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28 February 2011 @ 09:44 am
TOTW: A Sharp Turn into Fantasy  

[warning: mild spoilers ahead for The Card Turner, Liar, and Revolution]


When I read The Card Turner by Louis Sachar, it surprised me twice. First, I found myself seized by a desire to learn bridge. (I will shelve it somewhere along with my desires to intensively practice chess, take horseback riding lessons, and bike-ride through Mongolia.) And second, about two thirds of the way through the book, it hit me: this is a fantasy novel. 

Or is it? The cover, the description, the lead-in don’t give it away. The vast majority of the book is unmistakably contemporary. But there’s no question that, at some point late in the book, the term “realistic fiction” doesn’t really apply any more.

Once I started thinking about it, I realized there have been a number of books lately that fit that description – books that start out firmly anchored in the real world, that aren’t marketed as fantasy, but that at some point pull a switch on the reader. Books like Liar by Justine Lebalestier and Revolution by Jennifer Donnely. I’m guessing this is more common in YA, both because the lack of genre divisions means that you don’t have to worry about where the book will be shelved (at least, until recently), and also because YA readers are probably more open to fantasy in their books.

As a fantasy lover, I’m happy to go along with the turn the book is taking it. But for readers who don’t like fantasy, or at least like to be prepared for it, I’d imagine this could get annoying. Sometimes, as in Revolution, the publisher subtly hints at the fantasy content in the description. Other times, as with Liar, they don’t.

What do you think? Are you okay when a book you thought was realistic fiction suddenly takes a turn toward the fantastic? Do you think publishers should at least hint at the fantasy in the description, or just leave the reader to discover it on their own? And can you think of any other books that surprised you with a turn toward the fantastic?


ex_marissam on February 28th, 2011 03:28 pm (UTC)
The only one of your examples I've read is Liar. I had no clue as to the fantasy-esque twist when I started it, but when I got there I LOVED it. I think it's hard to be surprised when you read a lot of books. Too often they're predictable (which isn't always a bad thing), but when a book really throws me for a loop I always find myself marveling at how the author did it. Liar is a great example - I thought it was brilliant.

The only other example I can think of right now is "I Am the Messenger" by Markus Zusak, although I'm not sure "fantasy" is appropriate. Maybe experimental? Either way, the book definitely kept me on my toes!
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on February 28th, 2011 07:49 pm (UTC)
I was okay with the fantasy-twist in Liar too, but if you read the reviews on Amazon, a lot of people were very upset about it -- especially people who thought they were going to be reading gritty realistic fiction. I haven't read I Am The Messenger yet, but it sounds interesting!
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - leah_cypess on March 1st, 2011 01:44 am (UTC) (Expand)
wanderingdreamr: kobatowanderingdreamr on February 28th, 2011 04:03 pm (UTC)
I think a lot of Diana Wynne Jones' books could qualify as "it started out normal and then it got fantastical," it's almost her calling card. Other than that, I read fantasy most of the time anyway so I'm usually not surprised when things start getting strange.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on February 28th, 2011 07:50 pm (UTC)
Really? I wouldn't have thought of any of her books that way, though maybe that's because they're packaged as fantasy. Which ones did you have in mind?
(no subject) - wanderingdreamr on February 28th, 2011 10:41 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - leah_cypess on February 28th, 2011 11:56 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Lisa Greenlisagailgreen on February 28th, 2011 04:21 pm (UTC)
Turn around
What's funny is the opposite happens to me sometimes! I make a (probably silly) assumption that a YA book has some fantasy component and about half-way through I determine that, nope, it's realistic fiction. :D If it's a good book, it doesn't matter to me either way, it just throws me off a little...
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on February 28th, 2011 07:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Turn around
That is funny! I guess it speaks to your general reading taste. :)
Re: Turn around - lisagailgreen on February 28th, 2011 07:53 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Kate Milfordkatemilford on February 28th, 2011 04:44 pm (UTC)
The only one of these I read was LIAR, also, and interestingly, one of the things I loved best about it was that you can read it and accept the abrupt turn into fantasy, or you can absolutely chalk that up to Micah's inability to face up to or tell the truth, a desperate, wild, last-ditch attempt to exonerate herself.

But I sure as heck didn't see it coming, and I loved it.

I think you're right, though, that when a reader goes into a book expecting one thing and finds him/herself reading something utterly different, there is always the risk that they will be so thrown that they'll have an adverse reaction to the story just because they weren't expecting what they got. I think a switch in genre from realistic to non-realistic is way different from, say, a phenomenal twist or the discovery that a story that looked to be about one thing but is in reality about another.

This makes me think of the story about how Dashiell Hammett's Fairwell, My Lovely was retitled when it was made into a film with Dick Powell. Powell, up until then, was known as a romantic leading man, usually in musicals. When his new film, Fairwell, My Lovely, was announced, audiences expected Powell in his usual swoony romance role and instead they got a hard-boiled detective in an LA noir. The film got HORRIBLE responses from its initial audiences. The producers re-titled it Murder, My Sweet, and re-released it, and that fixed the problem. It was all a matter of expectation.

Not exactly the same thing, of course...but that's what this conversation put me in mind of.
Kate Milfordkatemilford on February 28th, 2011 04:47 pm (UTC)
Chandler, I meant. Not Hammett.
Fairwell My Lovely was Raymond Chandler, not Dashiell Hammett. I always get them mixed up.
Re: Chandler, I meant. Not Hammett. - leah_cypess on February 28th, 2011 07:52 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - carmenferreiro on February 28th, 2011 07:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - leah_cypess on February 28th, 2011 07:52 pm (UTC) (Expand)
annastanannastan on February 28th, 2011 04:54 pm (UTC)
Interesting question. I generally like books that clue me in to what's coming, even if it's just through something subtle like the tone. But a well-done twist can certainly work. The key, I guess, is to not leave readers feeling tricked.
natalieag on February 28th, 2011 05:17 pm (UTC)
I love fantasy so wouldn't mind being surprised. But I know a lot of people who really don't like fantasy (shame on them) and who might not enjoy the surprise. I think the book jacket should tell enough to get a good sense of what a book is about.
(no subject) - leah_cypess on February 28th, 2011 07:53 pm (UTC) (Expand)
nandinibnandinib on February 28th, 2011 05:29 pm (UTC)
Magic realism?
Interesting ... how about HOLES? It reads like a contemporary novel, but then there's the thing about the gypsy curse. And do you think some of those contemporary-with-a-hint-of-fantasy books fall into magic realism?

I so need to read LIAR!
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on February 28th, 2011 07:55 pm (UTC)
Re: Magic realism?
I read Holes so long ago that I don't remember the details, but it sounds a lot like The CardTurner - even with the fantasy elements, it reads very contemporary. As for magic realism, I have to admit I have completely given up on trying to define it or figure out what it means.
kikihamiltonkikihamilton on February 28th, 2011 05:54 pm (UTC)
What a great topic, Leah! I'm one of those who sort of likes to know that I'm reading fantasy and am prepared to suspend disbelief somewhere along the way. To start out believing I'm reading realistic fiction and then to veer into the fantastical usually doesn't work for my analytical brain.

When I first started writing I was taking a class where I was working on a fantasy WIP and my teacher was quite insistent that I needed to clue the reader in from the first chapter that there were fantasy elements. Of course, just one man's opinion. The diversity of every story is what makes reading so wonderful.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on February 28th, 2011 07:55 pm (UTC)
It's a valid opinion, though. It's interesting that none of these were first books for their authors - I wonder if there would have been more resistance if they had been?
ebooraem on February 28th, 2011 07:05 pm (UTC)
This is an interesting discussion--proof that there are readers of all stripes out there! I love a good left turn, and don't at all mind if a book starts out realistic and turns fantastical. What I do demand, though, is that the change not come out of left field as an obvious device to get the plot out of trouble. The fantastical elements should spring naturally from the realistic ones.

Coraline, for example. If you hadn't read all about it before you picked it up (as most of us had), my dim recollection is that at first it could be a story of a bored little girl whose parents aren't paying enough attention. When the Other Mother appears, she's a natural projection of what's going on in Coraline's head. And off we go.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on February 28th, 2011 07:57 pm (UTC)
That's a very good point. I think "magic comes in and saves the day" halfway through a book would meet with negative reactions in most cases. In all the books I mentioned above, the magic does flow from the realistic elements, even if unexpectedly.
all is always now: meg powersbeth_shulman on February 28th, 2011 11:36 pm (UTC)
It's an interesting point. When I was reading The Cardturner and reached that part, I actually was reminded of Jellicoe Road - because the book wasn't really fantasy. It had fantasy overtones. And what struck me most was that those overtones, that surreality, made the books more believable to me. Everyone at some point might be a witness to the fantastic or surreal. I don't think it serves to make the books fantasy.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on March 1st, 2011 01:17 am (UTC)
Are you talking about Jellicoe Road or The Cardturner? I haven't read Jellicoe Road, but I think that even though The Cardturner is mostly *about* realistic issues, the fantasy aspect was pretty straight-up -- i.e. it was supposed to be clear to the reader that this is what is actually happening.
(no subject) - beth_shulman on March 1st, 2011 04:27 am (UTC) (Expand)
Kate: fairy illustrationceitfianna on March 1st, 2011 12:48 am (UTC)
Sadly I haven't read these books but I read a lot of fantasy and YA fantasy. What I find interesting is it seems like something that's a literary work like Bloodroot that has some elements which could be fantastical gets called magical realism and then there's these places in between. That's a discussion for another time but one I find fascinating.

One of my favorite authors for slipping magic into everyday is Charles de Lint since his characters will be surprised by the magic but not all. The same things are true in Diana Wynne Jones, the characters' experiences and perceptions decide what I perceive as the world of the book.

Two more authors that do this cleverly in YA fiction are Rick Riordan and Cinda Williams Chima, since their series start out with characters that aren't aware of any sort of magic but we follow them deeper and get used to them with it. This requires having good narrators which I think is what trips up many authors because a bad first person narrator can toss you out of the book so quickly.

I'm also so happy to have found this site and will be friending it. I came over here from Cindy Pon's Twitter feed and I'm a library student who wants to be active in the world of youth libraries.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on March 1st, 2011 01:21 am (UTC)
I'm glad you found us - welcome! ;)

I think a lot of it is about how the book is packaged and how far into the book you get before the fantasy shows up. For example, if Revolution or The CardTurner had been marketed as fantasy, I think many fantasy readers would have been pretty frustrated by the *lack* of fantasy for the first half or more of the book. On the other hand, readers thinking they're in for a realistic read might not be prepared to suspend their disbelief. So it's a balance.

I haven't thought much about how this plays out in adult fiction, but I wonder if the term "magical realism" is used more commonly there.
(no subject) - ceitfianna on March 1st, 2011 01:27 am (UTC) (Expand)
(Anonymous) on March 2nd, 2011 07:57 pm (UTC)
Turn into fantasy
What an interesting question. Actually, I love it when a book (or movie) surprises me. However, I think this type of story works best if there are subtle hints planted throughout the story so that when the "ah ha" moment occurs, it fits into the overall story plan.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on March 3rd, 2011 01:08 pm (UTC)
Re: Turn into fantasy
I agree - the surprise has to be one that feels natural in retrospect, even if you wouldn't have expected it going in.
Sybil Nelsonsybilnelson on March 19th, 2011 03:53 am (UTC)
I hate that
I know I'm late jumping into this discussion, but I read Liar and I HATED the sudden shift into fantasy. I don't mind fantasy, but I'm not into vampires and werewolves and I really felt like that element was thrown at me. I like to know from the cover of a book whether to expect fantasy elements or not.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on March 21st, 2011 12:23 am (UTC)
Re: I hate that
I was wondering if we'd get any dissenters - so welcome, late or not, and thanks for commenting! ;) I know from reading the reviews that a lot of people were upset by the switch in LIAR, and I think a lot of it is because it started out so gritty and realistic - it's a bit of a shock to think you're reading one kind of book and suddenly discover it's another. (I was personally okay with that, but I can see how it could throw people off.)