Positive fantasy

So, a little while ago, I posted about the different terms that have been coined for positive fantasy — hopepunk, sweetweird, the ridiculously terrible term squeecore, and noblebright. All of these terms have problems.

“Hopepunk” implies gritty. No matter what else you do with that term, that’s what “punk” implies.

“Sweetweird” implies weird. It’s specifically meant for fiction in which the world does not make sense. Also, to me, “sweet” suggests “twee” or “sentimental,” which I realize may just be me, but that’s the feel I get from the word. I think of someone looking at a kitten and saying Oh how sweet! It doesn’t seem like a term for sophisticated fiction. Even if that’s just me, I can’t help it, that’s what the word “sweet” feels like in this context.

“Squeecore” turns out, apparently, to have been intended specifically as a derogatory term for any fantasy that is not dark, grim, violent, and sexual. That’s fine, because who would want to actually use that term anyway.

“Noblebright” is just hard to say with a straight face.

However, even if there’s no good term for positive fantasy, we can certainly define a subgenre of fantasy that is:

1) Positive in tone. This is a novel that may feel warm from the first pages, though that’s not necessary. But whether it feels warm and comforting from the start, it does not drag the reader into a view of the gutter. It is specifically not gritty.

2) High fantasy in tone and style. For the purposes of this post, this means secondary world, elevated or formal in style, with magic that is numinous rather than scientific. There’s no implication about specific tropes or character types.

3) Not attempting to communicate a message or subvert reader expectations or common fantasy tropes. “No message” doesn’t mean there’s no theme. If the novel is well written at the level of theme, it should feel to the reader that the story contains a core of truth. But it does mean that the themes do not grade into overt messages from the author directed toward the reader. If the reader can spot some sort of obvious social or political message, the author has failed in an important element of craft (or the author is writing some other kind of fantasy). In the kind of fantasy I’m talking about, everything of that kind should be thoroughly buried in the story.

4) Ends with most or all of the pov characters and the world in a better place. If an important pov character dies in order to bring about a better ending for everyone else, I think that’s a subgenre of heroic fantasy. That may overlap with the kind of fantasy I’m talking about here, but I’m not sure. I may prefer to exclude heroic-death-of-important-character from the subgenre of Positive Fantasy I have in mind.

5) There are no villain pov sections. I just threw this criterion in here at the last minute and I’m willing to debate it. But I think it changes the tone in a negative direction to include villain pov chapters. I don’t think I’m biased just because I personally hate villain pov sections. I think including sections like that drags a novel out of the subgenre of positive fantasy and pushes it into some other subgenre, perhaps epic fantasy or adventure fantasy.

So, fantasy novels that meet the above criteria are what I’m going to just call “Positive Fantasy” for now. Let’s now define the subgenre by example!

TWELVE EXAMPLES OF POSITIVE FANTASY

1) The Goblin Emperor

I mean, obviously. That’s the book that started this whole set of posts in the first place. Here we have a book that begins with Maia and the empire both in fairly bad shape. Maia grows into himself beautifully over the course of the story, forms solid relationships even where that had seemed unlikely — particularly with his future empress — and begins reforms that are obviously going to improve life massively for his people.

Maia is also unfailingly kind. You know what, maybe that should be added as an additional criterion:

6) The protagonist is kind.

Adding that criterion helps snip this subgenre out of the greater mass of Fantasy or High Fantasy or Heroic Fantasy or whatever else where the protagonist is a perfectly decent person, but not specifically kind in this way. This isn’t the same thing as being heroic, it’s not the same thing as being a good person, it’s not the same thing as being nice, and it’s not the same thing as being a sympathetic protagonist.

Maia is kind even when it’s hard, even when he’s distracted by a thousand pressing concerns, even when the person to whom he’s kind doesn’t appreciate it or doesn’t deserve kindness. He shows that over and over. This is a quality that’s set really deep in his character. This is probably what makes this novel work so well for me.

2) Death’s Lady

I don’t usually focus on my own books in this kind of list, but this time, this is what sprang to mind as soon as I said The protagonist is kind. This is what readers who write to me about this series say. They say: Daniel is unfailingly kind and that’s what I really love about this series. And that’s true. That’s what he’s like. Kindness is as much a part of his character as it is a part of Maia’s character. Like Maia, Daniel is still kind even when he’s seriously distracted or in a terrible spot himself.

3) Tuyo

Same thing: Aras is unfailingly kind, and that’s something readers love about him.

4) Chalice

Robin McKinley’s warmest story. Even if you don’t really like bees or honey. Mirasol is a genuinely kind person; that drives her actions and impulses from the start and right through everything.

I was trying to capture this warm feeling in The Keeper of the Mist, but I don’t think I entirely succeeded. My novel went in a more adventure direction and, while I like the story, I don’t think it’s all that similar to Chalice except for a couple of really broad aspects of the worldbuilding. I was also trying for a fairy-tale feel and I think perhaps that did work; here’s the Book Smuggler’s review of Mist.

Now, does Mist also fit into this subgenre of Positive Fantasy? I’m not sure, and that suggests to me that maybe the 6th criterion, that the protagonist be kind in this specific way, like Maia and Daniel and Aras, is really important. Keri is determined and responsible. Her character arc involves learning to trust herself and others. But I don’t think she’s kind in the way I mean here, and I guess I do think that may be a crucial defining characteristic of this subgenre of fantasy.

5) Erdemen Honor trilogy

This is a trilogy by CJ Brightley, and while it’s not perfect, it is the series that directly inspired the opening scenes of Tuyo. (That’s not obvious from the first book.) Of course Tuyo then went off in a totally different direction with regard to practically every feature, but still, this was an important trilogy that got me to write Tuyo. Here’s my review of the first book, and here are my comments about the second and third. I notice I specifically mentioned kindness in the first of these reviews. The characters are indeed kind in the specific way that I’m thinking of for this subgenre.

6) Dragon Bones and Dragon Blood

This secondary-world duology by Patricia Briggs is not nearly as well known as her UF Mercy Thompson series. I like both. But I particularly think this duology fits this subgenre. The protagonist, Ward, has been pretending to be incapable in order to protect himself from his (terrifying) father. Now, with his father dead, he has to take over as lord and completely change the way other people think about him. But what’s important in this context is that he has a whole lot of power over the titular dragon, among others, and handles that power with unfailing kindness. He’s kind in the way that defines this category.

7) The Penric novellas

In a tor.com post, Liz Bourke says of one of the Penric novellas, “Filled with a keen sense of kindness and empathy, it feels a fundamentally generous story, and one that is deftly written.” That’s all true.

8) The Curse of Chalion

While we’re thinking of LMB, surely we all remember this little snippet of dialogue from The Curse of Chalion:

“Any man can be kind when he is comfortable. I’d always thought kindness a trivial virtue, therefore. But when we were hungry, thirsty, sick, frightened, with our deaths shouting at us, in the heart of horror, you were still as unfailingly courteous as a gentleman at ease before his own hearth.”

“Events may be horrible or inescapable. Men have always a choice – if not whether, then how, they may endure.”

I don’t know about you, but these lines struck me the first time I read the book and I anticipate this scene with great pleasure during re-reads.

9) The Safe-Keeper’s Secret, The Truth-Teller’s Tale, The Dream-Maker’s Magic

Amazon was giving me trouble about finding these. I couldn’t remember the exact title of the third book, and they’re not collected into a series page — that’s the publisher falling down on the job — so here you go, links to each book rather than just the first. The second, incidentally, is my favorite of the trilogy and, in my opinion, a perfect gem of a story. If you haven’t read these, you really should. Especially if you would like stories in this subgenre where kindness is central. Here’s an extended quote:

“That was so — Gryffin always has so much pain. That you can take it away like that — it’s almost like magic.”

Chase shrugged in the dark. “Kindness is a form of magic,” he said. “So everyone should be capable of at least a little. Good night. See you in the morning.” And he nodded to me and strode off.

Kindness is a form of magic.

Then magic had sprinkled itself across me many times, when I had not noticed its fey sparkle. I had been used to thinking of my life as bleak and full of darkness, but for the first time it occurred to me how often a stranger had stepped forward to offer me comfort and assistance, no matter how briefly. Ian Shelby. Sarah Parmer. Aylre the Safe-Keeper. The man who had stopped Carlon from beating me in the streets. Chase Beerin. They had been kind to me; most had, in different ways, been kind to Gryffin as well. Looked at that way, my life was a weave of brightness laid over a trembling black, a scrap of midnight velvet spangled with many jewels.

I had another thought as I stood there, trying desperately to understand a completely altered view of my existence. Someday I might be the one to offer kindness to someone else in grim and dire circumstances. Someday I might be the one with wealth or knowledge or strength or power that could be used to alleviate another person’s distress. Such a thought had literally never crossed my mind before. More than once I had been saved. Someday I might save someone else in return.

–The Dream-Maker’s Magic

It’s been way too long since I read these. I definitely ought to read them again soon. I mean, as soon as I start reading anything again.

10) Piranasi

This one’s a little different. The protagonist is indeed kind. But … his perception has been tilted so far sideways from normal perceptions that I’m not sure it counts? But on the other hand, when I think of this novel and the way this character is handled, I do feel that it does count. Here’s my review of this book.

11) From All False Doctrine

Obviously. I mean … obviously. Except that this isn’t secondary world. So, maybe I’m dropping that criterion. I’m not sure, but if the criteria require this book to be excluded, I think probably the criteria need to be revised. Kit is a perfect example of a believable, deeply kind protagonist. Here’s my review.

12) Strange the Dreamer

I’m putting this one on the list even though I haven’t read it. I have it on my TBR pile. Reviews like this one keep making me move it up toward the top, but it also sounds like the sort of demanding novel that requires a reader to pay attention and let herself get absorbed and I just haven’t felt equal to reading it. But lines like “Lazlo is so kind and thoughtful, unselfish and hardworking. He isn’t a physical man or a warrior, but rather, a dreamer and an intellectual and a quiet soul” make me feel like this novel probably belongs on this list.

This description makes me think of another novel that isn’t a fantasy: Cotillion by Georgette Heyer, which features Freddy. Freddy is kind, thoughtful, and quietly competent rather than dashing and blatantly heroic. Not that I dislike dashing, heroic characters, far from it, but here we are, with Freddy being my absolute favorite male lead in any of Heyer’s novels.

Okay! That’s a dozen. Here are the criteria again, now slightly revised after considering the above examples. I’ve also sorted the criteria into what I might consider the correct order of importance. What do you think? And what are some other fantasy novels that might fit this category?

  1. Positive in tone, elevated in style, not gritty
  2. The protagonist is believably and unfailingly kind
  3. Magic is numinous, not scientific
  4. Ends with protagonist, other characters, and the world in a better place
  5. No villain pov
  6. Telling a story, not delivering a message

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15 thoughts on “Positive fantasy”

  1. I think Victoria Goddard’s THE HANDS OF THE EMPEROR might fit, though now I’m wrestling with whether Kip is truly kind—I think he is, and it’s his generosity of soul that makes all the difference to the Emperor and the world.

    There’s a surprising amount of other books in which the kindness is not a defining trait for the protagonist—sometimes the protagonist has to learn to accept others’ kindness instead. (i.e. Moon in THE CLOUD ROADS.) Would expanding to definition to include “kindness as an essential feature of the narrative and/or characterization” be stretching too far?

  2. Also I am taking this entire list to the library/bookstore with me because I haven’t yet read 5, 6, 9, and 12, and I clearly need to!

  3. Strange might be dq’d based on the other pov’s, and how it ends – it’s been a while though, so might be misremembering.

  4. Given that you make kindness a defining feature, I think this subgenre needs to be called kind fantasy.
    I think Hands of the Emperor should definitely be included. Among other things, it’s a story about how kind impulses can change the world.
    I’m unsure of Piranesi. It feels positive, and yet after reading it I found myself thinking that it could also be read as a tragedy – the tragedy of Piranesi’s former self, a tragedy for all the villains that get caught up in their search. And then there’s all those bones, and who they represent… There’s a tension between the tone and the underlying events that I found unsettling. It’s a magnificent book.
    Becky Chambers’ Robot and Monk novellas? They’re technically SF, but the science is so vague and unconvincing I find them easier to read as fantasy.
    Jane Linkskold’s Over Where duology might count. Three teenagers in a magic land, on personal quests, go to a shrine to summon mentors to help them, and instead of whatever they were expecting they get three older women from our world who’d been attending a book club meeting. They stay and help despite mutual doubts and befuddlement because they sense that the teenagers need them.

  5. I went back and forth on The Hands of the Emperor, but left it off partly because 12 is a round number and I wanted to include other things.

    I don’t like the term “Kind fantasy” — but I think it’s accurate, and since I don’t like any of the other suggested terms either, sure.

    And I’m not sure, Mary Beth. I feel like The Cloud Roads might belong in a different sub(sub-sub)genre.

  6. I think there absolutely is a subgenre of adventure fantasy. I think it’s roughly parallel to space opera in SF.

  7. I started Strange the Dreamer, but didn’t finish it. It begins with a rather awful death. After reading quite a bit, I finally figured out whose death that was. I had no interest in continuing at that point.

  8. I’d agree about most of Tuyo, but not for Keranuani. After his abuse of trust–no matter how necessary–Aras should have formally released Ryo from the Tuyo bond. Maintaining it in any way is unforgivable.

  9. I like your definition of Kind fantasy, and I think that is a good name, which clearly labels what is tge most important aspect. Anything labelled that way is something I’d want to read.
    But I think number 3 on your final list of criteria does not fit: what kind of magic system is used in the worldbuilding does not directly impact the kindness quotient nor does it necessarily detract from the general positive tone if magic practitioners in this world are more like practical apothecaries than mystical or numinous spellcasters or priestesses or elves or dragons or anything like that.
    I can’t think of an immediate example, but it just doesn’t feel like a necessary part of the definition.

    Numinous fantasy feels like a separate (sub)category, defined along a different axis than kind fantasy: a book kan be numinous but not kind, and vice versa, as well as both or neither (lots are neither).

    For me, Hands of the Emperor clearly belongs in the Kind category, but doesn’t feel numinous. Cliopher is unfailingly nice, and one of the ways he is so nice is that he is unfailingly kind to people without calling attention to it. He always helps people, and he almost always does so in the background, unnoticed, mostly even without noting it himself – he just tries to make life better for everyone, individually and collectively, as a core part of his personality. I call that kind. But he is also a very practical, down to earth sort of person, looking for practical solutions and improvements, despite his belief in and connection to the Wide Seas Islander mysteries, so it doesn’t feel numinous to me, even with the occasional clearly mystical experiences he has had.

  10. You’re probably right, Hanneke. I think I need a multidimensional space in which to define subsubgenres.

  11. Great post! I’ve read almost everything on your list (except Piranasi), and I second all the recommendations. I was especially glad to see The Curse of Challion, it’s my all time favourite book, and was on my mind from the beginning of this discussion. The sequel, Paladin of Souls, would also qualify I think.

    I think there can definitely be some overlap between this sub-genre and adventure fantasy. Many of my favourite books seem to hit both. As far as the criteria are concerned, I think they are all good, but maybe should be treated as an ideal at the center of the sub-genre, not a hard boundary that marks books as either in or out. As pointed out above, there are books that fudge one of the criterion, but meet the tone in general. Eg: the pov character is not unfailingly kind, but has always been decent and learns kindness over the course of the story (Dreammaker’s Magic), one of the main characters is unfailingly kind, another is not (Death’s Lady?), the “magic” may turn out to be more scientific than numinous (Sharon Shinn’s Angel series).

    As far as genre name, I like ‘positive fantasy’ better than any of the others I’ve heard so far, and have no suggestions of my own.

  12. Oops, i need to make a correction. I just reviewed your post, an realized there are many other books on this list I haven’t read yet, but the ones I have read are all among my favourites. I’ll picking up the others too.

  13. Melanie, I think you’re right — I think we should start defining all subgenres as centers of radiating spheres! At least three axes per sphere! That would be harder to model, but I think it would indeed be more accurate. And yes, for sure, plenty of overlap. Spheres that are also Venn diagrams.

    Maybe I will remember to propose panels on “Positive fantasy” — Filled with a keen sense of kindness and empathy, fundamentally generous — for conventions next year. Or even, different subgenres of positive fantasy, with this type being one of those subgenres.

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