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Geek Girl’s Fictional Junk Food O-Rama – “Magic Kingdom For Sale-Sold”
During my evolution as a reader, I was always drawn to fantasy. I liked science fiction well enough, but had very little patience for had military sci-fi and struggled a little to appreciate space opera. Fantasy, though, had magic and dragons and seemed like more fun to read. Still, during those days as a starry-eyed little sprocket, I was reading mostly high fantasy.
That wasn’t really snobbishness on my part. We can say many, many things about my reading habits, but I’m pretty sure elitist doesn’t factor into the descriptors anywhere. There are a few things that I just don’t like to read, so I don’t. If you want to read them, I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t or you can’t because at least you’re reading a book, and that’s good news for writers everywhere, regardless of what stage they’re at in their career.
I was reading mostly high fantasy because that was what I had available. As I started reading more and more books, I read things like LeGuin’s Earthsea Cycle, the Dragonsinger trilogy by Anne McCaffrey, the Narnia novels, and others. Those were the things that my library had or my local bookstore had or the people willing to lend me books had. I was devouring them avidly. This was during one of those periodic downturns that fantasy and science fiction seem to cycle through, and anything that I could get my hands on was practically as good as read. Matters weren’t helped by my geographical location in general and the fact that I was not yet old enough to drive in particular. The closest used bookstore was thirty miles away, and it carried mostly romance novels, which had a much, much higher rate of turnover than the single bookcase of sci-fi/fantasy. A recent trip to that bookstore on a visit home revealed that some of the very same yellowing paperbacks that I had skipped over on the shelves were still there, years later.
This is not to say that my family wasn’t supportive of my reading habit. Most of them were simply at a loss because I did not read the same things that they did. I don’t blame my public libraries, either, because they have a larger population to serve than just me. In order to get people in the door, they needed to order the things that the majority of the people in the area would read, and that mostly translated to buying Westerns and Romances. If I was positively desperate to read a book, though, my local librarian was more than nice about getting that book for me to read somehow.
While I was thoroughly enjoying the fantasy books that I was reading, I wasn’t even aware that there were subgenres of fantasy to explore. That world-shaking revelation came because of Terry Brooks. A friend of mine lent me her copy of Magic Kingdom for Sale-Sold. Up until that point, my experience with fantasy consisted mostly of psuedo-medieval worlds full of courtly manners and heroes slaying monsters. If I wanted some other kind of setting, I had to turn to science fiction. It was a weird dichotomy that I accepted very easily. Fantasy suited one need. Science Fiction suited the other. Happily, they were usually located together (keep in mind, I was still a good decade or more from seeing my first bookstore with separate sections for each one).
That first Landover novel expanded my viewpoint of what fantasy could be exponentially. For starters, it was the very first fantasy novel that I had ever read with a contemporary setting. Or, at least it started out with a contemporary setting. The protagonist is Ben Holiday, who works as a lawyer and feels his life starting to unravel around him after his wife dies in a car accident. When the book was first published, it seemed like any major department store worth their salt had a massive Christmas Wish List catalog. Ben gets a catalog that offers a magical kingdom for sale for one million dollars.
Naturally, because otherwise it would be a ridiculously short book, Ben decides to take the chance and buy himself the kingdom. He gets a medallion and some instructions and sets out to see if he’s just fallen for a huge scam. Once there, he discovers he’s got four members of his court, a dragon problem, and several groups of subjects who are fractious at best and outright enemies at worst. Even better, in order to truly claim the throne, he’s got to survive a challenge issued by a demon. It’s certainly not the fantasy that he was expecting, even though he didn’t really have a clue what he should have found in his own magical kingdom.
One of the things that I loved the most about Magic Kingdom for Sale-Sold was that it had all of the familiar trappings of fantasy that I had learned to love, but it dispensed with several of the things that I was starting to find tiresome about the genre. There were customs and particular ethnographies for each group in the kingdom, but courtly manners, the edicts of propriety, and stilted speech patterns were thrown out in favor of making Ben Holiday a man of his times. He brought that modern human perception into a fantasy world and had the kinds of reactions that you’d expect a reasonable human being to have when presented with that kind of situation.
I was completely engrossed in that book. It was a thick paperback, and I read it straight through over the course of a day. I was in full starry-eyed sprocket mode. The only reason that I stopped to eat was because if I didn’t eat at the table, I wouldn’t have gotten any supper. Sleep was an afterthought. There was no way that I was going to go to bed until I knew what happened. So, I stayed up almost the entire night with my door closed reading until I reached the end.
The other thing that I found so exciting about it was that the book was funny. It had been my experience, up until then, that fantasy novels were serious. There were no jokes in fantasy books. Or, at least, there were no jokes in the fantasy books that I was reading. The discovery of the idea that yes, a fantasy book could be funny, too, along with having a modern setting made me realize that I was a far more sheltered reader than I thought I was.
Of course, now, I read urban fantasy and humorous fantasy and slipstream novels along with steam punk and splatter punk and out and out surrealist books, and even that list barely scratches the surface of what I read and what’s available. But back then, while I was still in the midst of exploring what was there to read, Magic Kingdom for Sale-Sold was an excellent, gentle introduction to ideas that I hadn’t even considered possible. There was enough of the medieval-ish stuff that I was used to that I could still call it fantasy very comfortably while still having entirely unfamiliar elements to it. It’s why I still have such fond memories of reading that book and, why, if you look, there’s a battered hardcover with a tattered dust jacket bearing the garish cover art for the original printing there on my shelves, amongst the Earthsea and the Narnia and the Middle Earth. Somehow, it just feels right to shelve it there.