Defining epic fantasy by example

You know how wildly disparate those definitions of Urban Fantasy were, that I posted about a couple of days ago, right? Well, I have an easy way to define Epic Fantasy, thus:

There, Epic Fantasy defined pictorially. Wasn’t that easy?

Oh, okay, I’m willing to venture, very very briefly, into what makes this series epic fantasy. Aside from its sheer length.

You have no doubt seen plenty of definitions of and lists of epic fantasy. In fact, as you may recall, Liz Bourke and Justin, Jared, and Tansy, all did the 25-essential-titles thing with epic fantasy a while ago.

Now, more than any other subgenre, this is one where I am constantly surprised by what other people consider “epic,” while for a change being able to define pretty clearly where I think everybody else is missing the boat. Like, I don’t think THE CURSE OF CHALION is epic fantasy. Nor Martha Wells’ WHEEL OF THE INFINITE. Both of those are on Liz Bourke’s list. To me, those might be high fantasy, whatever that is, but they are definitely not epic fantasy.

Epic fantasy may frequently involve grand quests and a substantial chance in world order, but those tropes are not sufficient to make a particular work “epic.” To be epic fantasy, a work must also possess sheer scope. I also find myself unwilling to declare that a work is epic fantasy unless it involves multiple points of view. Possibly I find this necessary just to create the sense of grand scale that is essential.

So, for me, epic fantasy must include: Grand scope and scale, multiple points-of-view, at least one grand quest, and a substantial change in the order of the world.

And if you want an example, well, see above.

What the INDA series offers:

Great characterization, with many point-of-view characters who are almost all compelling and enjoyable to read about. I don’t need to mention that pulling this off is quite a trick. Inda himself? He’s definitely not the perfect-uber-hero. He’s just fascinating, especially as Smith quite explicitly gives him some autistic characteristics. Tdor, Tau, the Fox, Evered, Jeje, Hadand, I hardly know what to say. They’re all fantastic characters, complex and realistic. Well, okay, Tau is a bit too good to be true, but he still feels realistic, somehow.

Great writing that doesn’t call attention to itself so that you can easily fall into the story.

A unique quality that makes the books easy to put down, then pick up again days later. You can slip right back into the story. I don’t remember any other series that has this quality for me. One thing that might contribute is that there are many smaller plot arcs that resolve in a sensible number of pages, so that you can find places to stop — but that’s true of other series, and if I stop for several days with them, I’m done. That’s not the case with this one.

Doorstopper length — the books run six to seven hundred pages, and we’re talking small font. For me, the pacing was just fine, because I enjoyed the worldbuilding and all or nearly all the points-of-view that were offered and didn’t long to get through one and back to another. But this series has more than physical heft. These books are not meant to be fast-paced adventure stories. Readers looking for a light beach read aren’t going to be happy with this series.

A society (I mean the Marlovan society, obviously) which is interesting and fun to read about, but basically unbelievable. The writing and characterization are so good you aren’t driven out of the story. So this isn’t actually a problem, at least not for me. So I don’t want to dwell on this. But, well, I will just say that, while an author is free to change human nature in order to build a fictional society, doing so really is going to make that society come across as implausible.

But, as I say, this didn’t bother me. What did bother me from time to time: I SERIOUSLY wanted Durasner to just take a moment to shove Erkric over the side of the ship. That was the second time in the series where I was rolling my eyes over peoples’ inability to JUST TAKE EFFECTIVE STEPS to get rid of a bad guy. What is WITH the good guys in this series that they have to let their WHOLE SOCIETY ride the edge of total disaster rather than just deal efficiently with the bad guy?

Oh, well, I guess that kind of expediency would make for a much shorter story.

Anyway, yeah, highly recommended when you have time to read something on the close order of 2800 pages. I didn’t, really, but I’m glad I didn’t realize how long this series was when I started it, because my year would have been the poorer for putting it off. But if you don’t have that much time, maybe Smith’s YA might be a better choice. I’ve heard good things about SASHARIA EN GARDE.

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8 thoughts on “Defining epic fantasy by example”

  1. Sasharia en Garde, Posse of Princesses and the book she’s best known for Crown Duel (and it’s prequel A Stranger to Command). Multiple viewpoints for epic fantasy – you have a point there… I was thinking only in terms of threat to the world and that would work for Wheel of the Infinite.

    So whenever you have the time I can recommend Michelle West’s Sun Sword series – like Sherwood Smith’s world, she has more around that, she has a whole world with various other focus books – if not as many as Sherwood because she’s been creating/dreaming Sartorias-deles since she was 8. And those are all available in ebook now (DAW is slowly but surely getting backlist into e – well they are a tiny publisher under a huge umbrella; I’ve heard the team is only six people).

    When Kobo had that one-month half-off sale this year I got all the Sun Sword books in ebook and all of Inda, too – those tiny font sizes just won’t work for my eyes anymore.
    The only character who I felt got the short shaft undeservedly was Hadand. I was hoping for SOME personal happiness for her. What did you think?

  2. Oh, and there’s a standalone epic Sartorias-deles book which is set 400 years later, Banner of the Damned, which features both Colend and Marloven-Hess and Norsunder influence. Crown Duel is basically another 400 years down the line, set neither in Colend nor Marloven-Hess, but a small kingdom (although one of the main characters got his military training in Marloven-Hess). Crown Duel is YA, though, Banner of the Damned is more in the vein of Inda.

  3. Yeah, I see what you mean about Hadand, but it’s hard to see how that could have worked out differently. I don’t think Smith would have been true to Evred’s character to have him actually fall in love with Hadand, or to Hadand’s to have her fall in love with someone else. I don’t actually see her as unhappy at the end, though; I feel like she perhaps found a quieter sort of contentment. It’s something to have a long-term relationship of kindness and friendship if you can’t have a bonfire. Do you think? And she had her children.

  4. The world-building ended up in an odd place for me: the author clearly does know that some of her choices are humanly improbable, and tries to use magic to patch the holes. In principle, this can work; in practice, it ended up kicking me as a reader from the tolerant suspension of disbelief I have for most fantasy (e.g. the Deed of Paksennarion) over into the rather more stringent standard I use for SF.

    That said, I was able to note the unbelievable elements and keep going. I guess I have to do that in SF fairly often, too.

    I too found that the books were oddly easy to put down and pick up. I hadn’t noticed that until you pointed it out; I can’t think of another series that shared that quality. How strange.

    In addition to the social factors that blocked the other assassination you wanted to happen (which I bought), it isn’t entirely clear what sort of magical protections Erkric may have had — or, perhaps more to the point, how much the other Venn knew about what he might have had.

    Concerning epic fantasy more generally, I hesitantly agree. The more usual paradigm-example for epic fantasy (LotR, duh) certainly makes good use of split viewpoints to deliver scope.

  5. Yes, I noticed the put-down-and-pick-up thing because I forgot the book over a long weekend and DIDN’T MIND, which is unheard of. I just re-read bits of Laura Florand romances on my phone and was fine waiting to get back to the INDA series.

    I *almost* bought the Marlovan reluctance to take an obvious step, but not quite. I’m like, “The women train so they can stop the men from doing horrible violent things if necessary? Well, *when* are you ladies going to declare that necessity exists?” I mean, what exactly does it TAKE? I pegged Hadand as the person who most should have stepped up to that particular line.

    And Erkric, well, maybe, but not really. Again it was actually Brun I picked, not Drusenar, as the person who most appropriately should have slipped cyanide in Erkric’s tea. If he was protected by Norsunder or whatever, or if the Venn thought he was, that should have been made clear.

    I don’t normally long to be part of a book club, but the INDA series would be a great choice for a multi-faceted discussion.

  6. Spoiler: I probably would have been fine if that’s where it had stopped, with her kids. But in order to get Evred his only possible version of a happy end, she also has to die :P – this keeps annoying me.

  7. That’s true. Hmm. You know, now that you point that out . . . it is a bit annoying. I don’t like Hadand being treated primarily as Evred’s plot device, either. I don’t think Smith could have thought of it that way, because if she had, I bet she could have found a different way to handle that.

  8. Estara, you have persuaded me that Hadand was poorly done by, in the end. …Actually I’m not actually sure the epilogue was a good idea in general; everybody *else* just has Life Go On.

    Rachel, I’ll concede that somebody among the Venn really should have tried to kill Erkric, even if they weren’t sure it would work. I mean, by the end there he was hardly bothering to conceal his corruption of the monarchy, and that’s the sort of thing that gets people upset.

    I think the Marlovan women had a vague idea in their head of *lots* of men going out of control *on a large scale* and then women intervening to put things right, rather than intervention on an individual scale. Which is kind of stupid, but in keeping with their culture.

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