Mystery in Fantasy

Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. My guest today is Gerrard Cowan. Cowan is the author of The Machinery (HarperVoyager UK), a fantasy about a world whose leaders are chosen by a machine – until the machine breaks. It will be available on paperback and ebook from March 24thThe Machinery is the first in a trilogy; part two, The Strategist, will be released in May 2016.  Gerrard is from Derry, in the North West of Ireland, and lives in London with his wife Sarah and their two children. His first known work was a collection of poems on monsters, written for Halloween when he was eight; it is sadly lost to civilisation. When he isn’t writing strange fantasy books he works as a freelance journalist.

Gerrard Cowan

Gerrard Cowan

How much mystery does a fantasy novel need? By mystery, I don’t mean unsolved murders, or detectives hunting through shrubbery. I mean, how much of a world, or even a story, should be illuminated for the reader? How much should be handed to them on a plate?

I like to have a lot of mystery, the feeling that something vast and terrible is being hidden away. However, I know that others disagree. It’s easy to see both sides of the argument.

I’ve asked myself about this a lot since my debut novel, The Machinery, was published last September. I was pleased with most of the reviews on blog sites etc, as well as the comments I received from friends. Many of these brought up things I hadn’t even noticed myself (or that I hadn’t thought about for a while).

A common theme, however, was the level of mystery in the novel, which is on the high side. Some people liked this a lot. Others would have preferred greater clarity on proceedings.

Before I go on, I should say that The Machinery is the first book in a trilogy, so more of the setting and background will naturally be revealed in books two and three, and the plot will march forward (I hope).  Overall, though, the books will certainly try to retain a sense of mystery.

What do I mean by ‘mystery’? For me, it works on several levels. My novel is set in a world whose leaders are selected by a machine (the Machinery of the title), until the machine starts to break. It sounds like a sci-fi, but really it’s a fantasy with a bit of a sci-fi twist. It takes place in a dark and paranoid world that is kind of a mix of Renaissance Italy and Imperial Rome. An ancient, god-like being called the Operator communicates the selections of the Machinery to the population. They never actually see the Machinery, which is hidden away in a strange, alternate dimension called the Underland.

I think that was the first stumbling block for some people. They expected the Machinery to be an all-singing, all-dancing contraption, its inner workings explained from the get go. I knew right from the beginning that I didn’t want it to be like this. I wanted it (at least initially) to act more as a twisted religious concept than a piece of technology.


Beyond that, the book conceals a good deal about the characters that appear. I think this is important. I hate being told what I should think about a character – I much prefer deciding myself after viewing their actions and their impact on the plot. Also, I don’t think that people display every facet of themselves in real life, and certainly not when you first meet them. Admittedly, a novel is different, because it allows us to look at the character’s thought processes. Still, I’d rather take a sideways glance than have it shoved down my throat.

Additionally, in fantasy novels, many of the characters are fantastical beings, and my own novel is no exception. I think it’s especially appropriate that the inner workings of these creatures and their histories be kept as something of a mystery. We really only see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Gandalf, for example (or the tip of the hat?), and it’s right that it should be this way.

All that being said, I can absolutely see the other side of the argument. There’s a sense that too much mystery could actually obscure not just the backdrop of the world, but also the thought process of the writer. You can almost come away feeling a little cheated – the curtain was raised a little, and you had a glimpse of something intriguing behind it, but now that the story is done, you wonder, ‘was there ever anything there to begin with’?

I think really there is no wrong or right answer in this sort of debate. It comes down to two things in the end. First, what do you want as a reader? Would you prefer to catch tantalising glimpses, and imagine the rest, or would you rather see the inner workings – the mechanics of the writer’s vision? I think both of these are fine.

The second point is, has the writer set out to achieve his or her purpose? A nice dose of mystery is appropriate to some books, but not to others. The trick is, are they hiding anything of substance, or just concealing a void?

Readers, what fantasy worlds did a good job of revealing/concealing? One lucky commenter will win one copy of The Machinery.


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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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8 comments

  1. This book sounds like it’s exactly my thing! I love the hidden, the mysterious and having to think, often like the main character does, to figure out what’s really going on.

  2. It’s hard not to be impressed by what Erikson and Esslemont have created with their Malazan stories. Regardless of how much you read and learn, you always end up with a bunch of questions. The feeling of more things to discover is great as a reader.

  3. Trey /

    Hmm. The Craft sequence by Max Gladstone, especially Three Parts Dead.

  4. Fascinating essay, especially since I love learning about an author’s process and how they decide what to leave on the page — thanks so much!

  5. Sandy Giden /

    Interesting. I enjoy reading about the decisions an author makes while writing a book.

  6. Sandy Giden, you win a copy of The Machinery!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

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