May 9, 2014

Flights of fantasy

Here I plan to document some of my favorite fantasies, their characteristics, similarities, differences, themes, etc. This post may change with time. Here goes:

With the popularity of Harry Potter, the niche genre of fantasy shot into the mainstream and stayed there. Since then, every year one or the other fantasy series has climbed the charts and garnered critical acclaim. After Harry Potter elbowed out adult books in the bestseller lists, the publishing industry responded by creating a new category called ‘young adult fiction.’ Most fantasies that fit this category today seem to be responding to Harry Potter in some way, some with obvious adoration like Mortal Instruments, and some with refutation of Harry Potter’s tight plot like A Series of Unfortunate Events. Harry Potter was notable for dishing out grown up themes like death without patronizing children, and some books like Hunger Games responded by taking such themes further.

The virtual deluge of fantasies since then can sometimes be hard to navigate. Here’s a helpful guide to some of the best fantasy books out there, some well known and some not so much, but all worth your while.

Mortal Instruments
By Cassandra Clare
The writer admits to being an avid fan of the Harry Potter series. You can find many elements in this book that remind you of Harry Potter, like an academy for wizards (though they are not called that), and a protagonist who discovers her magical powers only late in life. But soon, the book starts taking flights of its own, and leaves you breathless with its smart and fast plot. By book two, it leaves Harry Potter behind with an interesting maze of a plot and heartbreaking characters that you will fall in love with. Also, this series is an example of how adolescent books after Harry Potter have been gingerly stepping into ‘grown up’ territories: this one explores forbidden sexuality, which was a subject Harry Potter stayed far away from, even though it is of prime concern to adolescents.

Hunger Games
By Suzanne Collins
Because of its adolescent characters, the Hunger Games trilogy definitely falls under ‘young adult fiction’. But one generation ago, parents would not have allowed their children to read this book that traverses the ‘grown up’ territory of dystopia with ease. This series can be called fantasy noir, starting as it does with a cynical protagonist in a crumbling world. She never does shed her thick skin, and we are not sure if her crumbling world builds itself again. Gone are the days when fantasy meant a giant lion riding in at the last moment to save the world (Aslan of Narnia). Here little girls learn to survive, because if they don’t they will be demolished by their harsh society. And if they survive that, the government will crush them like ants. This series depicts how war can force children to grow up early, how trauma can leave you broken for years, and how it can tear normal families apart.

A Series of Unfortunate Events
By Lemony Snicket
If you are looking for answers, solution to mysteries, or to happy endings, turn around. This book is not for you. The writer warns you of the same many times, and yet you want to go on, to be with three uniquely gifted children (one inventor, one scholar, and one infant biter) who lost their parents to a fire. They are then shadowed by thugs who are after their parents’ vast property. The trio’s misadventures are not for the fainthearted: They never manage to kill their villain, never find out what killed their parents and what secrets they had nurtured. There is no poetic justice. You never even know the identity of the writer! But if you want to read a book sparkling with wit where every line shines like poetry, go for this aimless ride that you will enjoy. Also, we have a genius female lead who plausibly saves the situation most of the times.

Wind on Fire
By William Nicholson
Like many modern fantasies, Wind on Fire explores a dystopian world where people are not free to make choices about their lives. How the protagonists rescue their world forms the story of the first book of this trilogy. In the meantime, the writer creates entirely original fantasy characters: old children who are ready to infect everyone else with a touch, soldiers who will fall to death just so that other soldiers can climb upon their body and cross a gorge. The haunting concepts often have no explanation or origin. But then the plot goes into how after freedom, delirium can make people complacent and weak, ripe for picking by power-hungry lords. And this needs no explanation because it rings true. The trilogy then explores the concept of slavery: is it really bad if you are well fed and happy with your duties? Finally, it ends with what true freedom means.

His Dark Materials
By Philip Pullman
This trilogy about an epic battle between the Devil and a little girl was published the same year as Harry Potter was. So in many ways, it is uncontaminated by the fantasy fever that swept the world after Harry Potter, and shows you the possibilities of what fantasy could have been if different writers had followed different paths. Like most fantasies, this one, too, is an epic, but at the heart of it is not a battle between good and evil but between childhood and growing up, innocence and experience, and sin and love as defined by the Bible. Though it is a fantasy, the series walks through complex real subjects like physics (multiple universes), theology (was God simply the first being that came into existence, who claimed ownership of everything that came after?), and morals (is it right to sacrifice one for the sake of many)?

The Owl Service
By Alan Garner
If you want to read a fantasy completely unconnected to current trends, this is the book for you. The Owl Service is the name of a set of china plates and bowls, in other words, Service, that depicts owls. Three teenagers find themselves embroiled in an ancient myth—of a woman who is made from flowers and becomes an owl—that comes alive every generation. The classic Welsh plot of one woman and two men, divided loyalties, and betrayal is borrowed from real myth of a woman called Blodeuwedd. It recurs time and again in a little village with new characters, and it is up to the characters how they handle it: whether they punish themselves and bind each other again as owls, or whether they set themselves free as flowers. With lilting language that gives a glimpse into the beliefs of Welsh society, this little book is a joyride.


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