What Are Some Books That Subvert Their Genre Tropes?
Posted on 14th of August, 2018


After getting a bit burned out on fantasy novels a friend of mine recommended The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by an author named Stephen R. Donaldson. It is a set of ten books that consists of two trilogies and a tetralogy about Thomas Covenant. Thomas is pretty much the "chosen one" of fantasy literature, but in a rather interesting turn of events, it is a role that he absolutely despises. Instead of the golden boy who is loved and adored by all, Thomas is actually shunned by society because he has leprosy. This hasn't exactly given him a good outlook on life, so he is a very bitter and cynical character. Thomas is also a very unique protagonist as he actually believes that the world he is trying to save might just be his own delusional thoughts caused by a mental imbalance. Reading these books actually rekindled my fondness for the genre and it was very surprising to discover that the original trilogy dates back all the way to the seventies.

Another series where the author just takes the absolute Mickey out of fantasy tropes is the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett. You will find all the typical fantasy creatures, characters and scenarios in these books, but not in the way you would expect. Rincewind, for example, is the hero of the many of the books, but instead of being an all powerful wizard, he is actually a bumbling coward who spends more time trying to get away from adventure than seeking it out. The books are an absolute hoot and Pratchett wrote a ton of them before passing away, so if you have yet to discover them you are in for a treat.
First of all, there is nothing wrong with tropes, I've read and enjoyed plenty of books that stick to the common tropes, but still manage to weave a captivating story out of them. It actually annoys me somewhat that so many fantasy authors are now scared of including elves, dwarves or even magic in their books because they are so scared of tropes. The only series that I have recently read that falls into the category of subverting genre tropes would be The Queens of Renthia books by Sarah Beth Durst. The first book is called The Queen of Blood and the character, Daleina, is basically the inverse of the "Chosen One" trope. Instead of magically gaining powers by mysterious means she is actually a pretty mediocre student who has to work her butt off just to catch up with her peers, let alone save the world. If you like The Queen of Blood you'll also enjoy the sequels, The Reluctant Queen, and The Queen of Sorrow. Just a word of warning, the fourth book, The Deepest Blue hasn't been released yet.
This entire obsession with subverting genre tropes is not necessarily a good thing. There is a very good reason why certain tropes become popular while others fall by the wayside and that is because people who are fond of the genre expect them. Go scratch around in the bargain bins of any bookshop and you'll be sure to find a lot of books where the authors thought that they were being very clever with subverting tropes. At least the books that do try and pull this kind of nonsense tend to proudly boast this fact on the cover or back, which makes it easier for people like me to give them a wide berth. Imagine buying an apple pie and you get home, take your first bite and it is something completely different. You wouldn't like that, so why do some authors think that readers who are interested in a particular genre will enjoy it if halfway through the book it turns into something different. The sooner this "subverting tropes" buzzword dies down the better it will be for the entire literary genre. All I want to read is a good story, not the dribblings of an author who thinks they are smarter than their readers and the genre that they are trying to write in.
Read The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and Last Arguments of Kings. These are the three books that make up The First Law fantasy series by Joe Abercrombie. I would also recommend Best Served Cold, The Heroes, Red Country and Sharp Ends as these are also part of the series, but take the form of standalone books. Now the reason that I recommend these books is that initially they appear to be standard epic fantasy titles where the whole world is at war. The author, however, does a marvelous job of setting things up for just another standard Tolkien series and then switching things up in unexpected ways. If you have read a lot of books in the fantasy genre and want something that approaches it in a more unique way, then you really cannot go wrong with these titles.
I have read a lot of fantasy and to me the best ones are still the ones that stick to the genre tropes, but manage to incorporate fresh elements. The books that I have read that try too hard to subvert the tropes just comes off as forced and faked. It is a credit to Tolkien that so many of the genre tropes that he created with the Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit are still so popular to this day. One very common genre trope in fantasy is that the "heroes" are always the good guys and fighting for justice, which is something that is flipped on its head in The Black Company series by Glen Cook. It is slightly darker than your average fantasy series and focuses on an elite group of mercenaries. True to their name, these guys are in it for the money and not to be heroes. It also means that their employer might not be on the side that you would expect in a fantasy series. I don't know if this change is drastic enough to count as "subverting the genre tropes" but it does make for a very interesting read from a different perspective.

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