N: No More Castles, or, why I’ll never write medieval fantasy

(Gosh, it’s amazing how quickly you can get behind on this challenge when you have a busy week, isn’t it? Here’s me rolling up my sleeves and getting back in there!)

I owe so much to medieval fantasy.

The bibliography of my teenage years reads like a who’s who of the standbys: Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels, The Wheel of Time, the Belgariad and everything else David Eddings ever wrote, the Lord of the Rings. Books that I still hold as favourites to this day also are a part of that subgenre: Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings books and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire are just two examples.  Medieval fantasy, classic fantasy, changed my life. Knights and princesses, dragons and castles, jousts and wizards, quests and prophecies, sword and sorcery… they captured me all through my childhood and onwards, creating the person I am today.

So why do I absolutely never ever intend to write it?

One of my favourite authors, N. K. Jemisin, has a great quote from her interview included in the text of her novel The Killing Moon. “I don’t have a problem with medieval Europe. I have a problem with modern fantasy’s fetishization of medieval Europe; that’s different. So many fantasy writers and fans simplify the social structure of the period, monotonize the cultural interactions, treat conflicts as binaries instead of the complicated dynamic tapesty they actually were. They’re not doing medieval Europe, they’re doing Simplistic British Isles Fantasy Full of Lots of Guys with Swords…”

And it’s the truth. The more I’ve learned about history, the more I’ve realized that the “medieval fantasy” we’ve been creating for decades is just that: a creation. It’s a big shared universe that we all deposit ideas into and withdraw ideas out of, working from a set of beliefs that honestly aren’t even true!

I like new ideas. I like growth. I like freshness. And the level of attachment that has grown to that shared universe of medieval fantasy has made it so that it’s incredibly hard to innovate within it! There’s a set of expected parametres a writer is expected to be working with.

I’ve come to be interested in how things can be stranger, newer, more unique. I like seeing how different types of technologies, environments, climates, cultures, gender roles, flavours, and so forth can affect fantasy. Where my twelve year old self was thrilled by sword wielding duelists and wanted nothing else, now I enjoy seeing what early firearms change when added to a world. Where I used to love war narratives, now I’m more interested in how conflict arises in times of peace. My book takes place during an economic depression — a different kind of political warscape than a battlefield.

Jemisin goes on to say that “not all medieval fantasy [is like] this, of course–but enough [is] that frankly, they’ve turned me off the setting.” And I think the same applies to me, too. I’m bored of Person With Sword. I’m bored of all the tropes and trappings. Not only have I read that book a thousand times — I’ve read it written by people who are just a lot more passionate about it than me. I don’t feel there’s anything new I can or even want to bring to that specific table.

When it’s recommended to me, I still read medieval fantasy. I still love plenty of books — and non-books, if my love for Bioware’s Dragon Age games are any indication! — that have that setting and flavour, that borrow from that shared universe. But it’s not a universe I’m interested in sharing myself. There’s so much of it out there, and so much of it is so very good. I want to make my mark somewhere new.

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