Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

February Books 17) A Short History of Fantasy, by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James

This book is precisely what it says on the tin, with a first chapter taking the genre to 1900, a second taking it to 1950, and then individual chapters for each subsequent decade, with two extra chapters for a) J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and b) Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett, the whole text weighing in at less than 220 pages (plus index and lists). It doesn't interrogate the nature of fantasy literature in depth (one of the authors has done that elsewhere) but does define the genre clearly and convincingly, and also looks at when and why particular sub-genres (cute animal fantasies, paranormal romance, Big Commercial Fantasy) have become popular at different times. The authors integrate children's literature and also genre films and television into the narrative; this is not just about fantasy for grownups. It would be rather a good (and inexpensive) gateway text for the reader of fantasy (and/or sf) who wanted to dip their toe into criticism.

I know I always say this, but when I read books like this I want i) a better understanding of books I have already read and ii) suggestions of books I might read in the future which may appeal to me, and I got plenty of both here; I also was provoked to start thinking (though not sufficiently to complete the thought) about the books which received popular and/or literary acclaim which I just didn't like (including Little, Big, Light, and The Sword of Shannara). Mostly I found myself nodding in agreement or realisation with just the occasional raised eyebrow - Diana Wynne Jones surely wrote more than four books in the 1970s (p.139)?

For the non-fiction category of the BSFA awards, I have to choose between only two nominees: this book, or Deepa D's January 2009 blog post "I Didn't Dream of Dragons". Of the other three nominees, Hal Duncan has withdrawn his own (excellent if very lengthy) blog post on "Ethics and Enthusiasm" from consideration, recommending instead that people vote for Deepa D; I haven't seen Interzone recently, which is certainly nobody's fault other than mine, but means I have no opinion on the merits of Nick Lowe's "Mutant Popcorn" column in 2009; and although I greatly admire John Clute, the publishers of his Canary Fever have made it abundantly clear on their website that they are not interested in doing business with people like me who don't have sterling or US dollar bank accounts, so I am unlikely to see it before the voting deadline.

Deepa D's essay is heartfelt and moving, and was one of the best things to come out of last year's bruising RaceFail discussions; indeed it ties in to my professional work to a certain extent, which I rarely get with my reading of sff criticism. It was of course only one part of a much wider conversation (and some people, such as Hal Duncan, will vote for it in order to support that conversation as a whole). I will vote for Mendlesohn and James, however, as their book happens to scratch my particular itch; and in the end that is what voting and awards are all about.
Tags: bookblog 2010, bsfa 2009, writer: edward james, writer: farah mendlesohn
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