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Fantasy can be lovely escapist fare. Here there are exotic worlds, epic adventures and intense romanticism. In the grip of such stories we can set aside the drab world and be carried away to a more vivid reality.
But this isn’t the experience that fantasy at its best delivers–fantasies like Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. These stories do provide a thrilling vicarious experience. But they go farther, to provide a deep and moving reading experience.
Fantastic stories like these move us because they project on the outer world, the inner world. We are, most truly, our inner selves. We are creatures who hope, fear, love and strive. The day-to-day world does not much reflect who we really are. Fiction about the actual, mundane world must work very hard to reflect us accurately and deeply. Sometimes it does so quite well. But often it remains a pale reflection of who we, at some level, understand ourselves to be.
We are not what we do. Our inner lives are not greatly reflected or fulfilled by our work places, our back yards, entertainment rooms and kitchens nor the well-trodden paths between. When we stop to consider what makes us human, I think most of us would admit it is our most profound emotions, of love, fear and yearning.
Fantasy is capable of showing these things in palpable form. It brings magic into the room. Within its embrace we find ourselves escaping a factory/prison in a flying steam dragon, picked up by a wall of clouds and deposited in other times; and bearing a ring of power that both protects and destroys.
These fantastical things are only impossible from the standpoint of physics. In the imagination, in the emotions, they are true. They allow us to feel things that can’t be put into words, to recognize longings the world denies–or at least devalues. It is the realm of metaphor. And metaphors express sideways what can’t be said full on.
In my fantasy A Thousand Perfect Things, my Victorian heroine Tori Harding travels across a great bridge to a place very much like India. It is a land of magic that can only be reached by a mystical, impossible bridge.
This style of fantasy is called a portal fantasy, because in such stories there is a crossing over from one place to another, one state of being to another. These stories symbolize the crossing with a metaphorical opening–a door in a wardrobe, a rabbit hole. . . or a bridge. Passing over, we leave behind the mundane world and travel to a realm of other possibilities.
When Tori Harding sets foot on the Great Bridge, she is beginning a journey into the realm of sea monsters, shape-shifters, and silver tigers who hold grudges and remember favors. The realm of flowers that, when bitten into, give knowledge of things unseen.
It is a world worth going to, if only to cast off for a few hours, a few days, the plain brown wrapper of our regular lives. To see how the ghosts of the departed long to instruct us, and yet how even the dead may be mistaken; to walk into the presence of the one perfect thing. It is a realm where a young Victorian woman can escape bondage and ignorance and, as her mentor and grandfather, Sir Charles Littlewood urges her, really see.
So magic–fantasy–gives us permission to see the world, and ourselves, anew. It can’t be sustained, of course. It’s a visit to a strange land, and ultimately, we must return. Until the next story!
About Kay Kenyon:
Kay Kenyon is the author of eleven science fiction and fantasy novels, including The Entire and the Rose series that was hailed by The Washington Post as “A splendid fantasy quest as compelling as anything by Stephen R. Donaldson, Philip Jose Farmer or yes, J. R. R. Tolkien”. Kay’s newest work “A Thousand Perfect Things” blends the reason of the Victorian Age and the magics of an alternate Earth.
Some of Kay’s latest novels comprise the science fiction quartet, The Entire and The Rose. Book One, “Bright of the Sky” was among PW’s top 150 books of 2007. The series, that also includes: “A World Too Near”, “City Without End” and “Prince of Storms” has twice been shortlisted for the ALA Reading List awards and three times for the Endeavour Award. Four of her novels have been translated into French, Spanish and Czech. Along with her novels “Tropic of Creation” and “Maximum Ice”, two of the works in the quartet received starred reviews from PW.
Kay’s short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and in Insider Magazine for Wizards of the Coast. Recently, her story “Castoff World” appeared in The Year’s Best SF 16 anthology, edited by David Hartwell.
Kay makes her home in both Washington and California.
Places to Find Kay: