So, yesterday Paul Weimer commented on Twitter that Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy is perhaps not the very best epic fantasy to start with, if you aren’t already a fan of epic fantasy. Fine as that trilogy is, this is undoubtedly true! Which instantly leads to the question, what epic fantasies ARE good ones to offer someone new to the subgenre?
Naturally I wandered downstairs, perused my library for a while, and shortly thereafter had developed a Top Five Epic Fantasies for Beginners list, which I will share with you all forthwith.
First, though, definition time! What makes a fantasy an EPIC fantasy? Naturally opinions on this will differ. Here are the four criteria I used to winnow down my library:
a. Must have a high fantasy tone.
b. Must be at least a trilogy.
c. Must have multiple points of view.
d. Must be broad-scale — cover a large geographical region or a long time period, or both.
So those are the criteria I was looking for. After that, it was all about which series were likely to appeal to readers who might already like other kinds of fantasy, but are perhaps new to epic fantasy. While I’m sure there are plenty, here’s my top five suggestions:
Why I think this is a good choice: first, the reader spends a lot of time with each point-of-view character. I think leaping briskly from one pov to another is one major feature that turns off newcomers to epic fantasy. I’m sure I’m biased: it’s a feature of epic fantasy that is often problematic for me. But you will see that all my choices encourage the reader to really get involved in each protagonist’s life and also to get emotionally attached to each one. It helps if there are relatively few pov protagonists, which is the case here.
Second, the story is engaging, with plenty of emotional depth and several unexpected turns. (I think; I’m so familiar with the story now it’s a little hard to tell.) Plus, this is McKillip, so the writing is just beautiful.
Third, for the large number of readers who are fans of YA, there are lots of YA elements in this trilogy. It’s the kind of story that would probably be considered YA today. So it should be a good choice to transition from YA toward the broader category of epic fantasy.
I hear that publishers believe that portal fantasy doesn’t sell. I don’t know about that; they seem quite popular to me. This is one of the best, plus the modern American characters who step into the fantasy world easily carry the modern American reader into that world.
Again, lots of YA elements here. Again, characters with whom the reader can easily engage. Again, truly lovely writing — there’s a reason I’m always so flattered to be compared to McKillip and GGK. The plot follows each of the five — six? more? — protagonists, but braids everything together so smoothly the reader never feels confused or lost.
I’ve always wondered how Feist could possibly have thought it was okay to name a protagonist “Pug.” I mean . . . Pug.
However, this is still a really good series! Which spins off into other series, some of which are also good — I like Daughter of the Empire a lot — but certainly the original three (four, depending on edition) series can be read as a standalone epic. Lots of the same characteristics as the above two, but, to my taste, for sheer beauty, they definitely go in this order, with a biggish gap between the top two and this one.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I would not personally recommend going beyond the first three books, which tie off the original story line just fine. I love Barbara Hambly — I really do — but the other books in this series are not her best.
She is often a really good writer, though, and before she switched to historicals she wrote plenty of excellent fantasy. This is not my favorite of her work, but it’s the most clearly epic fantasy, I think. Even at that, I’m not completely sure I’d count it as epic fantasy. It’s got smaller scope than the three above, for sure. For that reason, it might serve as a good stepping stone from adventure fantasy to epic fantasy. (Among Hambly’s standalone fantasies, Bride of the Rat God is hard to beat, btw).
5. Shadow’s Daughter and that whole series by Stephanie Meier, SM Stirling, and Karen Wehrstein.
The whole series consists of, let me see:
Shadow’s Daughter, Snowbrother, The Cage, Shadow’s Son, Saber and Shadow, Lion’s Heart, Lion’s Soul. The books interlock rather than following one directly after another, although some are paired, especially the final two. Each book reads like adventure fantasy and I’m not one hundred percent sure I should really count them as epic fantasy. Like the above selection for (4), I think they might serve more as a link between adventure fantasy and epic fantasy. Maybe I’m being too picky about what really counts as epic fantasy, though. If you’ve read them, what do you think?
Anyway, lots of similar features to the above — approachable characters with whom the reader spends a lot of time and to whom the reader can become emotionally attached, lots of elements that should appeal to fans of YA, relatively fast pace. I grant you, these books are not perfect in every way. I didn’t care for Snowbrother and I’m not sure I even own a copy any more. Also, Chevenga (Lion’s Heart, Lion’s Soul) is quiiiite the perfect young man. I actually rather like hypercompetent protagonists, so I enjoyed these books very much.
Okay! That’s five. I think the first three are particularly good examples of fantasy that is definitely epic but also likely to appeal to newcomers to the subgenre. Weigh in on these selections and offer your own in the comments!