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[GUEST POST] David Chandler on A Game Of Subgenres (+ Giveaway!)

David Chandler is the author of the Ancient Blades Trilogy, comprising Den of Thieves, A Thief in the Night, and Honor Among Thieves, all of which are available now from Harper Voyager. There are elves and magic swords in his books, but he promises they’re especially gritty, and not what you’d expect.


The rise of “Low Fantasy” has surprised many of the genre’s traditional pundits. The books of George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, for instance, have captured enormous audiences even though they don’t look much like what fantasy used to be. There is very little magic in these books. There are no grand quests, no singing swords, and definitely no elves.

The “High Fantasies” which dominated the market for so long-most of them imitators, to one degree or another, of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien-seem to be receding from view. At a panel at New York Comic Con recently the question came up as to why this is happening. Why do people want gritty fantasy now? Why are they turning up their noses at the elves they used to love?

Pondering the question I remembered something a former professor told me once, back in the early 90s. He and I were discussing horror movies, and how they seemed to have gone through a sea change in the early 80s. Before you’d had men in rubber suits menacing the teeny-boppers, and if anyone actually got bloody it looked like they were slathered in ketchup. By the mid-80s, horror movies were all about lovingly rendered viscera, gleaming with body fluids. The victims were savaged and grotesquely distorted, while the monsters went from lumbering beasts to twisted psychopaths who seemed a little too happy in their work.

The change, this professor told me, had to have come about because of the Vietnam war. In the 70s we all got to see what real carnage looked like-it was splattered all over the evening news. After that the rubber monsters and the ketchup dripping from their claws could never be scary again.

The change in fantasy, I think, comes from a similar origin. The first decade of the Twenty-First Century was a time of warfare and national destinies being played out on the small screen as much as on the world stage. It was a time when villains attacked us without warning and our revenge was, if perhaps not as swift as we would have liked, certainly devastating. This was the decade of shock and awe.

Lagging only a little behind, I think fantasy is responding to the horrors of the War on Terror, just as horror responded to Vietnam. Suddenly we are all caught up in a High Fantasy of national proportions. The surge of patriotism and fear in the early 2000s birthed a sense of American (and Western) peril and we stayed glued to our TV sets for nearly a decade, desperate to know what was happening and how it would end.

And what we saw was pretty damned gritty.

Our stories must always reflect our real lives. Elves with magic bows and children born under prophecies to save the world just don’t fit with the new realities of war and politics. Instead we get constant, grueling warfare (Joe Abercrombie does a great job with this). We get the people in charge making secret deals and engaging in vicious reprisals (George R. R. Martin is the undisputed master here). We get sudden acts of terrifying carnage, and we get the desperate hopes of the people huddling in their mud hovels, hoping this time, just maybe, the war of good versus evil won’t be played out on their fields and in their homes this time.

Low Fantasy is ascendant, because we’re living it.

No one can say what the next great movement in fantasy will be, of course. Now that Osama Bin Laden is dead, the world may not seem quite as gritty to the next generation. But if the past is any help in determining the future, it’s likely we’ve seen the last of High Fantasy as a popular genre-that particular strain of innocence is lost.

I feel sorry for the poor elves. They were kind of annoying with their superiority complexes and their silly clothes. But the world they lived in seems like an awfully nice place now that it’s gone.

GIVEAWAY! Win The First Two Books in the Ancient Blades Trilogy!

Courtesy of Harper Voyager, SF Signal has multiple copies of the first two books in David Chandler’s Ancient Blades Trilogy to give away to 3 lucky readers. Each winner will receive a copy of both Den of Thieves and A Thief in the Night!

Here’s how you can enter for a chance to win:

  1. Send an email to contest at sfsignal dot com. (That’s us).
  2. In the subject line, enter ‘Ancient Blades‘.
  3. In the email, include your mailing address so the book may be shipped as soon as possible. (Sorry, this is only open to residents of the U.S.)
  4. Only one entry per person allowed. Duplicate entries will go the way of high fantasy.
  5. The giveaway will end Monday, December 15th, 2011 (10:00 PM U.S Central time). The winners will be selected at random, notified, and announced shortly thereafter. Winners will receive the books directly from the publisher.

14 Comments on [GUEST POST] David Chandler on A Game Of Subgenres (+ Giveaway!)

  1. Funny enough, a few fantasy authors (and little old me) were debating the boundaries between Low and High Fantasy on twitter today.



  2. Ah yes, because the horrors of Vietnam and the Global War on Terror changed us so much. It’s a nice little (Baby Boomer) assumption that completely ignores the fact that what people consider “High Fantasy” got it’s start in a much worse war: World War I. Compared to the devastation that all of Europe suffered, killing off almost an entire generation and laying the seeds for World War II, Vietnam and GWOT are brushfires.

    Nothing has changed about “the new realities of war and politics.” It’s that an entitled, spoiled generation has woken up to the fact that the real world exists and now they are trying to figure out how to deal with it.

  3. Stephen J. // December 8, 2011 at 9:07 pm //

    I wouldn’t be as blunt about it as Uruloki, above, but I’d have to agree: it’s always tempting to think that a particular fad of popularity in any given artistic area betokens some great cultural shift or zeitgeist, when it may actually be nothing more than a swinging pendulum of public taste and business cycle.


    High fantasy was popular for decades because Terry Brooks knocked a (grantedly mediocre but nonetheless entertaining) bestseller out of the park with SWORD OF SHANNARA in 1977, waking the publishing industry up to the fact that there was a huge audience for Tolkienian-type epic stories that had been starving since the ’60s for something new.  Epic high fantasy then rose and fell with authors like Eddings, McKiernan, Feist, Weis & Hickman, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Donaldson, leading into Jordan in 1990 with the Wheel of Time.  (Donaldson, it must be said, had already thoroughly proven the grittiness potential of the material, as had Tolkien himself — Frodo in the final chapters of LOTR is as compelling a case of post-traumatic stress disorder as one can ever see.)


    Eventually, as happens, the market got saturated, and in the second half of the 90s — well in advance of the War on Terror, in fact — we began to see much grittier fantasy:  Terry Goodkind, George R.R. Martin (people forget that the first three books of SONG OF ICE AND FIRE came out in ’96, ’98 and 2000, *well* before the War on Terror got underway), Steven Brust’s Jhereg series, and Steven Erikson’s Malazan series (again, the first three books of which came out in ’99, 2000 and 2001).  The pendulum continued swinging in the ’00s into the truly grim stuff like Abercrombie, Bakker, and (to a much lesser degree) Scott Lynch, but I honestly think that without the road being cleared by their predecessors, the New Grimsters wouldn’t have done nearly so well.  My prediction is that in a few years the pendulum will start swinging back.


    The elves will never be gone.  We will just forget about them for a while, until we want to see them again.

  4. These days I don’t have many writing/publishing goals left to achieve (lucky me), but one of them is to write a thriller and the other is to write a gritty fantasy novel. Write what you love, that’s the advice isn’t it? I don’t love magic, but I do like a good sword fight, a decent quest and (hopefully) overcoming overwhelming odds.

  5. Using your definition of “low fantasy”, or maybe I should say your definition of what “high fantasy” is not…Martin isnt “low fantasy”.

    There are quests. There are magic swords. There are elves. There children born under prophecies.

    Granted, some of the criteria are subtle, or low key ,or very limited, or denied by the author; they are there and provide the backbone of the story. 

    It seems the only thing that makes people call Martin’s SoIaF “low fantasy” is that it is gritty. In other words the heroes get covered in shit. Is that enough to kick it out of “high fantasy”? Maybe. I dunno, I dont bother with this navel gazing most of the time. (I even wonder at times if the navel gazing is more harmful than helpful)

    BTW- wouldnt AoIaF also fall outside of your thesis in that a good chunk of it was written and published before the “War on Terror”, so how can it be affected by it?

    In some ways, I think that the success of Martin is part of the reason for the change. Martin was successful, that success brought more “gritty fantasy” to the marketplace, when that had success, even more was published, in a vicious circle (sorry that was a bad pun…).

    You can even say the same thing about “realism” in movies. In the late 60s, early 70s, filmmakers started adding more “blood and gore” to their movies (especially once the Hays code was done away with), and once they started having success, more of it was the result. The only thing Vietnam may have had to do with it is that filmmakers had examples on film (that rarely made documentaries, let alone the news) of what real life wounds looked like in living color.  Those examples served to increase the “realism” of the next generation of movies.


  6. I would say that Game of Thrones, especially, is of a piece with the darkening in speculative fiction that began in the ’80s — “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen” in comics, “Neuromancer” in SF. These aren’t really trends in any sort of definable sense, they’re just broad reactions to the culture. The rubber monsters in horror films didn’t stop because we went to Vietnam, they stopped because they were silly and childish. As the people who grew up enjoying the silly rubber monsters got older, they naturally wanted something that was more reflective of reality. Same thing in comic books, and (eventually) the same thing in fantasy.

  7. While I agree with the general theory that the current popularity of gritty fantasy is a response to geo-political and cultural factors external to the genre, I think the trend significantly predates the War on Terror:

    This was not a trend initiated by George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie or the other “low” fantasy authors currently popular. Much like the shift in horror cinema in the ’80s, this trend actually relates (I think) closely to America’s cultural experiences in Vietnam. As the late ’70s and early ’80s saw the rise of gritty, violent cinema (within horror as well as outside of it – Deer Hunter, anyone?) we saw the same in fantasy.

    There had always been a sub-genre of fantasy that one could consider grittier than LOTR and its descendents. Whether we’re talking about Michael Moorcock, Robert E. Howard or Fritz Leiber, there certainly is a fair share of “gritty” fantasy that predates Vietnam as well. The difference, I think, rests in where the focus lies: Howard and Leiber told gritty stories of epic heroes. Following Vietnam, we got stories of “blood in the mud” – the trenches of medievalist warfare with “normal” heroes as opposed ones larger than life. And it is that trend that I think contemporary gritty fantasists (Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erickson, etc.) are really continuing.

    I might be wrong, but I think the first to actually do this was Glen Cook with his Black Company books (the first, The Black Company, was published in 1984). In terms of sales power, these gritty fantasies were occluded by the mainstream popularity of Tolkien-lite fantasy like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series. But they still had a major impact which began to take shape in the latter half of the ’90s (still predating the War on Terror). The first three Song of Ice and Fire novels were all published before 2001 (in 1996, 1998 and 2000 respectively).

    This trend has been building for a long time — much longer than the last 9 years. And yes, the War on Terror does add to it. But it’s a contributing factor, not the inciting one.

  8. Ludwig Van // December 9, 2011 at 12:05 pm //

    As others already pointed out to you, Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire precedes the so-called War on Terror. Furthermore, its dramatic and formal characteristics are very much in line with what Martin has written before (even though most of his earlier work is soft or super-hero science fiction).

    I am a relatively young reader who had the chance to pick works from an 100-year-history of fantasy fiction. I know Howard (and several other authors of so-called sword-and-sorcery), Lovecraft, Lewis and Tolkien, as well as Vance, Herbert and some of the authors of the 70s and 80s, for example Zelazny, Donaldson, Ende and LeGuin. I also read fantasy short stories and novels by other authors that are considered to be classics and often invoked in discussions – Moorecock, Brooks, Feist, Hobb and Eddings come to mind.

    Years ago, Tolkien was a great experience and I still hold his works in high regard. But almost all of the other fantasy works dealing with transcendent struggels between “Good” and “Evil” or containing numerous humanoid races (like “elves” or “dwarfs”) seem ridiculous to me. Most of the secondary worlds modelled after or with inspiration from Tolkien’s Middle-earth look like a zoo. They lack the mythological believability of Tolkien’s rather  experimental novel and thus feel cheap, bland and pointless. An exceptions to this ‘rule’ is Donaldson’s Land, which could be the delusion of a disturbed human being.

    A fantasy novel with such a simple, dualistic struggle or with a creature zoo but without the believable literary form of, say, The Lord of the Rings (ie a supposed translation of an edited historiographic and autobiographical account of some fictional event) can only feel empty.

    Dragons? Awesome! Zombies? Funny! Vampires? Creepy! Demons? Naughty! Godlike beings from another dimension? Bring it on!

    But pointless caricatures of mythological archetypes that one (!) seminal writer of the genre used in his – very formally peculiar – novel? Or an EPIC battle between the hero of light/love/liberty and some ridiculous villain? Please, just don’t…

    Now, here comes contemporary fantasy literature: Martin (dragons, zombies and whatnot), Bakker (all kinds of shit bio-engineered by aliens), Rothfuss (demons), Abercrombie, Lynch, even batshit-crazy Erikson (who’s secondary world is a zoo, alright, but at least a very non-traditional one).

    All of them are far from the formulaic re-imagining of Middle-earth. Westeros doesn’t care about mythological or linguistic or pseudo-historical believability. It’s a stage for a story. And a story that doesn’t try to achieve what Tolkien’s (singular) story (singularly) achieved, doesn’t need elves or dwarves or halflings. And since it doesn’t want to be bland and boring, it surely doesn’t need a pure hero or a dark overlord. The same is true for all the other ‘new’ secondary world writers of any skill and value.

    That’s the reason why stories taking place there are so successful now. And it’s the reason why fantasy literature was never in a better shape than today.

  9. Games of Thrones was published in 1996.

    Iraq was invaded in 2003.



    So unless there is some time paradox.





    Game of Thrones is popular in many countries including ones where the Iraq War is generally looked on critically, but where the horrors of it are not in the foreground, just as the horrors of African conflicts are a dim blur that do not change the zeitgeist.

  10. AnotherAnon // December 9, 2011 at 2:57 pm //

    As the above poster mentions, why should this all be seen through an American cultural lens? These books sell well in more places than the States, and most of us don’t give a toss for the War on Terror (congratularions, by the way – that Battlefield America bill sure smells like winning). Given that the bulk of the novels you cite, as amusingly pointed out a few times already, predate the WoT it just seems like more patriotic guff. Bear in mind that Game of Thrones had a very successful TV series, and both it and, say, the Malazan Book of the Fallen are approaching conclusion – that’s a good time to recommend it to someone. Alternatively, some people just shy away from lengthy fantasy sagas until the damn things are done.

    China Mieville has been producing astonishingly grim fantasy novels for a while now, in a setting that seems sprung from the manic-depressive twin of Terry Pratchett. If he was any way inspired by the War on Terror his take would be… unkind.

  11. @AnotherAnon: It’s a great point, but I would argue that for a host of reasons the 1970’s saw a trend in media (driven by the news media first, and followed by entertainment) to depict scenes of violence more realistically.

    I suspect this was a global trend, and not just limited to the United States (after all the ’70s saw some pretty tough and brutal events all over the globe). But I suspect the juggernauts of Hollywood and US publishing saw that cultural trend filter through with larger audiences: within a couple years of Vietnam ending, we saw landmark violent movies like The Deer Hunter, The Godfather, etc. all of which marked a significant departure from the more stylized violence of earlier decades.

    The trend in “gritty” fantasy can’t possibly be confined to US authors: of the authors we’ve been discussing here, only GRRM and Glen Cook are from the US. Joe Abercrombie and China Mieville are British, Steven Erickson and R. Scott Bakker are both Canadian, etc. The trend towards “gritty fantasy” is global, but owes – I think – its origins to a global cultural acceptance of violence which was sparked (or at least heavily influenced) by the tumultous 1970’s…and like it or not, the Vietnam War was central to that process. Even if the war itself didn’t get much airtime outside of the US, the movies and books it influenced certainly did, and in turn influenced creators working today.

    A more interesting question, I think, is what drove the focus from larger-than-life heroes like Conan, Elric, Paksenarrion, or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser to more “everyman” heroes like we see in Cook, Abercrombie, Mieville, Erickson, Bakker, etc. That’s the more interesting – and I think less easily traced – shift: why did the classic hero give way to the common person?

  12. I’m glad folks started including Glen Cook– some of the best examples for this discussion because he’s so aboveboard about the issues. Beyond the Black Company which pushed ‘War is Hell’ long before Jaime got pruned, his ‘Garrett, PI’ series openly discusses PTSD and problems of veteran reetry, all stirred into tongue-in-cheek noir-inspired detective fantasy. Good stuff.

    Last, I don’t think it’s so paradoxical that the ASoIaF books were written after the kickoff of the war on terror– even if GRRM wasnt drawing on the period or mindset Chandler discusses, swaths of the newer readers and watchers that are daily picking up the books have been.

  13. joshua Corning // December 11, 2011 at 6:18 am //

    I am a bit confused as to the difference between high and low fantasy used in the article.


    Elves and magic = high while no elves and less magic = low i can understand that…but then warfare is added in as being low. Hard to think of any fantasy without a little war in it high or low. In fact your example of LotR as being high fantasy is all about war…..The Wizard of Oz maybe?


    Off topic but anyone else notice that only the “good” guys in game of thrones series use magic? And also that the magic used always seems to give ambiguous or tragic results?


    Anyway back on topic…i would argue that Game of Thrones is high fantasy the difference between it and LotR is that in LotR magic was waning in the world while in GoT magic is rising.

  14. Chandler’s notion simply doesn’t hold water, because, as many people above have mentioned, many of these “gritty fantasies” were written years before the so-called War on Terror started. During the 1980s there was a trend toward “dark & gritty” stories in comics, science fiction and fantasy. There have been scholarly books written about this period; maybe a trip to the lbrary is in order?

    I also disagree about the assertions made by his film teacher regarding horror movies. Gore and viscera were already being flung about and were plenty prevalent in the genre, even during the Viet Nam era back in the late 60s and early 70s. While the blood and gore ramped up, starting with 1960’s Psycho, by the time you get to the 1970s, you’ve already got all the elements in place for the horror genre up to today: The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Jaws (1975), Carrie (1976), The Omen (1976) with finishing touches via Halloween (1978) and Alien (1979).



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