Does Size Matter?
by Neil Ayres
Why are some of the best and most successful works in fantasy multi-book extravaganzas, while magical realism novels tend to come in pleasant two hundred page packages barely the right side of a novella? The argument that fantasy is produced for the mass market and therefore multiple books are a marketer's ploy to extend sales doesn't bear up to scrutiny.
Lord of the Rings and Gormenghast are both tomes of almost biblical proportions, inheritors of the wordy and rather substantial books they are influenced by, as is more recent work like Susanna Clarke's Georgian fantasies, JK Rowling's Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. It could be argued one of the most important factors in such 'serious' fantasy is the use of metaphor. For instance, many interpretations of Lord of the Rings make a parallel between the innocence of the Hobbits and young, naive soldiers heading for the trenches; also the epic battles portrayed in the books with the experiences of these soldiers. It is possible with work like this to quickly understand an author's motives, and there is much enjoyment for a reader to observe the author wrangling with his or her themes, such as in previously mentioned books, and the socialist ethos underpinning China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and Iron Council, and the dispassionate tone employed by Steven Erikson in his Tales of the Malazan books.
Magical realism on the other hand tends to rely more on symbolism, and less on a reader viewing a story's events from the viewpoint of its characters. In Yann Martel's depiction of the tiger Richard Parker and the implications it poses for Pi, the basest interpretation of the tiger is danger, but Martel cleverly imbues Parker with a character that—as world building in fantasy could with social metaphor —allows Martel to explore every aspect of this danger.
There is middle ground between the two, where the genres collide, like the tales in Serendipity. For his story All That Remains Of You Steven Savile has for his protagonist Swedish author Hoke Berglund, who has created a fantasy world, a place brooding, foreboding, and full of trickery—full of metaphor. This place, the Forgetting Wood, as well as providing this metaphor, also provides much of the symbolism in the tale. In this way it mirrors Neverland, for the story's primary influence is JM Barrie's Peter Pan. Savile even has Berglund mention the play directly.
The thing that sets All That Remains Of You apart from straightforward fantasy and places for it a foot in the magical realist camp, is its introspection. As well as being a study, an observation, as much fantasy is, it is—like Peter Pan before it—also a meditation, like Life of Pi and many other magical realist works.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Neil Ayres. All rights reserved.
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About the author
The quintessential jack-of-all-trades and master of none, Neil can put up a wonky shelf, write a half-decent story, train a dog to do a higgledy-piggledy send-away and order a meal in Spanish with minimal use of hand gestures and pointing.
Originally from East London, guv, he now lives halfway between the Capital and the south coast. He hasn't been to a university in Cambridge, Oxford or anywhere else for that matter.