Courtney Schafer grew up reading Diana Wynne Jones and Patricia McKillip and her love of fantasy has only expanded with age. Her debut fantasy novel The Whitefire Crossing will release this August from Night Shade Books. When not writing, Courtney figure skates, climbs 14,000 foot peaks, squeezes through Utah slot canyons, and skis way too fast through trees. To support her adrenaline-fueled hobbies and writing habit, she received a degree in electrical engineering from Caltech and now works in the aerospace industry. Visit her at

The Union of Urban and Epic Fantasy is Not a Complete Set

As a voracious reader of all things science fiction and fantasy, I never cared much about sub-genre labels. Epic fantasy, urban fantasy, space opera, cyberpunk…bring it on, I said; I only want to know if the book is good. When trying to describe novels to friends, I tended more toward author comparisons: “It’s like Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster trilogy, only darker.” “Reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett, but with space battles.”

But when I researched the publishing industry prior to querying my fantasy novel The Whitefire Crossing, I soon became keenly aware of subgenre labels as market indicators. “Urban fantasy is hot, epic fantasy is not,” agents said. Fellow writers groaned that epic fantasies from debut authors had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting published.

Fair enough; no writer can control the market. The part that bothered me was the way agents, editors, and writers alike seemed to be using “epic” as shorthand for “fantasy that isn’t urban/contemporary.” Yet to me, epic fantasy meant grand, sweeping stories populated by large casts of characters, with the fate of the world at stake. Tolkien, Jordan, Martin, and their more recent heirs: David Anthony Durham, Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson, Daniel Abraham. But what about novels like Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint? Or Patricia McKillip’s The Bell at Sealey Head? Indisputably fantasy, definitely not urban/contemporary, yet with a far different focus and feel than, say, Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels.

The ur-term of “secondary world fantasy,” which describes all fantasies set in a world not our own, doesn’t seem to have caught on outside of the inner circles of fantasy fandom. No surprise, since it’s a horribly clunky mouthful. There’s always “sword and sorcery,” which has the advantage of being nicely alliterative, and easy to trace back to a classic progenitor: Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. Characters in S&S tend to be mercenaries, assassins, or thieves instead of kings and lords, the stakes personal rather than world-endangering. (See Martin Lewis’ article Epic Fantasy Vs. Sword And Sorcery for a good comparison.) Plenty of recent novels fit perfectly into the S&S category, like Doug Hulick’s Among Thieves and Jon Sprunk’s Shadow’s Son.

But what if a fantasy novel has the adventurous feel and tight character focus of S&S, but is lacking either swords or sorcery? My novel The Whitefire Crossing falls into this category: plenty of sorcery, mixed with mountain climbing, spies, intrigue, and risky schemes – but no swords. Or take Martha Wells’s recent release The Cloud Roads, a terrific fantasy adventure with neither swords nor sorcery. It’s set in a world populated by myriad nonhuman races; some of the races can shapeshift, but they don’t cast spells to do so – they simply are magic.

Personally, I prefer the term “adventure fantasy” to “sword & sorcery” – I think it includes a broader range of stories, while remaining easily understandable to newcomers to the genre. But semantics aside, what I’d really like is for people to understand that non-contemporary-fantasy is a broader, wilder expanse than the “epic” label would suggest, encompassing everything from the heartrending beauty of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed to the streetwise con men of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. If you’ve had your fill of Big Fat Fantasy Epics but still yearn for imaginative adventures in alternate worlds – look around. Amidst all the urban and epic fantasies on the shelves, you’ll find unique gems waiting to be discovered.

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