An Adventure Into The Fantastic

Reading & Writing


three:oneIt goes without saying that writing fantasy is very different to writing a crime novel. But I didn’t realise just how different it was until I attempted one. It not only doesn’t read like any other kind of literature; it doesn’t write like one either.

My favourites in this genre would include ‘Gormenghast’, ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’, ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’, ‘The Once and Future King’ and the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. Plus, I’ve worked in the area of fantasy on two occasions before. The first was with the novel ‘Calabash’, in which a young man fell from a seaside pier and awoke in a version of ancient Persia (although this event could be explained in rational terms too).

The second was a short story, ‘Britannica Castle’, with a gallery of grotesques in the titular castle, and while it was more fantastical I still avoided supernatural or purely fantastical invention (i.e. dragons, magical powers).

I’d long wanted to turn this tale into a novel, keeping the behaviour of the inhabitants rational and real but retaining the setting of a fantasy world. My artist pal Keith Page got excited about the project and drew several of the major characters, including the one-eyed King Scarabold, seen here.

Now, I’ve just finished a crime novel. This was the process:

First, research. Then a first draft that includes a committed crime, an innocent caught up in it, a search for truth, revelations. Each stage built on the last and the hero’s options are whittled down, in a sort of pyramid structure.

Then I came to writing my fantasy. First, NO research. Then a series of scenes and events, which all sit beside each other in a string – no pyramid, more like a single row. Very different experience. So I went back and looked at all of the fantasies in my favourites list.

The only one which doesn’t quite conform to my experience is Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’, which feels more classically constructed like say, ‘Lord of the Rings’, in the form of a journey.

The point is that it was the easiest book to write that I’ve ever attempted.

Now, the book is a reality – I’ve nearly finished the first draft. The style is baroque and gothic, dark and mad, and I’m having a lot of fun with it. It’ll be called ‘The Foot On The Crown’, and will tell the story of a brother and sister in a castle, their enemies and the search for an heir that leads to a war.

Before I started, I reread the ‘Titus Groan’ trilogy, and discovered two things. First, you don’t have to roam across seven kingdoms to tell a grand story but can stay indoors, as it were – Melvyn Peake never takes his tale far from home in the first two volumes – and second, that the Peake novels are much, much more fun to read as an adult. I remember struggling with them quite a lot as a child.


I get that fantasy is too big a leap for some readers, but although my reading in this area is limited so far (I haven’t read my mate Joanne Harris’s ‘Runemarks’ yet) I can see that it only works when you follow a strict set of rules. Before I started, I read  ‘Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide To Imaginative Fiction’, by Jeff Vandermeer. It was filled with colourful graphs and maps and diagrams illustrated in the style of fantasy novels, and featured dozens of writers discussing characterisation, structure, plotting and the creation of worlds. It featured ideas about the ‘protantagonist’ and ‘contamination beats’ and ‘tonal modulations’ and ‘subjective interpretation’.

It was no help at all.

It was based on a specific, analytical and uniquely American form of thinking about imaginative fiction, which may not have suited my style. It also seemed like a book for fans who fantasise about writing but read an awful lot about the idea of writing instead.


I have a feeling that what I’ve created is closer to ‘Gormenghast’ than any of the more magical fantasies out there, and quite gruesome in places, like the books I had as a child.

Time will tell. I’m about to start the second draft, and will report back. It will be interesting to see whether this continues to be as easy to write. One thing I have discovered; don’t preach meaning – let the reader find that out for her/himself.

Favourite fantasy novels here, please.

17 comments on “An Adventure Into The Fantastic”

  1. glasgow1975 says:

    Anything, everything, by China Miéville.

  2. Tim Illingworth says:

    Also: The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones.

  3. Anchovee says:

    I’ve recently enjoyed The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (a novel about a group of rogues/con-artists set in a Venice-type city).

    I got a few books into GoT before finally getting fed up of flicking backwards and forwards to the ‘cast list’ when Ser Jolen Gobshyte or some such was introduced.

    I’ve also just read Lord of the Rings for the first time since my teenage years. Back then I loved the battle scenes, but now I find Tolkien’s description of the countryside absolutely beautiful and very familiar to Shropshire where I live.

  4. Davem says:

    Reminds me that I mislaid my copy of ‘Once and future king’ a long time back – time to get another copy.

    Still love reading LOTR

  5. John Griffin says:

    LOTR has stood the test of time, Gormenghast too.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I read TOandFK (turning titles into acronyms is fun!) every once in a while and love it every time. LOTR gets read over again and I agree about the descriptions.
    There is humorous fantasy, too, and that’s where the 5 parts of Douglas Adams’ trilogy come in. I heard it as a radio play, saw it on tv (where you’d have to see it several times in order to deal with all the informational overlays), and read it as a book. “Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming” was funny but I read it chiefly for the title – a long time ago.
    “A Canticle for Liebowitz was a great post apocalypse, but the follow-up, written 40 years later, was a waste of space.
    There’s the Thomas Covenant series by Stephen Donaldson, which I really enjoyed when it first came out back in the 70s-80s. I was attracted to that because it used leprosy as a connection between worlds. It was really weird.

    Still haven’t finished Ghormanghastly and still enjoy at least 80% of what Terry Pratchett wrote.

  7. Steve says:

    Favourite fantasy novels! Well now you ask, here are a few suggestions 🙂

    The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers: everything a romantic magical adventure should be.
    All the Bells of Earth – James Blaylock: I never forget the moral of this, which is that other people’s weaknesses are easy to condemn, it’s your own that are hard.
    Marianne Trilogy – Sheri Tepper: hard to explain why I like this, it’s from before she went all femininist but still a very feminine book about growing up
    Marianne Dreams – Catherine Storr: A book from my childhood I never forgot
    Peace – Gene Wolfe: very beautifully written and very very hard to figure out

    George RR Martin’s Fevre Dream was mentioned before

    Zelazny’s Lord of Light is nominally sf but really a wonderfully ebullient fantasy adventure

    China Mieville I do like the ideas and many aspects very much, Perdito Street Station is very memorable, New Crobuzon is a bit of a Gorgmenghast like creation, but the writing never quite sparkles for me

  8. Vivienne says:

    Read Lord of the Rings when my first child was on the way, and then very overdue, so it seemed like a similar journey. I was addicted to these shortbread biscuits at the time which I saw as my waybread so it all made sense. But I’d never want to read it again. Gormenghast – is that fantasy? Seemed like very real life to me. I’ve met a Steerpike, and those sisters with the sharp noses – definitely know their counterparts. Same with Once and Future King: hadn’t really categorised that as fantasy but a sort of historical interpretation. If fantasy is represented by Pratchett, then I avoid it. Despite never having read any of his I’m pretty sure I would feel it was a waste of time which is pure prejudice really. Still, am open to trying anything new, so will give the latest oeuvre a go.

  9. Juan says:

    When it comes to fantasy, I’m a fan of Terry Pratchett, his novels were witty and funny. For fans of more “serious” reads, I would strongly recommend the Geralt de Rivia saga, by Andrzej Sapkowski, the Elric of Melniboné saga, by Michael Moorcock or The wheel of time, by Robert Jordan. Also Brandon Sanderson has shown great skills with his novels.

  10. chazza says:

    Jack Vance’s Lyonesse Trilogy for me

  11. Adam says:

    Julian May; I really love her ‘Many coloured land’ series , and the Galactic milieu sequel/prequel/not sure what they are….as always, character and strength of plot trumps setting (as interesting as they are).

  12. Laura Humphrey says:

    Lyonesse by Jack Vance
    Faffhrd and the Grey Mouser stories Fritz Lieber
    Well of Souls series by jack L Chalker

  13. Steve says:

    Laura, Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness is a book I re-read every few years 🙂

  14. chazza says:

    Steve – me too! Never been to San Francisco but the book creates a wish to go there. And it creates a beautiful legend of the literary heroes of mine – Sterling, CASmith, Nora May French, Bierce etc.

  15. Mike McEwan says:

    May I suggest teh Lamplighter trilogy by DM Cornish. Very difficult to get hold of but worth the search.

  16. J.Folgard says:

    The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison/Sarah Monette
    Lud-In-The-Mist by Hope Mirlees
    Deathless by Catherinne Valente
    The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe
    Little, Big and Aegypt by John Crowley
    Uprooted by Naomi Novik
    The Black Opera by Mary Gentle
    Jonathan Strahan’s ‘Dangerous…’ anthologies at Solaris
    City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
    … quite recently, Smoke by Dan Vyleta

    Really looking forward to this new project of yours!

  17. Jon Masters says:

    I’d recommend anything by David Gemmell – for the most part, the fantasy aspects of the books are just the backdrop for some excellent storytelling and great characters. And he had the habit of killing off the unexpected characters long before Game of Thrones.

    I’ve also always had a soft spot for Prince Ombra by Roderick MacLeish as an example of weaving fantasy with everyday life

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