Make sure you check out Empire Ascendant by
Looking Back or Leaping Forward: The Evolving Fantasy Prose Style by Kameron Hurley
Ursula K. Le Guin famously wrote a scathing critique of modern fantasy novel language in her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” Her argument was one I could get behind: just as you should not be able to pick up your character and put them into a modern setting and have them be the same people, you should not be able to pick up your character dialogue and prose, change the place names, and have them sound like modern-day people. Who we are and how we talk is intrinsic to the world we inhabit. Modern-sounding dialogue can often break our suspension of disbelief.
That said, there is a fine line between sounding authentic to one’s world and being unreadable. It’s no coincidence that narrative that’s easy to read will appeal to more readers that chewy, obtuse, but award-winning prose.
One of the issues I always had with this essay was that it seemed to assume that there was a lyrical fantasy language that we must all strive for, some sort of pseudo-historical but really Tolkien-esque language that looked backward, not forward. So while I agree that our prose should fit the worlds we’ve built, I can’t agree that there is a prose style that is more truly fantastic than any other. We are, in fact, totally making all this shit up. We are also, increasingly, fighting for the attention of our readers, readers pulled away from prose by film, television, and video games.
As a writer, my job is to not just build new worlds, but to do so in a way that’s accessible to a broad range of readers. I’m not here to write Shakespeare. And in fact I think trying to write like Shakespeare ignores that he and his work were a product of his time. We need not look back and imitate a prose style that appealed to people in an entirely different era. We are writing for readers of our own age; it’s a totally different time.
This is something I keep in mind as I write my own work, balancing punchy dialogue with evocative scene-setting narrative. This means that sometimes you do, in fact, get modern-sounding dialogue like this, from my latest book Empire Ascendant:
“I don’t know,” Zezili said. “I’m not sure our… agreement with the Tai Mora is still on.”
“You fuck that up?”
“As much as it can be fucked up, yeah.”
It’s not pretty. It’s not prosaic. It doesn’t sound like anything from Tolkien. But it’s very readable, and it conveys precisely the tone and feeling I wanted to get across for the people of this particular culture and class. I am certainly not the world’s best prose stylist (ha ha), but I do work to keep my books engaging and fast-moving, because I deal with a lot of heavy themes and complex worldbuilding that is already a lot for readers to take in. Adding complicated prose on top of that for folks to tangle through would sink the books.
That said, one can still get a lot of mileage from fast-moving descriptions. Character, scene-setting, plot-moving, all in a paragraph. You just pick what you emphasize:
The stargazers were both men, slender and supple as reeds, with words sweet as honey and opaque as molasses. Kirana drummed her fingers on her campaign table while they droned on about probability and proposed speed of different types of light. Another week of war, hounding the Dorinahs to the sea, and the burning ulcer in her stomach was flaring up again, like some hungry animal. The stargazer’s avoidance of her question was not helping her mood. She had made camp here inside some petty Dorinah lord’s estate, hosting her stargazers through a rip in the fabric of the world right there in the lord’s former entertaining room.
If I had to do this paragraph over, I’d have made it clearer from where Kirana, the general of the invading army from a parallel universe, is seeing the stargazers, instead of leaving that bit to the end. But the rest does what it needs to do. Kirana is under stress: she’s drumming her fingers, she has a nagging ulcer; the bit about stargazers tells us they have an understanding of what’s happening in this parallel-universe swapping world of disappearing stars and winking satellites that our protagonists don’t, and we learn that the war is progressing in Dorinah, as this is happening inside of a lord’s ransacked house.
Increasingly, I see reader reviews that get angry when writers use descriptive paragraphs even less convoluted than mine, which I admit makes me wince, too. I want a world where exceptional prose stylists can make a living writing that doesn’t have to be supplemented with speaking and teaching gigs. But that’s not the world we live in. Clear, transparent prose still wins the day when one looks at brute sales numbers.
As writers, we must ask ourselves continually what it is we’re writing for. Are we here to be read as widely as possible? Are we instead looking to be prose stylists with a more limited readership but greater artistic and professional respect?
And there is, of course, always another path: there is writing what we want, what we love, in prose that works not for Tolkien or Le Guin or some nebulous typical reader, but for the storyteller within each of us. This is, at the end of the day, the way I want to write. I want to write for me. And that means it’s not always very pretty.
About the author:
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant and the God’s War Trilogy. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer; she has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, The Lowest Heaven, and Meeting Infinity. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Atlantic, Locus Magazine, and the upcoming collection The Geek Feminist Revolution.
About the book:
- Series: The Worldbreaker Saga (Book 2)
- Paperback: 464 pages
- Publisher: Angry Robot (October 6, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0857665596
- ISBN-13: 978-0857665591
Loyalties are tested when worlds collide…
Every two thousand years, the dark star Oma appears in the sky, bringing with it a tide of death and destruction. And those who survive must contend with friends and enemies newly imbued with violent powers. The kingdom of Saiduan already lies in ruin, decimated by invaders from another world who share the faces of those they seek to destroy.
Now the nation of Dhai is under siege by the same force. Their only hope for survival lies in the hands of an illegitimate ruler and a scullery maid with a powerful – but unpredictable –magic. As the foreign Empire spreads across the world like a disease, one of their former allies takes up her Empress’s sword again to unseat them, and two enslaved scholars begin a treacherous journey home with a long-lost secret that they hope is the key to the Empire’s undoing.
But when the enemy shares your own face, who can be trusted?
In this devastating sequel to The Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley transports us back to a land of blood mages and sentient plants, dark magic, and warfare on a scale that spans worlds.
BUY IT HERE: Empire Ascendant: Worldbreaker Saga #2