Tim Akers, author of “The Horns of Ruin”, writes “In Defense of Elves“, where he defends using elves in fantasy fiction. Or, at least, that’s what it says the article is about, but he doesn’t actually get to talking about elves at all until the penultimate paragraph.
Which is kind of a shame, because everything he says up until that point, I think is spot on. He’s basically talking about how wide open fantasy can be, and how strange the self-imposed limitations we fantasy writers put upon ourselves when writing it. Horns of Ruin appears to be exactly what I was calling for last month: secondary-world fantasy in an advanced-technology setting, with railguns and jetpacks. (Though I find the Amazon descriptor of “the first perfect merger of steampunk and sword and sorcery” a bit much, especially since it doesn’t sound like steampunk.)
But then Akers gets to elves, and for me, his point is lost. Because the core of the argument is, “Some stories just need to use an elf”, and doesn’t get into particulars about why an elf might be necessary for certain stories, other than “can’t be translated into mopy humans”. I’m honestly confused by that statement. Are humans “mopy” and elves are not, and that’s why an elf might be necessary? Or are humans being mopy the closest they come to being elves?
Here’s my counter-argument: elves, as most fantasy writers use them, are painfully generic. Same for dwarves. Same for medieval-Western-Europe-with-magic copied-and-pasted settings. It’s one thing to shorthand worldbuilding in text, knowing keywords that evoke technology or culture. It’s another to say, “Here are elves” that are essentially the same kind of elves found in Tolkien/Dungeons & Dragons/World of Warcraft, and shrug and say, “Yup, you’ve got it, I can move on”.
What does that give you? Fantasy that risks being indistinguishable.
But, to be fair, Horns of Ruin does not look indistinguishable, and I’ll put it on my shortlist.* The argument, though, that “you just need to use an elf” puts my teeth on edge, because it’s one thing in fantasy writing that I strongly disagree with. For me, it’s almost the same as a space-opera writers saying, “Sometime you need to use Vulcans”.
*- My shortlist, mind you, is getting long and unwieldy. I’m going to need to hole up in a hammock with a pile of books for a week in the near future.