For today’s Wyrd and Wonder contribution, I’m handing the mic over to a fantasy writer and fellow blogger to get the ball rolling on some discussion of favourite tropes in fantasy! Everyone, meet Lynn…
When Lisa mentioned doing a series of guest posts on fantasy tropes we love, I knew I wanted to write something for it. I am, admittedly, actually utterly terrible at tropes and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write about my favourites. Don’t worry, you’re not going to get any too obscure ones, I don’t think, but it’s a good exercise in thinking about what we like in fiction and what we don’t like.
Also, it’s a perfect opportunity to introduce you all to some shiny and amazing books, so. You know. Hopefully I can help you find your next favourite fantasy read.
Anyway! I’m the kind of voracious reader that makes it hard to pin down what I love above all else because the answer depends on so many factors, like mood and the time of year or, say, what kind of magical creature is involved, etc. I find it easy to love books because all I really want is a well-told story with vivid characters and the trappings? Unless it hits one of my ‘nope’ buttons, I am good.
Still, though, in pondering the topic of “Well, surely I have some tropes that make me more likely to pick a story up than others”, I came up with a few that I think define me as a reader.
The first trope I want to discuss and highlight, then, is…
The Power of Friendship (Or Love)
Now, if you know anything about me, especially online, then you’ll know that I’m arospec (that is to say: on the aromantic spectrum) and acespec (on the asexual spectrum), so the fact that I love stories that revolve around the power of friendship probably isn’t very surprising.
Technically there’s a difference between The Power of Friendship and The Power of Love, but being arospec I will very happily lump them all together. The idea behind this trope is one that we’ve heard dozens of times before: through friendship and cooperation, we save the day. It is, quite possibly, one of the oldest fantasy tropes there is – this is especially true for The Power of Romantic Love because it’s the solution to, like, half the fairy tale plots out there – and it is certainly one of the most-used fantasy tropes.
We can see it from the Care Bears to My Little Pony, from Captain Planet to Sailor Moon, from Steven Universe to She-ra and the Princesses of Power, and that’s just some examples on tv! Although strictly speaking Sailor Moon was a manga first, so we’re already onto books.
It’s found in fantasy staples such as The Lord of the Rings, The Fionavar Tapestry, The Wheel of Time, The Circle of Magic, Harry Potter, Ella Enchanted, His Dark Materials…
Some of them focus solely on The Power of Friendship, some focus solely on The Power of Romantic Love, and some contain a mixture, but in the end love, of whatever kind, is what saves the day. I grew up on these stories and they’re very dear to me, especially the ones about The Power of Friendship. It is, or feels, surprisingly rare nowadays to see books that focus strongly on The Power of Friendship, especially ones that treat The Power of Friendship as at least equal to The Power of Romantic Love.
I’m a fan of both, but largely because romantic love to me includes a component of friendship. This is a trope that doesn’t work for me if there is no friendship visible in the romantic love*. But if you forced me to pick one trope I could love? This would be it. There’s so much optimism and hope wrapped into it and so much potential. I love seeing the various ways this trope shows up in stories because it’s never, ever, quite the same in any story.
Some of my favourite books with this trope? I will always and forever recommend Claudie Arseneault’s Isandor series. This is a high fantasy series inspired by D&D settings but everyone is queer and most people are somewhere on the aro or ace spectrums. Friendship is at the very heart and core of this book in ways that I have, honestly, never seen any other story even come close to matching.
Because it’s a high fantasy book, it’s got a large cast which means that we get to see a wide variety of different friendships and different issues with friendship. One of the largest strands, though, deals with the way these unlikely heroes find themselves tossed into working together to save the city from an evil wizard and corrupt scheming nobles and to make the city (and by extension the world) a better place. There may not be any magical beams of friendship power to obliterate the enemies. There may not be scenes where The Power of Friendship pushes our heroes to find the strength to carry on. (Actually, those are definitely there, but they’re quieter and more introverted, more suitable to a bookish medium.) But The Power of Friendship is unquestionably there, connecting every strand and every action.
Another book which features The Power of Friendship is Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Archivist Wasp (and its sequel Latchkey) and here we do get glimpses of the way The Power of Friendship gives characters the strength to just push on in a way that is more visually dramatic than in Isandor. Like Isandor, though, friendship lies at the core of this narrative. There isn’t a hint of romance in them. This is all about friends being there for one another and unlikely friendships through hardship. More than that, it’s about prickly people becoming friends without needing to change drastically, defying the idea that only certain types of people can have friends without compromising who they are. And it’s about friendship, in particular, enduring every attempt to eradicate it and triumphing over the systems that tried to stamp it out.
And those are some examples of what is undoubtedly the one trope I could pick out easily. So let’s move on to the next trope I wanted to talk about. That one is…
Wait for it. You’ll never guess this one, but I wanted to give you a chance to try.
Have you made a guess?
Because the next trope I want to talk about is the Magical Library. I like my tropes straight-forward, yes. That’s another thing I can say rather conclusively about me and tropes. This one is exactly what it says on the tin, no messing, no guessing. It’s about libraries that are, in some way, magical.
I love libraries. Or at least I do when I get on with them. Sadly, decent-to-good libraries are not universal (anymore because budget cuts), so support libraries as best you can and help them stay awesome! Anyway, I do love libraries. And book shops, come to think of it. If it’s a place with a lot of books on a lot of shelves, I am a happy, happy person and my day has just improved by several thousand percent**.
There’s just something about having so many books in one place. All that knowledge, all that learning, all that emotion… Libraries, just on their own, are magical. Add in actual magic and I’m in bookish heaven. You know. Unless the concept of ‘magical books’ involves ‘books that try to murder you’ because those exist too and are not particularly heavenly. The rest, though…
Since I’m talking about magical libraries, you can probably guess the first book I’m going to mention. Well, it’s a series really and it is, of course, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. I mean, come on. A magical library cannot get much better than L-space. It’s literally every library everywhere.
I first encountered L-space not in the Discworld books, which took me forever and a day to get into, but the computer game adaptation, sort of, of Guards! Guards!*** from 1995. Where you, yourself, get to travel through L-space. It was, I think, the first magical library I ever encountered and I adored it.
More recently, I discovered the magical library in In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard. While technically just a highly technologically advanced library in a world that no longer knows quite how the technology works, it is every bit as vast as you could hope a magical library to be. And it can create copies of the books stored in it at will and it can probably anticipate what you’re looking for a lot better than L-space can, so…
Lastly, there’s a trope that I adore when reading and… less so when I’m writing. And that trope is the Here There Were Dragons trope. Or the Dragon Come Back one. I adore a combination of the two especially.
Dragons are, of course, another staple of fantasy and it is, to be honest, one of the reasons why I dislike seeing them in fiction. It takes a lot to write about them in a way that feels really new and intriguing and they often leave me grumbly. This trope doesn’t pertain just to dragons, though. More generally it can be applied to anything magical, whether actual magic or fantastical creatures, that were once around and may or may not be coming back. There’s something really, really fun that stems from the combination of that plot. It inevitably means that we learn that aspects of the past were very different from what we thought it was and I love the stories that play coy with that past (such as The Elder Scrolls’ Dwemer or the Dragon Age franchise****) as well as the stories that revolve around upending everything the characters (and the reader) thought they knew. I love watching the characters struggle with this shift in their perspective.
One of my favourite book series utilising both these tropes is Becca Lusher’s Wingborn series and the Dragonlands one before it. Dragons are ever present in Wingborn, having been responsible for saving humans from extinction and creating the winged creatures they now fly, but they mysteriously disappeared centuries ago. The Dragonlands books explore, to some extent, why and how this happens and reading the series in conjunction (start with Wingborn and then alternate between series for each book for maximum effect) and they’re just a delightful look at this trope.
Another is Marie Brennan’s series The Memoirs of Lady Trent, which sees Lady Isabella Trent recount her past and the way that she became the foremost expert on dragons. Though dragons are not entirely gone in this setting, much of their history is unknown. It’s a story about the power of science and the importance of understanding the past and the way knowing more of how the world works can change it forever.
Also there are dragons. Lots and lots and lots and lots of dragons. (Seriously, if you love dragons and have not read this, what are you waiting for?) The tropes may take a while to show up extensively since Brennan is sparse on the details and it’ll take you at least four books to start seeing the full picture along with Isabella. Each book stands on its own and is delightful, but together they add up to such a powerful narrative that saying too much about would thoroughly spoil it.
Just know that when I think of dragon tropes, I think of these books and I mostly just want to push them in people’s hands going “Read this”.
With three tropes discussed, I think that’s enough from me. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at some of my favourite tropes and some of my favourite books that feature them.
* And yet I still manage to love fairy tales with all my heart. Funny how that works.
** Especially if it’s a nice, big bookshop and someone’s given me one of those You Have X Minutes To Shop And Everything In Your Basket Is Free events. Oh, that would be bliss. Until I had to take everything home. Then my back would probably murder me.
*** Its plot is roughly similar to Guards! Guards! but it stars Rincewind and combines aspects of several other books as well.
**** Now, of course, they’re also including the Dragons Come Back trope to, in my opinion, great effect.
Lynn E. O’Connacht (she/they) is a queer SFF author with an MA in English literature and creative writing, but wouldn’t call herself an authority on either. She currently resides on the European continent and her idiom and spelling are, despite her best efforts, geographically confused, poor things. Her tastes are equally eclectic, though fantasy will always be her first love and speculative fiction is a guarantee for anything longer than a short story. She has been chasing stories one way or another since she was old enough to follow a narrative.
Her works include the Fairytale Verses series, a series of queer fairytale retellings in verse, and The Princess who Didn’t Eat Cake, a short fairytale aimed at exploring and introducing demisexuality in a playful and creative manner for those who learn best through fiction.