Originality and Trope Subversion in Fantasy

Fantasy is a genre that frequently re-uses ideas left, right and centre. The Wheel of Time series opened with what was apparently a deliberate paralleling of the opening chapters of The Lord of the Rings. But in every fantasy book, every siege is going to be compared to Minas Tirith or Helm’s Deep (or their portrayals in the Peter Jackson films). Every bucolic dreamland of happiness and light, soon to be encroached upon by a dark and evil threat, is compared to the Shire. Every lone warrior with a penchant for stealing relics that no one else has stolen yet, while demonstrating a rather unreconstructed attitude to gender roles, will be compared to Conan the barbarian (or Indiana Jones, maybe…).

But that’s fine. Ideas get recycled. For better or for worse, borrowing from your predecessors (known as ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ if you want to flatter the author you’re stealing from), is part of fantasy fiction.

Sometimes a re-used idea is played straight – the bad guys in Setting A are orcs, who were manufactured as disposable infantry by a dark lord for the purposes of world domination.

Sometimes it’s slightly varied – the bad guys of Setting B are the borks, who were grown from fungi by a dark lord for the purposes of world domination.

Sometimes the re-used idea is subverted – the heroes of Setting C are the orcs, who were originally created as disposable infantry by a dark lord for the purposes of world domination, but things went awry and now the orcs are finding their own way in the world. (I’m thinking of the Orcs trilogy, by Stan Nicholls, and Grunts!, by Mary Gentle.)

Sometimes it’s averted entirely – Setting D has the enemy as just another nation of humans, led by a dark lord, or at least that’s what the protagonist’s side’s propaganda says. (This is something Joe Abercrombie’s very good at in, well, pretty much all of his books, but especially his The First Law trilogy and its follow-up, The Heroes. Similarly, this moral complexity is what Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is built on, even if it does have a dark lord and his army of soulless, okay-to-kill monsters lurking in the background.)

No one really minds this re-use of tropes (to quote TVtropes.org, Tropes Are Not Bad), but the chaff piles of fantasy are composed of Lord of the Rings imitators who had nothing new to offer the genre.


Where am I going with this and how does this relate to my own work?

Well, Cold Iron is intended as a subversion of at least some fantasy tropes, while embracing just enough of others to keep the fantasy familiar to the reader.So far in what I’ve written, I’ve got dwarfs, goblins, wyverns, mention of elves, and a pseudo-medieval setting, but the details are different enough (I hope) to push it over the fuzzy line into originality (or at least, non-derivativity). I’ve always had a preference for subversionary fantasy, and like to think that anything I add to the fantasy canon would have at least a little deconstruction.

That said, one of the key rules of writing fantasy  is that anything you come up with a name for, Google the hell out of it, because chances are someone else has already done it.

I missed this rule when I started Cold Iron, because I’m a dumbass.

It turns out, somewhat unsurprisingly when you think about it, that ‘Cold Iron’ is a popular title for fantasy novels and series. From the first page of Google, there’s Stina Leicht’s The Malorum Gates epic gunpowder fantasy series, of which the first book is called Cold Iron, and then there’s D.L. McDermott’s Cold Iron ‘fast-paced, sexy paranormal romance series’, of which the first books is called, yeah, Cold Iron. Interestingly, both of those books are published by different imprints of Simon & Schuster (Saga Press and Pocket Star, respectively).

Perhaps S&S is the place to go to get published, if they’re so fond of the phrase. 😉

Some rethinking is needed.

I’m still clinging, for now at least, to Cold Iron as a series title, assuming that this becomes a trilogy. (Fantasy stories always become trilogies, right? It’s, like, the law of writing. Hmm, is that something else the genre’s inherited from Tolkien?) Possible The Cold Iron Dwarves, but I’m not so keen on that as a series name, even though it does flag up the dwarfiness.

I’m going back to my original plan for each book to be named after Streloc in some way. Currently, I’m working with Streloc Accursed or Streloc the Accursed as the title for the first book, and variations on that for the next two. Streloc Enchained or Streloc in Chains would be a middle book title, although I’m not yet quite sure who’s enchained him or why, and something along the lines of Streloc Ascendant or Streloc of the Cold Iron for the third book, as Streloc takes charge of his destiny or homeland or something.

Of course, this is all still early days. Plotting is still fuzzy, even though I know the general gist of the first book and the vague skeleton and nearly have an end-point for the series as a whole. Anything might change. Streloc Accursed may not even turn into a trilogy.


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