Making Formulas Fresh Again: A Reading List of Fantasy Tropes Reimagined
Hannah Kaner Recommends Becky Chambers, Tasha Suri, Saara El-Arifi, Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ, and C. L. Clark
Quests are a true bedrock of fantasy: the hero’s journey, the wandering hero. From Odysseus to Gawain, to Don Quixote to Bilbo Baggins, to Genly Ai to Geralt of Rivia. Generally a male-coded trope, episodic in format. When I began turning the concept of Godkiller over in my head, I knew I wanted to write a quest. I wanted to play with it, make it fresh. Twist the trope. (My first pitch was “Gawain and Furiosa go on a quest to the ruins of Troy” which, understandably, didn’t stick, but the concept remained.)
“Tropey” is often pejorative, a byword for laziness or unoriginality, thrown at books that aren’t considered “serious enough” by the canon: romance, young adult, fantasy, sci-fi.
Tropes can indicate a lack of curiosity—the buried gays, the women in refrigerators, and the tokenized minorities have been bundled into ignominious narrative (and sometimes literal) boxes that refuse them depth, agency, or justice.
However, tropes are also traditions, genre markers, narrative beats. Is “only one bed” or the chosen one trope any less traditional than the hamartia of tragedy, the fourteen lines of a sonnet, resolution of a crime procedural?
Played differently, played fresh, tropes can be used to challenge a genre. Below I have included some books that take classic or established tropes of fantasy and turn them on their head, either giving them new life or questioning their hold on the genre.
Trope: The Quest
Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
Becky Chambers hits hard on two of my favorite tropes: the quest and found family. In The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, the latter subsumes the former in the most beautiful way. Because The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is, as the title suggests, not a story about the planet, but a tale about the journey there. Each chapter shifts focus onto a different character on the crew of the ship, their lives and their history, their relationships and dreams.
Becky Chambers’ books have a tenderness in their storytelling that makes me feel such love for her characters, and her choices with the patterns of narrative development and payoff are constantly undermining what one should expect of a book involving aliens, space guns, and war. Each expectation she sets up, she challenges and unravels before the reader. Delightful.
Trope: The Chosen One
Saara El-Arifi, The Final Strife
The “Chosen One” trope is a classic of fantasy, from Game of Thrones, to Earthsea, to Wheel of Time, to The Lord of the Rings. So many magical descendants or powerful children are charged with bringing down evil lords and dark empires. But what if the chosen one fails in their call to arms? What if they fail more than once? What if they have to train unchosed ones to take their place?
The Final Strife and the Ending Fire trilogy beautifully interrogates the premise of the chosen one and its impact. Sylah was stolen as a child and trained to win the Aktibar trials so she could disband an evil empire from within. Now, after her rebellion was destroyed, she lives in poverty, fighting in cage matches, and has developed a drug addiction that she struggles to pay for.
Throughout the book, El-Arifi never shies away from the damage that can be done to the “chosen,” including the manipulation and potential cruelty of those who do the “choosing” and rear children up to topple empires. How far does the greater good go? And what does it mean to fight for it?
This epic trilogy forefronts the pain at the heart of resistance in an Afro-Arab inspired fantasy world which is beautifully realized devastating to read, a true new classic of the genre that made me want to read again.
Trope: Magical Boarding School (with Magic Children)
Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ, Dazzling
Magical boarding schools are a wonderful escape for children’s storytelling. Another world, just on the cusp of our young dreams, with spells and sorcery, childhood dramas, and the occasional romance. The Name of the Wind, Vampire Academy, The Poppy War, The School of Good and Evil, The Novice all play with the concept of the place that one goes to learn magic.
Emelụmadụ’s Dazzling is nothing of the sort. The boarding school is not magic, though there are rumours and mystery. The story is not for children, but told with all the brutality of young people growing up too soon. The girls there have been thrown into the folklore of their ancestors and lands, and the magic won’t leave them alone.
Dazzling evokes Igbo myth and storytelling, with the focus of the story on the experiences of one young woman who is the leopard of her family, with corresponding powers, and another who has entered into a dangerous bargain with a spirit. The two come together at the boarding school, and each have to deal with the burden of the gifts they inherit. I love that the book can hearken to elements of fantasy storytelling—the isolation of a new place, unreliable parents, the danger of other class members, self discovery and coming of age—while creating a story so wholly new and compelling.
Trope: Light and Dark
C. L. Clark, The Unbroken
Fantasy is a genre that thrives on opposition: ‘light’ versus ‘dark’, the enlightened versus the savage, the elves versus the orcs, good versus evil, heaven versus hell. But this is also an opposition used and used again in colonialist propaganda. Many critical thinkers have pointed out an edge to some fantasies of colonial apologism, the ease of drawing lines between warring sides, and the oversimplification of good versus evil and who defines each.
The Unbroken not only takes the real colonialist history of the French invasion of North Africa, it scrutinizes these tropes from the angle of both the invader and the invaded. Clark deftly shows the brutality of war on stolen land, the balancing of evils and goods, the propaganda of light versus dark, and threads throughout an excellent fantasy story involving rediscovery of lost magic, a tragic love and a rebalancing of power.
Trope: The Prince(ss) and the Pauper
Tasha Suri, The Jasmine Throne
A prince and pauper trope is a play on opposites attract, but closer to a Cinderella story. Romance or love between two who for some reason should not be together: a royal and a commoner, someone wealthy with someone not, or someone with magic with someone without. Think Romeo and Juliet, Guinevere and Lancelot, Arwen and Aragorn, Wesley and Buttercup, Sophie and Howl.
In The Jasmine Throne we have Malini and Priya, the former a disgraced princess of the empire, the latter a child of a disbanded magic priesthood who is now a maid in a noble’s household. The two come together when the princess is imprisoned by Priya’s employers in the ruins of her temple.
Suri presents the trope from two angles: Priya has magic, which Malini does not, and Malini has power, which Priya does not.
The love between them develops within this imbalance which imbues it with edge and fascinating political depth. Suri leans into the dynamic, foregrounding the development of the women’s power as individuals in their own right. She interrogates the power imbalance that means some consider the trope sexy, while others consider it problematic, and does it so beautifully.
Godkiller by Hannah Kaner is available via Harper Voyager.