Literature Commentary and Genre Analysis: The World of Contemporary Fantasy

31 Aug

(Originally published June 26, 2009)

When most people think of fantasy, they probably envision Tolkienesque landscapes of men, elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, dragons, and a slew of other mythological beasties. And indeed – a stroll down the sci-fi/fantasy aisle of your local bookstore would likely confirm this impression. 75% of fantasy book covers feature heavily armored champions with massive axes or maces, backed by female archers in outlandishly exotic form-fitting attire. If you don’t believe me, take a look for yourself sometime.

However, fueled by a string of recent successes including the “Twilight” saga, a new subgenre is rapidly gaining popularity within the fantasy realm – contemporary fantasy. Set in real-life locations such as Chicago, Seattle, and London, contemporary fantasy novels generally thrust human protagonists into an underground world of goblins, vampires, werewolves, and other creatures that generally don’t get out much until Halloween. The tone of these books is often far darker than their high-fantasy counterparts, and because they are set in our universe, moral dilemmas are much more thought-provoking.

Some of you who are reading this know that I have recently completed two novels – “Soul Flare” and “Scarlet Knight” – which both belong to the contemporary fantasy genre. In the interests of understanding the current market facing prospective writers, I have read quite a bit of contemporary fantasy over the past six months or so. In this commentary, I’ll be specifically looking at three popular contemporary fantasy works – “The Dresden Files” series by Jim Butcher, the “Greywalker” novels by Kat Richardson, and the “Nightside” books by Simon R. Green.

But first, a few generalities that apply to the genre as a whole…


The protagonist of most contemporary fantasy novels is a tough, world-weary private investigator or policeman that recalls Humphrey Bogart’s role in “The Maltese Falcon.” (It is also worth noting that the primary characters typically struggle with thorny moral issues and have dysfunctional love lives). Some contemporary fantasy titles are even classified as “noir fantasy” or “dark urban fantasy” because of this setting. Many involve gang bosses and the criminal underworld in “Batman Begins” style. With a few minor changes, most would fit nicely into the standard “realistic” mystery genre.

Most books begin with the grisly murder of a low-level criminal or newspaper reporter in a dingy urban environment. It rapidly becomes clear that the killer could not have been human…and the book really takes off from there.

Things do get rather interesting when it comes to the villains. Authors can let their creativity run wild, creating legions of paranormal baddies just waiting to chomp, shoot, stab, stomp, mind-control, or incinerate the brave protagonist. Bad faeries (NOT the Cinderella kind), ghosts, ghouls, warlocks, demons, dragons, and countless other assorted fiends prowl the pages of contemporary fantasy novels, destroying everything in their path. (I’ll address the obvious occult implications a little later on).

The plots of most contemporary fantasy novels are relatively similar: murder, fight, another murder, rising action, explosive confrontation, denouement. Pretty standard stuff for the mystery genre.

OK…that pretty much covers the basics. On to the specific books:

THE DRESDEN FILES by Jim Butcher (my rating: 9/10)

Harry Dresden is a wizard. Not the long-bearded Gandalf type, you understand – but rather a low-level magical practitioner who specializes in finding lost rings and bracelets. Every time the Chicago police department runs into a case they can’t solve, Harry gets called to the “Special Operations” division to discover the truth. At 11 books and counting, this is one of the longest-running contemporary fantasy sagas around. Over the course of his tumultuous life, Harry has battled necromancers, werewolves, vampires, faeries, fallen angels, and zombies…among other things. (In book 10, Harry takes on a trio of Billy Goats Gruff toting AK-47s…no, I’m not joking…)

“The Dresden Files” is one of my all-time favorites in the genre. The books are brilliantly written, with a winning combination of intense action and wink-wink-don’t-take-this-seriously humor. Harry is a likeable, believable protagonist (and narrator) who honestly tries to do the right thing, even at great personal cost to himself.

However, I cannot unequivocally recommend “The Dresden Files.” There are several risqué scenes (especially in some of the early books, mostly involving seductive vampires), as well as some crude and suggestive humor throughout. The language, while not quite as bad as some other thriller/mysteries I’ve read, is still bad enough to give readers pause. And don’t even get me started about the copious amounts of graphic violence – “The Dresden Files” is dark, bloody, and occasionally disturbing.

But there is much, much more to “The Dresden Files” than first meets the eye.

Faith and spiritual issues are central to the series. Harry is effectively an agnostic, saying at one point that “the Almighty and I aren’t on the best of terms.” However, the existence of an ultimate divine power is consistently upheld throughout the series. Depictions of the Christian faith of the holy knight Michael Carpenter are both uplifting and inspiring…and in one memorable scene, one of Michael’s prayers results in a dramatic deliverance from the forces of evil. Angels are also a part of the series – during one scene where Harry rants at God for allowing a friend to be injured, the archangel Uriel engages him in a profound spiritual conversation about the purpose of suffering. Author Jim Butcher generally treats the Christian faith with a remarkable amount of respect and reverence. In a lot of ways, the integration of faith is reminiscent of “I Am Legend” – even in dark situations, the existence of a higher power is never disputed.

Should you read “The Dresden Files”? It’s really up to the individual – this is a decision no one can make for someone else. On one hand, the books contain a great deal of what would typically be considered “objectionable content.” But on the other hand…they convey spiritual truths in an effective way that never comes across as “preachy.”

The choice is yours.

GREYWALKER by Kat Richardson (my rating: 6/10)

Harper Blaine and Harry Dresden would probably get along rather well. Both are private investigators with supernatural abilities – Harry has the use of magic, while Harper can see into the “Grey” – a bridge-land between the spirit world and our own. Harper, though, operates from Seattle, while Harry’s missions are confined to Chicago.

After a near-death experience, Harper gains the ability to “walk in two worlds” – both our day-to-day ordinary world, and the mysterious “Grey.” The Grey is home to a myriad of strange beings including ghosts, poltergeists, revenants, etc. The now-ubiquitous vampires are also present, and factor prominently in the first book. (Am I the only one who is getting sick of “Twilight” and its ilk? The contemporary fantasy market is currently glutted – no pun intended – with vampire stories…blech.)

The series feels clearly derivative of other works, right down to the setting and many of the characters. There’s a lot less of the objectionable content prevalent throughout “The Dresden Files”, though…but also a lot less of the spiritual richness. There’s practically no mention of religion, which is an unfortunate omission that really takes a lot away from what could have been a promising saga. With the exception of one salacious scene in book 1, it’s not particularly offensive. But neither is it particularly rewarding.

Recommended only for “Dresden Files” addicts who can’t wait for the next book. Otherwise, it’s probably not worth your time.

NIGHTSIDE by Simon R. Green (my rating: 1/10)

Have you ever read a book that made you feel so horrible inside that you wanted to throw it across the room as soon as you were done? That’s how I felt after reading “The Unnatural Inquirer” – a novel of the “Nightside” series by Simon R. Green. I picked it up after hearing that it was in the same genre as “The Dresden Files” – but I quickly discovered that it was nowhere near what I had expected.

The book postulates the existence of a secret world within London known as the “Nightside” – a parallel universe of sin and depravity inhabited by every conceivable type of paranormal being. Private investigator John Taylor works as a mercenary-for-hire within the Nightside…and works for anyone, so long as they are willing to pay the right price.

Morally and spiritually, this book is pitch-black. There is not a single righteous character anywhere, and those who attempt to do the right thing are killed horribly. It was so dark, and often so disjointed, that it made me feel almost physically nauseous. It’s a rare book that makes me feel so wretched inside.

No one should read this series. Not Christians, not anybody. No matter how mature a reader you may be, there are certain lines of black thought that should not be pursued. It’s one thing to set up a clash between good and evil, and to depict evil in all its unadulterated horror – but it is abominable to take joy in the depravity of man and provide no hope for a brighter future. I have never read a book that reeked so strongly of total moral degradation.

Do NOT read this series. I cannot express this sentiment any more strongly.


Contemporary fantasy is a mixed bag. It has the potential to be a powerful mirror of our society, showing our weakness and our need for salvation. But it also has the potential to unleash a train of thoughts that should never have been voiced.

Perhaps the most crucial warning: The danger of occult fascination is real. These books are set in realistic settings and involve a darker side of the fantasy genre. Beings such as vampires, werewolves, demons, and black sorcerers used to belong only in the horror genre – but now they are gaining more mainstream acceptance. While most of the magical practitioners in the aforementioned books employ pseudo-Latinized “fairy-tale” magic to accomplish their aims, the potential for involvement in the occult cannot be overlooked.

I don’t have any objections to the depiction of a spiritual world coexisting with our own. Books such as Ted Dekker’s “Books of Paradise” (“Showdown”, “Saint”, and “Sinner”) and Frank Peretti’s “Darkness” books (“This Present Darkness” and “Piercing the Darkness”) powerfully depict the clash of spiritual forces around humanity. The question is: are readers pushed toward God, or led astray? I believe that some of these books have the potential for either, depending on who reads them and their level of discernment.

For example, “The Dresden Files” has been nicknamed “Harry Potter for adults.” While both “Harry Potter” and “The Dresden Files” contain positive messages, both are packaged in the medium of magic and sorcery. Each independent reader must decide whether or not these books are hazardous to their spiritual health.

As many of you know, I hope someday to join the ranks of other contemporary fantasy authors. I want to offer readers hope for a brighter future by contrasting the darkness of humanity with the light of eternal salvation through God alone. Whether or not my work will be successful in the current market remains to be seen – but I know that if God wants me to share my words with the world, He will provide the opportunity.

In closing…two quotes spring to mind, both of which are surprisingly relevant to this genre. Consider them for yourself:

“I see things, wonderful things!” – Howard Carter upon opening the tomb of King Tutankhamen
“Here there be monsters!” – Inscription overlying the Atlantic Ocean on an ancient Greek map


Posted by on August 31, 2009 in Fantasy


2 responses to “Literature Commentary and Genre Analysis: The World of Contemporary Fantasy

  1. Shelby

    September 19, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Whoa, that’s really profound, John. I never thought about the Dresden Files that way. BTW, thanks for the Nightside warning–I might have picked that up one day and been scarred for life. On the subject of vampires being prolific in fiction, it’s simply because they sell. People like vampires: they’re dark, sexy, and immortal. Most of mankind would probably love to be young and beautiful forever (admittedly, there are some vampire mythologies, particularlly the oldest ones in existance, who describe vampires as anything but), and thus there is an allure to this particular supernatural race that is unmatched by any other. In my opinion, vampires are temptation personified, which is why they appeal to so many, and why they are accepted in roles outside of that of antagonists, although they frequently fill those roles as well. Personally, I mostly prefer vampires in a villainous role, with some exceptions, simply because I think it suits the character of the vampire race better to be evil, especially since their original incarnations depict them as monstrous demons.
    Sorry for the uber-long comment! I don’t mean to detract from your marvelous summation of contemporary fiction, but you know very well where I stand on the vampire issue.

  2. KatherineB

    April 6, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    Thanks for this analysis, there’s not enough thoughtful Christian dialouge like this out there. I love the Dresden Files and couldn’t agree more with you. They do have some scences I prefer to skip over, but the spectacular humor and profound moral themes are worth it. I just re-read Harry’s conversation with Father Forthill in Proven Guilty, the scene that changed my enjoyment of the series to absolute love. Harry is discouraged that he can’t protect Michael’s family and asks the Father how anything good can come from the situation. The Father tells Harry that God does not always work things out to be easy or obvious, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t working them out for good, even if it’s not always the kind we expect.
    “I sat quietly for a minute. Then I said, ‘You almost make me believe.” He arched an eyebrow ‘But?’ ‘I don’t know if I can do that. I don’t know if it’s possible for me.’ The corners of his eyes wrinkled. ‘Then perhaps you should try to have faith that you might one day have faith.'”
    :’) Always gets me.

    P.S. The short story Warrior is centered around Michael’s family and talks even more explicitly about faith and spiritual warfare and is also very good.


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