Epic Fantasy 101

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:

1. The Riddle Master of Hed by Patricia McKillip.

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.

2. The Fionovar Tapestry by GGK.

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.

3. The Riftwar Saga by Raymond Feist

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.

4. The Darwath Trilogy by Barbara Hambly

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!

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12 thoughts on “Epic Fantasy 101”

  1. Well, since I suggested this topic, I should weigh in yes?

    Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time: Even as it painfully starts to emulate a Tolkenian feel in its beginning, its clear that Jordan is seeking an even bigger canvas than his forebear, especially as the series gets going.

    The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon, first written in the 80’s and later collected, features a female character front and center, and the story from adulthood of an awesome and amazing heroine.

    The Last Herald-Mage trilogy by Mercedes Lackey.
    There is plenty of Lackey that might fit some of Rachel’s requirements, but this trilogy has the widest scope and still is meant as an accessible on-ramp for readers to his universe (this is the first Lackey I read, FWIW)

  2. I should definitely have thought of The Deed of Paksenarrion! I never quite happened to read the other two you’ve suggested, but Moon’s trilogy is wonderful; an excellent example of epic fantasy.

    I think it only ever has the one pov character, but noticing this makes me want to alter my criteria rather than exclude Moon’s trilogy.

  3. Some of Patricia Brigg’s earlier fantasy, before she got stuck in the world of Mercy Thompson (which is not a bad world). I liked her fantasy, especially the Hurog series, which may lack the multiple POV qualification, but that makes it more appealing for me. And the Raven books, which DID have multiple POVs. Okay, I just looked on Amazon and was reminded there were only two books in each of these, so they don’t qualify. But great portals to fantasy.

    Do the Queen’s Thief books count? They meet all the qualifications except possibly tone….

  4. I’ve discovered while considering this question that my definition of epic fantasy includes world-spanning/shaking/changing events. Last Herald Mage doesn’t qualify: It’s kingdom level at best. Besides, when I tried to read it lo these years ago when it was new I got halfway through #1 and walled it for the whiny protaganist. (My Teen says he gets better but also disrecommends #1. And doesn’t recommend any other Lackey. )

    I think Paks also fails on the world-sized front, although mostly I remember just not connecting with it.

    Keeping in mind that what works for one won’t work for others,

    I enthusiastically second the RIDDLE-MASTER, and suggest her CYGNET duo, or even just the first, partly for how much gets shoved into such a very small book. The world-sized issue is mostly by implication, but if such Powers are intervening it must be big. And the GGKay, even if I personally dislike the first half of book #1. (I have trouble with his beginnings.)

    The Teen suggests CJC’s FORTRESS, which I’m leery of. Teen points out, “I read it when I was ten, that means it’s accessible…” CJC’s fantasy seems to be an acquired taste though. And strictly speaking it’s not obviously world-spanning. Just the implications of what Tristen is are. To show up the vagaries of taste the Teen has never finished RIDDLE-MASTER.

    Hambly’s DARWATH (first trilogy only) probably. LeGuin EARTHSEA (first trilogy only). Again, trying to keep in mind this is for a hypothetical someone who doesn’t know the genre, so avoiding a set of doorstops is probably good. There are probably more in the YA department, but I’m not thinking of them, and didn’t spot any on my shelves either.

    The RIFTWAR is ok, the EMPIRE books better and if they like Wurts’ work she’s got others, including a .. 12? volume … truly epic thing, world and time-spanning with political and personal stuff playing out over 500 years or more.

    Depending on the person, our hostess’ first work, the Griffon trilogy.

    Maybe Michelle Sagara West’s multi-series series. If they like dogs start ’em with the HUNTER books. Politics, the SUN SWORD.

    It might be better to work someone up to epic by starting with smaller level stuff, like Briggs’ RAVEN or HUROG.
    I like the Megan Whalen Turners, but find them difficult to remember after I read them, so can’t say.

    Never read the SHADOW’S DAUGHTER set, although I think we’ve had them on the shelf.

    I’m trying to think of other portal fantasies and there aren’t many that are also epic. Pournelle had a portal series that my husband enjoyed, but I don’t know if it was epic or not. In a weird way Wurts’ epic is portal, but it’s from one fantasy world to another, not ours to a fantasy world.

  5. At the risk of stating the obvious, THE LORD OF THE RINGS is pretty much the paradigmatic epic fantasy.

    Of the other suggestions made, my top 3 would be Riddle-Master, Fionavar and Paksennarion.

    THE SORCERESS AND THE CYGNET would make an interesting single-volume choice, to be sure: I’m trying to think of other _compact_ epic fantasies and it’s not easy.

  6. From comments on Goodreads, Siavahda adds:

    The only sense in which the Eternal Sky is not perfect for a beginner is that it ruins you for the rest of the genre!

    Is Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series too heavy for a beginner, do you think? Daniel Abraham’s Long Price quartet or Dagger & Coin series also spring to mind as some High Fantasy favourites I’d happily recommend to someone new to the genre.

    Actually now I think of it, Mercedes Lackey & James Mallory’s Obsidian Mountain trilogy is kind of the perfect starter; it has all the traditional tropes (mages, elves, demons, quests, fate of the world at stake, even dragon riders!) while being very easy to read.

  7. For high fantasy, you definitely can’t beat CYGNET. Well, except possibly with other McKillip standalone novels.

    I think I probably agree about needing world-shaking events to count as epic fantasy. I think that’s part of the broader scope one expects of an epic. Come to think of it, the events in the Griffin Mage trilogy do wind up being fairly world-shaking. Sure, I hereby agree that is the first epic fantasy I’ve written.

    I like Briggs’ Herog books a lot, but as you say, a duology.

  8. Michelle Podolak

    Good! You got to it. I was all prepared to comment that you had forgotten to mention one; Griffin Mage. I think this would be an excellent place to start in the world of epic fantasy. The characters are deeply defined, the landscape is rich, and the conflict is mighty. It certainly kept me wanting more.

  9. Well, Michelle, I would hardly argue! Yep, The Griffin Mage trilogy is hereby a great “starter” epic fantasy.

    It is, actually, because each book is written in a more focused way that limits the number of pov characters per book. I do think that makes a book more broadly appealing than stuffing a dozen — or more than a hundred in the case of the Wheel of Time — pov characters into a story.

  10. Griffin trilogy also is written such that each book can stand alone, albeit is richer if you’ve read the others. That also makes it unusually accessible compared to even LOTR, and much more than WoT or GoT which you must start at the beginning because they’re very (excessivly) long novels.

  11. Alison Croggon’s Pelinor series was my first post-LOTR epic fantasy series, and I loved how it stayed within reader expectations of fantasy while also playing on the tropes and twisting them ever-so-slightly.

    Which reminds me that it just might be time to hie me to the library and borrow them for a re-read. As well as looking into some of the others mentioned here! I’ve been on a sci-fi kick lately, but it’s starting to feel like time for a change.

  12. Louise, I missed that series. Maybe I should look it up if it’s the kind that holds up to re-reading years after you first encountered it!

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