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A whole new world: Why the high fantasy genre needs a reboot

Few authors have defined an entire genre the way J.R.R. Tolkien defined high fantasy with the universe of Middle-earth. Tolkien, an avid linguist, developed the mythos, languages and cultures within Middle-earth based on Europe, with heavy emphasis on Scandinavian and Celtic influences. 

Tolkien’s timeless classics fertilized the soil from which grew an entire forest of high fantasy works over the successive decades. Yet, the majority of these works use the same worldbuilding blueprint as Tolkien, conjuring biomes and names that emulate the same Nordic and British Isles inspiration. 

Some of the tropes begin to feel repetitive and overused: most characters have some sort of an English accent, in addition to dwarves being Scottish and having a vaguely Viking-appearing race filling the “generic Nordic” role. Landscapes often mimic the rugged snowy forests of northern Scandinavia or the English countryside. 

Detailing every overused trope would be nearly impossible, but it’s easy to name specific works of media where this is glaringly obvious, the most notable being “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” the “Witcher” and the “Dragon Age” series of video games. In literature, Westeros from “Game of Thrones” is the most prominent example. 

Within such an echo chamber of a genre, it can be difficult for young aspiring authors to feel compelled to share their voice and stories if all the salient works follow the same cliches and source material. It can feel as if the genre is exclusive or uninspiring when many literary devices are easily predictable even before diving deep into the story. 

In modern high fantasy, some authors are bringing a much-needed infusion of innovation by constructing completely original worlds that don’t follow the stereotypical trope checklist as described above. Paul Krueger’s “Steel Crow Saga” builds on Asian geography and culture, similar to “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” to create a world of nations that are driven by enchantments and animal magic. The worldbuilding isn’t restricted by the typical pre-Medieval technologies and politics seen in most epic fantasy either; it blends magic with societies and warfare reminiscent of our modern world. 

Seen even more rarely in fantasy stories are elements of African folklore and mythos, which is the heart of Jamaican author Marlon James’ novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf.” A distinctly dark and grueling story, its plot is told in a very non-linear fashion with background lore as rich as Tolkien’s universe. Nothing in James’ worldbuilding is even remotely similar to plot devices found in most Western high fantasy. This can make the storytelling style and characters difficult to follow in a way that invites multiple re-reads to discover more tidbits hidden within the very intricate narrative. 

Infusing epic fantasy with stories such as Krueger’s and James’ brings new mythologies and cultural inspirations to the forefront of the genre, breathing much-needed excitement into stories consistently told with the same overused tropes. For up-and-coming young authors from all backgrounds, it will not only entice them to jump into these new works of modern fantasy, but it will also show them that their voices have a home in the genre. 

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