its possibilities, the sheer magic of it.

“But the world has changed since then, and my feelings have changed too. I want better from fantasy, and greater diversity from it, just like I want better from everything else.”

“Fantasy has long had an issue with Anglo-centrism and the ‘othering’ and exoticisation of anything other than medieval England,” says Samantha Shannon, who has interrogated European colonialism with her Bone Season series and whose 2019 novel The Priory of the Orange Tree gender-flipped the tale of St George and the Dragon.

‘Empire of the Sand’ by Tash Suri is just one of the novels ushering in a new generation of fantasy writers

“In fact, it isn’t even medieval England – it’s a myth of medieval England, a place that never actually existed. I think the simplest way to solve this is for publishers to not only employ diversely, but to ensure that authors from many backgrounds are given the space – and, crucially, the in-house support – to tell their own stories to as wide an audience as possible.”

This new generation of authors isn’t trying to demolish fantasy and raise up something else in its place, it is worth pointing out. They adore fantasy. They just feel there is space for a wider range of stories and protagonists. And for writers who happen to be something other than middle-aged white men from Britain or America.

“When I conceived of Priory, I set out to write a ‘classic’ epic, with plenty of tropes – the magic sword, the evil stirring in the deep – but to not have a ‘classic’ hero,” says Shannon. “Part of that was inspired by when I saw Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings as a child. Seeing Arwen confront the Nazgul was such an inspiring moment for me – the first time I had seen a woman do something so powerful in fantasy – but when I went to read that scene in the book, I found a man filling her place.

“That was the first time I realised that fantasy wasn’t always going to love me back, and it put me off reading it for years, which meant I missed some of the work that would have given me a mirror. When I was older, I was determined to write an epic for my younger self, and for everyone who ever felt like the genre they loved refused to make room for them.”

The irony, of course, is that fantasy’s journey towards a progressive future has coincided with the emergence of Game of Thrones as the world’s favourite TV show. It’s less than a decade since HBO’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire arrived on our screens. But already it has aged horribly, its early seasons in particular.

There’s the cringeful “sexposition”. The gratuitous female nudity. The use of rape as a plot device. “The cultural impact of Game of Thrones can’t be underestimated,” says Shannon. “It did a great deal to make it accessible to a wider audience, and there are many things I loved about it, but it also encapsulates much of what I feel the genre gets wrong.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with nudity but in Game of Thrones that nudity was filtered through the male gaze. Some of the violence against women was filmed as if to titillate, not to horrify. When a young woman was raped, the camera focused on a man’s face, a man’s pain.”

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones

Emily Tesh, author of Silver in the Wood and Drowned Country, thinks the adaptation devalued the books. “The first book in A Song of Ice and Fire really is something quite special. I don’t know if the TV show really got that. I have to say I stopped watching after the first season, which was the season that adapted the first book.

“I got to season two and the scene where somebody murders a prostitute with a crossbow. And I thought, this was not in the books… this is purely here to be a sort of pornographic violence against women. I don’t need that right now. Or ever. Somebody made a decision to show this. It’s like a small child showing you a turd.”

Oddly, Tolkien – for generations considered the one fuddy-duddy to rule them all – has weathered the seasons better than Martin or indeed the fantasy authors who picked Middle Earth’s pockets through the 1970s and 1980s. One reason is that The Lord of the Rings was ahead of the curve in grieving for the devastation of the natural world.

“Obviously he was a man of his time. You couldn’t write a book that was so overwhelmingly male now and not have it commented on as an odd choice,” says Tesh. “[But] he is misunderstood. Often by people who haven’t read him or engaged with the original work. The themes of nature and the natural world and beauty and destruction of that world stand up. There are moments in The Lord of the Rings that are impossibly sad.”

Queer representation is another area in which fantasy is making progress. One of this year’s buzziest debuts, AK Larkwood’s The Unspoken Name, features an Orc-like central protagonist and a same-sex romance.

“When I first started thinking about writing seriously, I wanted to write something that had a queer [component] because that’s who I am,” says Larkwood. “But I didn’t know if it would be sellable at all.

She was pleasantly surprised at how open agents, editors and publishers were to queerness in fantasy. “At no point has anyone gone, ‘Well you need to tone it down’. You hear all these urban legends of publishers saying, ‘We like it, but take out the queer relationship’. It’s been nothing like that.”

AK Larkwood, author of one of 2020’s buzziest debuts, ‘The Unspoken Name’

This marks significant progress. Gay characters were traditionally rare in fantasy. And when they were present, they were on the fringes. Consider Dumbledore in Harry Potter, whom JK Rowling revealed to be gay long after the books were published.

“Historically in a lot of cultures it was a lot more normalised for there to be a queer relationship,” says Andrea Stewart, whose debut, The Bone Shard Daughter, draws on Asian history and mythology. “Ten or 15 years ago obviously we were taking a lot from westernised cultures. You have the western European medieval knights and everyone who is gay has to hide it.”

“It hurt to rarely ever find characters like me. I existed, and I knew others like me did, so why was it so hard to find people like us in fiction? It wasn’t even just SFF. It was across all genres. The last couple of decades have made great strides in that – particularly in Young Adult – but we still have so much further to go,” adds TJ Klune, author of The House in the Cerulean Sea, another of 2020’s big word-of-mouth successes.

“And no one – no one – should be giving credit to authors like JK Rowling who retroactively claim representation in a finished book, like when she said, ‘Oh, by the way, Dumbledore was gay the whole time!’ That’s not how representation works. That’s a slap in the face. You don’t get to claim allyship if you don’t actually do the work to be called an ally. And she has proven herself in recent years to be anything but an ally.”

But if fantasy is in a far healthier place today, in terms of representation, there is still space for progress, according to Rebecca Kuang. “When I sold The Poppy War in 2015, I could only think of three or four Asian-American authors [writing fantasy]. From a numbers perspective it’s still pretty small.

“Qualitatively, though, there has been a huge shift in terms of what is winning awards, what is getting published. As these books get successful and prove they have an audience, publishers are taking chances on more and more [minority] writers. I think we’re in the middle of something really exciting.”

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