Occasionally I see reviews (not my own yet) that say something to the effect of "while this story doesn't bring anything new to the genre..." and it always gets me to thinking. Is it the default opinion out there of reviewers that a genre story should always be pushing boundaries? And if so, when did that happen? I sort of understand the mentality when it comes to sci fi. I mean, really the whole genre is about pushing boundaries, or at least can be legitimately be seen in that light. But for fantasy, I've never seen the reinvention of the genre as a critical function of the writers of said genre. And yet, change, carefully applied, can be a breath of fresh air in a stale genre.
Tropes vs cliches
Now to be sure, I'm not talking about cliche'd writing being okay. I'm personally sick of farm boys who are destined to blah blah, at least in adult fiction (juvenile fiction is another matter. Those kinds of stories are important to young readers, in that starting with someone they have a chance of identifying with hooks them as lifelong readers. But even juvenile fantasy could use some diversifying). I'm not saying no one should write that kind of story anymore, but I am saying it's such a tired trope that it has become a cliche. And when a trope becomes a cliche, the writer is almost obligated to bring a twist to it so that it has new life for the reader.
But fantasy tropes, especially in sub-genres, aren't something that can be dispensed with or in my opinion even messed with over-much, else you risk writing something that's missing what the reader came to the book for in the first place. You have to respect what came before and change only what is necessary to tell your story, the story that only you can write.
(I'm gonna talk about my own writing now for a minute, simply because I know it best)
Take Amra Thetys, for example. I love Sword & Sorcery. But I wanted to avoid many of the tropes that had become cliches. The two main characters of the series do not sling swords. They are not barbarians. They do not delight in battle. One is a female thief and the other is a mage who doesn't particularly like magic. And yet their adventures, even if I do say so myself, are often every bit as insanely gory and over the top weird as anything Conan or Fafhrd and the Mouser got up to.
Or my new series, the Sword Monk. Here we have a main character whose skill with a sword borders on caricature, but what defines him is his wrestling with his faith. We also have an antagonist who starts, at least notionally, as a damsel in distress, but who has taken the idea of empowerment so much to heart that she verges on becoming a monster. And yet this series is even more true to its pulp S&S roots than Amra Thetys.
I suppose my point is this: Sometimes there is no reason to change what works. I would be ecstatic to read a newly discovered Conan story. But sometimes it's awesome to read things with a new spin.
And sometimes it's not what you add to a genre story, but what you (carefully) cut away that makes for a good read.