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Review of The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature January 13, 2013

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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Every year, the Cambridge University Press has a book sale of ‘damaged’ books (in actual fact, most are not damaged at all beyond having a stamp inside saying ‘damaged’). My boyfriend is a CUP sale veteran, and prides himself on coming away with daily hauls of books not only for himself, but for many of his friends. This year, he bought me The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. I devoured it in two sittings.

I’ve found most academic writing on fantasy to be deeply disappointing, partly because it tends to spend too much time arguing that Tolkienesque heroic/epic fantasy is not all the genre has to offer, and partly because the examples tend to be drawn from books that are not to my taste or bear no relation to where the fantasy field is today. But the Cambridge Companion suffered from none of those problems.

It’s divided into three sections. The first looks back at fantasy’s origins in various 19th-century writings (such as Gothic, adventure stories and children’s fiction). The second outlines various critical approaches (Structuralism, Freudian readings, postmodernism, thematic criticism and so on) that can be used to interpret fantasy literature. The third picks up where the first section left off, and outlines later developments within the various fantasy subgenres. I was particularly impressed at the inclusion of urban fantasy, magical realism and paranormal romance, as the latter in particular is often scorned as a slightly embarrassing relative that it’s best not to mention. I also applaud the inclusion of a chapter by Nnedi Okorafor on fantasy literature by writers of colour, although it saddened me that very few of the works she discussed were mentioned in the other articles (N K Jemisin’s work is important as the work of a writer of colour, but it is also in keeping with certain trends in fantasy literature as a whole and could have been included in chapters on, say, urban fantasy or fantasy grappling with issues of religion and psychology, for example). Chapters on, say, issues of gender and sexuality could have also been interesting to read and it’s a shame none were included.

One of the problems with reviewing a book of this nature is the patchy quality of the chapters as a whole (inevitable when they are written by many different authors). Thus, the chapter on recent developments in children’s fantasy by Catherine Butler was sharp, well-researched and made some excellent points (her observation that one of the major changes in children’s fantasy over the past forty years has been the shift in attitudes towards parental – and other forms of – authority is one I’ve noted myself and really must follow up on in the future), while W. A. Senior’s chapter on quest fantasy is extremely disappointing, doing little more than summarising a few examples of works in this subgenre. As such, the book will be of only mixed use to the students who are its intended audience: while some chapters offer rich, meaty analyses of trends in, and critical approaches toward, fantasy literature, others do little more than point the reader in the direction of particular books or series without explaining why such texts are worthy of discussion in the first place. Veronica Schanoes’ chapter on historical fantasy was also a disappointment, due mainly to the inaccuracy of its title. Rather than being about the subgenre of historical fantasy (books which are set in the past and add fantasy elements to our own world), it was about books with scholarly protagonists and where scholarship and study were the subject. This was very interesting, but it was not about historical fantasy, which was not covered – an odd omission in an otherwise comprehensive survey.

The book’s true value to students of literature lies, I feel, in its extensive bibliography of both key fantasy texts from the past two centuries and critical scholarship on these works. As an introduction, it is weakened by the weaknesses of several of its contributors. However, its intention (and bibliography), if not its execution, do a good job of outlining the wide variety of writing under the fantasy umbrella, as well as its value as a subject of academic research.

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