Musings on the Fantasy Boom

The other day I was at my local used bookstore and found an out-of-print edition of Rosemary Edghill’s “Book of Moons,” part of a trilogy of mysteries involving a Wiccan protagonist and a number of lightly-fictionalized real-life Pagans. While not fantasy in the slightest, as Wiccan and Pagan spells in the novels “work” much as they do in the real world, I can only imagine that these books, if released today, would benefit greatly from the current boom in fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and genre fiction in general. The old saw states that escapist entertainment thrives during tough economic times, and with some saying that were already in, or about to be in, a new depression, something to take our collective minds off the increasingly grim news is probably one of the few safe investments you can make.

Whether its recent rise is due to growing economic unrest, or if we are simply witnessing a tipping point after years of slow and steady growth, I can’t remember a time when mainstream entertainment was so flooded with fantasy. Some have speculated that this current boom is simply a bubble, but I think there’s a far larger shift at play here, as evidenced by the growing number of literary authors dipping their toe into genre work. This isn’t surprising since fantasy and science fiction, as a genre, now eclipses literary fiction, and has claimed a far bigger stake on the bestseller lists.

“In the face of declining print sales, major publishers are increasingly seeking crossover hits that break genre molds and resonate with a broad swath of readers. Fantasy and science fiction made up 10% of adult fiction sales last year, compared with 7% for literary fiction, according to a survey by book industry analyst Bowker. In 2010, 358 fantasy titles hit the bestseller list, up from 160 in 2006, according to a study by Stuart Johnson & Associates and Simba Information, which track books sales.”

I’ve been a fan of fantasy novels since I was a teenager, and am used to selections being much smaller, and my choices limited. Genre works were always relegated to the back, separated from the “regular” fiction that deserved respect and proper consideration from book reviewers in newspapers. While fantasy authors like Ursula K. Le Guin have long argued that genre fiction be taken seriously, it seemingly took a great recession, the partial collapse of the bookselling market, and the massive success of fantasy-oriented media franchises like Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, and The Southern Vampire Mysteries for it to sink in. In addition, fantasy itself has changed. While there are still many popular “high” (albeit grittier) fantasy works from authors like George R.R. Martin, hybrid genres like urban fantasy, paranormal romance, mythic fiction, steampunk, and gaslamp fantasy, have been ascendant in the last decade. These genres, while fantastical, are often grounded in some form of our “real” world and feature flawed protagonists who seem to take more than few cues from Raymond Chandler. Harry Potter, for all its high fantasy topes, is thoroughly grounded by the fact that the witches and wizards there coexist with humanity in an uneasy balance.

Today, fantasy fans are spoiled for choice. I think I have read more works of fantasy in the last year than I have in the previous five. Most of them are urban fantasies that feature magic colliding with our mundane lives in some manner. Authors like Jim Butcher, Darren Shan, Mark Del Franco, Kate Griffin, Mike Carey, Richard Kadrey, and Patricia Briggs fill a space that was once only occupied by authors like Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Terri Windling. A growing number of these fantasy novels feature modern Pagans in some capacity, most notably in the works of S.M. Stirling and Charlaine Harris, to name but two popular examples. There’s also a whole lot of Witches popping up in mystery novels nowadays, not to mention the recent crossover sensation that is “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness. I can’t but think that the currently widespread popularity of fantasy, the increasing utilization of real-life Pagan religions in fictional works, and the active participation of Pagans in fantasy-oriented subcultures, will have some effect on us.

Now, let me be perfectly clear. I don’t think that fantasy literature converts children (or adults for that matter) to modern Paganism. We should all hearken well to the words of Oberon Zell.

Harry Potter fans aren’t interested in Wizardry, Witchcraft, Magick, an online school, or anything that isn’t specifically and only about the Harry Potter stories and characters. The only successful vendor was the one selling licensed trademark Harry Potter merchandise—such as Hogwarts House patches and regalia, movie replica wands, Harry Potter games and toys—and pointy hats.

So despite the paranoid fears of some, reading about magical beings or fictional Witches (or even fictional Wiccans) won’t necessarily make you or your child want to be one. That said, I do think this could be a wonderful opportunity to start dialogs, engage with people who have negative perceptions of modern Pagan faiths, but like fantasy novels, and use works that mesh the mundane and the magical to provide jumping off points for a better understanding of where fantasy ends and the reality of our religions and practice begin. Because the curious will seek us out, and we should have an educated and positive response to those seekers. Maybe some enterprising group can produce as “so you’ve read [insert novel here] and you’d like to know more” pamphlet that will lead them to good sources.

There’s also the question of if the fantasy boom is a by-product of a decline in traditional religious adherence, and a rise in individualistic spirituality in a time of reenchantment. Perhaps, in addition to looking for some escapist entertainment during tough times, people are also looking for a sense of wonder that has all but fled Western expressions of faith. For those religions that do embrace ideas of magic, a sacred landscape, and an enchanted world, this fantasy boom may also see a new boom in converts to those belief systems. One that could make the “Teen Witch” phenomenon of the 1990s seem quaint by comparison.

Like Patheos Pagan on Facebook!


Being a Religious Minority (in Public Schools)
The Religious Pundit Class Equivalent of Hippie Punching
Sick Day
Canadian Government: Non-Christian Prisoners Must Turn to Christian Chaplains
About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Anonymous

    Loved Edgehill’s books. I’d add Theodora Goss to your list of quite good authors worth a read.

  • Anonymous

    I always had trouble finding Edghill’s books, myself. I lucked out once and got her Empty Crown trilogy through library sale, but I have yet to see any of her other works in libraries or bookstores.

    Maybe she just never caught on down South?

  • John Thomas

    Did you try looking on Amazon?

  • Jjlynxcat

    try or, lots of oout of print stuff for not much money. Edghill is worth reading, I just wish she’d finish the series on the 12 treasures she started.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks so much! :) Now I just need to come up with shelf space…

  • Moma Fauna

    Interesting. I am reading the last chapters of Oberon Zell’s Green Egg Omelette at present & the articles revolve around religious themes in science fiction, science fiction as mythos, etc. It is a great reminder of where we have been. Perhaps the modern fantasy genre has inherited this role from the earlier science fiction writings. Of course, in a pre/depression, I suppose we cannot fantasize as comfortably about going into space because we cannot afford it anymore.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    We could not even do it back when this genre fisrt blossomed. Fantasy can still take us to the stars.

  • Moma Fauna

    True, but don’t you remember feeling more hopeful ‘back then’? I was experiencing a wistfulness recalling the optimism (and open-ended imagination) of our space program when I was young. It felt like anything was possible. Now, when I think of NASA & space exploration, my first thought goes to budget cuts. It dampens the dreaming a bit, at least for me.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I was thinking of the first blossoming some 80 or 90 years ago, before my time; I’m only 70.

    Yes, I felt much more optimistic about space flight in my teens and 20s but then I learned about politics and economics. I haven’t read any contemporary science fiction but I understand it is much darker than the 1940s science fiction I read in the ’50s. It doesn’t have to be optimistic to be science fiction.

  • Moma Fauna

    Silly me, I was thinking of the optimism of the 70s/early 80s since I am a mere 40. I have not read any of the newer scifi either, preferring the pulp of the 50s/60s/70s. Mostly, my comment was pointed at the apparent desire for escapism today & I thought maybe the economic downturn might squelch the space voyage part of the escape a bit. But maybe not.
    I must admit however that I prefer non-fiction & to escape, I would rather just go outside.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Alas, by the late 70s/early 80s I could no longer really believe in an economic basis to the fictional futures. That’s when I quit reading the stuff; it was either not an alternative to reality in its pessimism or simply untenable in its optimism.

    I continued to defend the space program, more and more shrilly to liberal friends as it became a non-liberal position, but later realized I was really arguing with myself.

  • Blaze Matthews

    As both a Pagan and a Writer, I loved this article, especially since I write in the fantasy genre. It is deserving of respect, but it still takes most of us by surprise when it is. Off hand, the SM Stirling Books of the Change (or the Emberverse series, if you prefer) are awesome. Supposedly, the last one should be out later this year! (Also, you can always tell when I’m editing. Spelling mistakes that wouldn’t normally bother me stand out.)

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps it was the late, late time of the night, or the fact we’d been on a road trip for hours, but my spouse and I heard Harkness’s Discovery of Witches on Sirius radio and thought that it was the worst of all fantasy cliques rolled into one. It was a Harlequin from Patricia Briggs & Jim Butcher.

  • Lori F – MN

    Jim Butcher’s ‘Harry Dresden’ series is great! The 13th just came out in HC and he’s said there should be at least 20.
    Read the 1st 2 books before you judge. And don’t read them out of order.

  • Sarenth

    The thing that I like about the Dresden Files, is that while being excellent books they’re very accessible even if you’re coming to the series late. While I recommend readers read from the beginning, I didn’t start that way and still loved the series.

  • Norse Alchemist

    23 books, actually. It’s twenty and then an apocalypse trilogy, because who doesn’t like apocalypse trilogies? And with all the Norse stuff coming about in it…I’m thinking the last trio will likely have elements of Ragnorok in it. XD

    Butcher’s Codex Alera is probably one of the funnest High Fantasy series out there. But we all knew the man was a god when he mixed the lost roman legion with pokemon/avatar the last airbender, put them on a death world and made them fight the Zerg. And no, it is not as awesome as it sounds. It is much, much better. XD

  • Fvrnite

    I’ve read only his Dresden File series not the Codex. You describe it well enought to encourage me to read them! I like any genre fiction that has a humor element in it.

  • Fvrnite

    I agree. Butcher’s plots in The Dresden Files series may be formulaic at times but he is a very good storyteller and he never fails to add twists and scorching Dresden’s butt type of action. While I feel for Dresden always seeming to be injured or stressed some in each novel ( formulaic, remember?) he is a fully drawn character and his surrounding characters are as well. Nothing is simple with Dresden, as is real life, and while I am not particularly fond of Butcher using the pentagram on characters that are not Wiccans, I can handle his treatment of why he added it. The only real problem with the Dresden Files is that a new reader needs to read the series sequentially from the first book in order to get Dresden and his world better.

  • Norse Alchemist

    You really have an issue with Harry using a pentagram ’cause he’s not a Wiccan? O_o I’m just surprised because it’s one of the oldest and most universal symbols out there. I mean, I’m an Alchemist, and the pentagram is pretty much a periodic table for us, and it’s the same for Dresden.

    I would also be wiling to debate Harry getting beaten up being formulaic. I’d argue it’s realistic, considering what he goes up against. The fact that half the time he almost get killed by what he’s fighting seems pretty realistic, and considering how often he fights, not sure if fall under formula. But hey, I could be biased since it’s my favorite books series.

  • Ian Phanes

    The pentagram was one of the primary Pythagorean symbols…though they called it the pentalpha. Modern Pagan Witchcraft has no special claim to the symbol.

  • Thelettuceman

    I wouldn’t personally use Martin as a valid example of traditional high-fantasy that persists in the franchise. It is an old story, one that has not been completed, commodification by HBO aside. One could argue the same of the Wheel of Time. I would instead try to judge the new(er) authors of fantasy (Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson, etc.) that are rising in comparison to the plethora of authors from a variety of sub-genres relating to fantasy.

    I personally have no taste for reading urban fantasy novels. I don’t like it, and I think it is an easy way out for people who don’t want to take the time to try to craft a setting that is immersive. And then the artwork is always so horrendously trope-y. I see the cover of books like “Norse Code” and I start twitching.

    To each his own, though. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by reading epic fantasies as my teeth-cutting reading, or I’m insanely difficult to please. But all I see when I look out into the waters of modern fantasy is sludge, with a few gems that may or may not be bright. I really hope the quality of writing goes up soon. :/

  • Norse Alchemist

    I looked up Norse Code and started twitching too…with excitement. Thanks for letting me know about it, can’t wait to read! 😀

    And hey, Tropes are Not Bad. Tropes are tropes, neither good nor evil, and often enough those who know their tropes well enough to make something Troperific generally know them well enough to make it awesome. XD

  • Krystal H.

    I’ve read it. There are some scenes that are good (there’s a scene with Loki and Sigyn that is just DRIPPING with sarcasm) but as a whole? Cliche after cliche after cliche, maybe I’ve read too many urban fantasy novels, but I had the main antagonist nailed from the start, so The Reveal was less “gasp!” and more “meh, saw that coming…from fifty miles away…”

  • Thelettuceman

    Haha. You’ll have to tell me how it was. I can’t get passed the cover. 😛

  • Fvrnite

    Trust me on this, the modern fantasy genre is better than when I first started reading it in the late 1970s. Can you say LOTR imitations or worse still the GOR series? Ah yes the era of brass bikini clad big busted maidens, grossly overly muscled male “heroes” and really gross but not horrifying ” monsters”. In that sea of dreck something like Marion Zimmer Bradley or even Zenna Henderson were treasures you felt lucky to find as a reader.

  • Scott

    Personally, I think a lot of the over-tropification of the “urban fantasy” genre started with Laurell Hamilton’s imitators (aided and abetted by LKH’s descent into ridiculousness with the later Anita Blake novels and pretty much all of the Merry Gentry novels). I don’t see any of the sense of Mystery that’s present in the work of writers like Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, and Terri Windling. Most of it seems to be some combination of police/private eye procedural and romance novel, with “supernatural” characters and overly mechanistic magic thrown in to spice up the setting. And, to bring it back around to Wild Hunt territory, they’ve got about as much to do with the religious aspects of paganism as “Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter” does with Christianity. How about a discussion of fantasy works that have some relationship to our religion *as a religion*, instead of just a source of edgy magic-wielders?

  • Nick Ritter

    “I don’t like it, and I think it is an easy way out for people who don’t want to take the time to try to craft a setting that is immersive.”

    I don’t know if it counts as “Urban Fantasy,” but I found Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ to be quite captivating, in large part because I live in the area where much of the story takes place, and have visited other areas mentioned in the book. Using a real setting that some readers will be familiar with is, in my opinion, a good way of pulling readers in.

    I have not yet read “War for the Oaks,” but am looking forward to reading it for the same reasons: I want to be able to pass a spot and remember it from the book.

  • GreenGirl

    I wonder, perhaps all this interest will spark a renewed understanding of the first beliefs. Naively, I hope, these books & movies will affect tolerance in the way of a certain acceptance of what is and always was will be.

  • Justin Patrick Moore

    John Michael Greer has an interesting post on SF up over at his Archdruid Report:
    He has also been writing a post-peak “SF” novel, “Stars Reach”… serialized here…

    I think it would be nice if there were more openly Pagan genre writers. I write SF and F myself… these literatures fuel the imagination, and the imagination is a strong component of magick in all its forms.

  • Kate

    As a long-time reader of fantasy, I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the many wonderful works by Patricia McKillip, especially her more contemporary books, such as “Solstice Wood”, which examines the relationships between human and fey. Another all-time favorite in more of the Urban Fantasy genre would be the books of John Crowley, most notably his World Fantasy Award winning novel, “Little,Big”. One of the most amazing novels I have ever read, with lovely prose, and intriguing story line. Not to mention a very surprising ending. These authors truly do examine the areas that we cannot see clearly, or where the borders between worlds are unsure, and with their craft, they do not necessarily make things clear or defined, but they can invite us to be more willing to LOOK and observe.

  • Raksha

    This post is very relevant to my interests! I’m an avid reader and I love love love me some sf/fantasy, so it’s been pretty good going for me recently as well.

    I’d like to add a few recommendations:

    Catherynne Valente is probably my favorite author ever, hands down. Not only is she a fantastic writer, but she’s One Of Us, a frequent collaborater of SJ Tucker, keeps a very interesting blog, and is prolific enough to keep me from getting the DTs too badly between books :) Her Orphan’s Tales books are some of the most finely crafted storytelling I’ve ever read. She builds a totally Pagan world and myth cycle from the ground up, with stories inside stories like Russian nesting dolls and intertwining storylines that somehow manage not to get confusing. So, so good. And her Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is just delightful from beginning to end (and you can read most of it online at that link).

    I’ve also read a few of Juliet Marillier’s books recently and really liked them. They’re historical fantasies. The Wildwood Dancing books focus on a family of young sisters in Transylvania who have a door to fairyland in their family castle. This one is pretty damn Pagan, with only the occasional mention of “Oh yeah, and this person thought nailing up a cross would help” (even though it totally didn’t) every now and then. Wolfskin follows a young Viking boy as he comes of age and ends up on a journey to distant shores and an internal struggle between his own honor and saving the lives of innocents. This one is Pagan up one side and down the other. Definitely worth looking into.

    Dianne Sylvan, One Of Us who has written a few very good non-fiction Pagan books is branching out into urban fantasy with her Shadow World series. I’ve read the two that have been published so far and they’re kick ass.

  • Anonymous

    I think that the one person we should all be mentioning is Terry Pratchett. Read any of the Discworld stories, especially those with Granny Weatherwax, and you can see that he understands us (in many ways, better than we ourselves do).

  • AnonGuest

    Sir Terry Pratchett is wonderful, and if you are knitting/crafting or whatever there’s some well-done audiobooks. You don’t have to start anywhere in particular to enjoy them, though people have their favourites they can’t stop quoting and go “ooh ooh!” about.

  • Daniel Kestral

    I have been a fan of S.M. Stirling’s “Dies The Fire” series for some time now. I especially love Juniper Mackenzie as the Wiccan High Priestess of the “Old Religion” protaganist character. And especially, too, since it takes place in the Pacific Northwest (Western Oregon). I even have an autographed copy!

    In addition, I have been a fan of the “Witches of Eileanan” series (10 books) by Kate Forsyth for some years now, and highlythe recommend the series. Characters such as Meghan of the Beasts, Gwylm the Ugly, and Isabeau are memorable protaganists, who, in an alternate magical world filled with Dragons, Fae, etc., are seeking to restore the 13 keys of the Coven and end the persecution of Witches and other magical folk. There are alot of Celtic underpinnings, too!

  • rowen

    just reread Dies the Fire triology (well there 3 other books after that then and another three after that) but I like how Wicca is displayed in there..

  • Cara

    Interview I did with Stirling and a few of his readers about Paganism and his books:

    And yes, I’m a huge fan of his books and of him as a person. When my son was in basic training I emailed Mr. Stirling to see if he would send my son a card to cheer him up (he’s my son’s favorite author, too). Mr. Stirling responded immediately to my email and didn’t just send him a card, he sent him a book. Can’t tell you how wonderful and exciting that was for my son during such a stressful time.