Reviews, “Non-Fantasy Readers,” and Finnikin of the Rock

I read Melina Marchetta’s lovely Finnikin of the Rock this past weekend. I thoroughly enjoyed it – it’s exciting, plotted well, and full of thorny, complex characters. It has magic and adventure and love and revenge and kingdoms and threats of war and all that other good stuff I look for in a rousing high fantasy read.

As I always do, I read a lot of reviews of the book. I’m a review-reader. I read reviews before I read the book, while I’m reading the book, and after I’m done reading it. I noticed that many readers had come to Finnikin of the Rock and its sequels via Marchetta’s other titles, which are acclaimed and award-winning and, most importantly, realistic novels.

Most of these readers who came to her fantasy books via her non-fantasy ones really enjoyed Finnikin. I love to see this. I love that fantasy can gain new fans this way, even if those readers are reluctant to pick up other fantasy titles. It’s how I come to read a lot of non-genre (out of my own comfort zone) works, too.

The problem arises when I see a review that claims that a book like Finnikin is “not really a fantasy novel.” I see this sort of thing in a lot of reviews of acclaimed genre titles, particularly if those titles are by authors who don’t usually write genre fiction. With Finnikin, I see it in almost every single one of the reviews where the reviewer states they don’t normally read fantasy. It’s a strange statement to make for a book like Finnikin – that it’s “not really fantasy” – since Finnikin is high fantasy and therefore the most obvious kind of fantasy – set in a completely different world, with strange names and magic to boot.

When I read the reviews further, though, it became apparent that the reason these readers don’t feel that Finnikin is truly fantasy is because it is “really” about things that humans in the Real World can relate to: identity, loss, family. That it’s about the characters and how they cope with these things, how they relate to each other, how they explore their situation and rise above it (or don’t).

But Finnikin is not at all unusual in this regard, because these things are what all good fantasy books are about. I promise. That’s what makes them good books. If they’re not about these things, they’re just bad books – and you can find bad books in any genre. There are plenty of realistic books that place plot (or setting) on a pedestal and sacrifice character (or theme) at its altar. To say that fantasy does this more than other genres is just wrong – and insulting.

I was raised on fantasy novels. They’re what I’ve read since I knew how to read. They’re layered with meaning, full of substance. They’ve taught me more about myself and the people around me than I can explain. I love how creative they can be, how empowering, how beautiful their language, how intricate their plots. I love that they can create people and things so fantastical, so completely strange, but also make me feel like I know those unbelievable things and people like I do my own self. When a person claims that a great fantasy book isn’t “really” fantasy because it has depth, because it has meaning, because it says true things about life, I object strongly. I know it to be false, and it seems like an unwarranted slight against a genre that still endures critical ridicule despite its current popularity.

Here are just a few examples of some high fantasy YA novels I’ve read recently that all incorporate very human themes (read: that are all good books). Sarah Beth Durst’s Vessel is about a girl whose family had tremendous expectations for her, and she disappointed them completely. Now she’s lost, abandoned by the ones she loves, desperately seeking a new home and an identity in a world that has rejected her. Jennifer Nielsen’s The False Prince features a boy without a family who is also trying to find a place for himself, trying to regain the honor he felt he lost by a decision that was forced upon him years ago. Anything written by Shannon Hale – check out The Goose Girl for a prime example – is sure to include lovely, evocative writing and well-meaning but flawed characters.

If you read the descriptions above, without the titles, you wouldn’t know they belonged to fantasy books. At their hearts, all good books are about how people (or other sentient beings) grow and change. They’re always about us.

I think a lot of this sort of misconception springs from ignorance. If someone has only read one kind of fantasy book before – and let’s be honest, it’s probably The Lord of the Rings – she or he may have assumed other fantasy novels are just like it. But equating one fantasy novel with another is just like equating one realistic book with another. It would be ridiculous if someone said “Oh, I didn’t like To Kill a Mockingbird, so I don’t think realistic books are for me. If I like another realistic book, it must be because it’s not really realistic.”

As I thought about this more, I tried to get to the heart of what the critics were saying. They love Finnikin, but don’t care for fantasy usually. Why, then, does Finnikin speak to them so strongly while other fantasy novels don’t? If this were any other book, I’d assume that the fantasy elements were light and easily overlooked, but that’s not the case here. Finnikin is steeped in traditional high fantasy tropes. Its religion, cultures, quests, kingdoms, magic, and themes – particularly the search for identity and a lost homeland – are all trademarks of high fantasy. In fact, I’d say that Finnikin treads no new ground at all in any of these areas. For all its excellent writing, it’s not a very creative book.

Which leads me to my conclusion – Marchetta is a fantastic writer, and that’s why people love this book. It’s perfectly legitimate to not enjoy fantasy elements. I get that completely. Magic isn’t for everyone. But when the writing is just so darn good, sometimes it’s hard not to like a book in spite of the magic. That’s what happened to me with A. S. King. I’ll read everything she writes – which is almost always realistic – simply because her writing is just that good.

There may be other reasons, of course. The world-building is pretty standard, and not incredibly detailed or varied, so it’s easier for people who don’t normally read fantasy to follow it, I think. For many readers, elements like that are a distraction (whereas for mega fantasy fans, they’re enhancements). You get a lot of readers who can’t stand The Lord of the Rings because of this. But to claim that the fantasy elements somehow prevent real, deep meaning or substance from existing in all but a treasured few is disingenuous. (And for all its endless detail and pointless digressions, Lord of the Rings has an incredible amount of substance.)

I’d like to encourage readers who don’t normally read fantasy to think more broadly about the genre. Most fantasy has magic, yes, but the magic isn’t the entirety of the book. In any good fantasy, the magic (you can insert whatever traditional fantasy element you like instead of “magic”) will be a vehicle for the characters and their growth, in much the same way that the plot elements of a realistic novel are the vehicle for its characters.

Finnikin of the Rock is a fantasy. If you liked it, you like fantasy. Maybe not all of it, maybe not even most of it, but you do like some of it. Rather than denying it by saying you don’t normally read fantasy, be proud of it. This is a great book. It’s worthy of your love – and it’s worthy because it’s a fantasy, not because it’s not.

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  1. says

    I've been thinking about this a lot since you were talking about it on Twitter this weekend. I think that it talks to the real world better, and in a more lingering way than a lot of fantasy does. But not because it's not real fantasy, but because Marchetta is just a damn fine writer. I also feel her realistic fiction speaks more to broader issues and lingers more than most other realistic fiction. Marchetta's just really, really good.

    And I think that's great, because a damn fine novel like this one is a great gateway for people to get into fantasy (or another genre that they normally don't read.) The problem, of course, is getting them over the misconception that they don't read fantasy.

    It's taken me a long time to admit that I *do* read and enjoy fantasy. But, I think part of that is what I read and enjoy is different than what many of my friends who self-identify as fantasy readers read and enjoy. Because I wasn't into Game of Thrones or Wheel of Time or other very thick, mass market paperback high fantasy, I didn't feel accepted as part of the fantasy crowd and therefore wouldn't self-identify as a fantasy reader. And that's bullshit.

    • says

      Jennie that makes me wonder about gender, too — does that play a role here? As mass market paperback high fantasy was so often marketed and sold to a male readership, did female readers get sort of left off or led to believe these books were not "for them?"

      I feel like there's a whole post considering that question, too.

    • says

      That is an interesting question. The friends I'm thinking about were mostly female, but I think there is a lot there, especially because the a lot of the fantasy I love is more female-oriented (paranormal romance, fairy tale retellings, etc). And it took me a long time to realize that, no, wait, that's TOTALLY fantasy.

    • says

      This thread is interesting to me. Jennie, I think you've nailed it in your first paragraph. I think it's fair to say this is better than most fantasy because of the writing, not because it's not really fantasy. And your last sentence in that paragraph is essential.

      Kelly, your gender question is curious. As a child and teen, I always felt like the mass markets WERE marketed to me (as a female reader). Granted, I never read Wheel of Time, but I never missed it. I read JV Jones, Anne Bishop, Sara Douglass, Melanie Rawn, Elizabeth Haydon, Jennifer Fallon. Lots and lots of female authors with female protagonists. Martin was one of the few male authors I actually read. I'd say SF was a much more "boys club" area than fantasy. I often heard as a teen that girls read fantasy and boys read SF. I never felt unwelcome as a teen reader reading fantasy; I was also in my own little reading bubble, though. As an adult, I see gender disparities much more easily.

    • says

      It's interesting to me you named all female authors, too. I've been thinking about this because of a lot of the gender issues that come up during scifi/fantasy cons and the community at large and the perceptions of/within it of gender challenges. As someone who doesn't read a lot of fantasy but who does read a little more scifi, I'm even more fascinated by your thoughts on the gender divide between the two (if there is one — there could be nothing, and as you said, maybe it's my adult eyes).

    • says

      Hmmm. I read a lot of fantasy as a kid, too. My tastes shifted a bit as a teen to more realistic/contemporary. As an adult, even though I never really stopped reading fantasy, there still was that distinction between what I was reading and "real" fantasy. Hmmm. Now I'm thinking more about this…

    • says

      Especially in the realm of adult fantasy (and sci-fi) there is definitely still very much a Boys Club mentality, both among a large part of the readership and among people writing about the community, so much so that you will still, three years in, find articles written by serious entertainment journalists who are obtuse enough to believe that women couldn't possibly want to watch Game of Thrones. I can't speak to detailed readership numbers, but I think there are many men in the community who would still have you believe that adult fantasy (and sci-fi, for that matter) is *theirs*, which is something we've seen quite a bit of lately woven into the subtext of the harassment/con discussion going on. It's bullshit, and it's also part of an exclusionary mentality that a chunk of this community/readership still has. I've read broadly in adult fantasy, but I also read so diversely that many of the biggest adult fantasy works are things I haven't read yet. I'm perfectly fine with that, but I still come across people who tell me "Oh, well if you haven't read [insert supposed vital work here], then you aren't really a fantasy fan." It's a very sad mentality, and it's intimidating, especially for new readers.

      But here's what I find funny about those people who still perceive it as a Boys Club, who still want to be intimidating and exclusionary and perpetuate the supposed male dominance of the readership: Many of them don't seem to remember the history of their own genre. Make a list in your head of all the most important adult fantasy authors post-Tolkien. Terry Brooks and Martin and Jordan and C.S. Lewis immediately come to mind, but just as vital to the building of the genre were Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey (the first woman to win a Hugo or a Nebula Award), Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mary Stewart and so on. They built the genre, and yet there are still so many fans (and non-fans looking in) who have that perception Kelly was talking about, that it's for the men, and so many of the men in that community still, sadly, do nothing to fix that, and even actively promote it.

      I think things are getting better though, because of people like Mary Robinette Kowal and N.K. Jemisin and John Scalzi, but also because of how many strong female fantasy voices YA has now, with all the authors Kim mentioned (plus Kristin Cashore, etc.). My hope is that the shift will continue as teen readers who are so into Cashore and Hale and Nielsen and so on will push for more adult books as they become adults readers that speak to them in that way, and the Boys Club thing will disintegrate faster.

      Which was all a really long-winded way of saying that there's truth to Kelly's original gender question…

    • says

      Thank you SO MUCH for writing this piece – as a writer who falls squarely into this particular grey area I can identify with a lot of what you are saying. People (reviewers) have struggled mightily to pigeonhole my own books and have often had to stretch hard to find pocket pigeonholes into which they could shove any particular work – "Secrets of Jin Shei", for instance, being about a sacred friendship between women, was immediately christened "feminist fantasy"; "Midnight at Spanish Gardens" was even harder because it is fantasy that takes places while very much rooted in our own world – but it isn't "urban" fantasy as it has been defined hitherto (no werewolves, no vampires, sparkling or otherwise) and someone finally coined "contemporary fantasy" for it while saying in the review PRECISELY what you've been saying up in your piece – "this is a fantasy novel that non-fantasy readers might enjoy" – why are people so afraid of the concept of fantasy? Why do people even identify as "non-fantasy readers"?…

  2. says

    Just THANK you for posting this. Fantasy is my favorite genre because its options are boundless- it can provide an opportunity for critique of our own society (like Girl of Fire and Thorns does) in a subtle way, or examine the way we view femininity and sexuality (as in Fire by Kristin Cashore), or a number of other things, all the while being a fun tale with dragons, castles, and magic. To disregard fantasy as silly or meaningless because it has magic is completely ridiculous.

  3. says

    Yes to everything you've stated. I've also been a primarily high-fantasy reader for the majority of my life. It's difficult putting up with stigmas and misconceptions rampant in non-fantasy readers. So what if I prefer to read a story that doesn't take place in our actual world? That doesn't make it any less well-written, interesting, or relevant than other genres. I've had to make similar arguments many times over the years to those you state here, but they're worth it if I can help even one person look at the fantasy genre in a different way. This is a phenomenal post. I hope that traditionally non-fantasy readers do get a chance to read this.

  4. says

    Thank you for writing this, it's a very thoughtful and I think very correct pieces. As someone who reads Fantasy but is also a huge Marchetta fan I personally think Finnikin is one of her weaker books and keep hoping my fantasy friends who enjoyed it will read (On the) Jellicoe Road or The Piper's Son now. (Of course I have yet to finish the trilogy so there is that.)

    Anyway, before I go off on some random tangent about the importance of questioning ourselves and our reactions to books I'll say Thanks for posting this!

  5. says

    Thank you so much for posting this! I can't tell you how many times I've had this argument with people, but you express it so well. "At their hearts, all good books are about how people (or other sentient beings) grow and change." YES! In fact, fantasy and science fiction are extraordinarily good at exploring difficult themes, because by using a different time or place or non-humans, the author can strip away our real-world expectations and biases enough to allow the reader to really think about something in a new way. I love your post so much, I think we must have been separated at birth (and I'm a huge fan of A.S. King as well).

    The gender discussion here in the comments has been great, too. I started reading fantasy and science fiction in 4th and 5th grade, and I don't want to admit how long ago that was! Some of my favorites back then and through high school were Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert (Dune is still one of my favorite books of all time), Clarke, Norton, Tolkien, and a little later, Le Guin, whom I consider to be one of the greatest SF writers of all time. It never occurred to me that as a girl these books weren't meant for me, and it didn't matter whether there were female protagonists or not. I loved Tolkien, and the fact that it was essentially a boys club never bothered me; I just wanted to be Strider.

    Thank you for an interesting post and a great discussion.

  6. says

    I loved this book and I loved this post, too! As a fantasy fan–and one who has certainly read more than my fair share of poorly written fantasy over the years–I completely agree with your reasons why this is just a good book, period, independent of genre.

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