Finding a Place in Fantasy a Guest Post by Joshua Phillip Johnson

Fantasy can feel like a packed, oversaturated genre. Some writers seem more than happy to walk well-footed paths when it comes to character arcs, magic systems, and worldbuilding. Maybe more than anything else, the settings of so many fantasy novels seem directly lifted from Tolkien—all babbling brooks and green glades and perfectly picturesque mountains.

Don’t get me wrong, I thrilled at that landscape as a child first reading Lord of the Rings, and I loved many of the other novels that worked and reworked that setting. It felt majestic and powerful and full of possibility. More than anything, that was what pulled me in: the sense that something magical might appear at any moment.

I live in the charmingly named Prairie Pothole Region of the United States. Though it’s now covered in neatly rowed monoculture farm fields, it was once a vast swaying sea of tallgrass prairie. You can still find pockets of the prairie preserved here and there, but each one is only the barest fraction of what the grassland used to be.

To the driver in a hurry or the indifferent observer, the prairie might seem boring. Flat. Plain. A meager monolith. In Journal of a Prairie Year—a book I recommend almost daily—the brilliant Paul Gruchow writes that the prairie is flat “because of the immensity of its distances. And it is flat as a grain of sand is flat to a person who owns no microscope.”

Fantasy is full of landscapes bursting with magic and mystery and power. Mountains and oceans and raging rivers—all of them obviously fantastic and fantastical. But what about something as seemingly simple as grassland?

The Forever Sea sprang from that question, and more soon followed. Could I show the endless beauty I saw in grasses moved by a lively wind? What if I offered a vision of the world that described plants and magic with the same wonder? What if bluestem or prairie smoke or echinacea were just as fantastical as some made-up plant full of magic?

Fantasy, I think, is good at literalizing things. I’m not the first person to imagine the great expanses of tallgrass prairie as a sea, but most authors I’ve seen seeing it that way do so to serve a simile. “It’s like a sea,” they say. And it is. Or was.

But because I’m a heavy-handed monster, I made it a literal sea. It was the only way I could think to access that microscope Paul Gruchow talked about, the only way I could think to show people how this landscape that seems so flat and empty is, in fact, full of magic and potential, packed with diversity and beauty. And if it was going to be a literal sea, then why not follow the logic out and have ships, sailors, monsters of the deep and stories of what mysteries await just over the horizon?