When Ursula K. Le Guin’s fourth Earthsea novel, Tehanu, came out, I read it and was underwhelmed. I wanted lots of magic and spells and glorious heroes, and instead I got a farmer’s widow and a used-up mage. There was a lot more about goats than there was about dragons. It just didn’t seem very much like fantasy to me. At the time I was fairly fresh out of college, renting a room and commuting back and forth to my job at a D.C. law library. I wanted magic and adventure in my hum-drum life, damn it!
Now Tehanu is one of my all-time favorite books. I did my first reread after a few years of writing and literature classes in grad school and fell in love. I don’t know exactly what changed in the interim – perhaps it was maturity, perhaps it was having been exposed to a lot of different ideas about literature, perhaps it was knowing more of Le Guin’s ideas about women and writing. At any rate, what I love about the novel now (besides the excellent craft of it) is exactly those things I initially did not like: domestic life, ordinary characters, lack of pageantry, lack of violence. I like that a fantasy novel can feature a middle-aged woman and that descriptions of shelling peas, weaving baskets, keeping up a farm, taking care of goats, and other quiet activities are the center of the story.
I still really like epic fantasy, and especially the world-building part. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that for me world-building is necessary but not sufficient to suck me into the story; for the epic to be epic, it needs to be set against the mundane. By “mundane” I mean “worldly as opposed to spiritual,” rather than the more colloquial usage implying boredom and dullness. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote about “exoticizing the domestic,” and I think that concept is what makes for really good fantasy and speculative fiction. The writer takes the ordinary and twists it, or puts it into a different context.
Link to the rest at io9