Reviewed by Allen Stroud
Any book that seeks to lead its readers through the popular and diverse genre of fantasy fiction from its origins to its current state in the 21st century is likely to receive a mixed response. Those who write, work and read in the genre already are bound to have favourite writers and books that they feel are seminal to their formative experience and the genre as a whole.
Philip Martin’s attempt in this regard leans heavily on the side of the texts. Quotations intersperse short paragraphs from the author as he attempts to link together his discussion points. This makes for a rather rambling journey as Martin tries to historicise, contextualise, critique and offer writing guidance from a vast collection of sources.
The sparsity and generic contribution of Martin to this collection of quotes means that the book fails to achieve any of these aspirations, but it is a pleasant read. A little like going to a lecture that you enjoyed because of the speaker, but learned nothing from. There is certainly, an earnest tone and a clear passion for the genre. Martin is very well read and demonstrates this frequently with his sprawling kaleidoscope of contributing fiction, but if an undergraduate essay relied on its quotes as heavily as this, the lecturer would be calling the student in for a meeting.
However, a trait of fantasy is its obsession with cosy nostalgia and escapism. If you are seeking to sit in a nice comfortable chair and be reminded of a whole list of incredible reading you may have experienced before, or are seeking a sampler for more ‘classics’ of the genre, then this might be a book you’d consider. Similarly, if an intelligent child were looking to understand where a great many of their favourite books drew influences from and wanted a book to help them with their own writing, this might be one to try, as it would stimulate discussion between them and a parent about the books they have read.
As a scholarly text there is little here to assist the academic. Adam Roberts’ Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom, or even H.P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Fiction (for all its faults) offer more insight to their respective genres. Roberts’ work is a seminal guide on how to offer insight without becoming too bogged down in any one aspect of the field and serves as a good primer for researchers. By comparison, Martin’s work pales, offering little or no insight that cannot be found elsewhere.