How much mystery should a fantasy novel have?

It’s now just over three weeks since The Machinery was published, and I’ve started to get some feedback on the novel (all of it welcome!). It’s so interesting to hear what people think. Often they highlight things you never considered, and enjoy the elements you were concerned about.

One thing I’ve noticed is a range of differing attitudes to mystery, or how much is revealed of the world and magic of the setting. The Machinery is the first in a trilogy, so naturally there are parts of the story and the history of the world that will only be revealed in books 2 and 3. Still, it has a few layers of mystery that I would have retained even if The Machinery were a standalone novel.

Some people liked this. Others, however, were left frustrated, and would have preferred to know early on exactly how everything worked. There’s nothing wrong with either point of view, but I think it highlights a big divide in how people like their stories.

Personally, I like not knowing everything. If I have a choice between two horror films, one of which is a gory, special-effects-laden slasher, and the other a bumps-in-the-night type creepfest, I’ll always opt for the latter. I like the idea that there is a giant world beyond the page or the screen, and that I’m only seeing part of it.

What is the attraction of not knowing? Firstly, there’s the fun of being surprised. If there’s a vast world out there that is only being revealed piece by piece, then you know that anything could come next. I think that’s certainly the case in the Harry Potter novels, where Rowling teases out the history of Voldemort over seven books. But there’s more to it than that. We know she has worked out a lengthy history for her magical world, and that the central conflict in the books is only one sliver of it. It means there’s a lot more to explore. There’s no doubt that part of the reason for the huge success of the books is Hogwarts itself, and its buildings. Every kid loves the idea of going to school in an ancient building full of secrets. It wouldn’t quite work if they knew every single nook and cranny as soon as they put on their uniforms.

That being said, I completely understand the other side of the argument. Sometimes when you’re watching a film or reading a book, you want to know exactly how things work. You may even load up your computer and do some research into the subject. Some stories just wouldn’t work without some explanation of how the whole thing operates.

I think a good way to illuminate the divide is to think about the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars. Do we need to know how the Force works, to enjoy the story? I don’t think we do. However, I think it’s important that the creators of Star Trek go to such lengths to explain the concepts behind the science in the show. Of course, these examples aren’t perfect – there’s plenty of science in Star Wars and shadowy mystery in Star Trek – but you get the point.

Maybe it all comes down to how the author sets out his or her stall in the first place. I suppose that with a name like The Machinery, there might be an expectation of a straight-up science fiction story, in which the machine itself sits in the centre of a metallic building, bells ringing and pistons pumping. Of course, that’s not the novel I wrote: I wanted it to be like shining a torch into a giant, darkened museum, where you only see a few ghostly statues looming out of the shadows at any one time. Books 2 and 3 will add extra torches.

Anyway, there’s one undeniable thing about mystery in fantasy novels – hopefully it will make people want to buy the next one! Did I mention that The Strategist is now available to preorder?!?

Author: gerrardcowan

I'm an author and freelance journalist. My fantasy trilogy, 'The Machinery', is being published by HarperCollins.

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