It seems to me that there are two general categories of fantasy fiction–those that sweep the reader into a heart-pounding adventure tale, and those that explore and describe a fantasy world in extreme, sometimes excruciating, sometimes enthralling detail.
Two novels that illustrate the latter are Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” and Katherine Addison’s “The Goblin Emperor”. These two novels both won awards, yet also received criticism from some readers who were disappointed by their lack of action.
Both of these novels include either massive amounts of historical detail about their fictional world, or they indulge in a microscopic focus upon social mannerisms, names, and political relationships (in the tradition of Gormenghast). While these details add interest, they also slow the story trajectory.
What’s missing for the readers who are left unsatisfied?
I believe it is immersion. The focus on detail, language, names, asides, footnotes, etc., while interesting to some readers, can alienate others.
No one will ever call these books “action packed adventures”. They both offer an intense intellectual challenge to the reader, often sacrificing forward action and emotional momentum to (often unnecessary) detail.
So is there a point of commonality between these intellectual fantasy novels and their action/adventure cousins? There is no doubt that good books in both categories can have fully developed fantasy worlds. There is also no doubt that they can both explore their characters’ emotions in great detail.
The reason “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” and “The Goblin Emperor” won their awards is because they offered us, not only extreme mental machinations, but intimate emotional heart as well.
It’s only a matter of the reader being willing to sit still long enough to fully explore the delightful contents of these (rather large) treasure troves.