Epic fantasy: one more time

“Epic Fantasy” is gloriously broad, vague, and… resonant. It may be hard to define Epic Fantasy succinctly …, but we know what Epic Fantasy is and isn’t. We know it when we read it, when we hear it. We feel it in our bones. The goal of this round-table discussion, therefore, is to describe Epic Fantasy and to try to illustrate the broadness—the grand sweep, the bigness, and scope — of it.

So says Clarksworld, in the first of two posts on the subject.

Of the 26 authors who participated in Clarksworld’s discussion, I’ve read books by seven. I’ve read more than one book by . . . wait for it . . . four. Just four. (Those are, in case you’re curious: Terry Brooks, whom I read when I was much younger; Kate Elliot, whose JARAN series I really enjoyed but whose more recent books I haven’t read (yet); and NK Jemisin and Robin McKinley, neither of whom actually write epic fantasy, imo. Yes, I know, people these days are tending to name Jemisin in lists of writers-of-epic-fantasy, but to me her stories do not feel like epic fantasy. It’s easier for McKinley; hardly anybody would think of her work as epic fantasy — right? — and she certainly doesn’t think of her books that way herself.

Which of course raises the question: What is epic fantasy? Which is what the Clarksworld posts are all about, naturally. And they’re very good posts.

“”In Epic Fantasy,” [says Victoria] Strauss, “the principal characters’ lives and actions acquire immense meaning and importance within the pattern of a series of hugely significant events. Their lives matter. This is the very opposite of most people’s real lives, and one of the major reasons, I think, why Epic Fantasy has such enduring appeal.””

I could agree with that. But . . .

Q Does your fantasy novel involve great events, where the actions of larger-than-life characters really matter?

Then your novel might be epic fantasy. Or high fantasy, or heroic fantasy, or possibly even sword-and-sorcery. Or no doubt lots of other subgenres. So, what actually defines epic fantasy?

The one answer I agreed with most was this one, from Trudi Canavan:

Bigness. Whether it be size of the world, the length of the tale or the number of books — or combinations of these. But not ideas. A book can have big ideas, but not be “epic” fantasy. Unfortunately, the label “epic” seems to be applied to a lot of fantasy that doesn’t really qualify, and that’s a bit unfair to both true Epic Fantasy and fantasy that is not epic, just as it grates when anyone describes all fantasy as “quest” fantasy. Fantasy is a very broad and varied genre, and lumping it all under one type is never satisfactory.

To me, all of these factors are important. I can’t personally see a series as epic unless it features multiple pov protagonists and takes place in a big world and encompasses more than one book. That’s why Jemisin’s books don’t seem like epic fantasy to me: they take place basically in one location and/or they involve basically one pov character. I would say Jemisin is writing high fantasy or heroic fantasy, not epic fantasy.

And then it gets all complicated these days because (and here I am departing from the Clarksworld posts) Epic Fantasy has gotten together with Horror and spawned evil little offspring with nasty sharp teeth.

Q Does your fantasy epic involve multiple pov characters? Most of whom die? Or become weaker and/or corrupted and/or evil, even though they started off as decent people?

Q Does your fantasy epic involve a vast setting where whole towns full of decent people trying to live their ordinary lives are murdered, tortured, enslaved, transformed into monsters, or possibly all of the above? By pov protagonists who were initially presented as sympathetic?

Q Does your fantasy epic involve huge sweeps of time, over which the world darkens and hope fades, until at the end of the series everything is clearly worse off than it was in the beginning?

Then you do not have an epic fantasy there. No. You have Epic Fantasy’s misbegotten offspring: grimdark fantasy.

I have decided that everything that calls itself Epic Fantasy these days needs a warning label on it if it is really grimdark fantasy, because some of us would appreciate being able to put that sucker back on the shelf without so much as reading the back cover copy.

Maybe a rating on a scale of one to five? Where Daniel Abraham’s Dagger-and-Coin series is about a three, say, and everything by Joe Abercrombie is a five. That would be really useful!


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6 thoughts on “Epic fantasy: one more time”

  1. In the latest Sword & Laser podcast, Tom Merritt and Veronica Belmont had a discussion about whether there are any fantasy novels which don’t contain violence. They couldn’t think of any. I was flabbergasted. I could provide lots of examples of excellent fantasy novels which contain little or no violence. I came to the conclusion that they aren’t reading the same fantasy novels that I read.

  2. Yes, I had that reaction when someone commented fairly recently that of the dozen or so fantasy novels she’d read most recently, all of them contained rape scenes. She found this disturbing, which on the one hand is reasonable, but on the other hand, I couldn’t help but think: Seriously? What in the world are you reading?

    Which really does make me wonder how people choose what to read.

  3. I’m not sure I’ve read books – fantasy or not – without any violence. Even Sarah Addison Allen’s have a bit. Of course, I’ve also been boggled by various people reading something as O SO HORRIBLE VIOLENCE which I didn’t think was that dreadful given the cultural context of the book.

    What are you thinking of, Cheryl?

    I was just rereading McKillip’s BARDs of BONE PLAIN and CJC’s YVGENIE (her rewrite vastly improved it), neither of which are heavy on the physical interpersonal violence. No rape, either. Non-physical violence, however, is there in abundance, from the queen’s pressure on the princess to the vodyanoi.

    While neither fits your definition of epic, I think the stakes in both are epic; however they are not written in common epic style. I would class them as epic, though.

    I too have to wonder how someone can pick up a dozen books in a row which contain rape scenes. Is publishing really going down that road? This may relate to how I can look over the whole sf/f section in a bookstore and not find anything to buy.

    As far as I’m concerned there’s a dearth of readable epic fantasy at the moment. It all seems to be going down the grimdark path with added -according to my husband – many more pages than plot. Even Daniel Abraham, and Sanderson although I haven’t read a lot of him.

    Your comments below about Hobb may eventually lead me to try her again. I’d stopped at the end of the Assassin trilogy, partly because I’d skipped a huge chunk in the middle of book 3 and picked up at the end without a sense of missing anything, partly because I hated what she did to Fitz. So I stopped reading her as too grim and not interesting enough. If she’s letting characters end in better situations than they start, that’s a draw.

  4. Perhaps I was thinking too narrowly about violence (battles/physical confrontations/rape). Of course novels have to have some level of confrontation to keep things interesting. In terms of authors, I was thinking of McKillip, Peter Beagle, Delia Sherman and Pamela Dean amongst others. Dean’s THE DUBIOUS HILLS is an example of a novel with quite a narrow (even domestic) focus but which I find intensely satisfying. It’s the opposite of an epic fantasy novel, I guess.

  5. I heard grim things about Fitz (possibly from you, don’t remember) and took that series off my wishlist. I haven’t read a huge number of books by Hobb, but I do like the dragon books significantly better than the liveship trilogy — because more of the characters start out competent and interesting rather than spoiled and idiotic.

    From time to time I encounter an idea that grimdark may have peaked and now be on its way out. Which, if true, GOOD.

  6. I think there’s a difference between violence-between-people and violence-against-bad-stuff. For example, I’d say there’s essentially no violence in The Sharing Knife series. Yes, there are Giant! Flying! Bats! But fighting malices is not the same as violence against other people.

    Now, the thing with Crane in the third book, that counts as violence.

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