This is a comment I tried to post as a reply to the following post on Victoria [V.E] Schwabs blog:
For some reason, it didn’t work, so I’m publishing it here instead. After all, this is home. The subject is the difficult situation that a fantasy writer finds him or herself in when they try both to introduce their world and tell a story that keeps the reader reading.
“Very interesting thoughts (and afterthoughts)! I’m very happy that you’ve found a way to balance it, but to me, personally, the question remains problematic. What, for example, is the actual difference between a fantasy novel and, say, a Chinese novel? From the perspective of the western reader, I mean.
I’m currently reading Mo Yans novel “Ximen Nao and his seven lives”, and as a westerner I have to admit that it is almost harder to get a grip on that “world” than it is to enter a standard fantasy world like George R R Martin’s or Robert Jordan’s. Yes, their worlds have strange names and a different history, but, if we’re honest, they are based on a very “western” worldview with highly recognizable values and traditions. Once you learn the names of people and places and how they relate to each other, you’re in. I know a little of Chinese history, but clearly not enough, and almost nothing of Chinese culture and traditions and values. Therefore, I’m find myself lost. Why is that particular statement so insulting? Why does it matter that someone wears those clothes? And so on.
I have yet to read a fantasy story that actually challenges my understanding of the world to such a degree that it becomes difficult to crasp that secondary world. Sure, Steven Erikson tries in “The Malazan Book of the Fallen”, with partial success, but otherwise: Nothing. And this in a genre that prides itself of making up “different” worlds.
To confront an existing, “strange”, culture is much harder, since it is, without exception, a more complex structure. Traditional japanese theatre is another example: How many in the west actually appreciates a Noh-play? I don’t, because I don’t get it. The masks are cool and beautiful, and if translated I can stumble along the plot, but the entire expression is so strange that it takes hundreds of hours to feel comfortable with it so that you can actually say: I liked this play more than the other.
This led me to the following conclusion: Don’t build up! Treat your world as if it as real and relevant as the one we happen to live in. Just go at it and let the reader catch up along the way. I tried this in my novel “Brother soul, sister flame” (only in Swedish so far; does anyone know a good fantasy translator from Swedish to English? 🙂 ) Some readers find it difficult to get into, partially because it really starts at the end and then gradually introduces the world and the players. Is it a best-seller? No! So, if you want to sell a lot, think twice before you try it, but it should be considered. You don’t have to pave the road for the reader all the time. There are lazy readers out there and they can stay out there.”