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Does there have to be magic in a fantasy story?

The topic of Jennifer Byrne’s Book Club on the ABC last week was the fantasy genre, and invited four fantasy writers, Jennifer Rowe (Emily Rodda), Lev Grossman, Matthew Reilly and Fiona Macintosh. A range of misconceptions and stigmas surrounding the genre were discussed but one commonality seemed to be that a fantasy story had magic in it.

Thinking about this assumption, I can understand it and agree with it to some extent, but I think the idea that a fantasy story is defined by the presence of magic (in whatever format, be it powers, spells, strange abilities, different physics etc) is limiting, particularly for those wary of the genre, or who relegate it to stories of children.

My preference is to think of an alternative history or world as the defining aspect. A fantasy is something unreal, created and imaginary in another (strange) place or a place made strange by the weird happenstances. Magic isn’t necessary per se, though likely present in each.

Extend the term “fantasy” to mix with its twin sibling, science fiction, and call it all “speculative fiction”... Fiction that speculates and imagines something different. Fiction where imagination is the only boundary. Fiction that has the biggest and most popular novels ever published (Tolkien, Rawlins and now Martin).

As was mentioned in Book Club, fantasy / speculative fiction has too many readers to be marginalised. When George R.R. Martin’s latest novel is the biggest selling fiction book of 2011 (not biggest selling fantasy novel, biggest selling fiction), then we can only take seriously suggestions that fantasy / speculative fiction is the mainstream now. From every child’s beloved fairy tales, through to adult myths and legends.

It’s a great time to write, and read.

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