I recently read Isle of the Dead by Julia Gray. It was one of the books I picked up in the UK during my holiday over Christmas 2004/2005 – so it’s been on the “getting round to reading” pile for quite some time.
I can now confirm what I half suspected: that it was essentially a waste of my time.
Fantasy is a literary genre that habitually promises a lot, and delivers only a modest reward. Which probably puts it in much the same camp as literature generally, I’m just more aware of this failing in SF/Fantasy because that’s what I read most.
What makes Isle of the Dead slightly more interesting than most of the other trash I’ve read over the years is its genre-crossing. Because while failing to deliver on the promise of a wondrous and imaginative world filled with delights and horrors on the edges of imagination, it also fails to deliver on the promise of the demise via revolution of a fascist police state riven by internal tensions.
Fantasy, and indeed, SF, work well as twisted mirrors to the society we presently live in. A lot of very successful writers have used their insights about society to fuel fantastical stories that are a warning and a promise. This is rarely more obvious than in cyberpunk and 60s SF (Heinlein, et al).
The stray thought that spins out from this is that I wonder whether there are people really applying themselves to untangling exactly how SF and Fantasy work. Glancing at prospectuses from a bunch of universities around the place, it seems like you’ve got your pick of people trying to make “ordinary” literature better via criticism, but relatively few people really sinking their teeth into genre fiction of any kind.