Ramble: Anachronisms in fiction

My favourite books are always anachronistic in some sense. There’s something that doesn’t fit. A lot of the time, it’s the main character (who doesn’t like an underdog?); but it doesn’t usually stop there.

I like urban fantasy more on average than any other genre because it mashes together regular life (and the struggles you encounter there) with something more interesting. Digression ahead, so bear with me: Time travel is something I’m very ambivalent about1, but a character out of their own time/world is a great example of the fish-out-of-water situation that almost always has the potential to be a great story.

  • The hidden/lost heir to a kingdom
  • A peasant farmhand that ends up being the prophesied chosen one
  • An average person/disgraced cop investigating a murder or kidnapping because this time it’s personal

These things became tropes because they’re interesting. An average person doing average things, or even an extraordinary person doing extraordinary things gets boring a lot easier than an average Joe learning to be great. Wish fulfilment? Probably. But worldbuilding’s easier when you don’t have to have characters discussing things everyone’s already aware of. Someone has to be learning in place of the audience.  

I’m getting off topic though. I was discussing anachronisms, and why I like them. So! I’m afraid I’m one of those people who’s always more interested in the villain than the hero. Well, no, that’s a lie—I’m usually most interested in the self-interested, sometimes-ally with a shady past who has the potential to become either anti-hero or betrayer. You know the ones?

tie-690084_1280They’re very rarely women, although the lack of quality female villains/anti-heroes is another article I’ll get around to one of these days

Their smiles are usually sardonic, their sense of style is often impeccable, they might be thieves or lords, they might be sexually interested in the hero but the hero very rarely returns said interest, sometimes they have an antagonistic past relationship with the hero, but they are always interesting. Fans tend to ship them with the hero a lot, sometimes prompting the writer to ‘redeem them’ almost invariably with a crappy childhood (ugh), abusive romantic past (double ugh), or make them unequivocally cross the border to villain territory (the least ugh of the three, but oftentimes a letdown). Regardless—they’re my favourite.

One series that actually makes the protagonists that level of grey-moral, bantery entertaining, and subsequently never has the heroes never get overshadowed by a villain2? The Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy. I really love that series, despite not reading a lot of YA. It’s amazing for a bunch of reasons, but having what is essentially two of those usually-infrequently-appearing characters the stars? Amazing!

I’ve always been insulted when people suggested reading is an escape. It may be more appealing than reality, but if you’re reading fiction and not seeing the social commentary, examination of morality or values, or at the very least the relationships and people being held up as normal, than you’re not reading. You’re just looking at the words.

Science fiction has long been a way for ethics to be examined: what makes us human? Is violence against innocents ever justified? When does technology stop being helpful and start being necessary, or sinister? Likewise for horror and personal or societal fears. For you to be afraid when reading a book (not watching a movie, that can use visual cues we’re instinctively cued to fear: slitted pupils, sharp teeth, sudden movements etc), you have to already be afraid. Whether it’s of the unknown, death, betrayal, change, pain, powerlessness, inferiority—fictional horror brings to mind something primal and unavoidable, something bright lights and reading at your own pace doesn’t diminish the terror of.

Fantasy (classic swords and sorcery fantasy especially) is all about morals: good vs evil, duty vs pleasure, power vs control. And if the boundary between ethics and morals is blurry for you, maybe you’ll have a better understanding of why sci fi and fantasy are so often grouped together.

That brings us (almost) back around to anachronisms. So there’s essentially four (very inter-related) types of books I get really enthusiastic about (not just books, tv shows and movies too, but let’s somewhat contain this ramble and just mention the book version, hmm?).

  1. A new world, interesting in its own right, with interesting characters that are a product of the unique world that’s been created. These books are usually fantasy or sci-fi; some good examples are NK Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series, Liz Williams’ The Poison Master, Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, Jennifer Fallon’s Lords of Amarantha series and anything by Brandon Sanderson, Victoria Schwab, Robin Hobb or Brent Weeks.
  2. Books set in our world, with a few key differences that shape the characters and inspire the plot, not necessarily for any deeper purpose (but what fiction doesn’t to some extent hold a mirror to society?). Steampunk and urban fantasy tread this ground often. Good examples of this type of book are Gail Carriger’s San Andreas Shifters series, Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books, The Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant, and Steeplejack by AJ Hartley.
  3. Books set in an alternate but not entirely new world, with characters (and subsequently the plot) hinging on fantasy elements that allow for a more entertaining and ‘relevant’ examination of real-world issues, or that allow for a larger than life examination of values, struggles, prejudice etc. This sort of thing is often found in urban fantasy and very often in sci-fi, especially if there’s one-to-one analogies for real-world issues (exploring racism with aliens, vampires as people that are HIV positive etc). Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant series, Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, The Empire trilogy by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts and Anne Bishop’s Dark Jewels series are all examples of this type of book.
  4. Books that examine family dynamics, real world issues, ethics, values or morals with fantasy elements essentially as spice; this is classic urban fantasy territory. Some good examples of this group include anything by Ilona Andrews, Molly Harper’s Half Moon Hollow series and Derek Landy’s Demon Road series.

I don’t know what point I was going to make about anachronistic media, but if you’ve read this far maybe you’ve at least got some interesting book recommendations out of it (not that anyone ever listens to those).


1I think it takes away the time-sensitive pressure often used to build rising tension; it’s similar to over-powered or truly immortal characters—it takes away the threat that is supposed to build tension and drive the plot.

2This being despite having a series of truly unique and fascinating villains who are also great at banter.

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