“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.
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!