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Western Fantasy – Mismatch, or Perfect Match?

The Gunslinger (cover)In January of this year, I began to write a new book, Bloodrush. I was stepping away from my dark, epic, medieval roots and seeking something new in what I believe to be a relatively unexplored sub-genre – Western Fantasy, also called Weird West. I’m not the first to do venture into such a realm, by any means – Stephen King’s Dark Tower is the most notable example, along with Red Country by Joe Abercrombie. Starting out, I wondered whether I was taking a step too far in regards to mixing up genres.

A friend of mine once told me, quite pointedly, that “there are no new stories any more, just new ways of telling them.” It’s a bold statement, I’ll agree, and as an author it rattled me a little. But the thing is, while there may not be any new stories, down at the bare heart of the plot, it’s what surrounds them and wraps them up that makes the difference, and keeps it exciting. That’s why we’re always on the hunt for the next clever thing, mixing things up, why authors can be so experimental and usually get away with it. And I would argue that there’s no better genre at doing this than fantasy.

MageSign (detail)Now we all love the classic fantasy tropes. The stable-boy discovering he’s the heir to the empire’s throne. The unassailable emperor, evil to the core. The grand, wise old wizard pulling the strings behind the scenes. But as fantasy has developed over the years, we’ve continuously invented new ways to tell these stories in our search to stay original, and in doing so we’ve blurred lines. Heroes have become morally grey. The stable-boys aren’t as noble as they thought they were, the old wizards aren’t so wise, and the evil emperors can actually win.

And this evolution isn’t just limited to the character or plot level, it extends to the style, world, and genre too. The stable boys now look after dinosaurs instead of dragons, such as in The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán, and magic is now an echo of old science, like in the quasi-dystopian future of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire Trilogy.

Control Point by Nick Stohlman (detail)We’re now blessed with dozens of sub and splinter genres. Experimentation has been rife in the search for new wrappings for the old tropes. This is why over the last few decades, categories have been slowly dividing and conquering. Sub-genres now abound in fantasy: Urban fantasy. Military fantasy. Historical fantasy. Science fantasy. Steampunk. Slipstream…the list goes on. But in this hunt for originality there’s always the possibility of going too far. Of smashing two alien genres together in the name of experimentation. There’s a thin line to be tread, and this is what got me pondering: is western fantasy a step too far? A mismatch, or a perfect match?

I certainly believed it at first, ploughing into the opening pages of Bloodrush. I did question what I was doing, but as I went on it soon became clear that westerns and your medieval fantasy are actually very closely linked. For a start, both genres have been highly stylised over the decades, and because of that their constituent elements have become powerful icons, very easily recognisable and defining. The good old train robbery for instance. The swinging doors of a saloon. Or the draughty, lofty castle. The suit of armour. The wizard’s staff. At first, they seem worlds apart, but funnily enough, they all seem to correlate with each other on some level, which I think makes them curiously interchangeable, and therefore a good match.

gunfighter 2 by davidwpaulFor instance, take the lone mercenary knight, brooding, dark, and skilled with a blade. The lone gunslinger is his cousin, quiet, dangerous, and a crack-shot with a six-shooter. Not so different after all, just a knight of another age. The fast draw is comparable with the classic duel. Rodeos a bit like bear baiting and jousting. Carriages meet wagons. On one side you have the war-hungry lord, on the other, the rich land baron. In comparison to mages, or wizards, you have shamans and witches.

Even the worlds are similar. Both are set in time-periods fraught with war, expansion, and political and religious fervour. In both medieval Europe and the Wild West, rules were few and hard to enforce. And yet both time-periods were also eras of discovery and technological advances, mixed in with tough lifestyles, either in the fields or the frontiers, whether you were a pauper or a brave trailblazer. There’s also plenty of mythology and folklore to muck around with and mix up. There’s even a parallel in the beverage department: The foaming tankard of mead, versus the fiery shot of whiskey or bourbon.

The Gunslinger by mbreitweiserEvery icon seems to have a comparable equal, and that is why I would argue that western fantasy is damn close to a perfect match. After finishing Bloodrush, I know how well they can suit each other, and I think this particular sub-genre is not a step too far at all. And not only do the two mix together nicely, there is plenty of opportunity for ingenuity too. For instance, maybe it’s just me, but I think there’s something rather interesting about having guns and magic in the same book.

I think we’re going to see a lot more of western fantasy, or weird west, in the next few years, and all sorts of other blends too, and that definitely sets my hands to rubbing together eagerly. So here’s to bending the rules, blurring the lines, and treading that clever line. That’s how you keep those old classics alive, and keep the bookshelves exciting. Thanks for reading.

Title image by mbreitweiser.

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Western Fantasy – Mismatch, or Perfect Match?, 9.0 out of 10 based on 8 ratings
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9 Comments

  1. Davieboy says:

    Hey, works for me. But I want either a hardback or an audiobook, preferably both.

  2. Greg says:

    I’m a little bit amazed that it has taken as long as it has for Western Fantasy or Weird Western to become more prominent.
    Me personally, I started reading Westerns about the same time i started reading Sci-Fi/Fantasy. And I’ve long stated that Westerns are the mythology of the USA. Westerns are the USA’s Arthurian legends, our Oddessy, and Beowulf.
    When Robert E. Howard created his great and awesome Conan, he took the Western story structure and elements to make them. One of David Gemmell’s favorite authors was Louis Lamour.

  3. My instant reaction to “Western Fantasy” is “Jon Shannow” and the Jerusalem man trilogy from David Gemmell. The books are spectacular and very definitely set in a fantasy world version of the wild west. But although magic exists, there is no sign of Orcs, Goblins, Elves etc.Therefore in my opinion, western fantasy definitely works as a genre, but the devil is in the detail.

    That brings me to my second point. When I was in secondary school (once upon a time) someone said that every musical combination would have been used by 200X. I’m reminded of that bit of fun every time new music comes out that knocks my socks off. The seven basic plots proves that we covered the big bases a very long time ago, but that devil is still working away at the detail.

    Any plot can work, any genre can work as long as the writing and the characterisation is strong and the author believes it enough to bring it to life.

  4. Charlie says:

    The only book in this style I have read is The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson. I was pretty dismissive of it at first, as a hardcore medieval fantasy fan, but having read the other Mistborn books I couldn’t not read it. I am pleased to say he nailed it. Was a cracking read and definitely worked.

  5. Nicole says:

    I’m onboard! Great post.

  6. Nino says:

    The western and fantasy combination makes absolute sense to me. The book that actualy introduced me to fantasy happened to be a western. After finishing the ‘kids section’ in our smalltown library I just moved over to the next shelf. It happened to be the L-M section. So I started reading Louis L’Amour westerns. He wrote one called “The Haunted Messa” which has some portal fantasy elements.

    Apart from that the scenery that you find in westerns works so well in fantasy.

  7. Askeanking says:

    What same here, western fantasy. The genre is gonna blow up soon.

  8. Dan says:

    I have to say I was a little disappointed when I found this article.

    Disappointed because I thought I had stumbled upon a gold mine all on my own. I have been writing a fantasy western story as kind of a joke but soon after I started it I fell in love with the idea. Now I see others have been having the same notion. Darn. I thought I was the only one.

    At the same time I hope it does blow up. The genre has so much potential and much new territory to cover.

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