The descent of fantasy

The extent to which fantasy is in decline can be seen in this list of the 20 Best Paranormal Fantasy novels.  If this is the best, one shudders to think what could be the worse:

3. Dead Beat by Jim Butcher (2005)
Butcher’s Dead Beat—the seventh installment in his Dresden Files—was a blockbuster book when it was first released. Not only was it the first Dresden Files novel to be released in hardcover, it was a clear indication of just how much the series had expanded to embrace mainstream fiction readers. The first printing sold out in a just few days! The commercial success of the Dresden Files paved the way for countless other noteworthy protagonists, including Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt and Mario Acevedo’s Felix Gomez.

2. Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey (2009)
An in-your-face fusion of fantasy, horror, and hard-boiled mystery. It’s Kadrey’s biting wit that makes this novel so unforgettable. His blunt and acerbic writing style makes for simply addictive reading. For example, here’s how he describes Los Angeles: “L.A. is what happens when a bunch of Lovecraftian elder gods and porn starlets spend a weekend locked up in the Chateau Marmont snorting lines of crank off Jim Morrison’s bones. If the Viagra and illegal Traci Lords videos don’t get you going, then the Japanese tentacle porn will.” Classic.

1. For a Few Demons More, by Kim Harrison (2007)
The fifth installment of Harrison’s phenomenally popular Hollows saga featuring endearing gray witch Rachel Morgan and company, this novel was the first hardcover release in the series and, at least for me, heralded its ascension to elite series status. With only two novels to go until the series concludes, there is no doubt in my mind that the Hollows saga will go down as arguably the very best paranormal fantasy series ever written.

Now, I like the Dresden Files.  They’re good.  They were signed by my second editor at Pocket. But they are not great. Harry Dresden’s character development was apparently arrested at the age of 15; the ineptitude of his interactions with women have gone from clumsy and awkward to “I am so embarrassed for the author that it is seriously distracting from the story.” Kim Harrison’s books are not terrible, they are merely mediocre. I have to admit, the Kadrey sounds interesting, but I haven’t read it.

If the very best of the genre doesn’t rise to the level of Agatha Christie – and it does not – there is clearly a problem.

The coup de grace, though, is the fact that Cerulean Sins by Laurell K. Hamilton, (the K stands for Krazy), is actually listed in the top ten.  I actually kind of liked the first Anita Blake book, back when she was a voodoo chick and vampire hunter, rather than the central figure in an ongoing interspecies orgy.  There may be worse books out there than Hamilton’s, but if there are, I haven’t read them.

The fact is that paranormal fantasy is actually much worse, as a sub-genre, than the Regency romances that attempt to pass themselves off as science fiction in skirts.  With a few notable exceptions, it is outright chick porn; the claim that it is fantasy literature in the same genre as Tolkien, Lewis, and even Alexander is about as convincing as asserting that Booty Pirates XII should have beaten out Argo for the Academy Award.

There are few things I enjoyed twenty years ago as much as spending my Friday evenings with Spacebunny, circulating through the shelves at Barnes and Noble armed with fifty bucks and a coffee.  But considering that these are the sort of books they have been trying to push on the public for the last decade, even I have to conclude that the bookseller fully merits its incipient demise. It’s one thing to go out because technology has changed or because an increasingly vulgar market prefers television to books, it’s another thing to do so while trumpeting the merits of The Nymphos of Rocky Flats.