It is—some authors and publishers would say it finally is—a good time to be writing fantasy beyond the boundaries of Northern Europe and Middle-earth. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, which offers a subtle interrogation of race as a social construct, just earned its third consecutive Hugo Award for best novel for the concluding volume, The Stone Sky (Orbit, 2017), a reckoning between the magically gifted mother and daughter of an enslaved caste and a collapsing world. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, which follows a woman’s pilgrimage across post-apocalyptic Sudan to confront the genocidal sorcerer who fathered her, has been picked up by HBO, with Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin as executive producer. And in August, Native American author Rebecca Roanhorse became only the second writer to win both Hugo and Nebula awards (for the short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™”) and a Campbell Award for best new author in the same year.
“I think more writers are writing out of their own cultures and own experiences instead of feeling obliged to follow,” says Tricia Narwani, the editorial director at Del Rey. “Fantasy doesn’t just have to be Western European, inspired by the Norse sagas and Tolkien.”
Even authors who are working with purely fictional geography, like Jemisin, are more explicitly identifying their protagonists as people of color. In The Priory of the Orange Tree (Bloomsbury, Feb. 2019), Samantha Shannon crafts a high fantasy that evokes the cultural cloister of imperial Japan, albeit one that’s bracing against an invasion of dragons. Shannon makes clear that several of her protagonists are people of color, with a range of hair, skin, and body types.
But the hallmark of many of these titles isn’t just that they are led by characters of color, or that they explore myth structures and landscapes outside of the Western canon’s boundaries. It’s that they do both while reaping commercial and critical success, and across a range of cultures both real and imagined. The question is whether publishers have made, or will make, the kinds of institutional changes that would turn the recent success of those stories into a sustained, long-awaited transition for the genre.
It Was There All Along
Tade Thompson, author of the 2017 Campbell Award finalist Rosewater, an aliens-among-us mystery set in Nigeria, understands that readers and writers are interested in stories that defy the SFF tropes exemplified by Tolkien and H.G. Wells. In a recent essay for the website Lit Hub titled, “Please Stop Talking About the ‘Rise’ of African Science Fiction,” he wrote that such genre narratives are not new but have fallen victim to the “amnesia that fogs things up until the next big budget event like, say, Black Panther II: Vibranium Boogaloo.”
Thomspon, whose essay addresses African and African-American SFF specifically, notes that writers in those traditions have been steadily at work since at least the 1930s and don’t vanish when critical attention shifts to other books or groups of writers.
Like Thomspon, Tor senior editor Miriam Weinberg argues that “the rise of” stories veer too close to treating huge swathes of science fiction and fantasy as a novelty. Weinberg draws a sharp line between what’s treated as an ephemeral trend, and true course corrections that make the genre more inclusive. She cites the boom in female-fronted adult fantasy novels in the 1990s—when support for those books waned, she said, authors including Rae Carson shifted into the YA market, where female protagonists are regarded as a fixture.
“Fiction is going to be very lucky that Black Panther was made, because it’s going to allow promotional money to filter into where it always should have been,” Weinberg says. She worries, however, that it could develop into “a trend of things that can be compared to Wakanda—and things that don’t look like that won’t sell. I want there to be the space for the things we don’t already know about.”
Weinberg’s concern points to the remedial challenge for authors writing outside of the familiar fantasy landscape: getting a fair hearing for books that can’t be compared to the books dominating the market.
For Ashok K. Banker’s Upon a Burning Throne (HMH/Adams, Apr. 2019), which will be his first U.S. publication in years, the author queried “several hundred agents,” he says, and submitted to dozens of publishers and editors in the U.S.; he landed with John Joseph Adams three years ago. Banker, whose story draws on Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, India’s Mughal empire, and other influences, has published more than 60 books, all written in English, which HMH says have been translated into 21 languages and sold in 61 countries.
“There aren’t enough people like us in gatekeeper spaces,” Banker says, noting that many editors have “the one” on their list in categories that, for example, might be a single South Asian, or a single author working on Afrofuturism—the not-Tolkienists in a house full of Eurocentric sagas. “That is so sad and so wrong. I’m not writing in reaction to a tradition; I’m writing from a tradition which is genuinely different.”
Lands of Opportunity
When editors like Narwani and Weinberg say they feel a tipping point of talent, power, and eager audiences that could shift the genre’s familiar geography, they point to the commercial and critical success of fantasy writers such as Jemisin, Okorafor, and Roanhorse (Storm of Locusts, Saga, Apr. 2019).
They’re also watching writers like Marlon James, author of the Booker Prize–winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, who is crossing over into fantasy. His trilogy-launching Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Riverhead, Feb. 2019) begins with a bounty hunter and a shapeshifter tracking a missing child through ancient African cities.
Which is not to say that Europe is off limits. In The Bird King (Grove, Mar. 2019), G. Willow Wilson, a Muslim writer whose previous work roams from New Jersey to Cairo to Themyscira, extends fantasy’s European borderlands to the south, as a Muslim concubine and an uncannily gifted cartographer scramble to evade the Spanish Inquisition’s grip on the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century—djinns aplenty, but not an elf in sight. “The unasked question is, Does science fiction and fantasy still have something to teach us?” she says. “To answer that, people are really going way outside that classic, done-to-death medieval European fantasy.”