Book review – The Sub-Genres of British Fantasy Literature

The Sub-Genres of British Fantasy Literature by A.J. DaltonAdam (AJ) Dalton’s slender exegesis is part of his PhD work, serving to help position his own fiction at the forefront of the subgenre of metaphysical fantasy that he coined back in 2008. That subgenre, Dalton claims, is a darker evolution and extension of traditional epic fantasy, reflecting the cynicism and anxieties of the modern world yet still maintaining many of the traditional tropes and never turning as nihilistic as Grimdark. While the heroes and Chosen Ones of metaphysical fantasy may go on quests to save the world, and to discover themselves, they may break both in the process. Unlike traditional epic fantasies, there may not be happy endings, but unlike Grimdark, there is always hope.

The evidence Dalton gathers to support this argument relies on examination of his own books (notably Necromancer’s Gambit and Empire of the Saviours) and contrasts against other leading fantasy literature, as well as the social and historical context of previous subgenres of fantasy. I can’t help feeling that a greater examination of the development and differences between metaphysical fantasy and Grimdark might have been beneficial, given Grimdark’s continued dominance in the field – though as it stands I firmly support Dalton’s assertion that metaphysical fantasy ploughs a more hopeful and optimistic field, since despite the bleakness of the times we still need heroes, even if they are broken ones.

I’m also slightly surprised that Dalton doesn’t focus more on the work of Michael Moorcock, whose conflicted Eternal Champion surely has to be the Golden Age progenitor of metaphysical fantasy, but that is probably an argument for somebody far more scholarly than myself. In effect Dalton has laid the groundwork for a robust discussion of the history and context of British fantasy literature, that I can happily recommend both to fans of the fantastic and to folk who have less familiarity with the genre.

Luna Press Publishing, 2017. ISBN: 9781911143161
Buy it here.

As an endnote, I’m musing as to whether Heir to the North and The High King’s Vengeance would fit into the sub-genre of metaphysical fantasy. Obviously I prefer to describe myself as an Epic Fantasist, but HTTN and HKV certainly fit a few of the definitions of the sub-genre. There is hope, and faith despite all that happens, everything that breaks or is destroyed, and though the end is not happy, it’s definitely not grim. Dalton notes that metaphysical fantasy looks at epic fantasy through a prism of the modern day yet still “tolerates challenge and difference, celebrating subversive humour and the courage to act.”

I prefer that worldview than that of Grimdark, which appears to be the only other available side of the coin as far as fantasy is concerned these days. It’s probably interesting to note too, that I approached Grimbold Books with Heir to the North as a result of finding them recommended on Dalton’s website. There’s a bit of a meta link there, isn’t there?

Let me know: am I metaphysical, or just plain Epic?

I’ve joined the Greatcoats!

Sebastien de Castell’s rollicking adventure, Traitor’s Blade, made its way onto my Kobo ahead of release last month, courtesy of the excellent folks at Jo Fletcher Books. And rather fine it is too – I reviewed it here on Goodreads (full text also appended below for the click-wary).

Being a clever sort of chap, Mr de Castell has given his readers the opportunity to design their own Greatcoat seals in the same way that folks were able to create their own Game of Thrones house sigils (House Chopper really should be a thing).

Naturally, mine (see above) involves an axe. The Kraken hidden in the green depths, meanwhile, symbolizes my great intellect. With a great axe comes great responsibility. Mr de Castell plainly knows me far too well.

But hush – here’s the skinny.

Traitor's Blade (Greatcoats, #1)Falcio val Mond was the First Cantor of the Greatcoats, passing the King’s Justice across the land. But the Greatcoats are no more, disbanded by the venal and power-hungry Dukes, their symbolic – and armoured – coats reduced to tatters along with their reputations, and the King himself is dead. And Falcio, along with his friends and fellow Greatcoats Brasti and Kest, have just been framed for murder…

The debut from Sebastien de Castell, as well as the first in the Greatcoats series, Traitor’s Blade sets up a world of betrayed ideals and dreams gone sour quickly, and then proceeds to make Falcio’s life progressively worse. It’d be very easy to say “It’s like Mark Lawrence writes the Musketeers!” – and even though that’d be a brilliant book in itself, Traitor’s Blade is even better than that. This is the fantasy genre channeling Clint Eastwood – in particular, The Gauntlet (as Falcio takes responsibility for an orphaned girl in a city that wants her dead) and A Fistful of Dollars (the armoured coats themselves, as well as the scenes featuring Ugh).

The more familiar fantasy tropes are for the most part taken care of in a fresh style (gloriously OTT bad guys, wannabe Greatcoats who aren’t what they seem, hard-bitten caravan guards won over with derring-do), and thankfully glossed over where they threaten to bog the fast-moving story down, though the overly helpful priestess who gives Falcio his post-torture pick-me-up is just a little too old-school wish-fulfillment for comfort. And the reader does need to ignore the nagging question of exactly how the Tailor can get to where she needs to be so damned fast. The solutions to the mysteries riding on the tails of Trin, Aline and Valiana – the three main female characters pushing and pulling Falcio to the journey’s end – are signposted quite early on, but the characters themselves are fleshed out so well that it doesn’t actually matter. Plus, they have progression – they ain’t just there to look pretty.

And the sword-fights. Yow. It’s not often a writer can get away with putting so much detail into his sword-fights, but de Castell is actually a fight choreographer – and he can make it work on the page as well as in the imagination. Damn good fights. The only fight he doesn’t detail is the climactic one between Kest and a summoned opponent, and that one is best left to the imagination. Speaking of summoning, the use of magic is kept on tight reins, as much as are pistols. Magic isn’t allowed to spoil or overwhelm the story, instead allowing the swords to do their work.

Conclusions? A good start, promising much more, and a delightfully fast and thrilling read. If Goodreads let me give 4.5/5, or 9/10, Traitor’s Blade would get that mark. Because it doesn’t, I’m rounding down, but this is a heck of a debut.

As is my wont, I recommend you buy it from Waterstones, WH Smiths, or your local independent book retailer.