Saturday, April 18, 2009

What Is It with British Writers and Fantasy?

There’s just something about British fantasy—but what is it? You’ve heard of the “It” factor in Hollywood (no doubt sex appeal), but what is the “It” factor when it comes to fantasy, and how come British writers seem to be so very good at that particular genre?

Or, to be less intimidating about it, since many American fantasy writers are very talented, how is British fantasy unique? To answer that question, we obviously need to compare Monty Python and the Holy Grail to I Love Lucy, or Wallace and Gromit to The Simpsons, or When Harry Met Sally to Bridget Jones’s Diary. Therein we will surely find the answer, especially if we stick blithely to sweeping generalizations, which I hereby pledge to do in today’s post.

Actually, I looked at a couple of lists of American film comedies and TV shows, trying to decide what they have in common, and I concluded that Americans are very good at what the term “sitcom” tells us: situational comedy. Our humor is based on plot twists. We’re especially good at putting people in embarrassing situations and watching what happens—e.g., I Love Lucy, Everybody Loves Raymond, Get Smart, Seinfeld, and just about every “reality” show ever made. And just like in reality shows, the situations we find funny tend to be derived from things that do actually happen, or things that could happen very easily.

In contrast, British humor tends to lean towards the surreal—witness any number of scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but just for instance, take the one where the guy’s arms and legs have all been chopped off and he’s yelling at his opponent to come back and fight. Or the killer rabbit, or the coconuts. It’s all kind of nuts, and I mean that in a good way!

Combined with the strangeness, we get a real deadpan reaction from the characters. When something goes wrong for Lucy, she scrambles to handle it, but ends up flipping out. Wallace of Wallace and Gromit fame, like other British comedic characters, reacts to the most bizarre happenings with equanimity and an air of faint puzzlement.

Which brings me back to books: there’s something literary, not to mention clever, about British comedy, and about British fantasy writing. The words that keep coming to mind are wit and whimsy. I realize these tend to be used stereotypically, but then, stereotypes can have their roots in truth. I suppose we can define wit as cleverness and surprising humor. Just what is whimsy? Overused, it can become saccharine attempts to be cute, or as the British themselves, especially Terry Pratchett, might say, “twee.” But whimsy is creativity with a cheery grin. It is the oddly hopeful thought processes of a child, taking us to strange places which are not inhabited by vampire boyfriends, but rather by giant, traveling peaches and by baby griffins who eat too much and require our young heroes to earn extra money in order to feed them (thanks to Roald Dahl and Joan Aiken, respectively).

Beyond offering up solid plotting and appealing characters, children’s books—especially fantasy—really should surprise us. I’ve written before on this blog about the Fresh Factor, by which I mean innovation, the kinds of plots and language and details that make us sit up and take notice. Perhaps it’s a sad tribute to the televisionization of American culture that so many of our stories are prone to being predictable. In any case, I don’t know why some of the best or certainly most off-the-wall fantasy is British, but I can only surmise that there’s a little less TV involved and a lot more Lewis Carroll.

Whatever the explanation, the most innovative children’s fantasy I’ve read in recent years has been by British writers. This may seem like a cruel thing to say considering all of the excellent American fantasy out there, but I’m comparing good books to other good books, truly. My point is simply that the most fantastical fantasy tends to be British. There’s Diana Wynne Jones with her dragon’s blood smugglers and moving castles, Terry Pratchett with his frying pan-wielding young witch and his tidal wave-and-ghost-washed island, and Philip Reeve with steampunk space adventures and moving cities that devour smaller cities, for example. Not to mention Garth Nix’s bell sorceress in the land of the dead or his key-seeking Arthur Penhaligon in the seriously strange House, let alone Neil Gaiman’s Other Alice and Mowgli-in-a-Cemetery. (Yes, I realize Garth Nix is Australian, but I’ve decided to lump him in!) Frankly, one of the most original concepts I’ve seen in years is from a less well-known book, Eva Ibbotson’s Dial-a-Ghost, in which a temp agency that places ghosts in houses gets two orders mixed up. I also recently read the collected Armitage Family stories by Joan Aiken in The Serial Garden—and really, if you want to know what I mean by British wit and whimsy, her book perfectly exemplifies the phrase.

Of course, the big name in British fantasy today is J.K. Rowling. People who fuss about her rather ordinary prose are completely missing the point, which is that this is the woman who invented Bertie Bott’s Many Flavored Beans and quidditch. Besides the lovable characters, it’s those crazy, brilliant details that lift the Harry Potter books out of the ordinary.

And despite all the press, Rowling hasn’t actually unseated Roald Dahl—his stuff is still the best bet I know of for almost any eight-year-old on the planet. Talk about wit and whimsy! Golden tickets for the possibility of entrance to a mysteriously unknown chocolate factory? A girl who chews a stick of gum and turns into an oversize blueberry? I won’t get into lions and witches and wardrobes, but I hope you get the idea.

I got started thinking about all this because I read two British fantasies this week: Magical Kids by Sally Gardner and The Deep Freeze of Bartholomew Tullock by Alex Williams. I didn’t realize they were British at first, but I started getting the feeling I wasn’t in Kansas anymore and checked those back flaps to see where the authors were from. Suspicions confirmed!

Neither book is amazing, though both are pretty good. Magical Kids is a flip book—one side is a novella called The Smallest Girl Ever and the other is one called The Boy Who Could Fly. The idea of a shrinking child is not new, nor is the rather pop psychology explanation that Ruby Genie shrinks because adults are belittling her. The idea of a boy getting his wish to be able to fly is an oldie, as well, and it’s burdened by a creaky subplot about a dad who has forgotten how to have fun. But in each case, the story telling rolls cheerfully along just the same—especially in The Smallest Girl Ever, whose title character spends part of the book inhabiting a ladies’ purse while improving the magic tricks of an inept but helpful magician. (Apparently this is the second volume, by the way; the first volume consists of The Strongest Girl in the World and The Invisible Boy.)

The Deep Freeze of Bartholomew Tullock features one of those moustache-twirling villains intent on taking the family farm, also the farmwife. Only in this case, the farm is an oddly crafted house where the Breezes make intricate mechanical fans, and the farmwife is Elizabeth Breeze. Bartholomew Tullock has turned the town into a wintry, miserable place where everyone but the Breezes works in his turnip fields under a dark gray sky. As the villain increases the pressure, Madeline Breeze and her father leave town with a charming con artist to try to sell their fans in a warmer climate, while Rufus Breeze and his mother try to keep the bad guys from destroying their house. The book is a fun, fast-paced read, but as other reviewers have pointed out, the best thing about The Deep Freeze is the fans, which are utterly bizarre and are described in loving detail, making readers want to own one.

Like Magic Kids, The Deep Freeze of Bartholomew Tullock is a good way to spend an afternoon. Bo
th books have that sense of whimsy, a valuable commodity in a fantasy world often overrun by dour plotting.

Of course, all is not lost on the American front. Going back to humor, I am happy to report that Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and sequels actually give British humor a run for its money (particularly Louise Rennison!). And when it comes to TV, I am both relieved and proud to say that The Simpsons makes up for any number of predictable, unfunny TV comedies cobbled together by less creative Americans.

As for children’s fantasy, I suppose we can attempt to claim Neil Gaiman, despite the deplorable persistence of his entrancing accent. More important, we have some innovative newcomers appearing on the horizon: Marie Rutkoski (The Cabinet of Wonders), Ingrid Law (Savvy), and Joseph Helgerson (Horns and Wrinkles) all seem promising.

But let’s focus on the really kooky stuff. For madcap, whimsical, Britishy off-the-rails books, there are two American writers to watch: Ysabeau S. Wilce and James Kennedy. Wilce is the author of Flora Segunda: Being the Magical Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. The sequel, just in case you can’t guess, is Flora’s Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room). The first book tends to ramble, but is nevertheless something new and intriguing—imagine a California about a century or so ago if the Aztecs were still around and had territorial rights, and if all concerned had magical abilities. Throw in a teenager with a Califan slang vocabulary and insufficient supervision, then watch what happens. Flora’s mother is the Califan military leader, while Flora herself is a rambunctious fourteen-year-old who gets suckered by a banished magical butler. I will say that the second book hangs together better. (It is also more clearly a Young Adult title.)

James Kennedy’s The Order of Odd-Fish isn’t perfect, but it is astonishing and funny. Here’s my Amazon review:

Jo was discovered as a baby by the flamboyant actress, Lily LaRouche, inside a washing machine, accompanied by a note that read: “This is Jo. Please take care of her. But beware. This is a DANGEROUS baby.” When our story opens, Jo is thirteen years old, living with Aunt Lily in the extravagantly moldering ruby palace in the middle of the California desert. The night of Lily's annual costume Christmas party, a Russian colonel whose actions are directed by his intestinal rumblings shows up, as does a narcissistic giant cockroach butler, not to mention a package for Jo that falls out of the sky. Chapter One ends, “After that, everyone had the leisure to start screaming.”

Soon Jo and company are being chased by a billionaire with evil aspirations. They end up in Eldritch City, where Jo finds out just why she is considered dangerous and must continue to hide her identity from her newfound friends, fellow squires to the Knights of the Order of Odd-fish. The order is working on making, not an encyclopedia of all knowledge, but an appendix “of dubious facts, rumors, and myths.... A repository of questionable knowledge, and an opportunity to dither about.”

As this task implies, author James Kennedy prefers to range along the road from the absurd to the ridiculous, stopping along the way in the outrageous. He also makes arguably masculine side trips into the realms of bodily functions and violence.

The plot is a little uneven in spots, perhaps because Kennedy combines one of those dark end-of-the-world story lines with the aforementioned nuttiness—and sometimes these two efforts seem to pull each other sideways. A few bits and pieces work better than others: I didn’t quite buy the parts involving a pie-loving character called Hoagland Shanks, for example. However, many OTHER bits are simply hilarious—and refreshingly creative. The rituals related to dueling, particularly the exchange of insults, are among Kennedy’s bizarre gems. Think of Eldritch City as the love child of Lewis Carroll and Neil Gaiman. It is well worth the trip.

I will caution you that Kennedy does not shy away from big words, nor from an irony worthy of a satirist writing for adults. I suspect a lot of the humor will sail right over young readers’ heads, although Lemony Snickett has already established a precedent for using irony and obscure vocabulary in children's books. Watch in particular for the subplot involving the vain cockroach butler, Sefino, and his archenemy, a centipede newswriter.

I can’t resist closing this review with the most astonishing sentence in The Order of Odd-Fish, a lovingly concocted work of art that will give you some idea what you’re in for: “But soon Ken Kiang found he was both cat and mouse in a bewildering showdown with the Belgian Prankster, in which strategies of ever greater sophistication were deployed, canceled, reversed, appropriated, adapted, and foiled; pawns sacrificed, attacks repulsed, fortresses stormed and captured, treaties signed and betrayed, retreats faked and traps sprung, territory gained, lost, besieged, divided, despoiled, and exchanged—it was a shadow world, of infinite levels of deceit and disguise, of decoys that were Trojan horses full of more decoys that were red herrings in non-mysteries that had neither a solution nor a problem, concerning people that didn't exist in a place that was nowhere in a situation that was impossible!” (275)

Frankly, I can’t wait to see what Kennedy writes next.

Now, I suppose this idea of British fantasy I’ve been trying to describe may be a style—and it may even be partly imaginary. (How apt!) But if there’s a lesson American fantasy writers can learn from the Brits, it is that we needn’t limit ourselves to simply finding a new method for establishing a portal to another world or swiping a medieval setting and introducing sorcerers. There’s a special kind of risk-taking involved in letting your imagination go significantly farther afield. So perhaps with this entry, I’m issuing a challenge to children’s fantasy writers, myself included. Because the mind can come up with far more creative worlds and plots and details if you will only let it travel higher into the ether.


Saints and Spinners said...

I can think of some good American fantasy authors I like (Clare Dunkle, Edward Eager, Tamora Pierce, Jane Yolen, Robin McKinley), but you're right about the elusive "it" factor. The closest I can get to it is the part in Howl's Moving Castle when Sophie asks Howl why he doesn't cast a spell to get rid of his sniffles, and he roars something to the effect of "There is no cure for the common cold!" There's a connection to to the world as we know it it despite the fantastical magic.

Are you familiar with The Hounds of the Morrigan, by Pat O'Shea (who's Irish, by the way). It's one of my favorites.

Kate Coombs said...

Yes, I've read The Hounds of the Morrigan, though I suspect not many people know of it. You're right; it is VERY good! Great example from Howl's Moving Castle, heehee. And I agree with your examples of good American fantasy authors; Eager's probably the most Britishy of them, but then, he appears to be channeling E. Nesbit. I love the concept of Half Magic! The other words I've thought for that "it" factor besides "witty" and "whimsical" are "charming" or even "enchanting." I don't know that I've been as charmed by anything this side of the Atlantic yet, though I'll keep trying to think of an example. Well, maybe The Ordinary Princess--nope, M.M. Kaye was British too. And Eleanor Farjeon... Still stumped! Wait, I've got it! The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt! HA!

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to Kennedy's next book very much myself!

And I'm now running adjective through my mind--not sardonic, not wry, perhaps twisted?...I'd disagree with "charming"...I know what you mean, but it's hard to put into words!

James Kennedy said...

Thanks, Kate and Charlotte, for the nice words about "The Order of Odd-Fish"!

The other day I found out about a woman in Gainesville, Florida who baked an "Odd-Fish" cake for an Edible Books contest. It depicts the scene where the giant fish vomits the lodge into Eldritch City. She won a prize for "Most Creative"! Check it out, it's stunning! My editor said it was simultaneously the most impressive and least appetizing cake she'd ever seen.

Thanks again for the props!


Kate Coombs said...


Yeah, I guess "charming" is too sweet of a word. But somehow there's a wide-eyed child-like freshness to the stuff which then swirls together with a wry, dry, even slightly cynical wit to create something surprisingly good, like those two-flavored ice cream swirl cones, only better.


You're very welcome! And thanks for the cake link--how wonderfully disgusting! It's another of those swirl-type effects.

Anonymous said...

I have noticed for years that I have a preference for British authors. Most of my favorites are British. I haven't been so analytical about it, but there is something about the British and creativity. Maybe it is that most of us in the US are raised to be more realistic, and I do like realistic, too. My favorites are able to tie in their wild creations to the real world. But their inventiveness lends freshness, even to old themes. Do you know whether adult fantasy fits the same tendencies? I've only read a few, with favorites being Terry Pratchett and Robert Jordan. Both at opposite sides of the spectrum. Robert Jordan concentrating more on realism, but the realism is in Pratchett's work also. It tends to be in his commentary; he's not dwelling on it.

T A Barron, Rick Riordan and Nancy Farmer are Americans who have gone off the deep end into fantasy. T A Barron seems like he has some link in his genes to the UK and did travel extensively in the UK. Nancy Farmer fascinates me, but I don't get all of what she writes. I'm attracted and repelled at the same time. Rick Riordan has done some great characterizations of the old myths, but a little lacking in storyline. Fine for young ones, but I wish he had developed it more and written for an older crowd.

Kate Coombs said...

Good point! I'm trying to think of relevant examples from adult fantasy, but I do tend to dabble in it compared to my voracious reading of children's fantasy--maybe because a lot of it seems to consist of endless draggy series that never resolve. I did recently get caught up in Jim Butcher's Codex Alera books, and I also like Sherwood Smith's series starting with Inda plus a series of Lois McMasters Bujold (who is best known for her science fiction) called the Sharing Knife. But there we're talking about solid world-building and compelling characterization (plus some military stuff) rather than amazing flights of fancy.

Oh, Nancy Farmer's The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm was really something! I found her Viking books good, but didn't connect to them as well. Rick Riordan's fun, though it's hard to sustain the excitement in a series, I think. I'm not very fond of Arthurian legend, so haven't read as much T.A. Barron as I probably should. Glad to meet another Pratchett fan!

Deva Fagan said...

Excellent post - lots to think about! I love all the British authors you've listed (at least, the ones that I've read) and also Flora Segunda. I have Cabinet of Wonders and Saavy on my to-read list as well (and now I think I should add the Order of the Odd Fish!). Whatever that charm or whimsy or it-factor or fancifulness is, it's definitely something I appreciate, though I had never noticed it being more prevalent in the British titles until this post. Then again I still always try to spell glamor with a "u" so perhaps I am just too fully inculcated by British fiction at this point I take it for granted.

For US authors, I would put Laini Taylor's Blackbringer in the same category with her richly envisioned fairy world, and possibly Sarah Prineas's Magic Thief. And Sheri S Tepper had some pretty far-out stuff in her early, more YA-bent novels (which I prefer to her later adult works). And there's Patricia Wrede.

From my perspective, there is certainly a categorization that could be made between more whimsical fantasy and the other stuff, where both can be very very good and worthy. I'm not sure just how closely that division aligns with country of origin, but it is certainly very interesting to consider! Thanks for posting!

Kate Coombs said...

Deva--I'm off to hunt up Sheri S. Tepper's early stuff. I know, this thing I'm attempting to say wouldn't hold up in terms of statistical significance and the scientific method, but it's fun to think about! Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation. Coincidentally enough, I had already scheduled a review of Fortune's Folly for this weekend, so look for it!

Anonymous said...

I did think of another American. I have really enjoyed Frank Beddor's Looking Glass Wars and Seeing Redd. However, in trying to come up with authors, I have noticed that they tend to be springboarding off European themes. Maybe partly because the Europeans just got their first.

The Merlin books are the best of T A Barron, I think. Also, I don't care for the old Arthurian standards. The ones that impress me are the reworked versions by modern authors. They are straying from canon and more creative, often taking one little concept and running with it. T A Barron's is very whimsical. Takes place before Merlin is a wizard, plus the development of Avalon.

Anonymous said...

I'm probably a bit late, now, given all this was done 3 years ago but I feel my point is still valid. I'm a British fantasy reader and yet you've missed out some very good fantasy writers for adults. You havent mentioned George RR Martin who is superb. Admittedly he's the only one who springs to mind but there are many more I'm sure! However, I must admit Rick Riordan is terrible in my opinion. He jumped on the Rowling bandwagon with half the talent and zero originalism. But that's just my view! :) Oh and the looking glass wars were very good. Admittedly couldn't get into the second one but the first one was extremely clever!

KateCoombs said...

Hey, Anonymous! My focus is on children's fantasy, so I'm sure I missed mentioning some good adult fantasy writers from both sides of the pond. Rick Riordan writes action fantasy that appeals to a lot of young readers, but I agree that he is not the best craftsman working in the field. My own top three picks for children's fantasy are the late Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, and Megan Whalen Turner. I've picked up the Beddard Looking Glass Wars book but never quite got around to reading it--I probably should. Thanks for your comments!

Anonymous said...

Yes, George RRMarrin isn't exactly children's reading! :) However, Terry Pratchett is wonderful. Also, on this side of the pond the duo of Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell is fantastic. Really worth reading. And definitely children's books (but creative enough for any age). They wrote the edge chronicles (as well as other stuff for younger readers but I don't know if they're fantasy also.) I will always say JK Rowling is the best writer ever but I don't see it as fantasy, certainly not in the usual sense. But feel free to disagree!

KateCoombs said...

I've read a little Stewart and Riddell--will have to look for more. JK Rowling is marvelous. I'm especially impressed by her creative details, such as quidditch and Bertie Bott's Everyflavor Beans. Some people make a distinction between high fantasy (other worlds filled with dragons, quests, and sorcerers) and low fantasy (set in our world, but with magic). Which makes Harry Potter low fantasy--I'm guessing that's how you're differentiating it from " the usual sense." If you haven't read Megan Whalen Turner's series, by the way, you're missing out! The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, and A Conspiracy of Kings.

Anonymous said...

I see! Yes, that was what I meant, about High Fantasy and Low Fantasy, but I've never heard it put that way. It makes it a lot clearer. Thank you! I will try that author you recommended, when I find time. I have researched them on Amazon and looked at the reviews. They certainly sound interesting, so thanks for that. But for now I'm rereading Prisoner of Azkaban for the umpteenth time so everything else will have to wait!

P.S. I don't think anyone's mentioned British author Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Admittedly I've only read the first one: The Northern Lights (or the Golden Compass as I believe you call over there) but that was magical once I got into it. Not sure if that'd be high fantasy or low fantasy. I'm guessing high fantasy, but it could also be argued to be a sort of sci-Fi!