I first learned of AJ Dalton when I read his post on the Gollancz blog about new trends in sci-fi and fantasy and promptly found myself looking up — and learning more about metaphysical fantasy (which as you’ll read is about subverting the tropes you’re familiar with). Go read the post and learn.
And, from a Twitter exchange, comes this interview about said metaphysical fantasy, and the books coming up in the genre to look for. He delves into publishing, its contradictions and what publishers want. And, not to mention, a little bit about breaking the rules of writing when you’re an English teacher — which he is.
Of all the new releases coming up, which one are you looking forward to the most?
Peter Newman just won the 2016 Morningstar Award (one of the Gemmell Awards) for best debut novel (The Vagrant) in fantasy. I really enjoyed that, and the follow-up (The Malice) even more. The third book in the sequence, called The Seven, is out in April 2017. Hurrah!
In terms of my own releases, I’ve got the follow-up to The Book of Angels coming out in April – it’s called The Book of Dragons. Around the same time, with Luna Press Publishing, I’m putting out a more academic publication entitled The history and emerging sub-genres of fantasy literature. Amen.
What is metaphysical fantasy and how did you become the world’s leading expert in it (besides everyone else being dead)?
Ah, I coined the term metaphysical fantasy back in 2008 when I published Necromancer’s Gambit, the first new-wave zombie novel. The term has now become an established category of fiction on Amazon, a category under which Neil Gaiman likes to list American Gods. Basically, second-world epic fantasy dominated fantasy during the 1980s and 90s, but it became quite formulaic/clichéd.
The noble kings and queens and Chosen One quest of epic fantasy simply didn’t resonate with the anxiety of the new millennium, Y2K, an approaching credit crunch, more multicultural society, political scandals, and so on. What metaphysical fantasy did was subvert the usual epic fantasy tropes, making everything darker, more corrupt or more gothic.
At the same time, it questioned the nature of heroism, bringing in a more reflective and philosophical set of themes. It also tended to have a set of squabbling, meddling gods, which brought in a lot of fun and dark humour. So, second-world metaphysical fantasy did for epic fantasy exactly what first-world dark fantasy did for urban fantasy. Metaphysical fantasy reached its height with books by R. Scott Bakker, Alan Campbell, J. V. Jones, myself and a few others during the late 2000s, but it’s now been overtaken by ‘grimdark fantasy’. The trilogy I did for Gollancz (starting with the novel Empire of the Saviours) is often pointed to as being a classic example of the sub-genre.
What do you think audiences find in metaphysical fantasy that they don’t in other sub-genres?
Well, metaphysical fantasy isn’t to everyone’s taste. Although it’s got bags of dark humour, many plot twists, psychological landscapes, battling philosophies of being, demons and gods aplenty (a cosmic scale of events), it’s intellectually and emotionally challenging. It’s usually an unsettling read (albeit a refreshing one for many readers). Don’t get me wrong – it hasn’t got the voyeuristic and shocking brutalism of grimdark fantasy (your Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie, Peter V. Brett and even George RR Martin type stuff), but it still doesn’t give you the easy escapism of more traditional fantasy sub-genres.
You’re an English teacher as well as an author – do you ever find yourself ditching anything (rules, writing advice) you’ve taught while writing?
Haha. All the time. But it’s important to know the ‘rules’ before you break them. Once you know the rules, you can break them in the sort
of knowing way that will create a particular literary effect. For example, one of the basics of technically ‘good’ writing is to maintain a single narrative perspective throughout a scene. George RR Martin, in A Game of Thrones, names each of his chapters after the character whose viewpoint he’s going to use to tell the story throughout the chapter.
Less experienced writers will often jump between character perspectives within a scene, if not within a paragraph or sentence(!), and that just confuses the reader. I say ‘less experienced’, but even big names in the past, like Frank Herbert with Dune, struggled to maintain a consistent perspective. Anyway, once you’re aware of the ‘rules’ of controlled narrative perspective, you can start letting it slip in subtle ways to distract or misdirect the reader. It has to be done with delicacy, mind, or the author becomes too ‘intrusive’, thereby alienating the reader.
What’s the worst advice you ever got about writing fantasy?
Sheesh. You can’t win with genre fiction. Okay, so, my first novel Necromancer’s Gambit didn’t conform to the norm as far as the fantasy genre went back in the 2000s. I was told by an agent I should ‘write more like the current stuff being published’. Agents and publishers basically want what’s already selling. Anything too different is a risk, to some of them.
By way of example, Charlaine Harris and her True Blood material was rejected by every single publisher for several years. (Vampires were considered old-hat, and Anne Rice had written everything one could.) But then Twilight was a hit in the cinemas and suddenly every publisher wanted as many vampire books as they could get. Charlaine’s phone was ringing off the hook. There was a crazy bidding war over her stuff.
So I then wrote Empire of the Saviours, which conformed more to what was selling at the time, but it was rejected by every publisher except Gollancz for being ‘too cliched’ or ‘too much like George RR Martin’. I was told I should be writing a ‘game-changer’. But Necromancer’s Gambit, the game-changer that launched a new sub-genre, had previously been rejected for being too different. As I said, you can’t win.
At the end of the day – just trust your gut. There’s no true science when it comes to writing good fantasy or fantasy that will get you a book deal. Indeed, science is all but the opposite of fantasy and magic, isn’t it? Believe in the magic.
What are the elements of a good fantasy?
Haha. See my answer above. But I’ll start this answer where I finished the last one. For me, TRUE fantasy contains magic. I don’t like that the magic in A Game of Thrones is all in the background. I don’t like that in The Blade Itself the magic is simply technology people don’t understand. Give me a wizard casting spells, like in Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule. Or, better, like in Feist’s Magician. The issue, of course, is that it’s tough tough tough to create a consistent philosophical framework and world (with its own laws) in which magic can operate ‘credibly’. You have to make your readers believe it can happen, and that’s a big ask. Magic has to seem plausible and real (not actually fantastical)! Otherwise it’ll just be silly, made-up nonsense. It takes a proper fantasy-fan-turned-fantasy-author to pull it off well. I’m really not the biggest-selling fantasy author out there, but the reason that Gollancz and my fans enjoy books like Empire of the Saviours is that it’s ‘proper’ fantasy.
And last, could you recommend – I’ll be kind — just three fantasies readers should be looking forward to?
Well, I’ve mentioned Peter Newman’s The Seven above. I should mention The Book of Dragons by yours truly, of course. I’d also add in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s The Bear and the Serpent (follow-up to The Tiger and the Wolf), because Adrian won this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award for Children of Time. And a bonus title has to come from Mark Lawrence (because he wins all the other awards for being annoyingly good): The Wheel of Osheim.
What do you think of metaphysical fantasy? Which titles are your favourite in this genre?