Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of mixing it up. Of twisting stereotypes and trying new things when it comes to books. But recently, a friend of mine told me this: “There are no new stories, just new ways of telling them.” Now as a reader and an author of fantasy, I couldn’t ignore such a bold statement. I found myself picking my favorite books apart, analyzing them to see of they were secretly all part of one downward spiral of unoriginality. I even cross-examined my own books, very nervously of course.
But to my relief, my fears were assuaged. I was taking the latter half of that sentence too negatively. It may be tough to be original when it comes to the bare bones of a story, but the opportunity lies in its skin and muscle. That’s where the excitement is, for both reader and author. This is why sub-genres abound, even though at their heart they’re classic in nature. Why authors are always trying to do the next clever thing. Fantasy, as a genre, is very good at this.
We all love the fantasy classics. The stable-boy discovering a magic sword hidden in the barn. The unambiguously evil emperor, with great power and a penchant for black. The grand, wise old wizard pulling the puppet strings. The tropes can be traced back for decades. But as fantasy has developed over the years, these classic lines have become blurred, crossed. Heroes have become morally grey. The stable-boys aren’t as safe as they thought they were. The evil emperors now prefer white, and the old wizards somehow aren’t so wise. Characters, worlds, and plots are all subject to this evolution and experimentation.
For us readers, it’s quite exciting. We now have access to dozens of sub-genres and mash-ups. Urban Fantasy. Military Fantasy. Science Fantasy. Steampunk. Historical Fantasy. Superhero Fiction. Slipstream… the list goes on and on. As authors, we’re almost encouraged to experiment. Just look at great examples like the The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán, or the dystopian future element of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire Trilogy.
In January of 2014, I started to write Bloodrush, the first book in a new trilogy. I stepped away from my grim, epic, medieval roots and sought something new in what I believe to be a relatively unexplored sub-genre – Western Fantasy, or Weird West. I’m not the first to do write such a story, not by any means – Stephen King’s Dark Tower is the most notable example, along with Red Country by Joe Abercrombie. I wondered at the start whether it was a step too far, but carried on typing I soon realized how exciting this particular blend could be.
Let’s take the classic medieval fantasy for an example: a time-period and environment from which a huge amount of fantasy stems from. A lot of modern fantasy is very medieval in nature still. There are many reasons why fantasy and a medieval setting go together like peanut butter and jam. Medieval times were unbridled, with few rules and limited technology. It was a time of discovery however, if it’s something post-dark ages. Land for the grabs, and plenty of wild myths, stories, and folklore to bend and play with. There can also be dash of religious and political fanaticism here and there. And war of course. Then you have all the classical elements, like swords, the lone knight, castles, the muddy battlefield, peasants, and of course the obligatory mug of mead or tankard of ale.
When you look at the western genre, at first it might not look at all similar to the medieval genre. But looking a little closer, they’re actually very similar, and each individual element seems to have a twin across the sea. There were few rules in the Wild West. Technology too, although on the increase, was limited on the frontiers, and daily life was almost medieval in a bare and bold way. It was a key time of discovery, of brave trailblazers, and once again, plenty of land up for grabs. There was also a series of wars, and a similar streak of political and religious energy. Superstition, folklore and tales abounded in the deserts and prairies, just like in medieval Europe. And instead of swords you have rifles and six-shooters instead of the lone knight, the lone gunslinger. You have the frontier, the desert, horses as well, and of course, the classic shot of whiskey or bourbon. Sound familiar?
This is why I would argue that blending western and fantasy is not a step too far. Not only do they seem to entwine and translate nicely, but there’s also plenty of room for ingenuity, for new dynamics, and for that’s what I look for in a book. Besides, perhaps it’s just me, but I think there’s something quite interesting about having guns and magic slammed together…
And that’s the crux of it – if there are no new stories, just new ways of telling them, then I believe genres blends like western fantasy are excellent ways of keeping those stories we all love alive, and interesting. I think we’re just scraping the surface of western fantasy, or weird west. It has a lot of potential, and I think we’re going to see a lot more of it in the years to come, which suits a fantasy nut like me just fine. I’m certainly going to be writing more of it. So here’s to bending the rules and blurring the lines, and here’s to more books to read!