What makes a good fantasy novel?

What makes a good fantasy novel?

The sudden interest in Game of Thrones – brought about more by the television series than the books – has made me reflect upon what makes a good fantasy novel. I’m nothing more than a reader – I’ve never written anything that’s been published or made into a TV series, but I have read a fair amount of fantasy, so I reckon I’ve got a starting point to speak from. I’ll be honest – I’m not the greatest fan of GoT. I found it all a little bit overblown, a little bit tried and true. Basically, it read like we had taken the War of the Roses and the rest of the medieval period and then shoehorned it into a series of novels. Oh, and added dragons. I just didn’t feel it. It seemed all so… adolescent.

That might be because I started reading GoT when I was much younger. I think we all did, right? But I was a teenager, and while at the time I thought it was really cool, by the time I’d given up reading – sometime around the third or the fourth one, I was more than a little disappointed with it. I mean, it’s got all the standard fantasy tropes: cataclysmic struggles: check. Dragons: check. Salacious sex: check. Heroic, futile struggles: check. Strange invaders from beyond: check.
I thought that, while it was favourably compared to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which was, if anything, even more derivative (I mean, Trollocs, really?) it certainly lacked the hard-edged political interest that books like China Mieville’s New Crobuzon series – despite its efforts.
Sometimes, too much of a good thing is just too much. That’s why I think that there are two main rules for good fantasy writing. Firstly, and most importantly, don’t write stories that are giant cataclysmic world-ending clashes of good and evil. Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay if your characters think that it is, but take the time to give your world a little bit of history, a past that affects the way the present runs.
The second rule is kind of related: don’t make the whole world revolve around your main character. Instead, build a world, and then place your main character in it – give him or her a bit of history – a back story filled with mistakes and errors and hopes and dreams. Don’t see them as a blank slate and the story as the means to colour it in. It’s boring when you have no background.