Are Medieval European Settings Passe?


I read a comment, and I’ve heard it before, that vaguely medieval European settings are a bit old hat in the fantasy genre. The Lord of the Rings set the standard, C.S. Lewis did little to break the mould and David Eddings and Robert Jordan took the ball and ran with it. So has it been done to death and is there room for more? Oh, no! The West Queen is set in an essentially European setting with swords and armour and horses. Am I done for?

Short Answer Yes.

The longer answer, ironically is no. Yes, medieval Europe has become a cliché. To such an extent that it is common to find whole books in the setting with little or no world building besides a couple of fantasy sounding names like The Forest of Doom and Zal’Ach-Kador. But I don’t think the rules have ever changed with regards to the setting or story. I don’t doubt Stephanie Meyers was told a vampire love story would never sell, but it did.

The Key

The key is to have something that makes the reader stop, cock their head to the side and squint trying to fit your world together. Meyers did it by having sparkly vampires and by having the misfit at the new school not immediately get bullied to the point of near suicide. David Eddings did it by having literal gods walking about and talking to people and by making everything so quaint as to feel like it came from a fantasy theme park. Jordan took the world’s cultures and mixed them all up so that one racial type wore another cultures clothes and had names and society more similar to another altogether.

The Rules

The rules haven’t changed. It has always been that you should not rely on cliché except to break that cliché. However there is another important factor to consider. One I call the Gardening Australia / Better Homes and Gardens model. Each year Gardening Australia has a segment on how to prune your fruit trees and Better Homes and Gardens show you how to train a dog or paint a wall or something. If you’ve been a regular watcher for years you will have seen the same information over and over. This is much like if you’ve read enough fantasy novels you’ll have come across the same cliché over and over. The idea is that each year there are new viewers, new gardeners, who haven’t seen the pruning segment. If you only catered to the people who started watching the series from the very first episode, by year ten you’d be up to advanced horticulture including latin naming and discussion of the exact bio-chemistry taking place inside a tree. This is also how Justin Bieber succeeds. The current crop of thirteen year olds didn’t live through the boy band explosion of the nineties, the new romantics of the eighties, sugar pop of the seventies and so on. They can’t see that Justin Bieber is a manufactured sweetie engineered to sicken because to them he is original and fresh. Imagine if you could that you had never heard pop music before. Imagine also that you are a young girl as yet unscathed by the harsh realities call “men”. A cute, slightly effeminate and inoffensive boy with a sweet voice who sings catchy rhythm and blues oriented pop would be like seeing Jesus come back from the dead. To me, a man approaching middle age he is just another face stuck to the front of a song writing and promotion team. So yo can write a purely cliché fantasy in a stock medieval European world as long as you expect to catch only the people who have never really read any fantasy before. Each year millions of people enter that market. All those kids growing up and discovering books for the first time or the long time romance reader who decides to take a stab at an epic fantasy will be your market.

The West Queen

Having said all of that I like to think the world of The West Queen has just enough difference in it to lure people in. There is no storyteller guiding a young man to the fulfillment of his destiny. There is no prophecy and no princess to rescue. More or less everyone knows their ancestry and those that don’t aren’t from lost royal lines. The real difference comes from the mysterious and morally ambiguous story. And the insanity of at least a couple of the main characters.

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About sjohnhughes

Author, nerd, father, runner and more View all posts by sjohnhughes

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