The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature edited by Edward James and Farah Mendelsohn
The 'Cambridge Companion' label is a byword for rigour and quality, so my expectations in purchasing this volume were set very high indeed.
Although the title specifies fantasy it actually covers both horror and fantasy genres, leaving science fiction to be explored in its sister volume edited by the same team. A great deal of the contents of this book are in fact devoted to horror.
Each chapter presents a standalone analysis and/or history of a theme or period, written by some of the leading names in horror and fantasy today. There is a mix of full-time writers of fiction (such as Roz Kaveney), academics and critics (for example Veronica Schanoe's chapter on "Historical fantasy"), and those like Adam Roberts (the author of New Model Army and By Light Alone) who fall somewhere in the middle.
Each of the editors contributes a chapter: in Farah Mendelsohn's case, on "Thematic criticism" and in Edward James's, "Tolkien, Lewis and the explosion of genre fantasy".
The first section is entitled "Histories", and it takes a broadly chronological approach that focuses mostly on fantasy (four out of five chapters). Next is a section on "Ways of reading", which analyses core horror and fantasy texts together and provides a overview of a number of more theoretical approaches via chapters such as "Structuralism" by Brian Attebery and "Reading the slipstream" by Gregory Frost.
Finally, there is a section called "Clusters" which moves beyond treating texts either chronologically or using an overtly theoretical framework to look in fresh ways at the fantasy and horror canon in chapters such as "Quest fantasies" by WA Senior and "Magical realism" by Sharon Sieber.
The variety in the structure of the three sections was an excellent decision. The book is helpful for devoted fans of horror and fantasy wishing to reflect upon the theories and themes of some of their favourite authors and to inform and deepen their enjoyment. It is also superb for writers looking to underpin their existing knowledge, broaden their reading material and understand more of the technicalities required to produce excellent horror and fantasy books.
The index presents an illustrious array of many of the best-known names in horror and fantasy today. It showed time and again in the quality of the writing, the thoughtfulness of presentation and in the completeness of the choice of books under discussion.
A canon is well on the way to being formalised in horror and fantasy. This is happening courtesy of a mixture of scholarly articles and essays, 'zine and blog articles from working writers and reviewers, and via online communities and discussion boards. As readers, we all know what we like in our genre fiction and what it takes to make a winner that will stand the test of time.
It is absolutely the essence of horror and fantasy that fans matter and popular choice counts. This book did an excellent job of asserting a voice within the first of these three media, with a respect for the other aspects of horror and fantasy criticism that was very welcome.
Many thanks for reading my review of The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature edited by Edward James and Farah Mendelsohn. The comments section is open. See you on Monday.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss here. Or you might like to take a look at my article about how old sins cast long shadows in the fantasy fiction of David Gemmell here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of A Child’s War by Mike Brown here.