A Short History of Fantasy is not so much a history as it is a list of books and a compendium of plot synopses, in order of appearance. Readers expecting an in-depth discussion of the movements, trends, and aesthetics of the fantasy genre should look elsewhere; the authors only have time to cover the broad-strokes here, which they do pretty admirably. The book is not quite an encyclopedia (for that, check out The Encyclopedia of Fantasy) and not quite a literary analysis (for that, The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature looks interesting) but it is free if you’ve joined Kindle Unlimited. For your non-purchase you will get a general overview of the genre and a resource to find more books to add to your Amazon Wishlist. If you’re like me though, you already spend way too much time adding books to your reading list instead of actually reading!
The first two chapters are the most interesting. The introduction attempts to land on a working definition of fantasy, and the second chapter examines the genre’s origin in myth. After that, we get a roll call of books, starting from 1900 and whipping forward to the first decade of the twenty-first century, with a couple of chapters dedicated to specific authors (C.S. Lewis/J.R.R. Tolkien and Pullman/Rowling/Hatchett).
The authors of this book, Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James, certainly know their ruritanias from their bildungsroman. Each book is classified precisely and often related to both its literary ancestors and descendants, so we get to track the different branches of the genre. The authors also do their best to capture the spirit of each book in their plot summary, but as they themselves admit later, it’s a losing battle. Plodding through these can be a bit of a chore.
Each reader will not doubt have different take-aways. Of particular note for me were a handful of stats –
“Paranormal romance, already popular in the 1990s, developed in the 2000s into a publishing category of its own. According to the figures compiled by Locus, in addition to 460 fantasy titles published in 2007, there were 243 paranormal romances.”
– and peculiar facts –
“In 2008 the (sf) novelist John Scalzi was the first person to win a Best Fanwriter Hugo with a blog.”
Also of note are the sections about the cultural arguments and controversies that swirl around the genre. The authors claim in the intro that they are only interested in outlining these critiques, but they end up spending a fair amount of white space discussing, for example, the alleged racism in Lewis’ The Horse and the Boy and the alleged sexism regarding Susie Pevensie’s exclusion from paradise in The Last Battle. Some of these were new to me, and quite amusing (colonialism in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe??)
A Short History of Fantasy was first published in 2009, and concludes with a short sketch of the burgeoning indie publishing scene. Also included in the book is a hundred page chronology of important people and works.
If you can swallow a few hundred synopses and a couple of uses of the word “heteronormative”, A Short History of Fantasy is an okay primer for the genre.