I rail about fantasy clichés, stereotypes and tropes a lot and I particularly pick on the pseudo-medieval, thinly disguised English fantasyland. However, contrary to popular belief, I am not entirely against this trope. It’s become a trope for a reason–Britain is just a good country as any to base a fictional land off. Besides, Tolkien and Lewis did it marvellously, which has, of course, given rise to thousands of copycats.
Do I think setting fantasies in Britain (specifically the bland, all-life-removed English-type countryside) is getting tired? Yes. But do I also think that it can be revitalised and used in interesting and new ways? Also yes.
So today I’m going to bring to your attention five fantasy novels/series (not including any written by Tolkien or Lewis) that really bring the English, or wider British, country and culture to life.
The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen Lawhead
I’ve been hearing about this series for years and I bought the first three books at a book fair several years ago. I started reading Taliesin in January this year and now I’m hooked. Honestly, people, excepting The Lord of the Rings, this is my favourite fantasy series.
Unique Aspects: This is a historical fantasy retelling of the King Arthur story and it really focusses on the period of turmoil Britain went through as Rome’s influence crumbled, leaving the scattered people weakened and open to attack by the many enemies lurking off the coast. These novels do a great job of showing historical aspects of the story, but also the clash of cultures and the many different kingdoms and ethnicities that inhabited the British Isles at the time. It doesn’t skimp on complexity, which is a major issue I have with a lot of other fantasies. It shows hostilities and language barriers, different cultural understandings and beliefs, etc. Of course, some of the cultures are fictional (such as the Atlanteans), but many of them aren’t and are portrayed very interestingly.
The Staff and the Sword by Patrick Carr
This is actually a Christian fantasy trilogy, but surprisingly enough, I quite like it. It’s adult and I actually have no idea why I picked it up in the first place. And while it does fall into a lot of clichés (the treatment of women in this story ranges from Damsel in Distress to Hot Fighting Pseudo-Middle-Eastern Lady and there are no well-written females), it does have some interesting worldbuilding.
Unique Aspects: This book features a religious system which is obviously heavily derivative of the medieval Catholic church, however it did incorporate a lot of fantasy aspects into it. There are priests, a church council, but also readers and casters. The readers and casters are people with a special sort of sight, who are made to cast lots in order to decide important decisions and gain information, much like the lot casting described in the Old Testament. There are a lot of rules and traditions surrounding this practise and the fact that a young drunkard can suddenly read these stones drives the main plot.
The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross.
Unlike the two aforementioned books, The Queen’s Rising is a new YA trilogy (series?). It was met with very mixed reviews (its one of those love it or hate books), but I happened to enjoy it a lot! Except for the creepy romance. I haven’t reconciled to the teacher/student romance and I never will. One of my reasons for liking it though was the interesting world building.
Unique Aspects: This story takes place partly in a fantasy version of France and partly in a fantasy version of Scotland. The reason I found this so interesting is because the traditional alliance between France and Scotland is never usually taken into account and the effect they had on each other’s cultures is quite fascinating. Of course, being fantasy, Ross never dives really deep into the nuances of the culture, but I enjoyed the parallels I managed to find! (I’m noting though, that while Ross’s fictional culture was interesting, it was also rather clearly inspired by Braveheart, which is not an accurate picture of Scottish culture. Sorry).
Bottom line is that she saw something unique and took it and it made it her own. If it actually was set in Scotland it’d be a no from me, but since it isn’t, it was interesting.
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Guys, this book. I know I’m not alone in my love for this brilliant piece of YA literature. To be honest, I couldn’t even really tell you why I liked it so much. It was just so lyrical and the prose was beautiful and the water horses and the normal horses were all beautiful. If you haven’t read it, and you don’t mind two or three instances of crude language, go and read this book!
Unique Aspects: Well, the water horses and the whole idea of the Scorpio Races is really unique. Also, Stiefvater somehow just manages to bring the little island of Thisby to life. You can almost believe that this is a real place, where real deadly races are run every year. Stiefvater doesn’t just slap a “England” label on her setting and leave it at that. She develops the uniqueness of her setting, takes advantage of it and weaves an awesome story with it.
Fawkes by Nadine Brandes
While I wasn’t quite as impressed as some friends of mine when it came to Fawkes, I did love the setting. Basically, Fawkes follows the story of Thomas Fawkes, son of the infamous Guy Fawkes, who the English (and Australians, until fireworks were banned) like to burn on a bonfire every year. There’s assassination and spoilt kings and all that funness.
Unique Aspects: For a starters, this is fantasy which is set in the early 1700s, which is unusual time period to write in anyway. There’s masks and magic, which really add some flair and colour to the already colourful and rather crazy period. There’s also some allegorical references to the constant tensions and full on physical violence going on between the Protestant and Catholic churches at the time. Brandes also introduces a woman of colour to the story, to further add a unique streak. Despite my somewhat mixed feelings on the plot, the worldbuilding is spot on and fascinating.
The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell
Cressida Cowell is best known for her How to Train Your Dragon books, but this is her new series. Its either set in Britain, or in an alternate universe version of Britain (its not been made clear at this point) and it also draws a lot of inspiration from the Roman Britain period.
Unique Aspects: In this series, Cowell digs deep into her setting, looking magic systems, animals, fairy folk, and the culture clash between the Wizards, who are very British/Celtic type people, and the Warriors, who bear more than a passing resemblance to Roman soldiers. Essentially, this book explores racism, cultural misunderstandings and reconciliation, in a way that’s quite interesting, but also appropriate for her Middle Grade audience. I’m really enjoying this series so far!
What about you guys? Do you prefer fantasy with or without British settings? Of course, I only included books I’ve read on this list, so do you have any good suggestions for me to read next? What’s the best fantasy you’ve read recently?