When Fantasy Isn’t Fantasy

Sometimes making a story look like something it isn’t can frustrate readers. Other times, it can be immensely satisfying.

Why?

(Mild spoilers for The Shattered Sea ahead – don’t want this article turning into something you didn’t expect.)

Joe Abercrombie‘s Shattered Sea trilogy is mostly a straightforward, if rather dark, YA fantasy series. In a world ripped apart by a long-ago war, Viking-style raiders plough the seas, looting, trading, and making war on each other. The story has its twists and turns, all in keeping with the style of story it lays out from the start – one of deception and betrayal in the cause of greater goods.

There’s also another twist hidden in the world building, one that slowly becomes apparent as you read the story.

This isn’t a fantasy world. It’s our world in the future. The elven ruins are the remains of modern cities, magical artefacts modern technology. Hints dropped along the way let the reader work this out without the characters ever finding the truth, which is irrelevant to their lives. They care about what those artefacts can do, not what it really means for magic to exist.

This isn’t an entirely new idea. John Christopher did something similar in his 1970s Sword of the Spirits trilogy, and he’s not alone. But the reason this works isn’t precedentt. It’s the way it affects the reader.

Finding out that you’re not reading the story you thought you were can be frustrating. The writer pulls the rug out from beneath your feet and then stands there smugly grinning, with a look on their face like “aha! I tricked you!” They’re proving how clever they are.

Abercrombie’s books have the opposite effect. You as the reader get to feel clever, as you put the pieces together and work out the truth. That’s a great feeling. We accept the bait and switch because of the way that it’s presented.

I’ve talked about this idea a bunch of times – that we feel good about books when they make us feel smart. From a little kid learning to recognise letters to an undergraduate student ostentatiously reading Ulysses, feeling smart makes you feel good, which makes you like the thing that made you feel smart.

So yeah, I really liked The Shattered Sea series. Not just because of that smart feeling, of course. There are compelling characters and events presented in clear, enjoyable prose. But that fantasy that’s not fantasy, it certainly helps.