Originally I meant to talk about sub-genres on this, but I’ve done that before, so instead I’ll look at shades in (mostly) high fantasy, varying by both authors’ style and time. Which logically lets me start with one of the fathers of modern fantasy, Lord Dunsany. Here’s the intro to his short story, “Carcassonne:”
They say that [Camorak’s] house at Arn was huge and high, and its ceiling painted blue; and when evening fell men would climb up by ladders and light the scores of candles hanging from slender chains. And they say, too, that sometimes a cloud would come, and pour in through the top of one of the oriel windows, and it would come over the edge of the stonework as the sea-mist comes over a sheer cliff’s shaven lip where an old wind has blown for ever and ever (he has swept away thousands of leaves and thousands of centuries, they are all one to him, he owes no allegiance to Time).Writing pre-WWI, Dunsany has more than an echo of Yeats’ Celtic twilight: whimsical tone, slightly formal, archaic usages such as the “they say” beloved of medieval romances. And characteristic of Dunsany, whimsy extended into a long, flapping, image-ridden sentence that in the wrong hands could come perilously close to a place in the Bulwer Lytton awards. No magic apparent in here, yet. This cd. be just a very formal historical novel.
From around the same period we have:
“His highness rode a hot stirring horse very fierce and dogged; knee to knee with him went Styrkmir of Blackwood o’ the one side and Tharmrod o’ the other. Neither man nor horse might stand up before them, and they faring as in a maze now this way now that, amid the thrumbling and thrasting of the footmen, heads and arms smitten off, men hewn in sunder from crown to belly, ay, to the saddle, riderless horses maddened, blood plashed up from the ground like the slush from a marsh.”
The writing in The Worm actually ranges widely, from battle scenes like this, sounding almost straight out of Mallory, to the ornate settings, and breathtaking natural beauty like the sunset that closes this chapter, or the first view of Zimiamvia. But it’s a good shade away from Dunsany, not least in the ferocity of its focus, and the equally ferocious insistence of its rhythm. And Edison can do serious magic, but not here.
Now here’s one of the modern heirs of both Edison and Dunsany. Describing magic outright, 70 or so years later, when fantasy styles have greatly simplified – or been dumbed down, imo – for a far larger, less literate readership.
Lynn Hall had changed again. This time she showed me how her secret wood devoured it, in a monstrous tangle of root and vine that wove into its stones and massed across its gaping roof. Past and future and the timeless wood scattered broken pieces of themselves within two rooms. Nial Lynn’s marble floor lay broken and weathered by the years, even as his blood or Tearle’s flowed darkly across it. A curve of tree root so thick it must have circled the world had pushed through the floor beneath Corbet’s table...
And now a particularly famous figure from modern fantasy who first appeared in the late ‘60s and returned in the 2000s, through his creator’s trademark mix of utterly everyday details and sudden, yawning vistas of unreality:
The leaves shook and the man came briskly down the ladder. He carried a handful of plums, and when he got off the ladder he batted away a couple of bees drawn by the juice. He came forward, a short, straight-backed man, grey hair tied back from a handsome, time-worn face. He looked to be seventy or so. Old scars, four white seams, ran from his left cheekbone down to the jaw. ( The Other Wind, Ch. 1)
Yup, it’s Le Guin’s famous mage, Ged, in his (happier) old age. Now an almost poverty stricken dweller on the heights above Havnor, with a plum tree and some goats and chooks – chickens, to American readers – a handsome old face, and the four scar marks that invoke his first mortal struggle in the magical world. In this quote everything looks deceptively simple. Until you begin to analyse the subtle, resilient rhythms of the prose, and the almost invisible patterning of assonance and alliteration. If Edison is the High Priest of Ornament, Le Guin is the Mistress of Understatement.
Further into the present, and not quite high fantasy, here’s a very good Canadian writer doing urban fantasy at its most attitudinous. It’s from a world where Keepers use their magic to maintain the fabric of reality against determined incursions from Hell, below, but sometimes, accidentally, from Heaven above. A street evangelist encounters a currently humanly-embodied angel (read the book for the full outrageous details):
“Greenstreet Mission. We’re doing a Christmas dinner. You can get a meal and hear the word of God.”
Samuel smiled in relief. This, finally, he understood. “Which word?”
“Well, God’s said a lot of words, you know, and a word like it or the wouldn’t be worth hearing again but it’s always fun listening to Him try to say aluminum.” (Tanya Huff, The Second Summoning, Ch. 7)
When it comes to gritty, I’d sooner go with another prize-winning contemporary woman fantasy writer, and the opening of her first book in the “Chalionverse”:
Cazaril heard the mounted horsemen on the road before he saw them. He glanced over his shoulder. The well-worn track behind him curled up around a rolling rise, what passed for a hill on these high windy plains, before dipping again into the late-winter muck of Baocia’s bony soil. At his feet a little rill, too small and intermittent to rate a culvert or a bridge, trickled greenly across the track from the sheep-cropped pasture above. The thump of hooves, jangle of harness, clink of bells, creak of gear and careless echo of voices came on at too quick a rhythm to be some careful farmer with a team, or parsimonious pack-men driving their mules. (Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion Ch. 1)
I meant to end with a tour de force from the grand master of modern fantasy, who in one book can do all the shades of tone and voice from chatty children’s book to King James Version mythology, with epic and romance and comedy and tragedy in between. But I’ve traveled too often already in the realms of Tolkien, so I’ll stop here, with the grit under Cazaril’s sandals, only one of my particular favourites among fantasy’s more than fifty shades.
* * * * *Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia, and writes fantasy and SF set mostly in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some stories in Australian and US anthologies. Her latest short story, “At Sunset” appears in Luna Station Quarterly for September 2012. “The Honor of the Ferrocarril” is forthcoming in Gears and Levers 3 from Skywarrior Books, and “Spring in Geneva,” a novella riff on Frankenstein, is projected to appear from Aqueduct Press in August 2013.