Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Familiar and the Exotic

A few days ago, there was an article on the excellent FantasyFaction discussing the problems of language in fantasy — the need to avoid peppering an alternative-world fantasy story with either blatant modern-culture references or endless invented words.  I'm not going to talk particularly about that, but it made me think about a particular characteristic of fantasy — the tension between the familiar and the exotic.

At first sight, it might seem strange that fantasy needs the familiar at all.  Surely the whole point about fantasy is that it's about otherness: other worlds, other kinds of being, other types of society.  If I wanted the familiar, why not just watch Eastenders?

Well, to some extent; but fantasy without anything familiar would be difficult, if not impossible, to read.  How could we relate to a society that has no merchants, inventors, artists — or even politicians?  Could we be interested in characters who don't love and hate, have ambitions and fears?  Who don't even have individuality?

I'm sure it's not impossible to write something like that, and no doubt someone has, and made it fascinating, but it would have to be the exception.  For the most part, fantasy needs to be about people, whether they're explicitly human or in some other form.  They might not be exactly like us — in fact, they almost certainly shouldn't, unless they live in a society with exactly the same values and perceptions as ours — but we need to understand them if we're going to care.

This is easiest in contemporary fantasy.  All that's needed here is to start with what appears to be an ordinary tale of modern life — going to school or work, juggling relationships, having rows with parents, siblings or partners and so on — and then bring vampires, faeries or more unusual magical content into that life.  It's less simple in otherworld fantasy, but there are standard solutions.
One of the more useful clich├ęs of epic fantasy is to start the story in "the village".  It doesn't literally have to be a single village, or even a whole village.  It could be anything from one farm to a small country, like the Shire, but we're introduced first to ordinary people living ordinary lives.  They don't have to be our lives (most fantasy readers today don't live on farms or in villages) but it's a way of life we're culturally programmed to understand.

Even when things are far from normal, the village is still necessary.  Perhaps even especially necessary.  For instance, Peter V. Brett's The Painted Man (which I reviewed here a couple of weeks ago) presents a society with unique issues that shape every aspect of how it functions.  Nevertheless, we're initially presented with a village (two, in fact) where those differences can be specifically measured against the aspects of village life that never change, and probably never will, as long as there are humans.
The village isn't the only familiar starting-point.  It can be a town, a city, an army or numerous other standard human situations, but they all serve the same purpose: to ground the reader before the wonders begin.  This is where we learn to care about the characters, and to care about the way of life they're perhaps trying to save, before they set out on their adventures.
But, of course, most of us don't read fantasy for realistic portrayals of life in a village.  Somehow or other, the characters we follow are those who raise their eyes to the mountains and long to find the distance.  We want battles, enchantments, danger, bizarre lands, jewelled cities, strange beings, gods and demons, and dragons.  Naturally.
All of this — the exotic — is why we read fantasy rather than any other type of literature, but it wouldn't be exotic with the familiar to experience it.  The familiar, whether they're hobbits, market traders or orphaned farm-boys, are the avatars through whom we experience all that exoticness, whether the experience is beautiful or horrific.  If we didn't care about them and their little lives, why would we care about the wonders they see?
The familiar and the exotic: the twin gateposts to the realms of fantasy.  If the tension between them fails, the gate will collapse and we'll be shut out.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Review of The Painted/Warded Man by Peter V. Brett

All right, I'll start with the title.  This book is called The Painted Man in the UK and The Warded Man in the US.  Since I knew Brett is American, I was all ready to say this is just as stupid and pointless a title change as many American versions of British books and films (the first Harry Potter, for instance).

However, it appears the book was actually published first in the UK, followed by a US edition the next year.  I've no idea if The Warded Man was a change by the publishers or reverting to Brett's original choice; but whatever, it's a far superior title, in my opinion.  The concept of wards and warding is absolutely central to the book, whereas painted isn't even accurate ― he's actually tattooed.

Whatever it's called, I enjoyed this book, with only a few reservations.  It's set in a kind of post-apocalyptic world ― but not our world, and not our idea of an apocalypse.  This is a world in which demons live in the "Core" and can rise to the surface at night, slaughtering the weaker humans.  These "corelings" were defeated long ago, and the world appears to have reached a fairly advanced technological state.

Three hundred years before the book's action, though, the corelings returned suddenly, devastating an unprepared world.  The only people who survived were those able to use the ancient magic wards, by which their houses or city walls could repel the nightly demon attacks.  Now, the whole culture is built around the need for protection against corelings.

The story covers about 13 years, during which three young people grow to maturity, following the three trades that lie somewhat outside the norm.  Arlen, a boy who believes passionately that it should be possible to fight back against the demons, learns to be a Messenger, those who brave the open countryside to link together the scattered communities.  Leesha is apprenticed as a Herb Gatherer, the healers (always female) who've preserved some of the knowledge from old times.  And Rojer, orphaned as a toddler, becomes a Jongleur, the itinerant entertainers who keep the ancient stories alive.

Gradually, each finds a way, within their own discipline to fight back against the corelings, and by the last section, they've met and combined their strengths.  Will it be enough, though, against an apparently undefeatable enemy?

The three leads are each engaging people in their different ways, but perhaps the book's greatest strength is the world it shows us.  This is a culture which, in some ways, resembles the traditional European village life that's the mainstay of epic fantasy, but the differences are telling.  Perhaps the most obvious is that life is lived from sunrise to sunset.  No gathering in the village pub for the evening ― it would be death to be out after dark.

Brett follows up each of the ways in which the demon threat forces society into a unique shape, and shows us how these enter the collective psyche.  The most important single activity is maintaining the wards on the houses, and a husband carries his new bride over the wards of their house, not over its threshold.  The language itself reflects it ― the standard curse is night! and to be killed by corelings is to be cored.  Even the cure for a hangover that we'd called the hair of the dog that bit me is expressed as a claw from the demon that cored me.

It's not a perfect novel.  The balance between the three leads is often lopsided ― at one point, Leesha makes no appearance for well over a hundred pages ― and I occasionally found the omniscient POV annoying, although much of the time it's well handled.

Most of the controversy about this book has been about the desert realm of Krasia, which Arlen visits during the third of the four sections, and which the sequel, The Desert Spear, seems to concentrate on.  It's very easy to see this as a thinly disguised version of Arab culture and, though much of this is inevitable (desert cultures are bound to have certain things in common), there's some justification in this view.  Certainly, their fanaticism and their attitude to women seem to reflect the standard western concept of Arabic/Islamic culture.

On the other hand, Brett's picture is neither all negative nor as much a caricature as some similar cases (C.S. Lewis's Calormen, for instance).  The militant martyrdom ideal, which is given an exaggerated and very negative profile in western portrayal of Islam, is treated much more sympathetically here, since it's aimed exclusively against demons.

Nevertheless, it's not the most comfortable part of the story, and I'm aware that some people who've loved the first book have hated the second.  I'll make up my own mind, of course, when I read it.  A third book, The Daylight War, has just been published, and at least two more are due in the future.  Based on the first book, I'm looking forward to reading them.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Guest Post - Joanna Fay interviews Xereth

Xereth has the dubious honour of being the lead villain of The Siaris Quartet. By some strange fortune (or quirk of his author), he is also the only character to be a viewpoint character across all four novels. This is his first public interview, so we cannot vouch for his behaviour!

JF:  Xereth, thank you for agreeing to an interview. I know this is dangerous territory, but would you like to start with a bit about your background?
X:   Are you asking me to pack 90 000 years into one sentence? Everyone knows who I am, don’t they? (sniffs) Very well, I was created by the god Keth as the third of nine ‘children’ known as the Aer. We went our separate ways, always a family of wanderers. My oldest brother was killed – well, I had a hand in that, but it was his own fault, for crossing the Morraeth.

JF:  The Morraeth?
X:   The only gods in this world with any sense! As shown by the fact that they are the only ones left, and the only beings in Siaris to be able to give me what I want…if the Time-Storm doesn’t suck them out of their fortress first.

JF:  So…that’s why you put yourself in service to them? What exactly do you want, Xereth?
X:   I want justice. I want the Aer gone, along with our wretched cousins, the Hinir. And any others among the Orders of the Guardians who sympathize with them.

JF:  Is this because of Sirene?
X:   Don’t mention that name, if you enjoy your life.

JF:  Perhaps it would do you good to talk about her…
X:   (frosty stare) Is this an interview or a therapy session?

JF:  Okay, moving on. How would you say your current plans are progressing?
X:   Nicely, thank you. The Hinir are fools; they have no idea what’s going on in their own protectorate, right under their pretty gold noses. They never understood the petty minds of mortals. Humans are easily turned, elden are weak, and dryads are as timid as kulus. Riana and her clan are too trusting, and Riana was ever the idealist. How she could be, after what happened to her Twin, the gods only know.

JF:   What about the Aer? Mightn’t they guess what you and the Morraeth are up to? I mean, your brother Sier did manage to rescue your enslaved children a few decades ago…
X:   (stands and flicks a blue wingtip across JF’s neck. The lights in the room flicker. A light-bulb shatters. Xereth settles the thorns forming in his spell-sheen and sits down again, breathing heavily) Sier will pay for stealing my children, in time. At present, I keep an eye on my youngest daughter, Sitia. She has a restless streak. I predict she will leave Sier’s home – and this world has its perils.

JF:  You being chief among them.
X:   (inclines his head graciously) Will that be all? I do have a few matters to attend to…

JF:   Of course. Thank you for your frankness. Let’s meet again when your plot has thickened. 

Reunion, second novel in The Siaris Quartet

Immortal love was never meant to be broken, but the road to restoring it is beyond imagining.

The world of Siaris has been thrown into chaos.  Xereth, still reeling from the loss of his children, has bided his time and waited years for the perfect time to exact revenge.  That time is drawing near.  Little does Xereth know, he’ll have unsolicited help along the way.

Long-dormant prejudices have surfaced among the humans and elden of Siaris, and they are turning their hate toward their Guardian protectors. Neither visions nor spell-craft can predict the mutiny being prepared in their protectorate, and when a human and Guardian fall in love the rule banning their marriage only ignites the drive to retaliate.

In the world Riana and her Guardian family protect, war has broken out, led by the man who once loved her, now Lord of the Shadow Realm. The old rules are crumbling, the spells engraved in the Guardians’ bones are breaking down.  Will Siaris and its Guardians survive the changes?

Strength coursed through Riana’s body as if a river had been unleashed, driving her into a sprint. She hurtled down the dark hallway, swiveling an image of the fortress around in her mind’s vision. Locking onto her position, she took an ascending passage.
She ran hard. Mottled folds of cloth whipped around her ankles. The fortress’s black walls pressed in close, dank and smothering. Her footsteps were muffled, all sounds eaten in the gloom. Her bare feet stung where they met the fierce cold of the floor. She veered around a twist in the corridor and rocked back on her heels. Eyes gleamed in front of her, colder than the stone beneath her feet.


The voice slid like ice through her head. No mercy lit Maegren’s features, no hint of the knowledge she’d seen. Torchlight licked at the hem of his cloak, sent a chill line down his black feathers.

Riana forced down panic. “Maegren, let me go.”

She held herself still, but a betraying tremor touched her words. He laughed. Backing away, Riana spun about and slipped into a narrow opening to her left. She fled down a pitted slope into deeper blackness lit only by her fractured halo.

She ran until the breath caught in her lungs, until her feet began to slow. The strength she’d built was sapping from her limbs, draining from fractures in her spellsheen.

I can’t escape.

Every turn and kink in the line of the path was drawing her further into the fortress. The dark communal will at its centre closed in fast, tightening the noose. The soft mutters of the gods gnawed at the edges of her mind. Ancient decay cloyed in her nostrils. She lurched to a halt.

Impossibly, Maegren stood before her again. A vindictive smile curled his lips as he swept a low bow. The black hair framing his face swung in glittering sheets. Catching a faint blue glow at the periphery of her vision, terror knifed through Riana and sent pinpricks though her limbs. She glanced back over her shoulder, searching the darkness. In the corner of her eye, an indigo form closed in on her with predator stealth.

“Xereth,” she whispered.

Her cousin’s blue eyes narrowed, transfixing her.


Run to ground like a wild thing.

Sensing something else, unbelieving, she looked down. Low in her belly a point of light welled. New cells sparkled where an egg snuggled in the wall of her womb. She gasped and put a trembling hand to her body. Maegren’s suppressed sound of shock caught her ear. Reacting to Xereth’s presence, she shielded her sudden awareness with all the power she could muster. The white glow in Maegren’s eyes dulled. Weakness crept up Riana’s legs as a picture formed in front of her. She sank to her knees, oblivious to the icy bite of the floor beneath her hand. Before her stood a little boy, quite calm, his eyes shining. He held a hand out to her, one cheek dimpling.

“Mother, it will be all right.”

Joanna Fay lives in the Perth Hills of Western Australia with her teenage son and a menagerie of small pets, including a magical white rabbit. She writes fantasy novels and short stories, works as a therapist, meditates, and keeps an eye on the sky for unidentified flying objects. Her poems and short stories have won awards and been published in Australia, the UK and the USA.

You can buy Reunion: The Siaris Quartet Book Two

You can buy Daughter of Hope: The Siaris Quartet Book One

Joanna Fay:



Friday, March 8, 2013

Spectrum of Speculative Fiction Blog Hop


Welcome to the Spectrum of Speculative Fiction Blog Hop.  This event, over the weekend, links the blogs of a group of speculative fiction writers whose work covers the whole gamut of fantasy, science fiction and supernatural horror.  You can find links to all the blogs involved at the bottom of this post, where you can read about the authors and their books, as well as entering for their various giveaways.

For my share in the giveaways, I'll be donating a copy of The Treason of Memory, my fantasy ebook from Musa Publishing that was published late last year:

Combining the sordid world of espionage with dark magic, The Treason of Memory is an action-packed adventure story set in a fantasy world of flintlocks and rapiers.
To enter, you just have to visit my website at, go to the Contact page (via the sidebar) and send me a message letting me know you wish to enter, and which ebook format you use.  At the end of the blog hop, I'll choose a winner by means of the latest, cutting-edge randomising system (the details are top secret, but it involves slips of paper and a hat) and both announce and contact the winner.   

I mainly write fantasy, but that's a very broad category, and I don't even stick to it all the time.  My very first published story was horror, and I've strayed into SF and historical fiction as well, but the heart of my writing lies between epic fantasy and sword & sorcery, though not always in "traditional" settings.

So what is it that attracts me to these kind of stories?  Well, the cop-out answer would be "just because".  From the time I was about eight, I loved the legends of King Arthur, and I devoured every retelling I could find.  It didn't matter, somehow, that they all told the same stories ― the little differences were worth it.  I read and loved the Narnia books, too, and when I read Lord of the Rings at fifteen, that was that.  I was hooked for life.

I think there are three things that I love most about both reading and writing books like this.  One is, quite simply, the sense of wonder: there's no limit to what it's possible to encounter in fantasy.  You want to experience flying by your own power?  Casting spells that can change the world?  Debating philosophy with an sentient plant?  Fantasy can give it all to you.  (At least, I don't know if anyone's done the last.  Note ― write a philosophical plant into a story.)

The second thing is that I've always loved history, and fantasy ― especially epic fantasy ― offers a unique opportunity to explore more history than exists in the real world.  World-making, which is such a big part of epic fantasy, involves creating countries, peoples and their histories in a way that's both unique and believable.  That means understanding how history works, and applying it to something that didn't exist before.

The third thing is that fantasy (speculative fiction in general, but fantasy in particular) offers the chance to ask big questions without being bogged down in  specifics.  Realistic fiction is fine for examining how things work in the real world, but it's generally about topics everyone already has an opinion on.  A social realist could write a novel examining how, say, the middle-east conflict affects people caught up in it.  A fantasy writer, by making it a conflict between fictional nations, or even between elves and dwarves, can examine the basic moral issues of what happens when two antagonistic peoples claim the same territory.

It's not just big political issues.  You and I will never be offered absolute power over the world at the risk of absolute corruption, since there are no real rings of power.  We'll never have to achieve an ethical balance in the use of magic, or find out how we'd deal with being immortal; but fantasy can challenge us to consider how we'd respond to these, and that can help us understand our moral stance.

In a recent blog post, I pointed out that all fiction is set in an invented world ― it's just that fantasy is more honest about it than most.  All kinds of fiction have things they can do better than any other, but I feel that fantasy is the purest type of fiction and, at its best, can reach the greatest heights.

Besides, it's fun.  That's the main thing, isn't it?


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Guest Post by SS Hampton Sr - War and the Supernatural

War and the supernatural—two completely different genres yet easily intermingled. It is done all of the time in literature, on TV, and in the movies. The key, however, is to do it successfully, to make it believable, so that your audience will not groan and roll their eyes as the story progresses. Assuming your audience is still with you after the first groan.

Sometimes the supernatural is invisible and one wonders if it is real. Yet the feeling of being threatened by something unexplainable is inescapable. After all, who dismisses a “gut feeling” honed by the experience of sustained combat when the senses may be the only thing to save you? For example, to a half-frozen Waffen SS platoon outside of Moscow confronted by Siberian troops lurking in a dense and shadow-filled forest; the Germans know they are there, but there is the feeling that there is something else. The question upon which survival hinges is, are the Siberians the only threat in the forest or is there something else in the forest, something unknown and dangerous?

Perhaps American troops in Iraq are testing a new generation of night vision goggles using cutting edge technology and near-mystical computer software. Maybe the goggles really do strip away the night to an extent only dreamed of. The combatant who can see in the night has the advantage over the enemy. And—considering the human eye sees a very small fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum—perhaps the goggles really do reveal “things” that can’t be. Yet, can one ignore the evidence of goggle-enhanced eyes?

When one considers that the universe is filled with electromagnetic energy from the greatest star to the smallest quarks, baryons, mesons, and bosons, is it impossible to believe that objects may actually “vibrate” with energy? And perhaps the energy of prayers and the spoken word can imbue otherwise inanimate objects, such as cult objects, with a power and a life of their own. Sometimes this power and life should remain undisturbed. But, if this power or life is unleashed and is confronted, does one say “it can’t be” or does one believe the evidence of their own eyes?

Yes, war and the supernatural easily go hand in hand; the key is to give the premise an easily understood and believable foundation. Add a believable plot, believable characters and dialogue, and take off from there. Remember, there are as many ways to blend war and the supernatural as there are writers. I’m eager to see how you do it. Good writing and much success in your writing career!

SS Hampton, Sr. is a full-blood Choctaw of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, a divorced grandfather to 13 grandchildren, and a veteran of Operations Noble Eagle (2004-2006) and Iraqi Freedom (2006-2007). He has served in the Army National Guard since October 2004, and holds the rank of staff sergeant. He is a published photographer and photojournalist, an aspiring painter, and is studying for a degree in photography and anthropology—hopefully to someday work in underwater archaeology. His writings have appeared as stand-alone stories, and in anthologies from Dark Opus Press, Edge Science Fiction & Fantasy, Melange Books, Musa Publishing, MuseItUp Publishing, Ravenous Romance, and as stand-alone stories in Horror Bound Magazine, Ruthie’s Club, Lucrezia Magazine, The Harrow, and River Walk Journal, among others. As of December 2011, he became the latest homeless Iraq war veteran in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“The Lapis Lazuli Throne.” Ed. Stephen Morgan. Musa Publishing, April 2012.
ISBN: 978-1-61937-263-4
BLURB: During the Iraq War supply convoys rumbled out of Kuwait every day, bound for Baghdad. These convoys traveled on MSR Tampa, one of the most dangerous roads in the world, battling insurgent ambushes and IEDs. It is on one such convoy that an IED took out a gun truck and wounded Specialist Ken Adams. His gun truck commander took the fight to nearby insurgents, but in the aftermath he committed a disrespectful act. In the following weeks the entire gun truck crew was stalked by something unknown, and they disappeared one by one, until only Ken Adams was left, cornered in Las Vegas…
EXCERPT: The desert was alive. Damp foul smelling sand exploded in a white flash. Smoky red and yellow tentacles snaked out of the sand. He tried to scream, but the tentacles choked him. Other screams tore through the boiling smoke that stung his eyes and fouled his mouth. He was suffocating. He swung his arms wildly through the heavy hot air as the ground gave way beneath him. He was being pulled into the living desert...
            Specialist Ken Adams, the Gunner of his gun truck, picked at his meal of cheeseburgers, French fries, and salad. The mess hall, no wider than a pair of double wide trailers and twice as long, was almost empty. Other than an evening kitchen crew, the only occupants of the mess hall were gun truck soldiers preparing to go out on another convoy security escort mission.
            They were escorting another supply convoy of forty-five white trucks, the civilian manned eighteen-wheel tractor trailers that had arrived that afternoon at Convoy Support Center Navistar. The small, cluttered, dusty camp a mile south of the Iraqi border, a jumping off point for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was now manned by mobilized Army National Guard soldiers. After sunset, four HMMWV gun trucks would escort the supply convoy to Cedar, the first CSC on Main Supply Route Tampa. There, they would then turn the convoy over to other escorts, who would take the convoy further north. The gun truck crews would have time for a quick breakfast before they picked up an empty convoy returning to Kuwait.
            It was just another typical mission for Ken and his buddies. He grabbed a pair of bananas on the way out the door.
            They met their convoy of white trucks at the Convoy Movement Center, the dusty marshaling lot on the other side of a narrow dusty track across from Navistar. The soldiers checked the drivers’ paperwork and made a quick mechanical inspection of the trucks. It was a tedious but necessary process. Ken alleviated the boredom by raiding the packed bag of bubble gum Lenny had packed for the mission. Lenny loved bubble gum, and whenever care packages were put on the mail table for everyone to help themselves, he was one of the first to paw through them, searching for bubble gum…

Saturday, March 2, 2013

What Real World?

There are two boringly inevitable questions fantasy writers and readers are asked about their favourite genre.  One is, "Why read/write fantasy?" to which, of course, the short answer is, "Why not?" with the supplement, "Why don't you ask the same question about any other fiction?"

The other, which also has a short answer, is, "Why don't you read/write books set in the real world?"  The answer to that, of course, is, "What real world?"

The fact is that no fiction, of any kind, is set in some objective world that we all inhabit.  All authors invent a world to set their stories in; it's just that fantasy authors are more honest about it than most.

There are many ways of doing this, some more subtle than others, but perhaps the two main methods are the choice of what to include and exclude, and the presentation of moral beliefs as fact.

The inclusion issue, of course, can skew what we see as reality in any context.  Some years ago, there was a TV advertisement for one of the "quality" newspapers (I forget which) that was based on the proposition that you have to see the whole picture in order to know what's happening (which, naturally, that paper provided). 

It presented three short clips.  In the first, a skinhead youth runs up to a respectable-looking man on the street and shoves him hard.  In the second, the same skinhead is lounging on a street-corner when a police car draws up.  An officer leans out and shouts, and the skinhead turns and runs away from the car.

The third clip shows the whole scenario.  The man is standing under a cradle of bricks that's coming loose.  The skinhead, alerted by the officer's shouted warning, runs over and, at some risk to himself, shoves him out of the way just as the bricks come crashing down.  Without telling a single lie, the first two clips had the skinhead tried and convicted, whereas he's actually a hero.

Of course, even this isn't "the whole picture".  That might include the reasons why the accident happened (personal carelessness or corporate corner-cutting), who the man was waiting for, why the skinhead was at a loose end, what in his background made him risk his life to save the man... and so on, right back to the Big Bang.

In a work of fiction, some aspects of the "real world" are included, and some aren't.  This may be nothing more than what is or isn't relevant to the story, but even so, the author has to choose what story to tell.  It's often been pointed out, for instance, that Jane Austen's novels include none of the poverty, vagrancy and social unrest that was widespread at the time.  That doesn't mean she was unaware of it, or even unconcerned about it as a person, but she chose to write stories in a fictional reality in which those things didn't exist.

That doesn't make the stories "wrong" or even unrealistic.  They're very realistic about what she chose to present, and no author can cover everything.  It does mean, though, that they're set in a world of their own.

The presentation of moral belief as fact is a more complex issue.  Consider, as an example, a familiar type of character: the maverick cop who ignores the rules, and sometimes the law, to get the bad guy.  This can take place in either of two distinct realities (or a spectrum in between): the reality in which liberals are allowing criminals to rule the streets, and only ignoring the rules can safeguard decent people; or the reality in which the rules are there to protect the innocent, and ignoring them destroys lives.

This isn't just a matter of what happens in the story.  The different versions are actually set in different fictional realities, in which the author's belief (or the belief s/he thinks will appeal to the target reader) is a universal fact.  These are invented worlds, just as much as anything produced by fantasy.

Does it matter?  Ideally not.  When fantasy readers read of fictional realities, we understand them in the spirit they're meant: we learn broad lessons from the characters and situations or we just enjoy them (preferably both) but (apart from the very few who are always going to be out of touch) we don't believe in their objective reality.

Unfortunately, not all consumers of fiction have had our practice, and often seem to believe precisely that various kinds of popular fiction are objective reality.  Soap operas are particularly adept at creating this illusion, since their stock-in-trade is that they're presenting some kind of slice of life, even though they're doing nothing of the kind.  I've had arguments with otherwise intelligent and level-headed people who've based their arguments about the real world on what's happened in Eastenders or Coronation Street.  If they're challenged, of course, they'll acknowledge that it's happened that way because of the author's choice, but it doesn't seem to occur to them without the challenge.

Fictional realities are essential for stories.  No story could be written without them, and they only become a problem when the reader or viewer isn't aware of their presence.  Perhaps those people should practice by reading fantasy.

So, the next time you're asked, "Why read fantasy?" perhaps you could simply answer, "To keep in touch with reality."