As a kid, the first novels I read were fantasy novels like now classics The Hobbit, Watership Down, and The Lion, The Witch, & the Wardrobe. From reading these stories I grew into literature.
A secret love was always the more fantastical stories. They weren’t quite science fiction and weren’t quite horror stories. I went through a Gothic novel phase as a fourth grader. It was then that I learned that I hated Victorian literature. In fact, I probably blame Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and my mother’s worn copy of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey for my dive into dystopian fiction for it was not long after this phase I first read Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World.
1984 shattered me. As I went deeper into Orwell’s work, I came to love the literature of grit although perhaps counter-intuitively not so much politics or war. The casual banality and intense reality of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Road to Wigan Pier, and Down and Out in Paris and London ushered me into proper literature. But I always kept a secret love of the speculative, the fanciful.
In high school, discovering Gabriel Garcia Marquez was another watershed moment. Magical realism was a glorious genre leading me to Borges which led me to experimental fiction (with a sad, cliche stop over with the Beats) which led me to the kind of literature I love the most: experimental contemporary poetry.
This most superficial sketch of a personal literary timeline is incomplete. It lacks the fantasy novels I secretly kept consuming. The Chronicles of Prydain and The Mists of Avalon showed me that fantasy literature can partake of realism without any detriment to the story, without derailing the truly fantastic elements of it. In fact, realist fantasy became a non-genre I would seek out.
In between watching movies like The Last Unicorn, Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Willow, Kull, and Legend, I would steal away into pulp fantasy novels. My candy was always cut with greens. You watch The Never Ending Story, you have to read Silas Marner. Revel in the Silmarillion, but you still need to read your Joyce. As teenager, I kept trying to merge my love of genre with my desire to know more literary fiction. It didn’t always work but there were options and opportunities. What I ended up reading, re-reading, watching and re-watching, studying and critiquing all led me to a deep and abiding love of story.
So now I am attempting to craft my own story. I realize I don’t have the prowess to write serious literature, nor do I have the idealism to craft a fairytale or magical fantasy. I’ve discovered that I want to write non-magic fantasy. Swords without the sorcery, if you will.
I’ve tried my best to do so, and I plan on doing quite a bit more regardless of readership. Yet I butt up against categorization. I am writing genre but what exactly is the genre. Epic fantasy? Speculative fiction? Low fantasy? Soft science fiction? Historical fantasy? All of these and others? None of them and more?
I think I believe something along the lines of this: “A novel set in a world with invented history, invented people, invented countries, and so on can be fantasy. It doesn’t have to be alternative history (particularly if it’s not closely based on an Earth country), and it doesn’t have to be science fiction (particularly if it doesn’t deal closely with science and the effects of science on human lives).” But still, what does this mean non-magic fantasy is?
For me, non-magic fantasy tells the story of people interacting with the world around them in the same manner that we in our world would. The only difference? It’s not ours. It has an unique geography, cultural history, and flora and fauna, but it still essentially obeys real world physics. To my mind, the defining feature of non-magic fantasy is the quality of worldbuilding and how that worldbuilding serves as a proxy for deeper, better, or more complex understanding of our own. A fantasy story is at its heart an allegory. But it needn’t be magical or mystical, it can be realist. Not only having and obeying its own internal logic, but mirroring our own. It is a way to distance ourselves from ourselves while still being quite intimate.
I think of my story as magic-free or non-magic fantasy. I’ve even seen the rather clunky phrase “a magic-less secondary-world fiction.” So here is a slight heuristic, an attempt to define this genre as best I can.
Fantasy fiction like all genres is rife with tropes and cliches. In the realm of characters, typically a work of fantasy is peopled by non-human creatures like elves, dwarves, orcs, ogres, goblins, and the like. I don’t have any interest in creating non-human populations. I’m more interested in the idea of there being a variety of human populations.
One of the things that has always astounded me is that we humans are a lone species. Nearly every other creature on the planet is multiple species. We manufacture difference typically through race and gender. What if there really was difference? What if there were multiple species of human, each still very much human but ever so slightly its own? A world where Neanderthals and Denisovans and perhaps other human species never died out. That would be fantastic.
For me, I don’t want to tell a ‘what-if’ story set in our real world or in its history. I want to tell a story in a metaphorical world, one that acts as part of an analogy or allegory with our own. Thus, in my books I have introduced several human species. There are no elves or dwarves or orcs, rather only varieties of humans. All of our biases are still existent, neither solved nor complicated, and have to be confronted by each and every character both within and without.
What I always enjoyed in the fantasy series I read as a kid (and still as an adult) were those that took aspects of our real world, our shared history, using it to color their fantasy world. What makes work like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and George Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice so captivating (at least, one aspect of it) is how they take from history retelling it for their own purpose. Yet, we as readers aren’t just entertained but given a wedge to learn something deeper about our own world in a very practical sense not.
For example, the now famous scene from Martin’s novel and the television series Game to Thrones where Khal Drogo melts down golden treasure and pours the molten mixture over the head of Viserys as his crown is actually taken from history. You can read about it in Adrienne Mayor’s The Poison King.
When I write about fantastic cities, I want them to be grounded in the real. Doing so allows the metaphorical aspect of the real come to the fore. In my books, I have a city based on the Kowloon Walled City that existed in Hong Kong. There is another locale that merges the Swiss memorial Lion of Lucerne with the Pueblo cities of Mesa Verde.
All storytelling has an educational function. Using these kind of things as touchstones creates more opportunities to tell tales that are more involved and symbolic. It also shows just how fantastic our own real world can be.
Showing not an alternate world but a different one “littered with artifacts of a previous age, almost all of which are completely incomprehensible” by the people in the places now creates a wonderful fantasy motivation–to discover.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect to writing a non-magic fantasy story is the absence of mystical beasts. It’s difficult for people to consider a work fantasy if it “has no supernatural and/or magic powers or beasts at all.” In fact, most expect “magic is traded for some form of mysticism or advanced technology or alchemy.” No dragons? No monsters? No cryptic force or long lost technology? Why not a world learning and forging its way along while operating with a physics that’s virtual identical to our own? Variation or speculation, if you’d prefer, offers just as much wonder as whole cloth invention.
Perhaps this floats in line with the steampunk ethos. Although, I would argue that the steampunk, cyberpunk, and/or Fallout-esque stories are more science fiction than fantasy. So then we abut against the question again, what makes non-magic fantasy?
Because there is no escape from the world and the creatures in it, non-magic fantasy sets its people against not just each other but the environment. The plants and animals of a fantasy world should be engaged the same way we engage those in ours. A dragon exists for why? Trying to craft some scientific explanation is an interesting exercise but ultimately misses the point of a mystical beast.
But there have been, are, and could be creatures that are utterly fascinating and awe-inspiring. Around the time I finished my second novel, I read Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song. There’s a brief scene in it where there appears to be a lestodon rummaging in the forest. At least, that’s how I took it given that I had just written about one of my characters having the job as a sort of game warden protecting orchards from giant sloths. In Patrick Rothfuss’s In the Name of the Wind, a wonderful subplot involves Kvothe trying to reason through what kind of creature a particular giant lizard is. This is fantasy, but it is realist and I like it moreso for it.
So I guess a fundamental trait of non-magic fantasy is that it resists escapism while being escapist. By being a story that looks to flee from the real world, it supplants actual history and culture with one that isn’t idealized or dire. What you have is a world to be inhabited, explored, played in so as to make being in the world, the real world, more acute–vivid and embracive.