Fantasy From Foreign Lands

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Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

This post was prompted by one of my closest friends, BB, who wanted to see my more critical side on this blog. I doubt it’s as annihilating as he was hoping for but it will certainly be less positive than usual.

At the World Fantasy Convention there were piles and piles of free books to choose from, which I naturally plundered enthusiastically. One of those on offer was an anthology of excerpts called Passages. The stated aim of the book was ‘to offer extracts in English of some of the best fantasy novels being written today by talented authors in French… Discover the original ways in which this genre is being approached in French-speaking countries’.

I was very excited by this. I’ve read some Asian and Russian-flavoured fantasy, and it’s fascinating to see what different cultures bring to the genre. I loved Jules Verne when I was younger and was keen to see how French fantasy had evolved since his day.

It started badly, with terrible formatting. You may say that formatting has no impact on content and you’d be right, but it has an impact on immersion. If there’s a line break in the middle of a sentence it’ll make me blink, and then I’m out of the story. However, given that this was created as a freebie with no ISBN, I cut them some slack for that and moved on to the content.

I was expecting something different. Fantasy that had developed from a culture less dominated by Tolkien, Moorcock, Feist, or any of the other English-speaking giants. A hint of the exotic or at least a new approach. What I got was disappointing in the extreme.

The first story was about a boy whose tribe was killed by raiders and who grew up as a barbarian protégé of a rich man (shades of Conan). The second was about a boy whose mother was killed by raiders and who grew up in a secret cult learning how to care for phoenix (anything ranging from Gemmell to Rowling). The third featured a sassy modern heroine who learns she’s the daughter of a powerful vampire and gets dragged into their politics (cf. Sookie Stackhouse, Anita Blake and half a dozen others).

The fourth had a glimmer of promise – set in Paris in the 21st Century, in the reign of Louis XXIV, where the two most powerful political families are enemies because of their angelic vs demonic heritages, and the cultural gap between politicians and businessmen threatened the country’s stability. This one felt different and interesting. Then they threw vampires into the mix, hunting the heiress heroine, and I lost interest.

The next one couldn’t decide if the heroine was a wolf or a girl (but not a werewolf), which I ended up attributing to lousy translation but which made it more or less unreadable. Then we had Inkheart by another name, followed by high fantasy a la Elric of Melnibone and, to finish, a Zorro/Robin Hood retelling with gender role reversal.

There was a panel at the Convention which asked the question of whether there were any new ideas in fantasy. I didn’t bother going to it, since to my mind the answer was an unequivocal ‘yes’. Even with the old ideas, it’s more about the fresh execution than anything else. Now, it’s entirely possible that the translators butchered the original language of these excerpts, but the execution certainly didn’t hold me captive. Nor were the ideas or flavour anything new – some had a distinctly 80s feel, in fact.

I’d hoped that an anthology expressly designed to bring French fantasy to an English-speaking audience would pick some of the best samples available. If that’s what they actually did then French fantasy is in serious trouble. But I find it hard to believe that a country with such rich history and myth – and with Hugo and Verne as their literary forebears – can’t do better. So, having consigned Passages to the recycling bin, can anyone tell me where I should be looking for well written, well translated, original French fantasy?

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2 responses »

  1. I really like France as a mythical backdrop (considering my LARP choices that shouldn’t be surprising) but the closest I’ve come to published French fantasy are the the Adele Blanc-Sec stories by Jacques Tardi. More “Ripping Yarn” fare than pure fantasy and published as comics, which some people wouldn’t class as literature.

    But I find the theme and story to be relatively refreshing.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Extraordinary_Adventures_of_Ad%C3%A8le_Blanc-Sec

  2. I’ve seen a couple of good stories by Francophone authors translated in Interzone over the years, but not recently enough that I can remember who. And the one I remember anything about was playing with fairly familiar mythic themes.
    I gather that their comics industry is more focussed on non-superheroic sci-fi and fantasy than the American market, and given the huge influence of Metal Hurlant (anthology comic) and Moebius (artist) that might be the best place to look for fresh voices. But again, beyond Moebius and Adele Blanc-Sec (love the film, haven’t read the comics, but enjoyed Tardi’s art for Bloody Streets of Paris) I don’t know what to recommend.

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