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Guest Post: Fantasy is a Broad Table by Stephen Aryan

ABOUT STEPHEN: STEPHEN ARYAN is the author of the Age of Darkness and Age of Dread trilogies. His first novel, Battlemage, was a finalist for the David Gemmell Morningstar Award for best debut fantasy novel. It also won the inaugural Hellfest Inferno Award in France. He has previously written a comic book column and reviews for In addition, he has self-published and kickstarted his own comics.

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 Fantasy is a broad table

I started reading fantasy at a young age and my introduction to the genre was like many others. It began with Tolkien and The Hobbit, CS Lewis and the Narnia books and it went on from there to include David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, Ursula Le Guin, and then David Gemmell, who remains a big influence on my work.

Over the years the fantasy genre has grown massively in terms of the number of authors, the sub-genres, the diversity of authors and also the setting for stories. With so many books coming out every year, it is difficult to keep up and some great hidden gems get lost in all of the noise. This is especially true when the books were published a number of years ago, the author is no longer writing, or perhaps they have passed away. I wanted to highlight a few series that opened my eyes, while I was still growing up, to what the fantasy genre could be.

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman are perhaps most well-known for creating the DragonLance shared universe that spans novels, role playing games, board games, miniatures and video games. However, they also wrote a number of other series that stand out in my mind for different reasons.

The Death Gate Cycle is a 7-book series that started in 1990 where two powerful races, descended from humans, war against each other across worlds, following a sort of post-apocalyptic event. So this world-hopping series completely blew my mind back then for so many reasons, which included the portal fantasy aspect, the unique magic system involving tattoos ,and a main character that was kind of an anti-hero. I’d never read anything like it before.

The year before DGC started there was a trilogy called Rose of the Prophet. This is a Middle-East inspired setting with gods as characters, djinn, wizards, warriors and rather uniquely for 1989, a gay main protagonist. The female characters also had agency and they were not just wives, sisters, or women in peril. The setting was so far removed from the familiar cosy Shire or the pseudo-western medieval location of many books, it was a breath of fresh air and let’s remember, this was 30 years ago. Weis and Hickman did a lot for the fantasy genre and I don’t think they get enough credit as there’s so much focus on DragonLance.

Terry Brooks, most famous for his Shannara novels, also wrote a fantasy comedy series, The Magic Kingdom of Landover, and a rather special trilogy called The Word and Void, which started in 1997. I picked up the first Word and Void book, Running with the Demon, thinking it would be another epic fantasy novel and was very pleasantly surprised when it was something totally different. The story was set in modern day and today it would probably be called urban fantasy. It tells the story of a man named John Ross who can see demons. They pose as real people and mostly look normal but he can see what’s lurking under the skin. They manipulate, coerce, torment, influence and terrorise people and it’s John’s job, as a Knight of the Word, with his power, to fight them and protect mankind.

However, there’s an awful and fascinating twist. Every time John goes to sleep he dreams about, and is living in, a post-apocalyptic future where the demons have won. He fights and runs from them in that world until he wakes up. He also knows that if he fails in the present to stop them, then that awful future will come to pass. However, the next big twist is that every time he uses his powers while asleep in the future, it means he can’t use them in the present. At times the series borders on a blend of Stephen King and Dean Kootz, with hidden monsters manipulating people in small town America and someone’s life hanging in the balance. There are some excellent plot twists, great character work and the prose is lean and almost poetic at times. This trilogy of books is probably my favourite series from Brooks, because they are so different to everything else he’s ever written.

Another unusual series is The Chronicles of the Jerusalem Man, by David Gemmell. He is most well known for writing about 30 heroic fantasy novels and long before anyone coined the phrase grimdark, he was writing about morally complex characters, in difficult circumstances, trying to survive. This trilogy of books is different from his usual work and it began in 1987 with Wolf in Shadow. It is a post-apocalyptic heroic fantasy story that borrows from lots of other genres including SF, horror and westerns. The main character, Jon Shannow, uses deadly force with his six shooters, and he fights men, monsters, and things that are a blend of both. There’s a subtle magic system, technology salvaged from before the fall that’s been cobbled together, and lots of adventure.

In 1982 Stephen King started writing The Dark Tower series with The Gunslinger and King’s  series is definitely a distant relative of Gemmell’s The Chronicles of the Jerusalem Man. A more recent series in the same vein would be those by John Hornor Jacobs, which began with The Incorruptibles in 2014. It too has people with guns, demons and is heavily influenced by westerns. So if you’ve already read and enjoyed both modern series, seek out this series from Gemmell and give it a try.

These are just a few examples of series that I read growing up in the 1980s and 1990s that showed me, early on, that fantasy series didn’t have to be set in a western-inspired medieval world, or be about a farm boy who grows up to be a hero. These and many other progenitors in the genre were paving the way for what would become familiar and named sub-genres. I highly recommend seeking out these and other hidden gems from the genre.

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