A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... these are the opening lines to a fantastic story of epic proportions that takes place in a land unlike our own. And that's where a Fantasy story should take place, a setting that is different in some way from the world we're forced to live with every day. But should it?
I had just finished reading RingWorld by Larry Niven (a Hard Science-Fiction novel set in the future on a massive alien made world built on the inside of a spinning ring) when my girlfriend at the time told me about a book she loved that was ab0ut to be turned into a movie. It was Harry Potter.
At the time, I considered myself a bit of a Fantasy/Science-Fiction nut. I couldn't stop reading. Ender's Game, Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and Dune were just a few of the series I was addicted to. I was in college and up to my ears in homework. I was working the night shift at a pharmacy to pay for school and cigarettes. And somehow, I spent most nights reading novels in bed until I couldn't hold my eyes open any longer. The story was part of what drove me to keep reading, and the characters too, but I was convinced at the time it was the escape. For a few hours each night I could live in a different world or in a different time where my responsibilities seemed ephemeral and miniscule compared to what characters like Rand, Ender, and Frodo faced.
After I finished the classics, I spent hours scouring Barnes and Noble for new titles to devour. I saw them there, the titles with pictures of women wielding swords on crotch rockets or men using magic wearing an AC/DC T-Shirt. I looked down on those books. They seemed like trash compared to something as prolific as Dune. I responded with a similar attitude to my girlfriend when she recommended Harry Potter. It was a kid's book and it took place today, in our world. How could that be satisfying?
How could I have been so wrong?
Harry Potter was my gateway drug. Settings that took place on different worlds, in different times, or in strange places were a great way to escape... but what about the magical world that existed right under my nose in cities drowned by the bustle and hustle of commuting, collaborating, screaming, talking, and constantly moving people?
Two things happened that changed my life after that. First, a whole new world of literature suddenly looked succulent, ripe, and ready to be picked off the shelves of my favorite book store. Second, I had to marry that girl. She did more than just introduce me to a new book series, she showed me that preconceived notions about, well... about anything really, are just silly. What makes books and reading fun is the experience, not just the escape or the characters or the setting.
That's the first part of this blog.
The second part is about Modern Fantasy, a sub genre of Fantasy (AKA Contemporary Fantasy). Unfortunately, I think Modern Fantasy tends to get a bad rap for the same reason I was hesitant to give it a try. The covers and plot synopsis of quite a few Modern Fantasy novels have the distinct ring of another genre, Fantasy Trash (that's my term for a story that has no cerebral value beyond brain candy, like a movie with great visual effects but a horrible script). And there are definitely books like that out there waiting to sucker an unsuspecting reader into wasting $9.99 on a story that will be forgotten in less than a week. But there's others that redeem and truly define the sub-genre that is Modern Fantasy. Let's take a look at a few of those.
To start, what is Modern Fantasy? I'm going to pull text from Wikipedia:
Maybe you caught the important line out of that definition... "set in the present day". Modern Fantasy is set in the present day. Urban Fantasy is set in a city or a suburb of a city although typically, Urban Fantasies are also set in present day.
What are some good examples of Modern Fantasy? Now we're getting closer to this post's juicy center. There are a few by Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere and American Gods) that definitely fit nicely into Modern Fantasy, but Neil is a superstar in the literary world and doesn't need much in the way of an introduction. Still, check out both those books immediately if you're unfamiliar with them. Seriously. Stop reading this article and buy Neverwhere. Then come back and read the rest.
Or finish this article. But then, go read Neverwhere.
Here are a few of my Modern Fantasy favorites since having the "figurative" wool of literary prejudice pulled from my eyes.
The Dresden Files (Jim Butcher): The Dresden Files are quite possibly the Holy Grail of Contemporary Urban Fantasy.
Jim Butcher has created a band of misfit characters who each have enough spotlight time, character depth, and description to spawn their own series but keeps them balanced and part of a team that work along side Harry Dresden, Wizard PI. And he's legit, just look up "Wizard" in the Yellow Pages.
It's snarky, witty, moving, and above all... enjoyable to read. The characters are real. And I think that's the best compliment I could give this book. Not everyone is a hero. Not even the protagonist is always a hero, he has his dark sides too and Butcher isn't afraid to show you both the good and bad sides of humanity.
Jim Butcher puts out one of these year. He just released the 14th book called "Cold Days". He plans to write another 10 books in this series with the final 3 being an "Apocalypse Trilogy". It starts with "Storm Front". I highly recommend this series.
Mercy Thompson (Patricia Briggs): Our protagonist is Mercy Thompson, an auto mechanic scraping by in her beat up mobile home who lives within spitting distance from a neighbor, Adam Hauptman. He's ex-military, doing pretty well for himself in the security business, he can't stand the site of Mercy's POS home and oh yeah... he's a Werewolf. In fact he's the Alpha of a large werewolf pack.
But Mercy's Ok with that. She grew up with a pack of Werewolves, which isn't something just anyone can do. Their pretty touchy. But she has a secret of her own.
She's a shape-shifter. Since a child, she's been able to shift into the form of a Coyote. And like your typical coyote, she can't help but get into all forms of trouble.
What makes this series so fun to read is the well thought out setting (which is borderline Fantasy instead of Contemporary Fantasy).
The story begins by explaining how the Fae (Creatures from Grimm's nursery rhymes) came out to the public only a few years ago. As you can imagine, the public reacted pretty bad to finding out that all of the monsters from our bed time stories are real but, they're moving forward. Our government created "camps" for the Fae to enjoy themselves without fear of being attacked by humans. That's nice, right?
So what's interesting in this story is that everyone already has the 411. There's no hiding or keeping unbelievable secrets from the public at large... except, they don't know about Werewolves, or Vampires, or Zombies, or well all the other creepy stuff they just aren't ready for yet. And for the most part, they want to keep it that way.
And they don't know about Mercy either or what it means to be a Coyote. In point of fact, neither does she nor most of the other baddies out there.
The first book is Moon Called. Give it a shot.
The Iron Druid Chronicles (Kevin Hearne): Atticus O'Sullivan is a pretty cool guy. He runs a small shop where he sells herbs and teas to people, the occasional book, he likes rock music, but still gives respect to the old school music from his childhood... over 2000 years ago.
Kevin Hearne builds characters, universes, and monsters that exist under our very noses here in the US. Atticus (the main character) has a nice house and neighbors. He communes with Gaia (the spirit of the earth) often, because that's his job. He's a druid. The last one. The rest were killed off when he was still pretty young.
He's killed Gods, made pacts with them, he may have slept with a few over the years... but still finds time to keep a good relationship with his dog, whom he can speak with using telepathy.
Some of the names are hard to read as Kevin Hearne does a lot of research in Irish lore. But the dog is absolutely hilarious and Atticus isn't too bad himself. He can't help but save the damsel in distress or shape shift into a big dog and run with his best friend for a bit.
The Iron Druid chronicles are a quick read and super fun. The first book is "Hounded".
The Rook (Daniel O'Malley): This was one of the most surprising books I've read in a long time. It was nothing like what I expected.
The story begins with our main character standing in the rain surrounded by several dead bodies. She has no idea how she got there, or what she was doing before she got there, or... she doesn't even know her own name.
All she has to go on is a letter she found in her pocket from someone who seems to know a little about her current predicament. That letter leads her to another, and another after that, and then she finds notebooks filled with documents, sketches, and notes that teach her about who she was. And ultimately, find the bastard who tried to kill her.
Only, the people who did are pretty powerful. Like super hero powerful.
Follow along as Myfanwy (pronounced like Tiffany with an "M") works to relearn who she was and find out why someone tried to kill her.
The Rook is fast paced and filled with surprises.
Zero Sight (Justin Shier): The Zero Sight Series follows the adventures of Dieter Resnick, high school student turned spell-slinger.
What's so great about this series is how quickly Justin Shier makes me like the main character. The books starts with Dieter in a fight, and he's doing pretty good for himself. But you learn the reason why he's there, how he's standing up to the school bully as the fight begins to become more like a brawl and he finds himself on the wrong side of a heavy rock.
Down, nearly unconscious, he's about to be killed when he loses memory of what happens and wakes up in the hospital. He's not doing to good, but better than the bully. That guy's head is laying in about a thousand pieces. The police say it was a freak accident but Dieter knows better.
And so do a few others.
Zero Sight is an Indy book. I don't think it's something you can find in Barnes and Noble, but you can grab it on Amazon or direct from Justin's site: http://www.bjustinshier.com/p/zero-sight-s…
Justin Shier is a doctor by day, and author by night. Book 3 of the Zero Sight series is on the way. Book 1 is called Zero Sight.
What's Next? My GoodReads "to-read" list only has about 20 books left in it. I dabbled in romance for a few months and found quite a few fun supernatural books, I've been hitting some non-fiction's recently with a focus on American history. Surprisingly, I've read quite a few young adult novels and I'm looking forward to tackling "Perks of being a Wallflower" in the next week or two.
I think the key is not to throw any genre out as too young, or too old, too stupid, childish, weak, or not worth reading. Every genre has their bad eggs. And each one has their golden eggs too.
Modern Fantasy is no exception. I think you'll be happy with any of the above books/series.