This week, we've got two stories that demonstrate contrasting approaches to fantasy.
Knowing Neither Kin Nor Foe by Nancy Fulda, from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, is shaped like a traditional hero's journey, and maps to Campbell almost exactly – a call to action, the denial, the journey into the underworld and all. Fulda focuses on the “denial” phase of the hero's journey here and Kitjaya's conflicted feelings about being "the chosen one", but plot isn't the focus of the story. The main thrust of this story - it seems to me - is the exactingly realised alien society and, while it's published as fantasy, there's nothing here that doesn't fit within the bounds of science fiction.
K J Bishop's Saving the Gleeful Horse, published at Fantasy Magazine, on the other hand, takes place in a psychedelic Gaimanesque fantasy of a world that overlaps between the material and the numinous. Bishop's sideways portrayal of ordinary objects infuses them with magical powers, and portents. I say psychedelic deliberately because I thought it caught the hyper-real details of life and they way they get infused with meaning by mind altering substances. Molimus the Great, the story's protagonist, is one of those wise fools who is perhaps always living in an altered state, and the local whitch woman White Ma'at tells him as much. The story occupies that curious place where it could just be a fantasy, a hallucination projected on the world by deranged minds, or perhaps a vision of the true world, with its opaque robe of materialistic vision swept away.
Fulda's story reminded me a little of the planetary romances of Jack Vance, with a well-imagined society and distinctly alien aliens. In general, he keeps these creatures relatively remote, as in The Fetish Makers (or whatever) but Fulda goes right into their world. I always have a bit of a problem with these kinds of non-human societies, and Fulda doesn't entirely win me over. While Kitjaya's world is convincingly created, Kitjaya never seems anything other than human on the inside (which can be taken as a compliment or a criticism, I suppose). The insecty elements don't really seem to interact with the nature of her quest, and they are perhaps too exactly mapped to matters of human kinship, to the point where they cease to be metaphors and become alien analogues. However, it's written with a sharp eye for the telling detail that creates a very vivid picture of the world.
By contrast, Bishop's is a more metaphorical approach. If a world of magical influence existed, how would it be perceived? She imagines a fantasy where magic isn't a psuedo science – all cauldrons and alembics, and huge tomes of ancient knowledge. Instead, it's a perception of meaning and pattern between objects. It's a world where thoughts can become real and reality can be changed through metaphor. If I have a problem with this approach, it can appear to be a bit random, because it depends on the author making the thematic connections clear without allowing them to crystalise into the gross matter of the other approach. It demands a lot of the reader, too, to puzzle out the skein of symbolism and metaphor, and in this regard I think you need to let it settle a while before deciding if it works or not.
For all people complain about vanilla fantasy, the genre has acquired quite a breadth of approaches over the years. Writers like M John Harrison and Mervyn Peake are no longer obscure or cultish, and the mainstream fantasy has a strong enough hold on the public imagination to attract writers of real ambition like Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan. I think the explosion of fantasy in them last couple of decades has produced a space this more thoughtful material can thrive. On the one hand you have a maturing audience looking for a new take on the old ideas, while at the same time a generation of writers fed on the good, bad and indifferent fantasy of decade gone by ready are ready to take up the challenge.