‘Tis the season for retrospectives. Since I don’t read or watch that much stuff the year it comes out, my annual lists are always about what I consumed during the previous year, regardless of when it was made. Last year I wrote about John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy. This year I have a little more to say. I’ll write my Best Books post later (Le Guin, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Gene Wolfe, this time around); right now I want to talk about the other books.
In 2022, I tried to catch up on some popular contemporary fantasy, and I was sorely disappointed. I hope I simply ran into Sturgeon’s Law—ninety percent of everything is crap–but I suspect I was also dipping into some pretty craptastic wells. Recent trends are… not promising. I took a number of recommendations from the r/fantasy subreddit. It’s Reddit, so a lot of the users either are or act like fourteen-year-olds, but I wanted to see what the youths were up to. It turns out they’re up to two things: loving Brandon Sanderson, and reading self-published anime clones.
Sanderson is fine. I like the writing podcast he spent many years contributing to. His books are, whatever, not to my taste, but I get it. Characters a bit shallow, plots a bit paint-by-numbers, narration a bit overlong on exposition, everything rather unsexy (befitting his devout Mormonism), but he builds great worlds, and is loved in particular for his intricate magic systems. He is one of the best-selling fantasy authors of the modern era. He’s also insanely prolific–during the pandemic he woke up one morning and found he’d accidentally written four extra novels. Good for him! But his success has led publishers to release a lot of high-concept mimicry–it’s like Brandon Sanderson but xyz–which, unsurprisingly, is not to my taste.
I was especially disappointed with Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett. I’d seen its (excellent) cover on shelves for a few years and finally decided to read it. I was sort of excited. I adore Bennett’s City of Stairs, which I’d recommend if you’re in the mood for a good diplomatic spy thriller. But–nope. This book was not for me. The huge Brandon Sanderson blurb on the jacket should have been hint enough. Intricate magic system? Check. Decent action? Check. Bloodless romance… check… twisty-yet-predictable plot… you guessed it. Check.
On to the next trend: self-published anime clones. Let me begin by saying that I am not trying to crap on self-published authors, who have written some excellent books and who we have a number of among our readership. No, this is about a narrow slice of contemporary fantasy, largely written by people who got their start with fanfiction. And it’s an interesting phenomenon.