I hate the way love and romantic attachment is portrayed in fantasy fiction.
Particularly in certain subgenres, like urban fantasy, where it often feels out of place or redundant. It's like authors tack it onto the plot just to make the story more interesting. In a lot of cases it feels as if it's there to give the book a more 'adult' feel. To point out that this is a book for grown ups rather than teenagers or children, a distinction that can be hard to make in fantasy genres. Because nothing screams 'mature adult', in flashing neon lights with a giant arrow, like an excessive number of sex scenes that read like a teenager's wet dream.
I get that the whole world is just a little bit obsessed with sex, love and relationships but the way these things are portrayed in all kinds of media is disgustingly formulaic. I'm aware that this is probably making me sound terribly disaffected and hipster-ish but let me reassure you that my jumper is not knitted and it has the rather trashy slogan 'break the rules' scrawled in graffiti imitation across the front. I am no trend victim.
I think that a lot of relationships in fantasy media today, particularly popular fantasy media, are oversimplified. Sometimes they trend dangerously towards the abusive (coughTwilightcough) but in general the perfect joy of the participants, the fierce, uncomplicated love or simple friends with benefits growing more complicated over time reads like something you might see happening on your favourite day-time soap. These romanticised concepts of love at first sight and one true love and such are damaging to plotlines and brains.
But it's fantasy! I hear you cry, surely your expectations might be more easily realised by something or a higher literary genre! If you want complicated relationships try Jane Eyre! Try Pride and Prejudice.
No. Simply put, that is not my genre. I like reading about worlds that contain elves and pixies and yes, vampires (as long as they don't sparkle), and my preference by far (at the moment) is to read about these things in an urban setting. I shouldn't have to skip merrily across to great literary accomplishments of the past hundred years to find a well written relationship. It should not be considered a literary triumph to be able to write something more complicated than 'boy meets girl, boy and girl slay monsters (and have sex), boy saves girl or vice versa and they go home (probably to have more sex)'.
Fantasy fiction is all about struggling for realism. It's about convincing people that this world, where people throw fire, or have two heads, or are really giant creatures that are half dragon half amoeba, is real. It's about achieving a consistency throughout your book, and constructing characters who are believable. Not necessarily believable in their actions (turning into monsters, bathing in magma, reproducing by splitting in half, what have you) but in their personalities, in their interactions and their relationship.
Realistically most of the world does not act like the characters of Sex and the City. Or even the characters of Neighbours. So when my kick-arse witch bounty hunter from Kim Harrison's Hollows series goes home from a trying day with her dashing vampire boyfriend I'd prefer a little realism. Granted, a psychotic vampire roommate who might tear you apart for having sex on the couch isn't part of most people's everyday equation. Neither is the apparently euphoric effect of line dancing vampires. But at the end of the day, if I'm looking for realism anywhere, it's in the relationship. And I'm always disappointed by the inevitable sex scene.
Similarly, rather than build a dysfunctional relationship with any of her romantic interests in the series, Anita Blake, vampire hunter, seems to have violated her own slogan ('I don't date vampires, I kill them') by falling into repeated vampire orgies. Or possibly the same one, repeated over and over. It gets hard to tell after a while.
It also gets hard to read.
Now I'm not saying there should be no relationships in fantasy. Quite the opposite, I want better relationships in fantasy. I want urban fantasy and contemporary science fiction authors to stop trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator and write some love stories that have plots as good as the rest of their stories.
Romantic relationships are not the be all and end all. You don't have to worship your significant other in order to be in a healthy relationship. In fact, shockingly, experts are now suggesting this may not be healthy. I feel that this may be particularly unhealthy for the teenagers and young adults who are reading these genres.
I do not think this oversimplification craziness affects everyone. There are some excellent portrayals of relationships (though not always healthy ones) in fantasy. Harry Potter is a key one, of course. As in all other fields it stands alone, ahead of the pack. Exemplary.
But lesser known examples include the strongly feminist heroines of Tamora Pierce's various Tortall series, all of whom have had different kinds of relationships and different takes on the advent of love in general. Also Irish screenwriter turned novelist Derek Landy's Skullduggery Pleasant series, which demonstrates that the kind of people who save the world aren't always good at relationships, healthy, nice or even properly alive. To round out this list there's the Reformed Vampire Support Group and it's sequel The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group by Australian author Catherine Jinks. The Melbourne based vampires don't sparkle or have fun, they don't even drink blood. But somehow these wussy, anemic undead teenagers have a healthier and more meaningful relationship than Bella Swan managed in her ridiculously long saga.
So what do you think? Is there a need for better relationships in contemporary fantasy stories? Am I completely barking mad? Got some titles to suggest that are either violators or perfect examples of what relationships should look like in an urban fantasy setting? Let me know!
Image taken from Andrei Oprinca's photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License.