Realistic Fantasy and Mythic Monsters


I’ve been thinking about your concept of Realistic Fantasy–which you defined as novels “clearly set in fantasy worlds, i.e., worlds that are not our world. Yet . . . set in worlds that are only a little bit different from our world”– and looking at Someday My Printz Will Come’s list of contendas for the Printz Award this year to try to get some examples.  Here are the contendas I can identify as fantasy of some sort (including Science Fiction):

  • Froi of the Exiles
  • There is No Dog
  • The Drowned Cities
  • Bitterblue
  • The Obsidian Blade
  • Railsea
  • A Confusion of Princes
  • Dust Girl
  • Tiger Lily
  • The Diviners
  • Monstrous Beauty
  • Seraphina
  • The Brides of Rollrock Island
  • Every Day
  • The Girl with the Borrowed Wings
  • Unwholly
  • Raven Boys
  • Days of Blood and Starlight
  • Son

For the record, of these nineteen novels, I’ve only read eight, plus the previous book(s) of four that are series novels, so I can’t claim complete knowledge, but here are some thoughts.

Ten–Froi of the Exiles, Bitterblue, Days of Blood and Starlight, Son, A Confusion of Princes, Tiger Lily, The Obsidian Blade, The Drowned Cities, Unwholly, and Railsea–seem to be utterly Fantasy.  Another three–Dust Girl, Raven Boys, and The Girl with the Borrowed Wings–I haven’t read and can’t tell from the descriptions I’ve read how fantastical they are.  One–There Is No Dog–fits basically no category I can think of.  That leaves five novels that might fit your category of Realistic Fantasy.  The Brides of Rollrock Island and Seraphina were the examples you already mentioned.  Monstrous Beauty is almost completely an intertwined Historical and Contemporary Fiction except that mermaids happen to exist.  Every Day, from what I understand, is totally realistic except for the fact that the main character transports to a new body each day (a la Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap).  And The Diviners is very much a historic fiction about the 1920s, with the addition of a group of people with psychic abilities.

Every Day and The Diviners are very different from each other and from the other three novels, so I’m going to set them aside for this post, because I want to talk about the connections in the final three.  Rollrock, Seraphina, and Monstrous Beauty all feature mythical monsters which have been reintegrated into a realistic world.  I recently read and reviewed for SLJ a book called Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan.  The book discusses the origins of various monsters and the reasons those monsters have either diminished or increased in their potential to scare us.  One of the things Kaplan talks about is how creatures like dragons and mermaids (he doesn’t specifically mention selkies, but they fit the pattern) have lost their potency as monsters as the world has been fully explored and the environment tamed: we no longer have the same fears of the sea and the underground that inspired these monsters.  What I see in these three novels is an attempt to reinvigorate these mythic creatures, by imagining them more realistically.  The dragons of Seraphina are no longer strange, hidden creatures, guarding treasure, but a highly logical race of immense power.  As I mentioned in my last post, they resemble Vulcans in their intellectual abilities–and the fear of highly intelligent, highly powerful beings (be they aliens or artificially intelligent computers) is one of our most contemporary fears.

Lanagan and Fama handle their monsters a bit differently.  Both authors use their realistic settings to show that the real monsters of these myths are not the selkies or the mermaids, but the men whose fears of the sea and female sexuality created these creatures in the first place.  Lanagan’s selkies are not fearsome at all, and only want to return to the sea and their form as seals.  The terror in her novel comes from the fact that the entire island allows itself to become transfixed by the beauty of the selkies.

Fama’s mermaids, on the other hand, are very much terrifying (monstrous even, according to the title), but most of them, especially Syrenka, do not actually wish to harm humans.  They are simply, like Lanagan’s selkies, of the sea – and therefore intrinsically different from the humans with whom they interact.  Fama’s other great coup is in grounding her novel in a very specific geographic setting and two specific historical settings.  The setting in Plymouth is perfect as it reinjects a sense of the real danger of the sea–by recalling the harrowing trip of the Mayflower, by showing the sea through the eyes of a 19th century naturalist, and by showing its continued danger in the present day.

So we see that for these three novels, the concept of “Realistic Fantasy” is in fact essential to keeping the underlying fears of their central monsters alive for the reader.  Place dragons, mermaids, or selkies too far into a fantasy world, and they become empty symbols of a past world’s fears.  Create a way for them to exist in a modern, realistic world, and you can once again tap the all of the mythic weight of these creatures.

It would be interesting to compare these three with the more complete fantasies I listed above, but I’ve gone on too long in this post for now.  Thoughts?

– Mark



Filed under Books, Teens

3 responses to “Realistic Fantasy and Mythic Monsters

  1. I would like to be more intelligent about this, but mostly I’m sitting here thinking YES! SO SMART! Excellent points about monsters of the past and how they can be relevant to today’s readers.

  2. Pingback: Elsewhere | crossreferencing

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