Literary Fantasy: An Attempt to Define

When I describe the vampire novel I do one of two things:

I downplay it as genre fiction “Who hasn’t written a vampire novel?”

I elevate it as literary fiction “I’m working with the Byron/Shelley vacation which is a popular topic but hasn’t been treated in quite this way yet.”

I’ve named the new genre Literary Fantasy and have been working to define the term. Here’s a first pass at the effort.

Literary Fantasy — a subgenre of both Literary Fiction and Fantasy Fiction, a hybrid approach combining the elements of the fantasy genre (world building, magic, supernatural elements, archetypes and standards) and the requirements of Literary Fiction (storytelling structure has purpose, allusion usage, some level of modeling used).

An example of fantasy fiction is the Game of Thrones series in which Martin creates an entire geography, social structure, customs and traditions, family lineage, and system of mysticism/magic.

An example of literary fiction is Cloud Atlas in which each section is written in the voice and manner commonly employed in the era in which the section takes place. Cloud Atlas even predicts the literary conventions of a time in the distant future.

So where are there examples of Literary Fantasy? The best ones I can think of are Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and his latest, The Last American Vampire where his vampire protagonist hangs out with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker. I promise to expound on those works in another vampire-specific post. For now, though, I’d like to pretend Literary Fantasy can include all types of fantasy — not just vampires.

I think Jacqueline Carey’s Phedre’s Trilogy meets the literary fantasy definition. I’m not just saying that because I got hopelessly addicted to them.

Carey tells Phedre’s story in Kushiel’s Dart, Kushiel’s Chosen, and Kushiel’s Avatar. It’s worth noting that Kushiel’s Dart was Carey’s debut novel because it’s so intricately crafted, I was in awe of her abilities.

The first novel establishes the geography borrowing the European continent and a slightly-altered British Isles. It’s an epic journey story following Phedre from her home city through the neighboring nation-states. The second novel takes her to the far south and the third across a desert landscape that may be the Mesopotamia region. The sweep of the geography is generous and physically if not politically realistic.

The era is decidedly middle-ages with conveniences like baths and toilets and electricity eschewed. The social structure even mimics developing civilization with castes, monarchies, and education all related to birth and marriage. The costumes echo earlier eras of modesty as well with some exceptions allowed for by the social mores established. Weapons and military tactics are also middle ages with some use of gunpowder in cannon fire.

The religious structure is where Carey shows her literary proclivity. She establishes an entire religious construct for Terre d’Ainge that consists of a fable surrounding one God, Elua, and his followers. The followers are each Gods in their own rite with specific contributions to Elua that are repeated by the God’s “House” or descendants. Every citizen of Terre d’Ainge can trace ancestry back to one of Elua’s disciples.

Despite some allusions to common world religions, Carey strays from the vocabulary of greek mythology and Bible or Koran accounts. She creates distinct social requirements for the various Houses, delivering a society completely devoted to the mythology that spawned it.

She even delivers competing societies that follow different faith tenets and allows for mutual respect between them as well as competition and war resultant of the differences with others. The theological structure is complex, informing everything from physical appearance to value systems. Its familiarity, though, makes it believable.

Next blog: The structure of the Literary Fantasy novel