It might just be what I’m reading lately, but world building seems to be the new Big Thing for traditional publishers of fantasy. You can have a thin plot, little to no characterization, but as long as you create a fantastically detailed world, publishers will swoon.
Now, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, with its intricately detailed history, peoples and languages had me reading to the detriment of other pursuits. Back in the ’70’s, you couldn’t find adult fantasy. LotR changed all that, and modern adult fantasy was born. Before that, lovers of speculative fiction had to satisfy their taste for the outlandish with science fiction. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy was another groundbreaker. Although it was, I believe, considered Young Adult fiction (even though it had an adult protagonist–more on that later), LeGuin developed world with a rich cultural tradition as well as history. Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld were imbued with history and old lore. But you know what all these books had in common? A compelling plot (although I had to wade through Tolkien’s battle scenes) and characters you cared about.
Not so with the traditionally published fantasies I’ve read recently. In these cases, the world WAS the main character– and it’s hard to fall in love with a world. I won’t name titles, because I don’t want to pick on other writers’ work. What they did, they did very, very well. But a massively detailed world won’t keep me reading. On the contrary, I’m like, “Who cares about all this stuff?” For my taste, it’s the people who matter, the characters who make me want to find out what happens next. Instead, we’re faced with travelogues for worlds we can never travel to, populated with cardboard cutouts.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to find a traditionally published book that revolves around character. The attitude seems to be, “Oh, people growing and changing? Head over to the Young Adult section. Adults aren’t interested in that stuff.” And here I thought we’re always growing and changing. Silly me. Unfortunately, as an adult, I don’t get caught up in reading about 14- to 16-year-olds, which are all that seem to populate Young Adult fantasy now. I kind of thought books with kid protagonists were, you know, children’s books.
Don’t get me wrong– world building is an important element of fantasy fiction, especially those stories not set in the here-and-now. But it needs to be simply where the characters live, the place whose customs and history inform their actions. Backdrop, not foreground. This alone makes a sufficiently rich and textured world to satisfy me.