I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. For someone who’s writing an epic fantasy series, I’m not especially well-read in my field. I tend to read the dusty old work of long-dead authors, along with Star Trek apocrypha, popular history books, and anything by Neil Gaiman. I have a fairly embarrassing ignorance of what’s currently being written by successful fantasy authors, or enjoyed by fantasy readers, or – perhaps crucially – picked up by fantasy publishers. I’m aware that these are the sort of things that are vital knowledge for anyone who is hoping to court commercial success as an author, so recently I’ve been taking steps to combat my ignorance.
This began with following up on a recommendation from a friend to read Temeraire by Naomi Novik. My friend clearly knows me very well. I’m a little late to the ball with this one, given that 2016 will mark the ninth book in the series, but I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it.
Novik was an easy choice of companion for an exploratory foray into contemporary fantasy because she has essentially taken my favourite historical novels – the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien, which inspired the film Master and Commander – and followed the time-honoured fantasist’s tradition of adding dragons. Temeraire portrays the Age of Sail with the same sublime sophistication as O’Brien (I suspect Novik might adore him as much as I do) and her integration of fantasy elements into real world history is absolutely seamless. I have ordered the second book in the series before even finishing the first.
So that went rather well. I’m hoping that reading a series like Temeraire will benefit my understanding of what publishers expect from a long book series, as well as improving my style through osmosis. To find more authors, I’ve also been trawling through the epic fantasy lists on Goodreads. But this has lead me to an unpleasant realisation.
I think I can safely enjoy Temeraire because it is sufficiently similar-but-different from the stuff I’m writing, and the same might be true of a lot of other epic fantasy. But when I saw that people are enjoying books that are a little more similar to my own work, my reactions were different. Specifically, if you must know, I had a small temper-tantrum and then felt embarrassed and confused about why. So, being a millenial, I thought I’d blog about it.
I won’t waste further space with a comprehensive description of what I’m currently writing. What I will say is that it falls into a niche which is growing in popularity and (as I was initially dismayed to discover) is already sufficiently populated with books to constitute a subgenre, which has been given the moniker of ‘flintlock fantasy’. There are two series in particular which filled me with no small panic when I discovered their existence. Here they are, the rotten blighters:
The Powder Mage trilogy by Brian McClellan and the Shadow Campaigns by Django Wexler. They are doing precisely what I’m trying to do: taking the tropes and hallmarks of sword-and-sorcery fantasy and moving the context forward by several centuries into a world of gunsmoke, brass buttons, square-rigged tall ships, centralised bureaucracy, natural philosophy, revolution, colonialism, and even sillier hats.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that anyone writing a series about gunpowder colonialism in a fantasy setting (like me) would enjoy reading books about gunpowder and colonialism in a fantasy setting (like these). Which is why I was so frustrated with my own first reaction to the existence of these books: mostly irritation about their existence, and dread that I’d been hopelessly left behind on the starting blocks.
Do all aspiring authors feel the same way, I wonder? Are we so personally invested in our writing that our first reaction is one of childish jealousy, rather than a feeling of kinship, when we encounter other authors writing similar material?
I’m aware of how I should feel. I see authors talk on Twitter about how anyone who aspires to join their number should view other authors as comrades and helping hands, never competitors. There is room enough in the publishing world that two books may be similar without one of them displacing the other, and when readers have a taste for a particular subgenre they are usually hungry for more books to be written in the same vein by different authors. I should feel encouraged, not disheartened, that there is similar material being written. People in the industry are willing to publish it, audiences enjoy reading it, and it sells well enough for writers to be able to write trilogies and pentologies. Even nonologies, in Naomi Novik’s case!
This is good, because I envision my series as being quite long. I’ve heard that trilogies are in vogue at the moment, and I was starting to worry that the number of books in the Discworld (41) and Aubrey/Maturin (20½) series had given me unrealistic expectations of the extent to which publishers and readers would be willing to indulge me. At least now I know that a longer series is feasible, if it’s well-written.
Having spent time thinking about it, I’m now mostly just looking forward to reading these books. My bookseller sister is working on acquiring them for me at a discount price, and when they arrive I will devour them and tell you about my impressions. But I’d be lying if I said that I’m not feeling apprehensive. I hope I can simply enjoy them and appreciate their fine qualities, but I’m worried that they might leave me gnashing my teeth or feeling like I need to make drastic alterations to my first draft, lest I’m accused of being a copycat.
There’s a certain irritation that I’m not the one treading boldly into virgin territory, going where no author has gone before and writing something truly original. But of course, nothing is truly original. We are all, to an extent, copying Tolkein, and recycling the same ideas that have formed the building blocks of fantastic storytelling since Homer’s first recitation of the Iliad. If there are already footprints in the snow of flintlock fantasy then maybe I should be glad I’m not the first one pressing out into the snow with no path to follow. Perhaps that’s appropriate for someone writing about colonialism: Columbus wasn’t the first European to reach the Americas. Nor will I be the first person to write flintlock fantasy. Others went before me. I can see what worked for them and what didn’t, emulate their successes, and try to navigate around any shoals that they might have got caught up on.
And now if I’m at a party and someone asks me what kind of stuff I’m writing, at least I have a better answer than “it’s sort of like Game of Thrones with muskets in it…”