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Where Do You Find Your Speculative Fiction?

This post is really my effort to understand the state of speculative Christian fiction as it stands today. Any thoughts you care to share would be greatly appreciated.
| Jun 18, 2018 | 23 comments |

Last week when I invited commenters to list Christian books in the speculative genre that they would add to the number I had mentioned, we received a grand total of . . . one. One. So I started wondering, are we still reading? Are we reading Christian fiction? Are we reading general fiction? Are we reading independently published books or those published by small presses?

If the latter, all the more important that we tell each other about the good books we’ve found. Traditional publishing has a number of ways of getting the word out about the books they put out. Small presses and individual authors have less resources and fewer options.

And the truth is, with the number of books available now, there really is no way to read them all. I’m a member of a Facebook group for speculative authors (actually more than one, but in this case, I’m thinking of one in particular), and I’ll be frank: though I know many of those authors, there really is no way I can read all their books. I’ve bought some, but the number I can actually read is not large. Still, I would expect some of those names to appear on a list of good books you’d recommend to others.

That wasn’t the case.

I understand some people simply prefer books put out by the general market. I’ve bought some of those, too. I mean, I totally get why people love Brandon Sanderson. His writing is fresh, intriguing, innovative.

I also understand that there are a lot of speculative story options on TV or movies, including Netflix. From horror to fantasy to science fiction, and all of the permutations of those genres, it seems like some venue is showing the stories that land in the speculative fiction lover’s wheelhouse.

But I have to come back to the Christian part of the equation. Some 15 years ago, I insisted that there was a market for Christian speculative fiction, if we would only produce it. Now I’m starting to wonder. Was I wrong? Did we Christian speculative fiction writers miss the window of opportunity? Or are people actually reading but not writing reviews, not telling others about the best books? Or have our writing skills not caught up to our storytelling skills, so that “best books” are elusive?

I wish I had some definitive answers here. But I’m honestly at a loss to know why, when prompted to share with others the books we love, we don’t have Christian speculative fiction titles to pass along. So I guess, this post is really my effort to understand the state of speculative Christian fiction as it stands today. Any thoughts you care to share would be greatly appreciated.

Plus, if you could help me out by participating in this poll, I’d really appreciate it.

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Lauren
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Lauren

I’ve been reading mostly general market these days. My post-college life has gotten really busy and I just don’t seem to have the time to hunt down the Christian speculative fiction right now, when I discover really good general market stuff easily at the library.

I still try to keep up with some of my old favorites — Stephen Lawhead, Anne Elisabeth Stengl, and Shelley Adina. With all the screen time at work I don’t want to read ebooks, and I’m less likely to try an unknown author, especially when they’re not in my library system.

Autumn Grayson
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I haven’t had as much time to sit down and read actual books lately, so that makes it harder to remember specific Christian fiction books I like. The last two Christian Fiction things I read were ones I betaed for other people, so I can’t really mention them by title.

Overall, my favorite Christian fiction stories are the Circle Trilogy and Lost Books series by Ted Dekker, the Dragons In Our Midst (as well as several other books) by Bryan Davis. And then of course, Narnia.

I have lots of Christian fiction stories in the works as well, just haven’t had time to finish them yet.

Most of what I’ve been reading lately has been fanfiction(on fanfiction.net) and indie comics on apps such as Tapas and Line Webtoon. There’s lots of good stories on there, they’re in short, easy to finish episodes, and they are easy to take on the go, so I can read them for brief periods of time wherever I’m at. So, accessibility in our busy lives is probably another factor.

I’d kind of like to see something like Tapas available to Indie Christian spec fic writers/artists, honestly. Tapas is profitable to both itself and the writers that contribute to it(often while allowing the authors to retain copyright to their stories) and free to the readers as well, since readers can buy episodes with ‘coins’ they earn from watching ads that generate revenue for Tapas.

Devbye
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Devbye

Have you heard of Surrender Comic and A&H Comic Magic? They are on both websites.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

I heard of Surrender, but haven’t read it yet. Looked up both those and have them bookmarked for future reading. Thanks for the recommendation 🙂

Dona
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Dona

I’m new to the group, so my question is what is “speculative fiction”?

Lauren
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Lauren

It’s an umbrella term for fantasy/ scifi/ horror/ paranormal/ steampunk and similiar genres. 🙂

Meg
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Meg

I have read (or tried to read) spec fic books by several Christian authors published by Christian publishers (small and large) as well as Indies. I haven’t found any particularly compelling once I got more than a few chapters in. Good ideas dissolve because the author rushed into publication before learning what it takes to be a professional. Others I never read more than the Amazon Look Inside feature. If I’m cringing on the first few pages, I just say no. Because I received them free, I made the effort to read two books by one of the most popular SFF authors (Christian publisher). The first book was simply dreadful, but I cut the author some slack because it was from a few years ago and opted to read something much more recent (and supposedly more mature). Just… bad. Poor plotting, immature characterization, flat prose, stilted dialogue, terrible endings in both books. I shook my head. Where was the editor? The ideas were okay; the execution was poor. I can accept that other people love the books (I know that I am very picky), but for me it was very disheartening to think this author is lauded in the Christian fantasy genre. I would never recommend them. Ever. Anyone used to reading top notch authors would find these books second rate at best—and with good reason! I have several other books on my TBR list by authors whose excerpts look more promising. I will continue to look for solid titles because so much of what is coming from the secular market right now is terrible in a whole different way.

I think part of the issue with Christian spec fic is there are differing opinions about what it means. Christian authors that dare to write anything other than Clean and strictly Biblical (or at least works that contain Very Obvious Moral Lessons) face a lot of opposition. Really, people? Isn’t that like preaching to the choir? And you won’t reach nonbelievers with that holy two-by-four to the head, either. If you are writing to an adult audience, especially, it is ok to deal with adult subjects. Just write a good book! Let faith be a part of it because it is part of the story, not because you are trying to “make” it Christian. That’s as bad as secular authors ticking off _their_ boxes. Does that make sense?

BTW, seems to me that readers who are willing to stretch themselves and find goodness in secular works get fingers shaken at them, too.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

I agree with what you’re saying about making the faith element a natural part of a good story, rather than just trying to check off boxes. And yeah, we should deal with more real life instead of over sanitizing the story. The story shouldn’t be overly graphic or idealize the bad things, but authors should be willing to address and discuss adult subjects.

notleia
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notleia

You’re not wrong.

Rachel Nichols
Guest

I am writing magical realism. A secular friend likes my work with the angels and miracles. C.S. Lewis talked about how the fantasy novel Phantastes by George MacDonald baptized his imagination as a teenage atheist. That’s what I hope God can use my fictions for.

Lauren Lynch
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I hope you share your findings. I’m interested. I write Christian speculative fiction (indie) and I’ve been wondering this myself. In my writing groups I know plenty of Christians writing speculative fiction (that isn’t Christian by category). This year, I’ve switched from writing fantasy with Christian allegory to more mainstream fantasy. In the past, I’ve been a huge reader of authors like Tosca Lee, Ted Dekker, James Rubart, Patrick Carr. I just checked the books I’ve read this year on Goodreads and it’s a mix, but I was surprised by how many books were fantasy published by traditional houses (although I’m a supporter of indie books whenever possible). I’m not sure what I think of this trend in my own reading and writing. Looking forward to your discoveries!

Meg
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Meg

Patrick Carr and Ted Dekker are both on my list to look at. I will check out the others you mentioned. Thankfully none of them are author I disliked so intensely. heh

I’m also an author and my gaslamp fantasy with strong faith elements has languished between secular publishers turning up their noses and Christian publishers wincing. Too much of this, not enough of that. I was about to release my first book Indie when a small secular publisher tugged on the line. We’ll see what comes of it.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

If you start reading Dekker’s books, I wouldn’t recommend starting with Green. It’s…a bit odd, and not as good as several of his other works.

A lot of my stories are probably in the same boat in the sense that some secular people wouldn’t like the Christian element many of my stories have, but some Christians wouldn’t like some of the content. I’m going indie, though, so at least I’m only thinking in terms of pleasing the audience rather than publishers, and pleasing an audience seems far easier.

Good luck with getting your book published 🙂 Hopefully this recent publisher you contacted will be what your looking for.

notleia
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notleia

The Circle cycle, right? I thought he bit himself in the butt with the last one, White(?). Putting samsaric symbology into Christian fic does not mesh well.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Hm…you’d have to point out the specific points of samsaric symbology he used, since it’s been forever since I’ve read the series. Green is the most recent one he wrote in that series, though. That particular book was sort of…unusual all around, so maybe it’s the one you’re talking about.

notleia
Guest
notleia

Did some Google, it is Green that’s book “zero,” it’s just the cover that’s white. Anyway, it’s the way he more or less borked the plot in the ear in order to take the cyclical thematics home. It’s the cyclical theme that made me think samsara, but that’s probably oversimplifying it.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Hm, yeah, I think the cyclical aspect is a bit of a trope with time travel stuff, so that’s probably not inherently samsarin. But, yeah, the plot and the way it was executed wasn’t the best.

Ben Bryddia
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Ben Bryddia

Mostly I try to read a mix of English classics, ancient lit, and some more recent fantasy fiction. I never go looking for specifically Christian fiction, since most of the works I have heard of have not piqued my curiosity. I do plan to read Lilith by George MacDonald and some fiction by Dorothy Sayers and G.K. Chesterton, but they are not exactly recent.

As far as living authors, I have found a very enjoyable trilogy of secondary world biopunk fantasy stories by D.M. Cornish, a Christian Australian author/illustrator. It’s called Monster Blood Tattoo (Foundling’s Tale in its second USA printing). Alas, he doesn’t get the attention his world-building deserves, even though I plug him at every opportunity. There’s also a self-published Christian fantasy I enjoyed, A Warrior’s Legacy: Jamie. The author is J.E. Bell, and she is excellent at characters, even though this is only her second book.

I also don’t read a lot of fantasy in general; school and limited recorded books selections at the local library rule out most fantasy reading, especially of Christian fantasy. I almost never buy new speculative books, especially if I have not read them before.

R. J. Anderson
Member

D.M. Cornish is FABULOUS and I plug his books every chance I get, too. My youngest son (age 13) is re-reading FOUNDLING for the second time, after I read it aloud to him the first time a few years ago. World building par excellence.

Tracey
Guest

Christian fantasy is my favorite genre! Most of what I read there is traditionally published, with authors like Bryan Davis, Anne Elisabeth Stengl, and Ted Dekker among my favorites. But I’ve recently started reading more small-press books, like Enclave’s. I rarely pick up indie books unless I know the author, and that’s simply because a) my reading time is limited, b) it’s hard to find physical copies of indie books (I don’t prefer ebooks), and c) many (though not all) indie books could’ve used another round of editing before being published.

It saddens me to hear of people saying that Christian spec fic is dying. I think we need those books more than ever! But as other commenters have said, they need to be of excellent quality, willing to wrestle with real problems, and not preachy. 🙂 If more authors started writing like THAT, maybe we’d see a resurgence!

M.A. Zeller
Guest
M.A. Zeller

I am an avid speculative Christian fiction reader (as my overstuffed and overflowing bookshelves can attest to). Unfortunately, as I have discovered, even if people do love the speculative Christian fiction genres, they hardly care to take the time to investigate and discover the authors that aren’t on the top of popularity. Because of this, several Indie and small traditionally published authors go unheard-of. It does not take long to search on Google for lists of speculative Christian books, as there are several blogs dedicated to reviewing said genres.

Another aspect of the decline of speculative Christian (and I’m going to be blunt) is that the community of Christian readers are not in the least supportive. Perhaps if we asked a local library to order speculative Christian books, or downloaded them when they are free on Amazon for kindle, etc., we would see a rise in the speculative Christian market.

And I can’t believe I missed your last post, Ms. Miller! Although if I had seen it, I’m not sure my list of books wouldn’t have been overwhelming.

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

Alright. I have to chime in. Billy Coffey. Billy Coffey is amazing. Billy Coffey blew my mind with The Devil Walks in Mattingly. He continues blowing my mind with subsequent books. No one pays any attention to him in the spec fic market, presumably because they think he just writes Flannery O’Conner knock-offs. He doesn’t. He writes Billy Coffey books. Which means his books are strange, and fascinating, and beautiful, and lyrical, and oh-so-very-southern-in-the-best-of-ways. I can’t read a Coffey book without thinking deeply, without savoring the language, without re-reading significant chunks, without contemplating mysteries and enjoying the bizarre. Seriously, he’s an extremely under-rated and under-read author. When Mockingbirds Sing can be a good starting point, but my entrance was The Devil Walks in Mattingly, and boy, it was a good one. His pacing is methodical, but for great reason.

R. J. Anderson
Member

In the interests of trying to answer some of the questions raised by this article, and with a genuine desire to be helpful (please don’t hate me, fellow authors!), I offer the following list of things that have caused me to quit reading recently published Christian SFF novels, or at least significantly affected my ability to enjoy the books:

– Protagonists who don’t protag. Instead they drag their heels, whine, insist they aren’t good/strong enough to make a difference, or otherwise avoid taking responsibility or action until it’s forced upon them. (No character should be perfect and every well-written character should grow and change, but it’s hard to get invested in an MC who is constantly miserable and spends all their time trying to escape the plot.)

– Glacially slow setup and pacing, to the point where the major inciting incident (ie. the moment that changes everything for the protagonist) doesn’t happen until halfway through the book. [1]

– Modern slang and diction used by characters in a medieval-type fantasy world.

– Quaint rural dialect / transliterated accents so thick that it’s difficult to understand any of the characters’ dialogue, let alone take them seriously. [2]

– Characters who hear the voice of God giving them sentimental, endearment-heavy pep talks that sound more like a DaySpring greetings card or a bestselling women’s devotional than anything God says to His servants in the Bible.

– The author piles so much suffering and misery on the characters, and adds so little humour or comfort to balance it out, that you feel like a sadist for reading it. [3]

– Worldbuilding and exposition delivered in a forced and unnatural way (i.e. a character approaching a city for the first time pauses to silently muse at length about the history of said city, its basic layout, the various races who live in it and so on, even though nothing has happened or been said that would normally bring any such thoughts to the character’s mind, and there is no indication that any of this info will be relevant).

– The writing is beautiful, the atmosphere rich, the characters interesting enough to follow even if I can’t connect with them quite as deeply as I’d like… but I have no idea what’s going on or what any of it’s supposed to mean. Is it allegorical? Is it poetic? Am I just too stupid to know? [4]

– It’s not badly written, it’s just not original or interesting enough to engage me. I feel like I read something similar, in setting and execution if not in actual plot, ten or twenty or thirty years ago. [5]

*

I really want to get excited about Christian SFF, I really want to support it and encourage others to read it. Why wouldn’t I, especially now that I’m published in the same market? But when I keep running into books that feature one or more of the issues I’ve mentioned, it makes it hard to look forward to any of the seven or eight unread Christian fantasy novels I currently have awaiting me on my e-reader.

On the average I only DNF [6] maybe one in fifteen general market fantasy novels, even if I end up feeling that they were just okay (or morally and philosophically bankrupt — that’s the worst). But despite having every reason to support Christian authors and sympathize with what they’re trying to say, I quit reading well over half the Christian fantasy I start, often within the first few chapters.

That’s a problem. I wish I knew the solution.

* * *

[1] You can get away with this if your worldbuilding and characters are so extraordinary that the reader’s thrilled just to explore them, but it’s rare.

[2] To be fair, this made it impossible for me to enjoy any of Brian Jacques’ much-beloved REDWALL series either, so I won’t say all books that do this are bad, only that they’re not for me. And I see this much more in Christian fantasy than elsewhere.

[3] Frodo and Sam’s journey through Mordor is only bearable because they’ve spent time in the Shire, Rivendell and Lothlorien first, and because it’s intercut with what the rest of the Company is doing.

[4] It’s possible. I’ve had this problem with some general market fantasy books as well, including some by authors I genuinely admire.

[5] This sometimes happens to me with general market stuff as well, but it’s way more common in Christian fiction. However, people who haven’t read as much fantasy as I have, or haven’t read the same kinds of things, may well enjoy it.

[6] Did Not Finish