“So, what are you reading?” my husband asks me at night when I’m huddled in bed with my Kindle and the dog. Lately, I haven’t been entirely honest, or I give him an answer of such exaggerated vagueness that he cocks an eyebrow at me but doesn’t press. I tell him, “Oh, one of those fantasy books.”
I am not sure why I’m embarrassed to tell him exactly what I’m reading, which — nine times out of 10 — is some real doorstop of a goddamn genuine swords-and-sorcery saga, one of those three- or five- or seven-book cycles that comes with several endpaper maps and tells the tale of an epic quest by a young man (always a young man) born in marginal circumstances but who discovers a hidden talent/lost magick/ancestral prophecy and encounters adventure and evil in a lengthy quest to save the world(s). He usually also rescues a maiden of some kind.
I think I am self-conscious about devouring these books because my day job is largely about advocating for political progress, but at night I am losing myself in ersatz Middle Ages.
This is somewhat unfair to the novels I’ve been devouring: Some of them are set in something closer to Victorian times. Oh, that’s still not fair. I’ve really loved the hours I’ve spent in Roshar, Andor, Temerant, Adro, the Six Duchies, and beyond. The authors push and twist the conventions, the characters vibrate with life. But… they’ve all got those maps and the quests and highly specific magic. And dudes doing things at their center.
In the past few decades, these sorts of books have grown less mired in a male view. What’s more, some authors have explicitly set out to bend the genre and bust open the restrictions on gender and sexuality. A princess can fall in love with another princess, the master thief can be gender-fluid, the sorcerer can be gay and black and speak in African-American dialect. These are exciting and transporting developments for the genre; they related to important leaps forward in social justice.
But those are not the books I’ve been reading. As this country’s political moment has gotten increasingly bizarre and oppressive, I’ve found relief in the kind of otherworldly narratives that saved me as a kid. Back then, I immersed myself in the imaginary topographies of Narnia, Pern, Gwenydd, and Uriel. These landscapes, crowded with dreams and nightmares, were immensely preferable to my reality, which was often lonely and awkward.
As a pre-teen, I used to hide these books under my pillow, so that when my parents asked if I was ready for bed, I could hold up my empty hands. If I complained I wasn’t tired, my mom would make me a deal: “We’ll see about that. I’m turning the lights out, and if you’re still awake in 20 minutes, maybe you can read for a little while.” I would lie in bed with my hands balled into fists, digging my nails into my palms, willing myself into wakefulness while I stared at the ceiling but imagined magical wardrobes and friendly dragons. I am sure there were nights she found me asleep, despite my best efforts, but I mostly remember the nights when my vigilance was rewarded — by waking up the next morning with ink transfer on my cheek, or a trail of sleep-drool on the library book.
Later, in high school, I used to sneak these books into classes, hiding them in my lap and trying to take in a page or two while the teacher droned on. But if the book was really good, if it was good enough for me to want to keep reading it during trig, there was the chance that I’d fall into the plot much deeper than planned. The risk here wasn’t necessarily that I’d get caught — though I was often caught — it was that I’d lose my mental tether to the present. I’d become so immersed that reality went fuzzy around the edges. If that happened, not even the bell between periods could fully bring me back; I’d gather my stuff and mill out into the hall with everyone else, but I’d feel insulated — as if I’d been beamed down into an unfamiliar body, one maybe still occupied by the original tenant. My classmates were the aliens, I was the ghost. It was a pleasantly dissociative state that I’d later come to associate with being the exact right amount of drunk.
My palate expanded as I was exposed to more literary (and somewhat more realistic) fare, sure, and here I am tempted to list some names to show you that I can, in fact, appreciate authors whose work doesn’t hinge on magic or myths or unobtainium. I won’t, because, if I’m honest, I am still happiest when what I’m reading puts millions of miles — at least another dimension — between me and whatever I’m dealing with that day.
Today I bristle when people dismiss genre fiction as “escapist,” despite the trapdoor it can open in my mind. You can leave this simulation but still grapple with all the bullshit humanity stirs up, and sometimes the intractable problems of personal freedom or state violence only gain clarity outside the gravity well. But that’s not why I’m reading these sorts of books today.
These are worlds in which the rules of existence are explicit and rigid: The hero needs the exact right sword, the rescue can’t go on until the moon is in just the right phase. The apprentice may rebel against the wizard, but the spells all work in the same basic way. This stone holds that energy, the prophecy will always be fulfilled.
At a time when American institutions are crumbling, the solidity of fantasy literature is keeping me sane. Non-fans may suspect that fantasy worlds appeal to readers by allowing “anything to happen” — shape-shifting animals, faster-than-light travel, gods made manifest, and magic saving the day — but what I am clinging to lately is how the world of fantasy binds, not releases. There are consequences for bad behavior; there are heroes; there are tragedies, but everyone recognizes them as such. In a fantasy, a ruler who defended putting children in cages would stay in power by dint of military force, not the support of the legislature. In a fantasy, a kingdom that tortured and dismembered a crusading scribe would not find a friendly defender in a castle called the White House. In a fantasy, avenging the obvious moral decay in the leadership of a country would be the beginning of a hero’s journey, not at the mercy of a messy and uncertain mass election.
The conventions of fantasy sometimes demand more of characters than this world currently does. And sometimes those strictures are just a reminder that rules do exist, and that we have the power to write to choose who writes them.