In which it becomes blindingly obvious why I write fantasy
I was originally planning on listing a few writers who inspire me, but then I realised I was doing a huge disservice to the books I read when I was younger. The authors who first set me on my writerly track. So why not instead track back through my reading history for the writers who’ve had the biggest influence on both my reading and writing since I was a wee young thing whose stories were more along the lines of talking animals and clueless adults.
And what stands out from the list once I’d started drafting it was that it is almost entirely fantasy. All the books that formed me, as a reader and a writer and even as a person, since I was old enough to pick my own, are based firmly in a more magical world.
To be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What mini-me read
I went through a phase, from maybe the age of 4 to the age of 10, where I would only read Enid Blyton. Well, that’s a very long phase, and a slight exaggeration. I did read other things, but if given a choice, I inevitably gravitated her way. And with her extensive catalogue, so there was plenty to keep me occupied. Magical trees full of magical creatures and a doorway to strange worlds at the top (hang on, epiphany has occurred – I’m basically describing a very early portal fantasy here!). Children growing up on farms and basically running wild (wish fulfilment, anyone?). Brownies and elves up to mischief, magical chairs that took you wherever you wished, talking animals, running away with the circus. Fast-forward a few years and I devoured Famous Five, the boarding school stories, the Mystery and Adventure series.
As an adult I can see the uncomfortable sexist, racist and classist overtones of a lot of the stories, endemic of their time, but as a child I was simply swept away on adventure after adventure and it’s fair to say that I can thank Enid Blyton for cementing me in a lifetime of readership.
When YA wasn’t really a thing
I’m not kidding; I actually am that old. We did have a small amount of what would now be called YA – teen fiction, as it was called then – but the scope and range of it compared to more recent publishing was, well. Limited.
So what did I read? I had the additional problem of many a prolific reader, that my reading age was too far ahead of me. Books aimed at my age were too simple; I’d blast through them in half an hour and put them down feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Teen fiction and the odd adult book were nudged my way by sympathetic teachers, parents and librarians, and I often loved them. I also often gave myself nightmares, and I suspect if my parents knew exactly what some of my favourite characters were getting up to, they wouldn’t have been so relaxed about supplying my habit.
So I turned to another my old favourites, Narnia. And then I discovered Tamora Pierce. (Mum, if you’re reading this, I swear the romance was very understated and the serious stuff happened off-page!). Between the two, I was now officially a fantasy reader. And in Alanna the Lioness, I finally discovered a heroine who I could really relate to. A girl who was badass to the extreme, who dressed like a boy and did boy things, often better than the actual boys, who knew what she wanted and went to get it.
Alanna was the template for the heroines of my early attempts at writing my own books. At the age of twelve, I started an actual full-length novel which was pretty much a cross-over between Narnia and the Song of the Lioness, with a main character who was pretty much me if I was Alanna. Yes, I still have it tucked away somewhere. No, no one will be reading it, EVER.
The lost years
An exaggeration? Actually, no. I gradutated from the children’s fiction and the minimal teen fiction I could find. I was a grown-up now, at the ripe old age of 15 or so. It wasn’t going to stop me reading Tamora Pierce, hell no. But I would have to start reading grown-up books.
Trouble was, grown up fantasy wasn’t all that varied, at the time. Raymond E Feist. Terry Brooks. Robert Jordan. Hey, I enjoyed a lot of them. But. They were all variations on the same sort of Tolkein-esque epic quest fantasy. They all had SERIOUS problems with the few female protagonists they included. Basically, young men got to be the hero, and I was left floundering in a world I had loved that no longer seemed to fit me. Eventually I discovered David Gemmell, who at least had a bit more variety, and the occasional woman who seemed like an actual person, even if it was still the Menfolk who generally got to go have adventures. I tried other genres, what was disparagingly known as chick-lit, some historical fiction, a literary thing here or there. Had a feeble attempt to get into classic sci-fi, and failed almost immediately. They all passed the time pleasantly enough, with the exception of the sci-fi, but none of them fired the same enthusiasm as my younger fantastical adventures.
Looking back, I wonder if it’s a coincidence I spent a lot of this time struggling with my writing, putting it on the backburner and thinking of it as a slightly odd hobby instead of remembering it had been my dream.
SJM, The Hunger Games and all the YA
Story time: I was twenty-something. A friend bought me Throne of Glass. I still didn’t know YA was a thing, but it was a fantasy book with a young woman as the protagonist, so of course I was intrigued. But, once a bookworm always a bookworm; I put it on my bookshelf and promptly got on with reading library books and impulse buys and everything else for about a year, before I picked it up again and started reading.
It was okay. It didn’t light up the world, but it was a fun read and I wanted to know what happened next, so I asked for book two for my next birthday. At about the same time, the Hunger Games movie was being massively hyped, and I knew it was based on a book, so I went to my library and found it in the teen section, which was already looking a lot more impressive than the ones I remembered.
The Hunger Games was my entry drug into the world of YA fiction and regaining my love of all things bookish. With a day of finishing the first book, I had ordered my own copy of the entire trilogy, reread the library version, bought and watched the first film and got lost down several internet rabbit holes of fanart, trailers for Catching Fire and bookstagram. Look, I was on maternity leave, ok?
I found more YA fantasy books. I started writing again. I joined the online bookish community, initially as a writer but very quickly as a reader and all-round fangirl, thrilled to have found people who liked the stuff I liked, who wanted to talk and flail and share that love. I plotted out a complicated four-book fantasy series that morphed into the book I’m currently working on (and it’s future sequels). But it was still in the background, something I might concentrate on one day.
And then, after languishing on my shelf for another year or so, Crown of Midnight found its way into my hands.
Now, my relationship with SJM is complicated. Her books are undoubtedly problematic (that’s a whole other post, or maybe several. I’m not getting into it here) and as I’ve read more I’ve realised I don’t actually like her writing style all that much, and the romance tropes she seems to be particularly fond of rub me up the wrong way. But Crown of Midnight didn’t have that sort of romance. It had a glorious, sweeping love affair between two people with every reason to not want to fall in love with each other but who were unable to help it anyway. It was full of action and adventure, danger and heart-pounding scenes. And I fell in love with them too.
It kicked me right up the backside. This was why I wanted to write. This was what I wanted to do. I wanted that magic to come from my mind, my pen, to touch readers the way these books had touched me. Whatever my subsequent views on SJM, however disappointed I was in the way that series turned out, I can’t look back at my reading history without acknowledging the huge impact of that moment.
What I read now
Still fantasy. Still YA, but thankfully adult fantasy has started to catch up and now I know what I’m looking for (thank you again, bookstagram) I can find the ones that welcome me in instead of making me feel like an intruder in someone else’s vision. Add in some (definitely unclassic) sci-fi and historical fiction, the fantastically diverse range of YA contemporary fiction that’s now being published, the odd thing that completely surprises me but comes highly recommended. The writers that have the most influence on me now might not have a lot in common with the ones who got me to this point, and I’ll come back to them in another post, since this one’s got a lot longer than I expected, but I am the product of all these books and authors throughout my life as a reader.
I’m going out on a limb here to say everyone has them. Maybe not everyone thinks about them in this depth, and maybe some might struggle to put a finger on the reasons, but everyone has that book or two or several that set them on a path. Do you remember yours?