The trends and titles shaping a vital genre — featuring 20 core collection titles, SF/Fantasy blogs and sites, and forthcoming works
Aug 15, 2011
There’s an important difference between setting trends and chasing them, and a look at 2011’s crop of fantasy and sf finds publishers on the healthy side of the line. Proud of cases where they’ve been ahead of the curve in expanding readership in speculative fiction, these houses consider their first goal is to publish the best writers they can.
“I will only publish a zombie novel or an urban fantasy if it’s a good book,” says Betsy Wollheim, president and publisher of DAW Books, the legendary sf/fantasy publisher founded by her parents in 1971. Patrick Nielsen Hayden agrees. “You can do yourself injury by being bound to the wheel of transient fads,” he says. A senior editor at Tor Books, Nielsen Hayden does, however, watch for important changes in the genre: “There are trends, and then there are long-term changes in taste.” Jeremy Lassen, the editor in chief of San Francisco–based Night Shade Books, adds that equally as important as pursuing new trends is “to recognize what markets are overserved and stay away from them.”
To judge by the wave of recent films (the Twilight and Harry Potter sagas), TV shows (True Blood; The Walking Dead), and best-selling books (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Gail Carriger’s “Parasol Protectorate” series), speculative fiction today is dominated by urban fantasies, zombie mashups, and steampunk adventures. Those subgenres sell, but they’re not the whole story. A survey of the year’s best books to date and touted forthcoming titles reveals a more varied marketplace with a deep talent pool of authors writing a wide range of imaginative fiction that appeals to a broadening spectrum of readers.
“The challenge—and opportunity—for publishers,booksellers, librarians, and reviewers is to shift attention to the diversity found in sf and fantasy; to identify and promote the outstanding and new, rather than the commonplace and repetitive,” says Tim Holman, publisher of Hachette’s Orbit US sf/fantasy imprint. “I’d love to see engagement with a wider audience—and putting a focus on qualities that make individual authors and books distinctive is the way to do it. We’ve purposefully established a list of wonderfully individual writers, from across the whole spectrum of the sf and fantasy genres, and we like to think that we’ve published each one of them in a wonderfully individual way.”
A resurgence of epic fantasy
So far 2011 has been a banner year for epic, or high, fantasy. Epic-Fantasy.com defines it as a subgenre in which “a seemingly ordinary character undertakes trials and ordeals that develop him or her into a hero capable of heroic feats needed to thwart challenges of an epic scale.”
In March, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear (DAW), the sequel to his acclaimed debut, The Name of the Wind, topped the New York Times best sellers list. April saw Daniel Abraham, author of the acclaimed “Long Price Quartet,” move from Tor to Orbit to launch his new “The Dagger and the Coin” series with The Dragon’s Path. July marked the publication of George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons (Bantam), the long-awaited fifth book in his “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. No doubt the success of HBO’s adaptation of Martin’s Game of Thrones, which introduced new readers to the medieval world created by the “American Tolkien,” helped spur astonishing first-day sales of more than 170,000 print copies and 110,000 ebook copies. The Times noted it was the largest opening for a Random House book in 2011. [See “Epic Fantasy: 20 Core Titles,” p. 23.]
“There is a new energy in epic fantasy, as writers look for new ways to build worlds and craft immense stories without relying on well-used fantasy tropes,” explains Orbit’s Holman. Indeed, many of the epics released this spring and the new titles coming this fall continue the ongoing shift away from the romantic heroic Tolkien tradition to grittier, more morally complex stories that feature antiheroes and depict worlds where good and evil war not only against each other but within the souls of each character.
On the surface, Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path looks like a traditional fantasy, with an orphaned hero pulled into larger political events, but it draws as much as on economics and cultural struggle as on violence and magic to build conflict and plot, giving Abraham’s writing a very different feel. In The Magician King (Viking, Sept.), Lev Grossman returns to the epic/literary fantasy hybrid—a sort of C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling meet Bret Easton Ellis—of his best-selling The Magicians. In The Omen Machine (Tor. Aug.), Terry Goodkind revisits his conflicted “Sword of Truth” protagonist, Richard Rahl.
More great epics in this vein are coming this fall. In October, The Kingdom of Gods (Orbit) concludes N.K. Jemisin’s acclaimed “Inheritance Trilogy” [another in “Epic Fantasy: 20 Core Titles”] about a world in which the old gods have been enslaved. David Anthony Durham finishes his award-winning “Acacia Trilogy” about the rise and fall of an empire based on conquest, slavery, and drugs with The Sacred Band (Doubleday). Jasper Kent adds a third volume, The Third Section (Pyr: Prometheus), to “The Danilov Quintet,” his historical vampire series set in 19th-century Russia. In November, Orbit brings Michael J. Sullivan’s self-published sensation, “The Riyria Revelations” series, to wider audiences, starting with the thieves-on-the-run adventure Theft of Swords.
Middle Ages to the Middle East
While the traditional Eurocentric epic fantasy remains popular, many writers are drawing fresh inspiration from non-Western cultures and expanding into historical periods beyond the Middle Ages for their world-building. Thanks to increased public interest in the Middle East, desert settings have become prominent in many new fantasies.
Howard Andrew Jones re-creates the feel of the Arabian Nights in The Desert of Souls (Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s, Feb.), mixing sword-and-sorcery action and dry humor, while Leona Wisoker captures the feel of harsh desert cultures in Guardians of the Desert (Mercury Retrograde, Mar. 2011), the second entry in her “Children of the Desert” series. Next winter, Saladin Ahmed, a John W. Campbell nominee and Hugo Award finalist for his short fiction, makes his highly anticipated fantasy debut with Throne of the Crescent Moon (DAW, Feb. 2012), the first title in a projected trilogy populated with supernatural creatures from Arab folklore. His unlikely hero is a fat, aging doctor who hunts ghuls (demons, or ghouls).
Boys like urban fantasy, too
Urban fantasies may be everywhere these days, but Tor’s Nielsen Hayden says that it took publishers years to recognize that fantasy in contemporary settings could be as popular as Tolkienesque epics. This past spring saw big sales for the usual urban fantasy suspects—Charlaine Harris, Kelley Armstrong, Ilona Andrews, Patricia Briggs, and Kim Harrison. But it has been difficult for debut writers to make a splash. “Urban fantasy has dominated the best sellers charts over recent years,” comments Orbit’s Holman, “but we are now seeing fewer new authors breaking out in a more crowded market.”
Where publishers see growth is in the male urban fantasy market. The best-selling success of Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” series, featuring Chicago wizard PI Harry Dresden (Ghost Story, Roc: Penguin, Jul.), proves that despite its roots in paranormal romance, urban fantasy also appeals to male readers—and female fans of the subgenre will read about male heroes. Larry Correia’s hardboiled “Grimnoir Chronicles” (Hard Magic, Baen, May), Kevin Hearne’s “Iron Druid Chronicles’ about a modern-day druid (Hammered, Del Rey, Jul.), and Ben Aaronovitch’s new Del Rey series about London constable/sorcerer’s apprentice Peter Grant (Midnight Riot, Feb. 2011; Moon Over Soho, Mar. 2011; and Whispers Under Ground, Jan. 2012) have already jumped to fast starts in a men’s market dominated by Butcher, Charlie Huston, and Mike Carey.
Night Shade also hopes to find a hit with Jonathan Wood’s No Hero (Jul.), which pits everyman Oxford detective Arthur Wallace against a series of cosmic villains. And Richard Kadrey’s antihero, Sandman Slim, returns for a third hell-on-earth adventure, Aloha from Hell (Harper Voyager, Oct.).
The mutating zombie
Zombies continue their relentless march, but the genre is mutating away from the mashups of zombie fiction with literary classics that quickly glutted the market and turned off readers who discovered that the best jokes were the titles. Instead, writers are using these ghoulish creatures to examine a modern world wracked by social, political, and economic uncertainty.
In Zone One (Doubleday, Oct.), literary author Colson Whitehead mixes wry social satire with the tale of a lonely man working to reclaim Manhattan after a global zombie pandemic. Mira Grant’s latest entry in her “Newsflesh” series, Deadline (Orbit, Jun.), has a pair of near-future bloggers trying to uncover how a cure for cancer had the unhappy side effect of raising the dead. Diana Rowland’s humorous urban fantasy My Life as a White Trash Zombie (DAW, Jul.) features a drug-addicted Louisiana trailer-trash teen who becomes a better person after joining the undead.
Night Shade offers The Panama Laugh by Thomas Roche (Sept.), about a mercenary who unwittingly releases a biological weapon that raises laughing zombies from the dead. And Stephen Blackmore brings his crime-writing background to January 2012’s City of the Lost (DAW), a first-person noir about a Los Angeles thug turned zombie. With the film adaptation of Max Brooks’s breakout zombie novel World War Z, starring Brad Pitt, scheduled for release in 2012, fans will be back for more of this popular subgenre.
Magic meets technology
Straddling the divide between urban and high fantasy is steam-punk, a subgenre that blends magic, Victorian technology, anti-authority feeling, and a spunky can-do tinkerer’s spirit. Prometheus’s Pyr imprint has done much to expand the quality of writing and the audience in this arena. Lou Anders, Pyr’s editorial director, continues to push the boundaries by taking steampunk out of its Victorian British setting and applying it to other venues and subgenres. “That’s necessary for steampunk to endure as a viable part of the sf and fantasy landscape and not just become a flash in the pan,” he says.
For that reason, last April Pyr released the latest entry in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s epic “Shadows of the Apt” series, The Scarab Path, in which insect-influenced characters enter the industrial age. This fall Anders is publishing Clay and Susan Griffith’s second volume in their “Vampire Empire” trilogy, The Rift Walker (Sept.), which mixes vampires with steampunk style; Andrew Mayer’s Hearts of Smoke and Steam (Nov.), the second title in the “Society of Steam” series featuring steampunk superheroes; and Mark Hodder’s Expeditions to the Mountains of the Moon (Jan. 2012), the newest entry in his popular alternative history steampunk “Burton Swinburne Adventures.”
Other publishers are following suit. This month Orbit offers a heroic fantasy set in 1820s Scotland, Brian Ruckley’s The Edinburgh Dead (Aug.). In November, Brandon Sanderson, one of fantasy’s hottest writers, will try a new experiment, bringing his successful “Mistborn” series forward several generations for a new trilogy set in the industrial era, beginning with The Alloy of Law (Tor).
SF searches for a future
What of traditional sf? The genre currently lags behind fantasy in sales and number of books in production. With the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program this year and future wide-scale human space adventures looking less likely every year, sf becomes ever more mired in grim earthbound predictions about rogue computers, ecological collapse, and corporate and government corruption run amok. When readers don’t feel positive about the future, can writers balance believability with the optimism that might draw fans back to sf? It’s a conundrum that puzzles genre writers and publishers as they struggle to find an audience.
Dark worldviews make for muscular and moving fiction, but pessimistic novels, no matter how strong, are a tough sell to readers looking for optimism or escape. To resolve this issue, publishers sometimes look to the past for a bit of light. Baen’s list mixes reprints of upbeat adventures from Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, and Andre Norton with contemporary military sf and space operas. Tor’s Orb imprint reissues prestige titles in trade paperback. And John Scalzi, a writer with a throwback style, turned to classic sf characters, H. Beam Piper’s beloved Fuzzies, in Fuzzy Nation (Tor, May). [See review, LJ 4/15/11, p. 87.]
Another way of going back to the future is through historical mashups that mix real-life characters with sf thrills. Paul Malmont’s The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown (S. S., Jul.) pits a team of sf writers led by Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov against Nazis. Félix J. Palma’s U.S. debut, The Map of Time (Atria: S. S., Jun), is a Victorian time-travel adventure featuring H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, among others.
On the other hand, gaming and other cutting-edge online activities are inspiring fresh contemporary sf. Cyberpunk master Neal Stephenson’s Reamde (Morrow, Sept.) concerns a technology entrepreneur caught in the middle of an accidental war started by a Chinese online fantasy game player. Charles Stross’s Edinburgh Detective Inspector Liz Kavanagh tries to revive her fading career in Rule 34 (Ace: Berkley, Jul.) by discovering why spammers are dying. Robert J. Sawyer’s acclaimed trilogy about artificial intelligence (AI) culminates with the recently published WWW: Wonder (Ace: Berkley) about a young, blind mathematical genius and Webmind, an Internet-based AI. In Ernest Cline’s much-buzzed debut, Ready Player One (Crown, Aug.), a young man in a dystopian future nostalgic for the 1980s hopes to escape his grim reality by participating in a competitive quest for a hidden object in a virtual world.
Yet strong traditional sf series entries by popular authors remain on publishers’ menus. In June’s The Clockwork Rocket (Night Shade), the launch of a new trilogy, Greg Egan introduces an alien universe ruled by its own unique laws of physics. In July, Robert Charles Wilson revisited the world of Spin and Axis in Vortex (Tor), while Kathleen Ann Goonan continues her provocative utopian sf series about alternate realities with This Shared Dream (Tor), a follow-up to In War’s Time. And the October publication of The Children of the Sky (Tor) marks the return of Vernor Vinge, one of sf’s most accomplished storytellers, to the universe of his 1991 Hugo Award–winning A Fire upon the Deep. [See starred review on p. 66.—Ed.]
The standard elements of the genre continue to attract fantasy masters like China Miéville, who this past May pushed sf boundaries in Embassytown, a provocative thriller about the clash between colonizing humans and a planet’s native inhabitants, the bioengineered “Hosts,” who cannot lie. Miéville’s fascination with the weird along with his linguistic firepower, political streak, and all-around inventiveness are on full display here. And fantastist Daniel Abraham collaborated with Ty Franck (George R.R. Martin’s assistant) under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey, on Leviathan Wake (Orbit, Jun.), a space opera future history of our solar system.
Room for growth
Will sf find its renaissance soon? Tor’s Nielsen Hayden sees room for growth. “Right now, the average fantasy outsells the average science fiction title two to one in the marketplace, but that means that four out of five of the authors submitting to me are writing fantasy. We’re looking for good science fiction.”
Among his new discoveries, the Tor editor touts the stylistic gifts of Hannu Rajaniemi, a young Finnish intellectual who studied mathematical physics and now runs an Edinburgh think tank. His American debut, The Quantum Thief (Tor, May), is a twisty, far-future, posthuman caper novel in which master thief Jean Le Flambeur, sprung from the prison where he wages battle daily with virtual copies of himself, must steal his own lost memories from a privacy-obsessed Martian society while avoiding the attentions of an architecture student turned detective. [Jackie Cassada, LJ’s sf/columnist agrees with Nielsen Hayden’s assessment, praising Rajaniemi for demonstrating a level of complexity and storytelling skill rarely found in even the most experienced authors and comparing him to Gene Wolfe and Samuel Delany.—Ed.]
The success of dystopian works like Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games in the YA market bodes well for the creation of future readers. “Young people are an underserved part of science fiction readership now,” notes Nielsen Hayden, who is proud of Tor’s success with Cory Doctorow’s YA technothriller Little Brother. “A great deal of the best sf for the last 20 years has been written by smart middle-aged writers wrestling with the issues of smart middle-aged people. I have nothing against that, but there’s room for a more youthful outlook.”
Night Shade’s Lassen is watching for a “refocusing on technology and a positive future. When economic recovery reaches the lower and middle class in America, when the unemployment rate plunges below seven percent, I’ll start buying hard sf, space opera, and optimistic adventure-oriented sf manuscripts hand over fist.”
The role of small presses
Indeed it is small houses like Night Shade that provide an outlet for discovering and supporting promising talent. “Small presses can afford to take risks,” says Barbara Friend Ish, the publisher of Mercury Retrograde, a small Atlanta press that focuses on character-driven sf and fantasies with a psychological edge.
“Each small press has its own outlook, its own style of curation, which makes them brands readers can come to trust.”
By nurturing new authors with unique visions like Leona Wisoker, Larissa N. Niec, and Ish herself, Mercury Retrograde has become a dependable source for readers who like literate fantasies that cross genres and defy conventional expectations.
Night Shade has also built a reputation for breaking out new award-winning authors like Paolo Bacigalupi and Catherynne Valente while also mining the genre’s rich legacy by publishing reprint anthologies from beloved but largely out-of-print authors like Lord Dunsany, Manly Wade Wellman, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. It has also found success with themed anthologies that anticipate trends like zombies and dystopian fiction. “We have to be nimble and have the ability to maximize the readership of the novels we have,” says Lassen.
Orbit’s Holman remains optimistic about sf’s future. “It’s only a matter of time, until the right book—or perhaps sequence of books—reminds us all how profoundly affecting and invigorating science fiction can be.”
Collection development librarians, are you lost in cyberspace? Follow these eight blogs and websites for sf/fantasy reviews, author interviews, and news.
Fantasy Book Critic
Thoughtful reviews by four strong reviewers make this one of the best of the speculative fiction blogs. The emphasis is on fantasy, but sf and horror are also reviewed.
Movies, comics, and other pop culture share space with book coverage and (gasp!) actual science columns. Daily updates by a plethora of writers make this a fan’s must-visit. The monthly calendar is a great guide to all events in the sf universe.
The print version should be every library’s first collection development aid for speculative fiction. Not all the reviews
are online, but the website is a great place to follow genre news.
Launched in 1998, this classic site is notable for lists of author bibliographies, series chronologies, books on major genre themes, and new and forthcoming releases by month.
Regular contributors John DeNardo and JP Frantz anchor a staff of reviewers. Particularly worthwhile are the daily “Tidbits” of news, interviews, and features, awards coverage, podcasts, and links to free online stories and books.
This online magazine reviews books and video in two installments per month. Watch for the editors and readers best-of-the-year lists, usually posted in March.
News, reviews, fan forums, interviews, and a place for fan writers to post their own work are all features of this large site, active since 1997.
The Tor blog reviews work from other publishers alongside Tor titles. Look for “rereads,” which provide deep analysis of speculative fiction’s hallmark works. Contributors here include several major authors.
Ever since J.R.R. Tolkien unveiled the magical world of Middle-earth more than 50 years ago in his classic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, epic (high) fantasy stories have enchanted readers of all ages with magnificent settings, unforgettable characters, and intricate plots that pit the forces of good and evil against each other. Members of The Reading List (the American Library Association’s RUSA/CODES committee that selects the year’s best genre fiction) offer their core picks for both classic and contemporary epic fantasy. Because many epic fantasies take the form of multivolume series, the listings begin with the official series name followed by the titles of the beginning cycles or trilogies. [For the full annotated listing, see the August 18 edition of BookSmack!—Ed.]
BROOKS, TERRY. The Shannara Trilogy: The Sword of Shannara (1977); Elfstones of Shannara (1982); Wishsong of Shannara (1985).
DONALDSON, STEPHEN R. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever: Lord Foul’s Bane (1977); The Illearth War (1977); The Power That Preserves (1977).
EDDINGS, DAVID. The Belgariad: Pawn of Prophecy (1982); Queen of Sorcery (1982); Magician’s Gambit (1983); Castle of Wizardry (1984); Enchanters’ End Game (1984).
FEIST, RAYMOND. The Riftwar Saga: Magician: Apprentice (1982); Magician: Master (1982); Silverthorn (1985);
A Darkness at Sethanon (1986).
JORDON, ROBERT. The Wheel of Time: The Eye of the World (1990).
KAY, GUY GAVRIEL. The Fionavar Tapestry: The Summer Tree (1984); The Wandering Fire (1986); The Darkest Road (1986).
KURTZ, KATHERINE. The Chronicles of the Deryni: Deryni Rising (1970); Deryni Checkmate (1972); High Deryni (1973).
LE GUIN, URSULA K. The Earthsea Saga: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968); The Tombs of Atuan (1971); The Farthest Shore (1972); Tehanu (1990); Tales from Earthsea (2001); The Other Wind (2001).
MCKILLIP, PATRICIA A. The Riddle of Stars Trilogy: The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976); Heir of Sea and Fire (1977); Harpist in the Wind (1979).
TOLKEIN, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: The Fellowship of the Ring (1954); The Two Towers (1954); The Return of the King (1955).
ABERCROMBIE, JOE. The First Law Trilogy: The Blade Itself (2007); Before They Are Hanged (2008); Last Argument of Kings (2008).
ABRAHAM, DANIEL. The Long Price Quartet: A Shadow in Summer (2006); A Betrayal in Winter (2007); An Autumn War (2008); The Price of Spring (2009).
BUJOLD, LOIS McMASTER. Chalion Series: The Curse of Chalion (2001); Paladin of Souls (2003); The Hallowed Hunt (2005).
CAREY, JACQUELINE. Kushiel’s Legacy: The Phèdre Trilogy: Kushiel’s Dart (2001); Kushiel’s Chosen(2002); Kushiel’s Avatar (2003).
JEMISIN, N.K. The Inheritance Trilogy: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010); The Broken Kingdoms (2010); The Kingdom of Gods (Oct. 2011).
MARTIN, GEORGE R.R. A Song of Ice and Fire: Game of Thrones (1996); Clash of Kings (1999); A Storm of Swords (2000); A Feast for Crows (2005); A Dance with Dragons (2011).
NEWTON, MARK CHARON. Legends of the Red Sun: Nights of Villjamur (2010); City of Ruin (2011); The Book of Transformations (2012).
PARKER, K.J. The Engineer Trilogy: Devices and Desires (2005); Evil for Evil (2006); The Escapement (2007).
ROTHFUSS, PATRICK. The Kingkiller Chronicles: The Name of the Wind (2007); The Wise Man’s Fear (2011).
SANDERSON, BRANDON. The Mistborn Trilogy: The Final Empire (2006); The Well of Ascension (2007); The Hero of Ages (2008).
Below are the recently published and forthcoming titles mentioned in this article.
NEW SF/FANTASY REVIEW COLUMN
SF/Fantasy reviews move front and center this issue with the launch of a newly revamped and expanded column by Jackie Cassada.