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MIND MELD: What’s “Wrong” with Epic Fantasy?

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On episode 224 of the SF Signal Podcast, a discussion began about how epic fantasy can sometimes be too long, too detailed, too sprawling, often getting weighed down by its own epicness, and running the risk of losing the reader.  With that podcast and the comments it generated in mind, I asked our panelists this question:

Q: Is something Wrong With Epic Fantasy? If yes, how might it be fixed?

Here’s what they said…

Martha Wells
Martha Wells is the author of a number of short stories and fantasy novels, including The Cloud Roads, The Wizard Hunters, Wheel of the Infinite, and the Nebula-nominated The Death of the Necromancer. The Siren Depths was published in December 2012 by Night Shade Books, and is the third in the Books of the Raksura series. Her YA fantasy, Emilie and the Hollow World, was published by Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry in April 2013, and the sequel, Emilie and the Sky World, will be out in March 2014. She has also written media-tie-in novels, Stargate Atlantis: Reliquary and Stargate Atlantis: Entanglement, and a Star Wars novel, Empire and Rebellion: Razor’s Edge. Visit Martha ta her website

I have a lot of thoughts on this, but I’m going to confine myself to three metaphors’ worth.

I do think there’s a perception that to be an epic fantasy, a book has to have multiple viewpoint characters. It’s a perfectly valid style, but like every other style, when it’s done wrong, it’s tedious. And I think the style of having multiple viewpoint characters is easy to do badly. If you have four or five or more viewpoint characters, and you’re switching viewpoints every chapter, and there’s no justification for this in your plot, I think you can run into problems where you have to justify keeping some of those characters around. You’re creating incidents just to have them in the book which have nothing to do with the main plotline and with telling the story. And then everything gets overbalanced and awkward and collapses under its own weight like a Frank Lloyd Wright house with a bad foundation. (That’s one.)

That’s not a problem with epic fantasy, it’s a writing problem. There are plenty of excellent epic fantasies that have one viewpoint character throughout the whole book or trilogy or series, or one main viewpoint character that gives way to others only when absolutely necessary to advance the plot. I think it comes down to finding the right viewpoint and plotline to tell the story you want to tell, without jamming in a lot of characters and storylines because you think you have to and making your book bloated and giving your reader indigestion. (That’s two.)

There’s also a perception that epic fantasy has to be set in a created world based in medieval Europe, and that has a lot of potential to be tedious, especially when the writer hasn’t done enough research to know what medieval Europe was actually like. And a perception that all epic fantasies must be mostly filled with white beardy guys with swords, and lots of other stereotypes. Those are also writing problems, and failures of research and failures of imagination. Stereotypes are particularly insidious, and must be rooted out of your writing like evil poisonous weeds. (That’s three.)

I think it gets back to what is a common problem, which is writers writing what they think they should be writing rather than what they really want to write. If you sit down to write an epic fantasy, and your head is filled with rules of what an epic fantasy must be, then the first thing you need to do is ignore those rules.

Teresa Frohock
Teresa Frohock has turned her love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. She is the author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale and has a short story, “Naked the Night Sings,” in the urban fantasy anthology Manifesto: UF. Teresa has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying. Visit her at her website at

That is tricky question to answer, because the very nature of the work is what makes epic fantasy…well, epic. Maybe there really isn’t anything broken or wrong with epic fantasy as a subgenre, maybe the thing that gets broken, or perhaps a better word might be “tired,” of epic fantasy is the reader.

I used to love epic fantasy. From the time I was twelve until my early twenties, I read a steady diet of epic fantasy novels. Then one day, I picked up an epic fantasy and found it harder to read than the other novels I’d enjoyed. I realized that the story seemed kind of familiar. I found that the characters didn’t appeal to me; I didn’t like all of the traveling scenes, or the banter. I found myself bored by the very tropes that I used to love.

That wasn’t the author’s fault, nor did it indicate there was anything wrong with the genre. My perceptions had changed, perhaps so gradually that I hadn’t even noticed. Then a friend showed me a science fiction novel. Ooooo! Shiny! And I went on a science fiction binge for about two years.

When I grew bored with science fiction, I read mysteries, nonfiction, literary fiction, horror, then I would swing back into reading fantasy. See a pattern here? It wasn’t the books. It was me.

I can only speak for myself, but reading only one genre or subgenre is sort of like eating nothing but broccoli all the time. Broccoli is good, it’s tasty, and it can be served up in a variety of ways; however, a steady diet of only one thing becomes boring to me after a while. I find this true with my reading tastes too.

So in answer to the questions here, I would say that there is nothing really wrong or broken with epic fantasy. Perhaps the reader needs to step away from it for a little while and try some other genres or subgenres that might entertain her or him. One of the beautiful things about speculative fiction is the sheer breadth of works in different forms. Try something different, then come back to epic fantasy and see if the problems still exist. I’ve found that having been away from that subgenre for a while, I can occasionally read an epic fantasy and enjoy it. You might too.

Marc Alpin
Marc Aplin has won British titles in Mixed Martial Arts, both by submission and knockout inside a cage. He was forced to retire in the late 2000’s with a serious back injury and it was during this time he found a love for fantasy literature. A desire to share and discuss his newfound passion led him to create Fantasy-Faction in late 2010.

I think that the “problem” with Epic fantasy is that book one tends to be different than book two in a series and readers can often find this difficult to handle. Essentially, book one is the hook; it is the book designed to draw you in to the World and make you want to return. A good example would be Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man. Book one is full of pace, action and tends to stick pretty close to conventions (whilst cleverly explaining to you how the World works). Book two, The Desert Spear then builds upon book one in a backwards and lateral way. Some readers, especially those who wanted more of book one, freak out and think they’ve been cheated. As Patrick pointed out in your podcast though, for every one of those there are five readers who want to know more about the world, more about how the “enemy” came to be, what the different countries of the world are like, how the economy works and so on.

Epic fantasy by definition is always going to be Epic. It might start off on a small-scale, but that tends just to be the way that the author introduces you to the World and your guide. If you start a ten book series and don’t expect book two to branch out laterally from book one you are going to find yourself with the kinds of “problem” (a clash with your reading preference/tastes) that Sarah discussed.

Melanie Rawn
Melanie Rawn is a graduate of Scripps College and lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her books include the Dragon Prince series; the Spellbinder series; the Exiles series; The Golden Key (with Jennifer Roberson and Kate Elliott) and its prequel, The Diviner. She is currently working on the fourth book of the five-book series Glass Thorns, which she is trying mightily not to overpopulate.

I don’t think anything’s exactly wrong with Epic Fantasy per se. But there is something that can become a problem, and that’s overpopulation. I’m guilty of this myself–boy howdy, am I ever! Epic Fantasy can sometimes be truly epic just in the list of characters at the front (or the back) of the book. This is why wars and plagues and suchlike are so useful: they thin the herd quite nicely, and one can feel as if one is in control of the story again. One would be wrong, of course, but one continues to delude oneself in the hope that someday it might actually be true.

Nathan Barnhart
Nathan Barnhart lives in Colorado and writes self-indulgent reviews at Fantasy Review Barn. He reads, gives as much time as he can to his family, and occasionally can be found chucking up bricks on the basketball court. Be warned, he will find a way to turn any conversation into one about Terry Pratchett.

There is nothing wrong with Epic Fantasy. How easy was that question to answer?

Now at any given time I will buy that any given person could read an epic fantasy book that does nothing for them. And if that person follows it up with another epic fantasy book that not only continues the bad streak, but continues it in the same way? Well, now we have a trend. And if after reading three straight, possible highly-hyped epic fantasy books that have the exact same issues that are keeping said reader from enjoying them? What then? The only possible explanation would be that the trend has become the norm, and epic fantasy is broken. Right?

Flashback in time with me a bit to a day when a coworker saw me bring a fantasy book into work. He laughs, recognizing an old favorite. “I used to read fantasy all the time” he tells me. “But I had to stop; it was just more of the same every time.” How can this be, I wonder? Granted I have read only a small sampling the genre has to offer but there is so much out there I have a hard time seeing myself ever getting bored.  “Well,” he continues. “Martin seems to have stalled out, Jordan seems more interested in word count than plot (oh my, does this date the conversation?), and Brooks is writing the same book over and over.” What about so and so, I ask? Or whosit or what’s her name? “Never heard of them” was the reply and that was that.

Isn’t this both the crux of the question and the answer to it? What is wrong with epic fantasy and how can that be fixed? Nothing at all, we just need to read different epic fantasy titles. If author X is boring you don’t take more recommendations from the person who said author X was the best. Eight hundred page door stoppers dragging you down with excess details? I can find you a dozen fantasy reads half that length and quick to the point. Tired of being recommended books that fail the Bechdel test? Tired of kings and other assorted royalty? Look to a different corner of the internet, there is an author writing what you want.

But maybe there are a whole lot of people like my old coworker out there. They follow the dozen biggest names in the genre, maybe read a few of the most hyped debuts, and eventually burn off of the genre after reading derivative works, bloated tomes, and repetitive tropes. And because they don’t know better, and don’t know just how much more there is that the genre can offer, they decide epic fantasy has run its course and has its best days behind it.

Because while those in the know have figured out how to find fantasy that breaks from the norm and where to look for something a bit different, the majority of the internet gets stuck in a rut. Go to five different fantasy forums and ask for a list of recommendations. Make a list of a dozen or so from each site. Ten authors will show up on all five lists. And if those authors are not what you’re looking for? Well, then we are back to the thought of epic fantasy being broken. And this is a shame, because the way the publicity machine is working for the genre seems to be leaving some out of the loop.

So no, nothing is wrong with epic fantasy, it is thriving with diverse and wonderful reads. But if someone wants to ask if there is something wrong with the way it is publicized? Well, look at that, out of time.

Sam Sykes
Sam Sykes is the author of The Aeons’ Gate trilogy, a vast and sprawling story of adventure, demons, madness and carnage. Suspected by many to be at least tangentially related to most causes of human suffering, Sam Sykes is also a force to be reckoned with beyond literature. He currently resides in the United States and is probably watching you read this right now. You can find Sam on his website, on Twitter (as @SamSykesSwears) and on Facebook, but more than likley RIGHT BEHIND YOU.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with epic fantasy that isn’t wrong with every other subset of literature.

I mean, we’re still pretty conservative, staunchly mired in tradition and reverence thereof and it influences pretty much everything we do or say about the genre.

Take any review for an up-and-coming author, for example. What tends to be discussed with equal measure for his prose, his plot, his skill are his influences and who he reminds the reviewer of. In a way, new authors are forced to share credit for their work with authors their books might be somewhat reminiscent of, which frequently turns the review into a discussion of how great that reminiscent author was.

I mean, how many times have you read a review where the reviewer bemoans the fact that this book wasn’t written by Brent Weeks because Weeks’ new book isn’t out yet?

If you say “never,” you’re probably lying. It isn’t always Weeks, but the same seven or eight names tend to crop up on the same discussions regardless of the topic. If a reader comes forward and asks for something grim, gritty and savage, he’s likely to be met with recommendations for Abercrombie, Brett and Sanderson. If a different reader comes up next week and asks for something tender and thoughtful, he’ll probably get recommendations for Abercrombie, Brett and Sanderson.

Now, I’m not decrying readers for having favorite authors, nor even for having authors they prefer. But readers of epic fantasy are not just readers, but also geeks, and that has implications of fandom. And fandom makes a preferred author into a totem, a panacea to every ill the reader feels.

Usually, this is because that author appeals to a tradition we enjoy: a robust bout of worldbuilding, a new magic system, a weird feasting scene. And most of these are traditions because they came from older authors like Tolkien, who is the largest totem of them all.

I mean, if you look at the reviews of someone dark like Abercrombie, a fair number of them seem positively incensed that Abercrombie deviates or offends sensibilities erected by Tolkien, taking offense on behalf of the poor fellow. Yet even the darkness that seems prevalent in a lot of today’s fantasy seems directly informed by the sanitized fantasies of the 1990’s and so forth.

But even as far as they deviate, epic fantasy tends to still echo the traditions of old. Most stories are in trilogies because they’ve always been in trilogies. Most stories feature lots of worldbuilding because they’ve always featured lots of worldbuilding. Most stories are an investment of time because they’ve always been that way.

Now, lest I sound terribly bitter, this isn’t necessarily bad.

Even while it sometimes happens, an investment of time does not necessarily preclude the investment of emotion. An author is never, ever limited by style or tradition if he or she doesn’t want to be. But above all else?

They’re popular for a reason.

What solution can there be to a book that’s successful and well liked? Do we demand they stop writing, step down and give other authors a chance? Do we demand they write in a way we consider more progressive even if they and their readers both enjoy their current style? Do we demand they clean or dirty up their writing as befits the greater conversation?

That would be kind of insane.

Further, these are traditions that are kind of bought in by everyone: author, publisher and reader alike. Do we have a right to push everything out of that comfort zone?

It’s true, epic fantasy has some problems that are pretty frustrating for a reader who has a diverse palette. It’s getting better, though. Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t even have grimdark to choose from, let alone complain about it being everywhere. Ten years ago, we didn’t have half the diversity of stories we have today. Ten years from now, we’ll have even more.

The solution, if there is a problem, is the same as it is when it comes to anything about writing.

Write a good story. The rest will follow.

Patrick Tomlinson
Patrick S. Tomlinson is a Sci-Fi and Fantasy author, blogger, and stand-up comedian living and working in Milwaukee. When he’s not writing novels and jokes, he likes to run half marathons and ride motorcycles, except during winter, which he hates. You can follow along with his writing progress and general kvetching about the world around us at

Is there something wrong with epic fantasy?

Yes, but not in the way most people might think. The trouble with epic fantasy is shared by most any ongoing series, regardless of genre. The exception might be thrillers, because they tend to stay tight and fast, but for the most part the longer an author writes inside a world, the longer the books tend to become. Look at the Game of Thrones books on your shelf, or the Harry Potter books. Each consecutive book seems to add another 75-100 pages until you’re left with a stack of paper the size of a small engine block.

I tend to think that the main reason this happens is because, (and I’m sure to upset some important industry people here which is probably a bad career move) the people involved in editing and polishing the stories have less incentive to spend the time trimming the fat. The point of publishing books is to sell them. Early on in an author’s career, there tends to be more emphasis on the drafting and editing part of the process. Debut novels usually weigh in at the 80k-120k word-count range to make them fast reads for reviewers, keep printing costs down, etc. This requires a lot of man-hours on the part of not only the author, but the agent, copy-editor, senior editor, etc.

But once that first books turns into a series with a built-in fan base, the risks to the publisher diminish. Sales, while certainly not guaranteed, are much more predictable than with a debut. A proven author and series doesn’t need as much hand-holding, so those finite man-hours that used to be spent editing down a book into a slim, trim fighting machine are directed elsewhere, to the next debut novel on the schedule that presents a bigger risk to the publisher. Which, after all, only makes good business sense. Why spend all that time and money to edit down a book that you ‘know’ is going to sell anyway?

Meanwhile, the author is more versed and comfortable in the world they’ve created and starts to settle in. And just like moving into a new neighborhood, they start noticing all the little details. So they write about them. After a while, freed from the editor’s ax hanging over them threatening to kill their darlings, the authors tend to go further than they were ever able to before. These parallel trends, both of which make sense from an individual standpoint, feed off each other and lead to the ever-expanding ‘epic’, and it’s not just fantasy books this happens to. I, for example, am a huge fan of David Weber’s Honorverse series of military sci-fi books. They are wonderful, but grow with each volume, mostly with an awful lot of exposition on political and technological developments. Still, I’m just as much a part of the problem, if it can be called such, because every time Mr. Weber puts out a book, I’m first in line to hand his publisher $30. I would read a 900 page technical manual on the newest class of Havenite SD(P) if he wrote it.

The other problem I see, and again it’s a cross-genre and even cross-media issue, is the constant narrative impulse to raise the stakes. Many examples exist, but with each consecutive novel, episode, movie, etc, the dangers and risks faced by the characters have to ramp up, almost like they’re leveling up like D&D characters. It’s not long before ever single plot line is about saving the entire planet or all of humanity from some existential threat. While it makes sense from a storytelling perspective, the world doesn’t work that way. Very few authors manage to write consecutive stories without falling into this trap. Indeed the only one I can think of off the top of my head is probably Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and that is because he’s been very good about jumping around from one set of characters to another in a very non-linear, unconnected way. I think that’s one of the things that makes Discworld feel so real, it just goes on swimming through the universe, meandering from one story to the next, without any endpoint or grand climax in mind that everyone is racing towards. It just is. I find that oddly comforting.

Robin Hobb
Robin Hobb lives and writes in Tacoma, Washington. Robin is best known as the author of the Farseer Trilogy (Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin and Assassin’s Quest.) Other works include The Liveship Traders Trilogy, the Tawny Man Trilogy, and the Soldier Son Trilogy. A story collection, The Inheritance, showcases her work as both Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm

Well, in the vast field of Epic Fantasy, there is bound to be something wrong somewhere! Please read and understand Sturgeon’s Law before we discuss this any further.

But I think this is a case of, “Can the readers find the sort of books they are actually eager to read?” And yes, that can be a problem. I’m going to commit heresy here. I think that old time publishers are actually better at targeting the audience and showing readers the books they want than our current climate of ‘Everyone quick, promote a book you like’ is. Authors see their own books differently from how their publishers see them, and some of the author promotions I’ve seen led me to expect one sort of book and then delivered another. And this happens to me even more often when I watch a book trailer, and then read the book. I think that some (not all) of the people who are hired to create the book trailers don’t really know much about marketing books as books. They make terrific trailers, and I get so excited to read the book, I buy it, and then think, ‘Well, this is a pretty good book, but it’s not at all what I thought it was going to be.’ Then I think that the book trailer I watched is probably a trailer for the movie that the book trailer maker would make if he/she had the money to do that.

So, using all the political expertise that I’ve learned over the years, I’m going to say, YES, something is wrong with Epic Fantasy, and it’s all the readers’ fault! They are not finding the right books and then they complain. (This is a joke. Please don’t send me 500 hate mails today. The Office Kat becomes very agitated when her inbox is flooded with hate mails.)

To find a book that you really want to read, I recommend going to a bookstore (a big building sometimes made out of brick and mortar where they sell books made out of paper), and talk to the book seller (a person who knows all about what she or he is selling). Tell them ten books you loved, and ask what they recommend. Duane Wilkins at University Book Store in Seattle is exceptionally good at this, for example. Duane can pick out books for any person in my family and each person always gets a book they love. If you do not have a bookseller who can do this, then I am very sorry for you. Try your librarian.


About Andrea Johnson (99 Articles)
Andrea Johnson also blogs over at where she reviews science fiction and fantasy novels and talks about other nerdy stuff. She's also an interviewer at Apex Magazine. Her apartment looks like a library exploded, and that is how it should be.

22 Comments on MIND MELD: What’s “Wrong” with Epic Fantasy?

  1. While a couple if the responses are very interesting, I kind of wish the question was a bit more focused to get more substantive answers. In what way is “something wrong”? Why is the genre not more popular? Why does it not get more respect? Are sales going down? Are critics suddenly less impressed? Do nerds just like to complain & debate?

    • I agree. I think this was a very interesting post in that, it was interested in how everyone brought their own individual interpretation to the question. But it did start with a big ol’ assumption – and, indeed, quite a few of these answers were defensive because of it.

      Perhaps some follow-ups? Or another one that’s focused on why this is a “golden age” or something?

      • I had a similar reaction, Jared. I did like Sam Sykes’ response a lot, but overall folks spent more time dealing with that assumption than talking about epic fantasy “itself.”

  2. David Greybeard // February 5, 2014 at 7:13 am //

    I think High Fantasy has grown up a bit over the last couple of decades. Look at the high-water marks we’ve had since the turn of the century: Peter Brett, Patrick Rothfuss, Mark Lawrence, Richard K. Morgan, etc.

    Fallout of Game of Thrones TV, I suspect has more folks reaching for High Fantasy and they are finding sophisticated, adult books that also appeal to general fiction readers.

    In general fantasy-wise, we’ve seen at least two new sub-genres (re)emerge: Grimdark and Flintlock. Also returning, Sword and Sorcery has grown up, showing much improvement since, say, the 1970s.

    We are also seeing self-publishing bringing more and more new authors to the fore. We’ve several major new SF/F/H publishers in our new century, Orbit, Solaris, Angry Robot, also bringing more young writers out.

    More Fantasy books are published than Science Fiction. It’s the more popular genre.

    So, all in all, I suspect (High) Fantasy is in a better state than it’s ever been.

  3. I completely agree with Teresa on the problems of a steady diet. Whenever I find myself growing tired/frustrated with a genre I love, I know it’s time to switch gears for a few books. There really can be too much of a good thing, but moderation cures all.

    Melanie’s comment about wars and plagues did make me chuckle aloud. 🙂

    Nathan and Robin both make some very good comments about publicity/visibility and finding epic fantasy that appeals to you. That’s why I still continue to haunt bookstores, new and used, looking for something I’ve never heard of to catch my eye. It does seem as if a very narrow range of authors or titles get the ‘big’ push from publishers, and if you rely solely on that, you will just keep getting more of the same.

  4. Stephen J. // February 5, 2014 at 9:02 am //

    Applause to Patrick Tomlinson as well for reminding us that (lack of) editor attention can play a critical part as well in what might be called “series bloat”. I’ve always thought that the “success = editorial immunity” effect is a measurable impediment to quality writing, and it’s pleasing to see some concurrence for this.

  5. My two cents.

    There has been a boomlet in Epic Fantasy (just like Urban Fantasy), and by Sturgeon’s Law, some of it has not met expectations or been what readers are hoping for. There is a ton of very good, excellent Epic Fantasy…and even more Epic Fantasy that is lacking.

    I can name two Epic Fantasies, one book, one audio, I’ve consumed in the last couple of months that were okay, but had significant problems. (One of which I haven’t even reviewed, and one I “banished” to my blog).

    And yet, there is exciting Epic Fantasy in the wings, or here. I think the prevalence of Epic Fantasy means that its likely readers are going to hit High Profile “Meh” Epic fantasies.

    I have a suspicion the worm is turning and another subgenre is ready to rise and start ramping up, but signs remain unclear.

    • I’m not sure about this. Epic fantasy actually got into a bit of the doldrums in the late 1990s and early 2000s sales-wise. The bubble burst, especially as urban fantasy rose to sales dominance around the same time period. If you look at epic fantasy in that period even ASoIaF wasn’t selling that well, relative to slightly earlier authors like Jordan and Goodkind, and the most lauded new authors in the genre at that time, Erikson and Bakker, didn’t get much traction going. Abercrombie, Sanderson etc did well with their early books, but it was really the arrival of the mega-selling Rothfuss and then GAME OF THRONES on TV a few years later that returned the subgenre to dominance.

      Based on that, I think the current vogue for epic fantasy will continue (although a few publishers are reporting that some epic fantasy sales are tailing off) for a while at least.

  6. I’ve never gotten tired of epic fantasy in over 25 years, only bad writing. Some books just aren’t as good or innovative. Any genre can sour if this happens. Look what happened to our beloved Star Wars. I hope Episode 7 learned from the mistake of the prequels.

  7. I think the first step is to talk about what “epic fantasy” is and what strengths and weaknesses that designation brings to our reading:

  8. Paul Connelly // February 5, 2014 at 3:47 pm //

    Each of the authors touches upon something that’s wrong with many contemporary works of epic fantasy: too many viewpoint characters, too much similarity in the settings and the societies, too much popular success for the genre leading to too many lookalike books being published, too much belief that the story must be told in multiple volumes whether there’s enough story there to warrant that, difficulty for new authors with different things to say to get recognition and sales, too little editing and pruning back on unnecessary tangents and subplots as an author or series gets popular, too much intrusion of the marketing mentality into how books are presented and how they come to be published, etc.

    About half of those could apply to any other popular genre, and none of them serve to negate the high value you get when epic fantasy is done right.

    But it would be refreshing to see an epic fantasy told in a single volume that’s not so fat it has to be split in two for the mass market paperback edition.

    It would be refreshing to see an epic fantasy that is set in a well thought-out world which is not medieval Europe, Renaissance Italy, or some hodgepodge of other identifiable low tech societies from different time periods and geographies indiscriminately thrown together.

    It would be refreshing to see an epic fantasy with a manageable set of characters that have emotionally realistic human interactions, out of which the plot developments grow, rather than emoting on cue to fit the plot requirements.

    And it would be refreshing to read more epic fantasy which not only told an entertaining story but gave a sense that the author was driven to write it–that she or he had some bee in his or her bonnet, some new vision that had to be expressed, some idea or set of ideas that had to be explored, some muse that made this particular book and its imagery and story arc the one that had to be written.

    • Paul, you took the words right out of my mouth (or keyboard). Harry Potter is a good example of the type of fantasy you long for (though it does tend to bloat with each successive volume). When they turn books into movies, and take out all those rich, character-driven scenes, they take the heart out of what makes the story great.

      I find the best guide to writing good, character-driven fantasy (or any genre, for that matter) is reading not fiction but real history. There’s no better guide to learn how human passions and fears drive “epic” events. When we create the plot first, then try to shoehorn the characters in, we end up with what you describe as “emoting on cue”. Real life doesn’t work that way.

    • “But it would be refreshing to see an epic fantasy told in a single volume that’s not so fat it has to be split in two for the mass market paperback edition.”

      Like pretty much anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, or Job Abercrombie’s last three novels, or several of Brandon Sanderson’s?

      “It would be refreshing to see an epic fantasy that is set in a well thought-out world which is not medieval Europe, Renaissance Italy, or some hodgepodge of other identifiable low tech societies from different time periods and geographies indiscriminately thrown together.”

      Like Steven Erikson’s MALAZAN series or Elizabeth Bear’s ETERNAL SKY trilogy?

      “It would be refreshing to see an epic fantasy with a manageable set of characters that have emotionally realistic human interactions, out of which the plot developments grow, rather than emoting on cue to fit the plot requirements.”

      Like Scott Lynch’s GENTLEMAN BASTARD series?

      “And it would be refreshing to read more epic fantasy which not only told an entertaining story but gave a sense that the author was driven to write it–that she or he had some bee in his or her bonnet, some new vision that had to be expressed, some idea or set of ideas that had to be explored, some muse that made this particular book and its imagery and story arc the one that had to be written.”

      Like Richard Mogan’s LAND FIT FOR HEROES trilogy, driven in part by a desire to tear down the conservative heteronormative ideas of epic fantasy?

      Part of the problem sounds like you are very unfamiliar with the subgenre and judging it by a very few, mostly old and outdated references.

      • Paul Connelly // February 7, 2014 at 10:21 pm //

        I’ll rake your word for Abercrombie, Morgan and that particular series by Bear. And Sanderson is able to get a complete story told ably in one volume.

        The novels by Kay that I’ve read, not counting his first trilogy, don’t really feel like epic fantasy to me. And Scott Lynch’s series fits more in the anti-heroic fantasy tradition of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser than in the epic category. I have only read the first two, so maybe the series arc becomes more epic in scope in the third? The human interactions in the first two books are okay but not an outstanding feature of the series so far, for me.

        I love the Malazan books but I wouldn’t call the world well thought-out in the sense of being coherent and organic, just in the sense that they obviously thought a lot about what they were putting into it, whether it made sense or not. It’s like one part Roger Zelazny, two parts the original game that they started out with, three parts a superhero group comic book (Sgt. Rock, Captain America and Dr. Strange battle Galactus and Lex Luthor, maybe?) and another umpteen parts total bizarre craziness that is often intentionally quite humorous, sometimes horrific and enraging, and other times extremely touching and sad. I can’t imagine anyone else being able to come up with a series at all like that and have it work, so they score major points from me in the originality and new vision departments.

  9. spacechampion // February 5, 2014 at 11:43 pm //

    I think the natural twin to epic fantasy in science fiction is space opera. Both are event-based stories if we want make use of Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient (milieu, idea, character and event) as a way to sort out subgenres.

    Milieu based stories emphasize identity and role in a society, polity and culture. I think in fantasy this corresponds to Heroic fantasy. In SF it would be Planetary Romances, and utopias and dystopias which focus on romance, power, status and esteem. Social roles are confirmed by characters succeeding on strength of will rather than having good ideas or morals. Weakness is for the antagonists and rivals. Not that morals don’t enter into it, but adhering to them takes strength. Identity-related questions dominate, like what makes a hero, and am I one?

    Event based stories are all about the world in chaos, thrown out of whack due to a disruption of the moral universe. Epic fantasy, or operatic fantasy might be a good synonym, usually places worldviews into conflict with each other. Either restoration of the old morality or establishment of the new worldview happens in the conclusion. Instead of strength vs weakness, we have good vs evil. In Middle Earth, Tolkien had it as pastoralism is good, industrialism is evil.

    But Middle Earth also had a large strain of heroic themes too (Sam, Frodo, Gollum and Aragorn in particular), as well a world in decay which adds a gothic quality to it.

    Gothic fantasy stories are character-based stories which focuses on characters confronting the supernatural. The old heroic world is decaying and everyone is weak, though there is still may be hope that good exists. Shock is derived from the supernatural in a mundane world, and that interaction with the numinous may leads to madness, like it does for Denethor and arguably Saruman. Character based fiction has characters that don’t like their identity or role but decide to change themselves, if they survive the supernatural.

    The opposite of that is the noir. For noir fantasy, its the human cruelty, immorality and depravity that is shocking, and the supernatural might be present but treated as mundane. Noir is transgressive, question privilege and assumptions about morality and society. The latest “grimdark” gritty fantasy is surely noir. In SF we had cyberpunk to compare with it.

    Each type of fantasy is a reaction to what came before. Heroic will naturally lead to gothic, gothic to epic, and epic to noir, and noir back to heroic again.

    At least, that’s my current thoughts on the matter.

  10. A few years back I found myself – after a good 20 years or so – tired of epic fantasy. Too much was becoming repetitive and so I took a break from it. What drew me back were books that changed the rules. Books set in ancient Persia, Mesoamerica, books dealing with new viewpoints on old issues. I’m not a big grimdark fan, so there’s a lot of newer stuff I’ve avoided, but I enjoy seeing the genre branch out more and become more diverse.

    I’ve also been reading more history books and realizing just how interconnected the world of the real middle ages was. I’d love to see more under (or un) explored places/peoples/times represented in fiction. Where’s the medieval Egypt? Medieval Spain (ok, I’ve seen one set here, but there should be more – it’s an intersection of 3 major religions, and a mostly peaceful one at that)? The Huns, the Visigoths (and other gothic tribes), Vikings, etc. They didn’t just raid, they settled lands and had dealings with native populations. Let’s see more of the complexities that existed in Europe – if we’re sticking to that. Though I wouldn’t say no to more Asian, Oceanic, Mesoamerican, African, etc. representations either. It’s a big world to take inspiration from. And fantasy can be limitless, so why all the limits?

    • I’m so with you there, Jessica. There’s way too much settling for the defaults, and it gets boring to read them over and over. I suspect it’s a combination of pure lazy and “that’s what I read as a kid so I love it.” The latter isn’t inherently wrong, but if a book is simply derivative of older books, why should we care about reading it?

    • OK, scrap that ‘mostly peaceful’ meeting of major religions in Spain. I’ve always believed that was the case but the history of early medieval Spain I’m currently reading is putting that myth firmly to rest. I would LOVE to see some of that country’s history replayed in a fantasy context.

      • Lois Bujold’s first 2 Chalion books have the medieval Spainish setting and plots that definitely draw from historical trends, tho I don’t know enough of the local history to make closer comparisons.

        I just yesterday ran across a mention of the Wendish [Slavic] medieval empire that suddenly slots various elements of the third book into place! I still like the first 2 better but I may have to go back and reread. They’re all stand alones, but the protagonist in the second is a tertiary character in the first.

        I wouldn’t have thought to call them epic fantasy, although the world-saving, kingdom-spaning, special miraculous magical elements are there. Mostly that’s an artifact of how good Bujold is at character, and how much my stereotype of epic fantasy holds the characters at an emotional distance from the reader. Probably so it can fit in more torture, massacre, and suffering without wearing the readers out. Bujold is pretty tame by some standards, but man do you feel her little tragedies.

  11. Thomas Parker // February 7, 2014 at 2:25 pm //

    The problem? Too many books/series are defined by choices that are commercial rather than artistic or creative. George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan didn’t really have 10,000 or 15,000 pages of worthwhile stuff to say, but publishers and accountants (both publisher’s and author’s) like it things are spun out past all literary justification. When I think of my great fantasy reading experiences, I think of unique books and odd singletons like The King of Elfland’s Daughter, The Blue Star, The Circus of Dr. Lao, The Well at the World’s End, The Worm Orobourous, A Voyage to Arcturus, The Face in the Frost, Lud-In-the -Mist, The Last Unicorn. Even The Lord of the Rings is really (as Tolkien always said) a single book, one that is shorter than many writers’ inaugural volume these days. These are all works that were written before “fantasy” emerged as a publishing category, so authors used the mode as a vehicle to unleash their imaginations rather than to provide for their cushy retirement. These books are too heady, too strange, too unsettling to be spun out for twelve volumes; even if the authors could do it, reader’s wouldn’t really want it. The only books in their category today are works like Little, Big that come from writers who aren’t a part of the genre formula treadmill at all. Fantasy – the real, beautiful, frightening, awe-inspiring thing, is very, very rare. It always has been.

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