Epic fantasy

My agent recently commented that sales of adult fantasy have really fallen off, except for epic fantasy. (She was talking about sales of manuscripts to publishers, not books to readers.)

Then an author I was talking to at Archon said that although Caitlin (my agent) had turned him down as a client, she’d given him some advice that really helped him — she said that in order to count as epic fantasy, a story has to have multiple viewpoints. This was Mark Tiedemann, btw, and he recently landed THE AGENT, ie, Donald Maass. Congrats to Mark! That is a huge big deal and I bet the two manuscripts he has with that agent will get plenty of attention from publishers even if they aren’t epic fantasies.

But about epic fantasy and that multiple viewpoint idea.

Obviously there’s more to it than that. Like, epic fantasy novels are long, and have warfare and political maneuvering in them; we expect magic; we expect swords to be the weapons of choice though maybe guns are used around the edges a bit. Also, don’t you expect epic fantasy to have a high fantasy tone? An epic may be gritty, but it is never going to be light or humorous and it isn’t going to be sword-and-sorcery either, right?

And at fantasy-fiction.com, an essay suggests that the word “epic” isn’t a random choice, either:

The word “epic” suggests a certain weight, a significance to the work that raises the stakes of the drama, that gives the tale it tells distinctive power and gravitas.

. . . Further, in all of the traditional epics, the narrative of events takes place on what historians call “a world historical scale.” This means that deeds of the main actors, the struggles and journeys that the epics recount, have an effect on the very nature of the world. They permanently change history. For better or worse, something is different at the end.

And the author of this essay (Chloe Smith) then goes on to declare that it’s a story’s depth, rather than its breadth, that makes it an epic; and that epics don’t have to be super-long doorstops.

Well. That’s a very good essay and you should certainly follow the link and read the whole thing, but as far as I’m concerned, I kind of do expect epic fantasies to be really, really long. Not necessarily George RR Martin long, but long. And how about the multiple points of view?

I think that’s true — basically true — usually true — to be most precise, I think it is commercially true at this time that epic fantasy MUST have multiple points of view if you want it to sell to publishers because otherwise they won’t agree it’s epic fantasy — but I also think Marie Brennan (author of MIDNIGHT NEVER COME) offers a really useful take on how multiple POV has been handled in epic fantasy recently versus how it used to be handled and I think she totally hits the nail on the head. Her post made me sit up and go: Yeah, that’s IT.

I think it is harder to become invested in a story when the narrative jumps too quickly from one pov to another; I think George RR Martin does make it easier to follow the narrative from one character to the next than many other recent epic fantasies; that has been a problem for me in reading recent epic fantasies. Even though, like Marie Brennan, I can’t really talk because I also have multiple viewpoint characters even though I’m not writing epic fantasy as such.

I just finished the first two books of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price quartet — A SHADOW IN SUMMER, A BETRAYAL IN WINTER — and frankly I’m epicked out for the moment. Even though I liked both books and they grew on me more and more as I went on and I liked the characters better at the end than I had at the beginning and I really did come to care about Otah and the rest. EVEN THOUGH that is all true, I feel no immediate urge to buy the other two books or to read THE DRAGON’S PATH, which I have downstairs on my TBR pile at this very moment and which I was sort of excited to get to until I suddenly found I had met my quota for epics for the month.


I’m going to go read a nice YA by Patricia Wrede (ACROSS THE GREAT BARRIER). And it’s going to have one close pov and I’m going to read the whole thing in a couple of hours and I know I will enjoy it because hey! Patricia Wrede, right?

And if I ever do tackle an epic of my own? I think I will re-read that essay by Brennan first. In fact, I will probably print it out and tack it to the wall above my laptop. Because I can tell you now, I will almost certainly be aiming to do the multiple pov thing more in the old style than in the new.

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6 thoughts on “Epic fantasy”

  1. I’m TIRED of POV jumping and multiple POV narratives neatly split by chapter or section. What’s wrong with omniscent which seems to be what Tolkien used? Or just one person being followed by the narrative? Bujold managed in the Vorkosigan books till fairly late, and in CHALION.

    Or even first person narrative like in Jo Walton’s first books, which were alternate Arthurian, which ought to count as epic. McKillip’s RIDDLEMASTER has just two POVs – actually, I think it may be omniscent and dipping in to Morgon’s and Raederle’s heads occasionally. It certainly isn’t a doorstop, but it has epic depths and gravitas galor. Humor, too, which is rare in epics.

    Of course, for the last few years, I’ve also put down almost everything labeled ‘epic fantasy’ that I pick up when I’m browsing. Publisher gatekeeping seems to be keeping out most of what I might like.

    Isn’t it a good thing the older books are available when we’re sick of the styles of the more recent offerings?

  2. I always sort of aim to have just one pov character, but as you’ve probably noticed, I never actually manage to stick with just one. Maybe one day I’ll make a real effort to do that, just to see if I can.

    Omniscient pov is hard to do well. I don’t know if I’ll ever try that. I’d say that usually I don’t like books with omniscient pov as well, but as soon as I say anything like that, I’ll immediately read five books in a row that I love that use exactly that pov style.

    I think in the Riddlemaster trilogy, it’s only Morgan’s pov for the first book, isn’t it? And then Raederle-only for the second book? But now I can’t remember if it switches back and forth for the third book or not . . . hmmm. Now I’ve got to make a note to check.

  3. In Riddlemaster the focus is on the main characters, but except for rare instances we’re mostly outside of them. The only rare dips into their heads is what caused me to suggest it is a variety of omniscent. I like it, whatever it is, when McKillip does it. She mostly shows us actions, or physical responses and lets us draw conclusions, without spelling out everything through a look into their heads.

    I loathe the italicized stream of conciousness mental monologues that were popular a while back.

    We never see through anyone else’s POV, though, just Morgon and Raederle. 3rd book – stated firmly albeit without checking – is Morgon. When they split up we only follow him, and catch up with her when she finds him again.

    Don’t let this stop you from checking though! Such a hardship to look at HARPIST again.

    “Why do you trust me so much?”

    “Occasionally,” Har replied, “I am not rational.”

  4. It belatedly occurs to me that your Griffin trilogy is epic. Can’t get more world changing than both what griffins do when they move in, plus what happens at the end. Are they marketed as such?

    I think the switching POVs are ok because there aren’t too many in those. It’s the books with 3 or 5 or more that never let you settle in with one so you get to know them without yanking the reader away to someone else that I’m tired of.

  5. I loved that bit with Morgan and Har!

    You’re so right; if I pull HARPIST off the shelf and start flipping through it, I’ll definitely wind up reading the whole trilogy again.

    I guess I’d call this type of point-of-view a distant limited third person instead of a close third person?

  6. I think what happens is epic, but nevertheless the books don’t “feel” epic. That’s why I think one aspect epic fantasy really is sheer length. And another thing that might separate books like the griffin trilogy from epic fantasy is that my characters are almost exclusively focused on their own smaller-scale problems for most of each book, until at the end they find their their own problems are tied into big problems and they need to solve both.

    Or something like that.

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