There are those that say societies repeat stories again and again in order to preserve them, build a cultural identity or to share fundamental truths and beliefs for the good of all. That might hold true for authors like CS Lewis, who used obvious Christian allegory in his Narnia series. Does it hold true for the likes of JKRowling, however? It seems that modern fantasy is going through something of an identity crisis and is no longer sure of its place in the modern world. Some writers react, perhaps not even consciously, by returning to the past (and who can deny the nostalgia adults experience when they read about the adventures of Harry Potter?). Others are deliberately fragmenting and breaking up what fantasy literature means, in a desperate attempt to reinvent it and make it relevant to today.
Evidence of this fantastical rebirth is the emergence of sub-genres of fantasy such as ‘dying earth fantasy’, ‘fin de siecle fantasy’, ‘dark fantasy’, ‘steampunk’ and the newest genre, ‘metaphysical fantasy’. What on earth is metaphysical fantasy, you might ask, frantically trying to remember something about the John Donne poems you were meant to read at school?
Metaphysical fantasy is grown up fantasy. It’s what happens when imagination and philosophy meet. Just as the books of Isaac Asimov are at the intelligent end of science fiction, new novels like Necromancer’s Gambit by A J Dalton are at the smart end of fantasy. Necromancer’s Gambit has the usual magic and politics in it, but it also poses serious questions about the existence and value of the human soul. It makes for a reading experience that is ‘total fantasy’. It draws you in and you realise there is no escape because you now understand things differently. You can’t go back. If you dare to begin the reading experience, you engage with a new world view and you are changed. The opening line is at once stupidly simple and terrifyingly compelling: The corpse opened its eyes. What happens after death then?
So does that mean we’re leaving all of our traditional values behind and entering a new ‘dark ages’? Not entirely. If you think about it, darkness has always been a strong theme in British fantasy: think Mervyn Peak and JV Jones. And British fantasy not only seems darker than most, but seems to be getting darker. Why is it that Hannibal Lecter can only be played by British actors like Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins? Is there something in our national psyche that we still need to work through? Let’s hope so, because then British fantasy at least will rise from the grave again…or perhaps be reborn.
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