Literary Terms: High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Frame (Portal) Stories

Long ago, in a different world, I was a German major (among other things) at University. One of my most memorable seminars was one focused on my favorite genre, fantasy. While there are those who argue that this is “merely” a genre, the incorporation of themes, structure, and leitmotifs in these stories has made them rich to study. From the perspective of my class, this stretched back to the German Romantics in the late 1700s with their freighted search for the Blaue Blume. In fact, my seminar was offered by the German department at my university, by the same professor who taught us about Sturm und Drang and literary Romanticism (long since retired). As rooted in academia as this seminar was, though, some of the things I learned have come up in the context of my writing life, and some of my author friends have requested that I cudgel my brain to share the snippets of what I remember having learned in the early 90s.

According to my professor, there are two main classes of fantasy: low fantasy, wherein the world of the story is recognizable to its readers, and high fantasy, wherein the world is completely made up and operates on its own rules/laws, and likely has its own languages, flora and fauna, and magical tropes including (but not limited to) spells, potions, etc. Because of its familiar world setting, magical realism is related to low fantasy, but follows a slightly different set of rules and conventions. Any of these can take advantage of the frame/portal story convention to make the bridge between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

The primary text of our class was Michael Ende’s Die Unendliche Geschichte (known to Americans as The Neverending Story). This is a classic frame story with a young boy who lives in a world we recognize being sucked into a high fantasy world through the portal of a magical book. There were a couple structural elements that made the story unique: printing the frame story in one color of ink and the fantasy in another, as well as starting each succeeding chapter with a word that began with the next consecutive letter of the alphabet.

Another text we addressed was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ 100 Years of Solitude. This one is considered a seminal introduction to magical realism, with the action taking place in a fictional (but reality-based, almost everyman style of) South American town over the course of a century. The language is at once lyrical and matter-of-fact, and incorporates ghosts and mystical experiences with as much believability as the buildings and courtyards in which those occurrences are recounted as everyday happenings.

From the primary divide of whether we can recognize the world in which the story is set (i.e. whether a story would fall into the low fantasy or high fantasy classification), a multitude of sub-genres have sprung. Interestingly, in refreshing my memory for this post, I’ve discovered that the same course taught by a different teacher or in a different language might very well use different terms. A few useful references that provide some insight into these differences are:

  1. It’s All Fantasy (fantasy genre guide)
  2. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature
  3. Fantasy – Definition, History, Characteristics and Meaning
  4. Gizmodo’s list of 10 fantasy terms
  5. TV Tropes main fantasy entry

Given the nature of myths and legends, fantasy has long been a useful framework for humans to put themselves in an unfamiliar space to explore universal themes from a different perspective. Together with Science Fiction, it forms the Speculative Fiction genre world, which is where my author brain is happiest playing. In fact, I consider one of the themes of my published stories to be “there is magic in our world, have we but the eyes to see it.” From this perspective, while it’s useful to consider genres and tropes, I find I have the most fun exploring how those can be bent into new versions of themselves–though I don’t foresee myself spending too much time in entirely made-up places. In the meantime, I’m laughing at my ability to retain such snippets for so long, even when they have no real bearing on an author’s ability to produce a good, engaging story.

Book Review: Lovers and Beloveds

Lovers & Beloveds: An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom (Book 1)As you may remember, one of my goals this round was to post more book reviews… since that was, ostensibly why I started this blog. As I faced the final countdown to the end of my MBA capstone project, all the backlog of my frustration with being kept from my beloved fictional worlds boiled over into a few days of binge reading… when I really should have been focused on other things. Nonetheless: I’m officially done with the MBA, AND I now have time to write about what I’ve read. In this case, a high fantasy novel written by MeiLin Miranda–the woman who’s helped Blurb Doctor some of my own work. Since I discovered she set the first in her series perma-free, and she never requested a review, the fact that I have worked with her may or may not make you think I’m biased about what I’ve read–by way of disclaimer, anyway. In my case, it gave me much greater patience with the first few chapters of the book, when I found it disconcertingly easy to put the book down.

However, the payoff was more than worth it. I kept wondering to myself if this book could be classified as New Adult, since it deals primarily with the stickiness of the coming of age of the heir to the throne of Tremont. Prince Temmin is rightly described by one of his father’s advisers as “callow” early on, which, I suspect, was part of my difficulty in connecting with the first part of the tale. He’s naive to the point of stupidity as the story starts, and even though his arc is satisfying in the end, it’s difficult for me to feel much sympathy for one who is stubbornly caught in the victim-of-circumstance mode, while at the same time not questioning the society that has forced him into that mold.

As an example, it’s his flirty sister at his coming-of-age ball who points out:

“Tem, look around,” she whispered as he offered her a proud arm and they proceeded through the genuflecting crowd. “Notice anything?”

“What am I supposed to be noticing?” he whispered back.

“The young men! Look at them. They’re all trimming their beards to look like you–moustaches and sideburns and no chin whiskers!”

He wonders a few times that his older sister, widely regarded as the most intelligent of the siblings, is not herself a candidate for the throne, and comments that she would be better suited to the job. The interesting thing about the way all this is layered in is the unthinking sexism and unconscious power structure it illustrates as backdrop to the greater and deeper theme of empowerment versus disempowerment.

That motif was what hooked me–and disproved the “young” element of the story. The book evolves into full-fledged eroticism of all stripes and a frank and honest look at all the different reasons people can and do have sex. Playing on some of the real-world “debate” about homosexuality, the conversation about why men would choose to be with men or women with women was a useful counterpoint on the one hand, but a strange perspective that sex with the same sex could still leave you virginal.

The other thread, the almost-immortal Teacher who uses a magical book to instruct the heir on the hidden history of his kingdom–and in particular, the story of one of its previous queens–was a unique use of the frame story technique, that (for me) had the subtext of illustrating how powerful well-written stories are in their formation of our intellectual and emotional selves.

Finally, the cast of characters is compelling–and large. The book closes by bringing back to the fore a minor character from the early chapters, and seems to presage another personage facing similar trials to Temmin’s. However, in this case, it also left me vaguely frustrated that the story would end with her rather than the protagonist. I do give the author the leeway of kicking off a series of books in this volume, but wasn’t pleased to feel left at loose ends.

Overall, I would recommend this to those who enjoy high fantasy that focuses on political machinations and coming-of-age tales–but from a very adult (really, almost erotica) perspective. The couple of weaknesses I saw were more than compensated for by the compelling world-building, intriguing magic, and complex individuals relating to what it means to be an adult making one’s way through a layered world. I will be reading Son in Sorrow when I get the chance, which is perhaps the strongest indication of how much I enjoyed my foray into the Greater Kingdom.

Book Announcement: Stalking the Demon

Stalking the DemonSTALKING THE DEMON ~ Advance Review EBOOKS by @CiaraBallintyne #HighFantasy #FREEBIE
Available for a limited time
FREE Advance Review ebooks (Review Copies only)

STALKING THE DEMON
(Book 2 in the Seven Circles of Hell)
by Ciara Ballintyne

Date of Publication – 22 September 2014
Genre: High Fantasy (Adult)

About the Book

Alloran lost his hand to thwart his renegade friend–but the world is still going to hell.

Six months after Ladanyon’s defeat, Gisayne is fading away from a baffling illness. Alloran is desperate for a cure, but he has a secret–the seven circles of hell are unstable. His worst fear is that the terrible mirror spell cast upon Gisayne has wrought some connection between her and the demon dimensions.

As everything Alloran loves races toward destruction, he does the unthinkable and refuses to obey the council of wizards. The only people who can help him are the two research assistants assigned by the council–but he knows he can’t trust them.

All the answers are locked away in the last place anyone wants to go: hell.

Add it to your Goodreads TBR.

eARCs may not be identical to the final published version and therefore may contain some minor editing and typographical errors prior to the final proofread. eARCs are expected to be available 2 weeks prior to the publication date. Interested? Sign up now!

Book Tour: Thirteen Nights by Sabrina Garie

Thirteen Nights by Sabrina GarieI’m happy this week to be pimping out my crit partner extraordinaire, Sabrina Garie, who has just released her third stand-alone book in the past two years. She writes for the Ellora’s cave imprint, which specializes in erotic romance… and her stories will curl your toes.

😉

Her latest offering, Thirteen Nights, looks to be another in a strong line-up:

Annie’s always been different. An empathic Amazon, she hides her emotional anomaly beneath her legendary fighting skills. To avoid passing on her genetic disorder, she’s always avoided the Thirteen Nights Ritual—the annual breeding rite among the warrior races of the Greek Pantheon. Only months away from 30, she is now duty-bound to participate. When she meets Tai, a half-human warrior who revs her up beyond legal limits and nurtures the gentleness she’s had to keep secret, thirteen nights of pleasure don’t seem nearly enough.

As a half human, Tai has survived by being faster, more lethal, and a whole lot smarter than his brethren. While the male warriors accept him for his achievements, the Amazons have never given him a second look. Until he meets Annie, whose smile is warm and real and whose body shudders with desire—for him. Determined to have her, he hacks into the Thirteen Nights database and rearranges the pairings to make Annie his breeding partner. Together, their strength and tenderness combust into pure love.

But Tai’s actions are forbidden under Amazon law, subject to a death. To stay together and alive, they must take on the Greek Pantheon and win.

This one is the first in the Divine Temptation series, as well, with book two (Life Reignited) slated for release early next year.

About the Author

Sabrina Garie is on a journey to create the most kick-ass heroine romance fiction has ever known and the hero who can take her. A believer that big, audacious goals spice up life, she relies on coffee, red wine and laughter to make those goals (and her characters) come alive.

When not at the computer, she wrangles vegetables and extra helpings of homework into her fashion-loving progeny, kowtows to a fat cat and reads, a lot.

Since it is more fun to travel in packs, come along for the ride.

Blog/Website: www.sabrinagarie.com
Facebook: facebook.com/sabrinagarieauthor
Twitter: @sabrinagarie
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/Sabrina_Garie

Buy Links

Ellora’s Cave

Amazon

Kobo

Goodreads

Cover Reveal: Hallow’s Eve Triptych

Hallow's Eve Triptych by Tonya CannariatoLast night I got the gift of my latest cover, so today… I’m sharing the love with everyone else!

🙂

I’m in the final rounds of editing and tweaking this set of three short stories, and have tentatively decided release day is 11/27. Mark your calendars!

😀

Together, the collection is me pushing my own boundaries about what is spooky, as well as playing with some religious/spiritual themes. Without further ado, then, here’s the blurb:

Explore the mysterious intersection of a day-in-the-life and the reality just the other side of the thinning veils in these three thematically linked tales. In “Last Supper,” discover the true wedge that drove Lana’s family to dissolve. In “Through A Mirror, Darkly,” watch as a family legacy explodes into Richard’s medical world. In “Root of All Evil,” learn how Leslie finds herself with a little help from the other side. In the end, it isn’t horrifying if the characters can learn to expand their souls.

The stories are a slight departure from my normal focus on the paranormal, but the shift was a lot of fun for me to explore. I hope you enjoy them too. (And for those of you who want such a reminder, I’ve posted Hallow’s Eve Triptych to Goodreads, so you can add it to your to-read list.)

😉

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