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[GUEST POST] Courtney Schafer on What’s Missing From the Union of Urban and Epic Fantasy

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.

13 Comments on [GUEST POST] Courtney Schafer on What’s Missing From the Union of Urban and Epic Fantasy

  1. Hi Courtney!

    I do agree there is an etymological problem–what do you do with novels that aren’t the grittness of “Sword and Sorcery” but lack the gigantic canvas of epic fantasy.

    For lack of another word, I *have* been using Secondary world fantasy…but that’s really a broad category.

    Think of it as a Venn diagram:


    Secondary World Fantasy





  2. Venn Diagram: +10 points!

    The diagram says there is no overlap between Epic Fantasy and S&S. Is that always true?

  3. That’s a good question, John.

    I think the scopes of Epic and S&S to be polar opposites in the secondary world universe in sense of scale. That’s why I placed them as I did. If you have one of those two with aspects of the other, it falls into that intermediate range.

    Hmm…maybe a *spectrum* is the right model, not a Venn diagram?




  4. Love the article and the diagram, but there is indeed overlap. As has been pointed out, Elric is classic S&S but he does end and reboot THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE at the end of Stormbringer. Surely that’s epic? Also Glen Cooke’s Black Company novels are a very S&S, grunts eye view of soldiers who move within the confines of a larger, epic fantasy war. I think you need to make the Secondary World elipses more of a circle, so the interior circles can overlap, and you’ve still got regions beyond it where they don’t touch.

  5. Venn Diagram is great, spectrum is great, but I’d love to see something with more dimension and depth. Because defining books that fall into multiple subgenres is nearly impossible.  Personally, I’d love to see a shelf at the bookstore simply labelled “Awesome stuff”.

    Cross over between epic fantasy, urban fantasy, secondary world, Lords vs thieves, personal stakes vs world endangering, epic sprawl vs intimate journey,  sword vs sorcery vs sandals vs sensual.  It feels more like a  timey wimey wibbly wobbly type thing, doesn’t it?


  6. Um, also some S&S stories take place in historical or quasi-historical settings.

  7. My biggest problem with “secondary world fantasy” as a term is that when you say it to folks who aren’t deeply familiar with the fantasy genre, inevitably they go “Huh?  Secondary…what?  What does that mean?”  When we had our “secondary world fantasy” week over at the Night Bazaar, I had to explain the term to several of our regular posters – and these are people who write sf&f!  I think it’s the “secondary” that throws people – it’d probably be easier to understand on first hearing if we said “alternate world fantasy,” but I guess that might cause confusion with the “alternate history” subgenre…

    Really, in the end the main point of categorization is just to help readers more easily find the sorts of books they like best.  Ha, maybe we need a book version of Pandora’s music-finder algorithm (which I find works surprisingly well to identify new songs I’ll enjoy!). 

  8. Are you all going to twist my arm into doing another Venn diagram? I’m not sure I can cover all those bases and good points that everyone is bringing up. 

    Back to Courtney’s point in her post–we don’t have a good word for fantasy that doesn’t take place on Earth. And Urban Fantasy has sort of become the term for fantasy that takes place on Modern Earth, even if the entire plot took place in, say, the Kalahari. 




  9. So we are back to “Heroic Fantasy” and “Contemporary Fantasy”.


  10. “Heroic” probably works for a lot of S&S novels (even if some technically have anti-heroes as main characters), but it makes me twitch for much the same reasons as “epic” when applied to novels like Valente’s or McKillip’s.  But I suppose no matter what the categories are called, some novels won’t quite fit within the bounds – which is a good thing: always nice when human imagination outstrips our ability to categorize.

  11. moonglum // June 10, 2011 at 8:37 pm //

    I disagree with the accuracy of the Venn diagram. Where would the Elric Series sit in it? Its almost an archetype of S&S, but is certainly epic in scope.


  12. Fabien Lyraud // June 11, 2011 at 1:54 pm //

    Sword ans sorcery is a kind of secondary world fantasy where cynical heroes struggle for justice and attempt to destroy corruption.

  13. I call non-epic secondary world fantasy “high fantasy”.

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