Where Goeth Epic Fantasy?

There’s been a rush of talk recently about epic fantasy, as is usual, but between Twitter and blogs I’ve read a number of opinions and discussions and longer essays that focus on such issues as gritty, grimdark, rape, sexual violence, consensual sex, realism, gender, history, invisibility of women and people of color, marketing and store placement favoring male writers, and my old favorite excoriating the “crushing conservatism” of fantasy.

I wonder how great a range of voices I can hear and if I’m just hearing the same voices over and over (not that I mind them; they’re great).

(In fact, while I linked to a few above, please let me know of further links below)


The point of this post is to ask questions:

1) Do you read epic fantasy? Never, sometimes, often, depends?

2) What do you think epic fantasy does well? What do you think is missing from epic fantasy today? What would you like to see more of? Less of? What does epic fantasy mean to you, and where is it reaching its potential and where falling short?


One caveat. For those who give authors as example (which is fine) I’m going to count up how many references to men writers vs women writers because the one thing I can say for certain is that every conversation I have seen about epic fantasy skews heavily to references to men writers of the sub genre. I realize that this has a lot to do with sales and the simple fact that the bestselling authors in the subgenre are, by miles, men writers (and white male Western writers at that), but I just throw that out there.

61 thoughts on “Where Goeth Epic Fantasy?

  1. 1. I often read epic fantasy.

    2. I would like to see more diversity not only in gender/ethnicity/orientation, but also in age and occupation/skillset.

  2. I wrote about the topic for SF Signal: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2013/02/the-notion-of-epic-fantasy-and-the-dreams-it-offers/

    I read it infrequently, but for some time in my youth I was a very avid reader of epic fantasy.

    I really like Nora Jemisin’s INHERITANCE trilogy as a corrective to a lot of the problems I find in the most-promoted strains of epic fantasy. I also find myself gravitating more to stories that are the antithesis of the “standard” epic, like Joe McDermott’s LAST DRAGON.

  3. Kate,

    Yes, I read Epic Fantasy. It is something that I find enjoyable as it takes me to the world created by someone else. The creativity of the environment and setting of the story must have a map for this reader. The climates are important as the story develops around the characters and their situation or struggle. I don’t really care who the author is. Unfortunately, the majority of authors that get their names out there are men, I appreciate your endeavors to share more female authors to the genre. I’ve always read women authors in SFF, and loved their writings. Little did I imagine that some of them would be from the state of Oklahoma. Epic Fantasy seems to always bring about the tri-fecta of novels or the epic stories that mirror my years on the planet. You know the ones I’m talking about, we get a great story and we have to wait for years for the excitement to return as the writing just bogs us down until the end. Why is it usually three books? Give me one or two sometimes. I’m not going to mention any authors by name as I will miss one and feel the shame of not remembering the great story they blessed me with. I also read fiction and non-fiction to round out my reading.

    What does it need today? Simplicity, not trying to tell us everything about the characters and their lives. Let our imaginations become the caress of reading the words in our mind and seeing the story unfold.

    Get away from the elves, dragons, dwarfs, hobgoblins, giants and the other things we have heard and read about for ever. Change the planet, change the climate, change the story.
    There is too much that is similar and the stories become trite. Let our imaginations take root again in the fiber of the planet.

    Enough from me. Keep Writing cause it does this body good.

  4. 1) Do you read epic fantasy? Never, sometimes, often, depends?


    2) What do you think epic fantasy does well? What do you think is missing from epic fantasy today? What would you like to see more of? Less of? What does epic fantasy mean to you, and where is it reaching its potential and where falling short?

    I think it does the widescreen conflict well. If I want to see the fate of nations, or the entire world hanging in the balance, epic fantasy is there for it.

    What is missing from epic fantasy? A wider variety of main viewpoint characters. I don’t see a lot of city brats tasked with saving the world for some reason. It always seems to be the rural sorts who get the call to adventure.

    More of? More women with agency, more characters outside of the usual farmboy saves the world type. More variety in political systems. More considerations of things like economics (hello Daniel Abraham!). More experimentation with point of view (Hello N.K. Jemisin!)

    Less of? Farmboy protagonists. It gets old.

    Epic fantasy means to me big fat widescreen high stakes secondary world fantasy.

  5. 1) Do you read epic fantasy? Never, sometimes, often, depends?


    2) What do you think epic fantasy does well?

    What epic fantasy *can* do well, because of its epic scope, is explore the relationships between major events and the various cultures / sub-cultures, geographies, social strata, etc., in the world. And since it typically takes the form of a multi-volume work (with weighty individual books), an epic fantasy story can achieve both breadth and depth.

    2) (Continued) What do you think is missing from epic fantasy today? What would you like to see more of?

    Fully realized cultures and characters that clearly belong to those cultures are something I’d like to see more of. This is something I love about your work, Kate. You don’t pretend that’s all background and that the individual “foreground” characters are somehow an independent issue. Nor are your cultures the barely-sketched-out equivalent of a character’s “defining” facial tic or limp. (I imagine Kurt Lewin, the inventor of Field Theory, would love your work if he were still alive, because you so clearly agree with his ideas about how everything in one’s culture has an influence on behavior, even if one is acting against cultural norms.)

    Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight series has also started off with a lot of promise on this front.

    Strong women (who are genuinely embedded in their culture) are also very appealing to me, and I think that’s something we need more of. I love Tolkien, but I have to admit that he reads very strangely to me as an adult. There’s more to life than a bunch of men (or, as I should say, males) tromping through the woods. And even where epic fantasy does include strong women, they sometimes come off as caricatures (e.g., all the women in the Wheel of Time series, to me at least).

    You and Michelle Sagara West are two of the people I look to most often for the remedy to that, because you so often feature strong, well-realized female protagonists. But I’m also perfectly happy with something like the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, in which the protagonist is male, but strong female characters (who make sense in their culture) are an integral part of the story.

    2) (continued) [What would you like to see] less of?

    I would like to see fewer stories that rely on “Antagonists of Ultimate Evil!” Most stories that rely on that trope would be more convincing to me if their authors took the time to create antagonists with more human motives. Honestly, when I pick up something like that, it just exhausts me.

    I’ve also dropped out of a couple of very interesting series that I just found too depressing to stick with. I’m not against pathos, but pathos relies on an eventual release. Long, relentlessly depressing stories -surprise, surprise- don’t make me happy. And I’ve found I prefer being happy to not. So for my own sake, I’d love to see fewer good writers try to bludgeon me with stories like these.

    And while stories that make me laugh out loud, like the Spiritwalker Trilogy, are not required, they are strongly encouraged. 🙂

  6. I read more epic fantasy when I was younger. I liked it for the adventure. But modern stuff focuses more on the grimdark aspects, and I’ve no interest in that. More variety would be good.

    Recent authors I’ve read are N.K. Jemisin and Rachel Hartman.

  7. Thank you for linking to your excellent post. I did read and very much appreciate it at the time.

    Jemisin is clearly hearkening back to the ancient form of the epic, and she also uses it to test and refashion and question the more limited “modern” subgenre of epic that we mostly focus on because of the way books are marketed and read.

  8. Yes.

    I think we need more diversity along a number of axes, and I’m pleased to see age and occupation included in the list here.

  9. Looking at some recent lists of forthcoming releases, I think we may be hitting a glut in the “gritty grimdark” form of fantasy such that it is now veering into becoming a cliche.

  10. I’ve been reading fantasy, epic or otherwise since the early 70’s. Today I will read most any new book, unless the author has completely failed me in the past, and even then I’ll flip to the center of the book to see if the writing has become less opaque.
    Epic fantasy has a tendency to focus on the young. That isn’t surprising, given that the young are perhaps the most likely to provide a good springboard for an adventure tale, and in another realm are perhaps the most likely to be a consumer of those tales. That said, I seldom see strong middle aged characters, and even more seldom see people in their later years as more than “the oracle” positions. Much as I love a good tale told about some youngster who is exploring new territory; how about middle aged characters who are venturing out of their comfort zone and finding that there is more grey than black and white in this world?

  11. Yes. I’m hoping that the fixation on youthful characters may be turning a corner and we may see more variety there. Maybe.

  12. 1) Do you read epic fantasy? Never, sometimes, often, depends?
    Can I say sometimes always? I read in genre phases, so sometimes all I read for a while is autobiographies, or scifi, or gay lit. At the moment I’m in a massive fantasy phase, which has been going for about 5 years (with tiny islands of historical biography and some non-fiction).

    2) What do you think epic fantasy does well? What do you think is missing from epic fantasy today? What would you like to see more of? Less of? What does epic fantasy mean to you, and where is it reaching its potential and where falling short?

    What draws me to epic fantasy is a) the broad canvas it provides to play out a host of plot lines and story arcs in parallel, which makes for a much fuller experience for the reader, and b) the freedom it gives authors to let their imagination run wild and drag me along with them.

    I think today’s epic fantasy has made up for some of the short-comings of earlier efforts, especially in the way it has broadened the possible range of PoVs. What I mean by that is that, instead of the earlier staple of ‘farmboy discovers magic and rescues princess of a pseudo-European middle-age kingdom’, we now have a much more diverse set of characters (POCs, sexualities, gender roles, age range, occupations, etc.), settings, motivations, etc.

    When I first read epic fantasy, I started with Tolkien, followed by Tad Williams, Stephen Donaldson, Isobelle Carmody, Robin Hobb (who I will adore till the end), Sharon Shinn. Since I took up fantasy again 5 years ago, I have discovered a wide range of wonderful female authors: yourself (Crossroads started me on my quest for more female authors!), N.K. Jemisin, Karen Miller, Glenda Larke, Mary Gentle, Fiona McIntosh, Jacqueline Carey, Anne Bishop, Trudi Canavan, Lynn Flewelling, Ellen Kushner, Maria V. Snyder and many more. I was mostly drawn to them because of what I was missing in ‘traditional’ epic fantasy: strong female central (and supporting) characters, an eye for everyday details which meant much more sophisticated and in-depth world-building, stronger emotional grounding and a stronger focus on relationships (familial and other). I have also read male authors, but far fewer than before, because most simply don’t live up to my new expectations, honed by years of reading wonderful women 🙂

    As for what I would like to see less (rather than more) of, I agree with Alan: the ‘He is the Antichrist’ version of the all-out evilest of evil antagonists. Nobody is THAT evil, or ONLY evil. Give your antagonist a backstory, show us what their motives are, and I’m a happy bunny.

  13. I read (and re-read) epic fantasy every chance I get.

    For years – decades – epic fantasy has been criticised for being formulaic escapism. Through reading reviews written by those expressing such criticisms I’ve come to believe their major discontent is with the high degree of human agency in epic fantasy tales. We tell stories that embrace entire worlds and yet time and again their fate rests on a single Chosen One. The ‘real world’ just isn’t like that, the critics say. I don’t care for my fantasy to be too much like the ‘real world’ – I’m not sure I understand what the ‘real’ actually is, aside from a social construction – but I do acknowledge that the Chosen One has had it too easy for a long time. Such stories are, I think, ultimately unsatisfying.

    Then along comes so-called ‘grimdark’ fantasy, with all its objectionable overtones. The single shining jewel I find amongst the heteronormative, misogynist schlock is a recognition that social structure is not so easily changed, even by well-intentioned heroes. The better examples of dark fantasy portray their characters as aware of their reflexivity, recognising the limits of what they can achieve. It sure is an antidote to the wide-eyed, Garionesque farmboy. Too much so, perhaps: commentators (including Kate) have noted how such a reduction in agency removes the hope that the marginalised can ever change their status.

    Now all we need is some balance. Fewer farmboys, and a little more hope that people who don’t have a magic amulet, a pet dragon or royal blood can actually make a difference.

  14. 1) Do i read epic fantasy? Always, lots and lots, I know having 4k books makes me an outlier. But because I am Aspie and obsessive about my collection I keep a list I know that 48% of it is Fantasy and 33% SF (with Horror a distant third at 6% and any other genre not being over 3%) and the biggest sub genre is epic.

    2) I like the creativity in fantasy, my mothers dismissive complaints about fantasy are that ‘anything can happen’ and that it’s ‘not real’, to which i respond that that’s the point. I love that people can imagine so many crazy and beautiful worlds, I want to go to places I can’t otherwise go when I read (yes it’s escapism what’s so bad about that?) So i look for books that explore different paradigms, and i find them. I agree with previous comments that what fantasy could do better is be more diverse, I’d like more fantasy influenced by cultures other than Europe, and more plots that don’t center around battles, armies and empire building. And I am lucky to be able to find a lot of this.

    Regarding the data point about gender of Authors – In fantasy I have 129 male/157 female writers. I don’t think that is all that indicative of the market though given that i find myself favouring female writers – maybe because i am female. I do agree that conversations tend to skew towards male writers, googling the top anticipated fantasy books 2013 gives me lists overwhelmingly similar and dominated by men, topped by the obvious (Jordan/Sanderson) with the same only woman (Hobb) on all the lists

  15. I think we’re turning a corner to more simplicity in the plots and details, although otoh the success of Game of Thrones may mean we are in for a rash of super complicated cast of thousands follow ups. But I’m intrigued by the success of YA fantasy which does have plots with fewer moving pieces (by which I do not mean YA is simplistic).

  16. Why do you think the farm boy trope? Is rural air purer somehow?

    Also, I haven’t read much of the new gritty in the last 2 years, but aren’t there a plethora of city brats becoming assassins or something? Or are they farm boys?

  17. I am so with you on Evil Dark Lords — it worked in Tolkien because of the religious underpinnings of the world and story. But other than that, I find Antagonists of Ultimate Evil to be . . . flat.

    I also find I cannot read relentless grim. Tragedy is different, but relentless grim is not tragic; it doesn’t have the contrast.

    Also, I clearly must read Kurt Lewin (heads off to the internet)

  18. I have a theory that the Antagonist of Ultimate Evil is a very American concoction, but I may be wrong about that. I don’t care for that trope either, not at all.

    Yes, what I love most about epic fantasy is the scope, the way the writer can delve all over into the flow of events. So it has a more historical view, if you will.

  19. Good point. There is a sense, I think, that gritty is a reaction against “chosenness” — but as you say, then the pendulum swings too far and gets stuck hanging out at the other end.

    Like you, I like the idea of seeing ordinary people responding to extraordinary circumstances.

  20. “Can I say sometimes always?”

    Of course! You can say anything you want. 😉

  21. 4k books?


    Like you, I love the “anything can happen” aspect of fantasy. By which I don’t mean that anything can happen that isn’t consistent with the story world, but that there’s such a wide scope for — as you say — crazy and beautiful worlds and events. I’m not averse to escapism. The thought of having to read fiction only to be improved or to learn? Anyway, escapist fiction (however we are defining that, a bone of contention likewise) can also challenge in unexpected ways.

    Yes, I do also see the problems with public conversations that skew to mostly talking about men writers.

  22. I read a lot of Epic fantasy, though less than I used to because my interests are widening and the genre seems to be turning in a direction I find less interesting.

    2) What do you think epic fantasy does well?
    Immerse me in a world. I like characters, I love the world. I’m going to count the gods and particularly Nahadoth & Sieh of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy as “the world” here, along with Saladin Ahmed’s charming city with obvious religious trappings and scents of spiced teas (as I think about it, these are heavily mediated by their protagonists, but it’s the world I’m thinking of) … of course I’ll always hearken back to the tragic history of Moria and the beauty of Lorien as well … but neither George R. R. Martin (after the initial prologue with the white walkers) nor Robert Jordan were ever able to really ensnare me with their worlds. I remember enjoying your world in Crown of Stars more than most – it kept me reading the series for quite a while. And I can’t imagine looking back on Pern with anywhere near the level of affection I do without people riding dragons and then small dragon pets showing up.
    What do you think is missing from epic fantasy today? What would you like to see more of?
    Unfamiliar settings (though as I think of Pat Rothfuss and Scott Lynch in addition to Ahmed and in particular Jemisin, perhaps the stories are moving at least a little bit away from patches of farmland and forest, a few dusty villages and a couple castles). Really fantastic settings still seem pretty unusual, though. For myself, I’d prefer something that is different enough from our world to really show me some of my hidden assumptions than something that focuses (accurately or not) on portraying a “truer” or “grittier” historical sense.

    Less of?
    Knights on horses with swords. Probably ultimate good & evil, though I think that if these truly do fit into the cosmology of the world that’s created & are taken seriously, they could be pretty powerful. Wise mentors who aren’t involved in the plot, or somehow deliberately restrain themselves.

    What does epic fantasy mean to you, and where is it reaching its potential and where falling short?

    Epic Fantasy hopefully takes me to some other world and because of some aspect of that world it makes me think about parts of this world that I don’t normally think about. I’d like to be enchanted, I hope to ose myself for a while, I really want to read or see or hear something a week or two later and think “oh, yes, that’s like that book I just read, and oh, wow, it just never occurs to me how different my world is from other people”. I don’t think I’m very conscious of how irreligious I and my friends are, for instance, so reading The Throne of the Crescent Moon and being reminded that yes, in fact, for lots and lots and lots of people small pious acts are part of everyday life & oh maybe by the way I should take more seriously people today whose religion is important to them was really great.

    I will admit that I’ve put down both the Crown of Stars series and the Cold Magic series and I think it’s because the parts of the world that you were emphasizing and making me aware of were things that were unfamiliar enough and in some cases made me uncomfortable enough that I had trouble with the books. (Having realized this, I’ve been debating whether to try a re-read with that in mind)

  23. I read epic fantasy often. I prefer to spend time with a world. It is rare that I would read a one-shot story. But I have always wondered if the lack of diversity in content of stories comes from the publishers. Hollywood has the same issues of trusting in new stories to sell. In the sifting through the piles of submissions what is published is what we get. But the future has hope. Scifi and fantasy isn’t just a thing nerdy white guys read anymore. Kate I enjoy your writing because of your strong female characters that don’t walk with a feminist chip on their shoulder. You also build great worlds. As long as you create a good world and play by its’ rules then I am good with the setting. The worst thing that comes from reading an epic fantasy is the serious lack of good endings. Resolutions are important. If I spend several years looking forward to the completion of a series it better be worth it. The Deathgate cycle was the worst payoff of all time. Crown of Stars was very well done. Now if you want to read some good old fashioned male chauvinism then you need to pick up a John Norman Gor book.

  24. 1) Do you read epic fantasy? Never, sometimes, often, depends?

    For decades I read it often. Almost exclusively some years with a sprinkling of science fiction. Now, rarely, depending on the authors involved. The HUGE epic fantasy series wore me out–and all started sounding the same. I like stories that have a beginning, middle and end contained within one book, even when the series has elements that go forward into the next book. I no longer have the patience for epic fantasy that goes on forever. Somewhere between pages 200-400 I am done, even if the book itself is not.

    2) What do you think epic fantasy does well? What do you think is missing from epic fantasy today? What would you like to see more of? Less of? What does epic fantasy mean to you, and where is it reaching its potential and where falling short?

    For me to enjoy epic fantasy there has to be resolution in each book. I also look for less common themes, because yes, farm boy becomes the hero and saves us all from the looming dark has been done. I can predict the “beats” of those books and *yawns* I am no longer compelled to finish. I look for characters with depth, unusual worlds that don’t wallow in description worthy of Melville, and stories that move at a crisp pace. Who do I read these days? Martha Wells, Sharon Shinn and Patricia McKillip are on my “must read” lists. And I cannot forget you! My twisty mind loved Cold Magic and Cold Fire! I’ve sampled some of the more modern YA fantasy and while I can’t come up with the authors and titles, (The Naming, Alison Croggon comes to mind as does Diane Duane’s Wizards) I have enjoyed those stories more than most adult epic fantasy.

    I am looking for worlds and characters that I haven’t “seen” before and cannot predict. More people from everyday life, less grim violence that simply depresses me. More women of all ages–oh, and men whose age and wisdom can carry the day as more than wise mentors. Epic fantasy does not have to go down into the violence that plagues tv shows such as Criminal Minds. I have had enough of monsters!

    I feel stirred and provoked by your blogs about writing. I have dug up some of my own fantasy stories and characters and looked at them from new angles because of you–thank you! I will have to revisit some of them in depth once I get through the first novel currently on the top of the heap. That first novel (currently in second draft) surprised me by being set in the real world, with no magic! As a long time reader of epic fantasy I am still stunned by that reality!

  25. 1) Do you read epic fantasy? Never, sometimes, often, depends?

    Yes, more these days than I have in years – I fell off the wagon when I started having kids and lost the skills to read it, which I am working on building back up now.

    2) What do you think epic fantasy does well? What do you think is missing from epic fantasy today? What would you like to see more of? Less of? What does epic fantasy mean to you, and where is it reaching its potential and where falling short?

    I love big stories and complex, beautifully evoked societies. The benefits of armchair travel times 100 because they take me to places I could never visit in real life. I’m also a sucker for dynastic politics on a grand scale (there’s a reason I spent seven years researching the imperial Romans for my doctoral thesis) and anything that smacks of social history.

    What I’ve always wanted to see more of is characters who feel more like they live in their marvellous worlds, and less like they’ve been walking in slow circles waiting for the story to start. More of a sense of real social structures and lives, and how much harder it is to save the world when you have a day job.

    I’d love to see more of the elements I enjoy in really good urban fantasy – racial and sexual diversity, snappy banter, consensual sexytimes, feminism, cities, magic hitting you where you live instead of drawing you on a long mountain path away from home – combined with the grand scope of epic fantasy. And of course anything other than medieval as the core historical Culture Touchstone simply because it’s hard for writers to give me anything new with that.

    I find it personally devastating that epic fantasy is being presented over and over as a male genre when that’s not true, has never been true, and so many of my favourite female authors are struggling to get the same shelf space as some pretty average male authors.

    Right now I’m re-reading The Mists of Avalon for the first time since I was a teenager, and you know what has smacked me in the face already? Sisters, talking politics, to each other. Female friendships, and female power. From Chapter One. It’s so overt and unashamedly feminist, and sure many of the individual characters don’t always make choices we like or feel are pro-female in any way, but the book is just packed with so many women that its very existence feels like a revelation all over again. (which is exactly how I felt when I read it the first time) And sure, it’s technically ‘historical fantasy’ rather than ‘epic fantasy’ but is there really any more epic story than the Arthurian legends? Anyone who feels that epic fantasy can’t be conveyed in a single volume could definitely learn a lot from this particular text.

  26. “I’d prefer something that is different enough from our world to really show me some of my hidden assumptions than something that focuses (accurately or not) on portraying a “truer” or “grittier” historical sense.”

    Jonah, this is fascinating.

    I think one thing about gritty–although *I* may be making assumptions here–is that it doesn’t challenge assumptions but rather reinforces preconceptions. I’ve heard some gritty fantasy described as edgy but to me it’s fairly predictable. Like you, I like to see things in a different way (Jemisin is definitely aces at that–have you read her Killing Moon duology?)

    That’s a really interesting comment about my own work. If you do try a re-read — no pressure! 😉 — I’d be curious to know what you thought was unfamiliar and uncomfortable in the Cold Magic books in particular.

  27. Hey, I was on a panel once with John Norman. Very odd.

    Like you, I love spending time in a landscape, and indeed I am not one to seek out short stories (although I do read them) because I’m usually looking for something more in depth in terms of world (although the best short stories will illuminate a corner of a world).

    I think you’re right about Hollywood: It does seem they have been particularly risk averse recently, with so many reboots and same-kind of films/tv shows. The same thing certainly happens in publishing. I think risk aversion happens when people are anxious about the future.

  28. That is so great that you’re digging back into your own work. Much of the time I write posts about writing and reading to help myself think things through, to try to avoid getting stuck in my own ruts.

    I am also watching with interest this explosion of YA. Partly it has to do with a lot of young women (and men) reading, but it’s bigger than that and I think you tap into some of it: characters with depth and twisty plots taking place in unusual worlds.

    There is still plenty of room for longer epic fantasy–it certainly sells well (although I think almost all of the bestsellers are men writers)–but it is good to see UF/PNR and YA going strong as well.

  29. For what you look and seek in epic, I can just respond: Sing it!

    There are many women writing fantasy that is either epic or has epic qualities, and yet so many of the conversations (not to mention bestsellers) remain male. Thinking of how Juliet McKenna points out that the store dumps in the UK promoting epic fantasy to read together with Game of Thrones are all male. These things do make a difference.

  30. 1. I am a frequent reader of epic fantasy and have been for most of my life. These days, however, I find that I am getting more and more picky about the series I stick with and I haven’t really loved any series begun recently

    2. For me, the appeal of epic fantasy is that there’s so much opportunity to really explore a world in all of its intricacy, to live in that world for a while. I’m also an extremely character-driven reader, so I love the chance to see a character develop more deeply. If a character is compelling, I’ll stick with the series even if other elements are less so. By way of example, my all time favorite series is Michelle West’s Essalieyan universe books, which I have read countless times. I also really like Sarah Monette’s series, C.S. Friedman’s Feast of Souls series, most anything written by Elizabeth Bear, and the first several of Steven Erikson’s Malazan books.

    In terms of today’s epic fantasy scene, I think there are fewer new series being launched, which I suspect is at least partially because publishers are unwilling to take a risk on an unknown author for multi-book epics. Furthermore, a lot of the series that do get published tend to be similar to other successful series. Currently, this appears to mean a lot of very dark series, following on the success of Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice.

    I don’t have a problem with dark themes in general, but I do become annoyed when being “dark” becomes an end in itself. If I get to the point in a series, as I quickly did in Martin’s books, where I assume that any character I like will shortly die simply to re-prove the point that life is hard and then you die, then I’ve lost a lot of my interest in that series. In that case, I went and read Helen Lowe instead, who has a very similar premise, but does it much more enjoyably. I want to see my characters struggle, yes, but most of the time, I want to see them succeed in the end. Even if the character dies achieving his or her goals, I want that death to mean something. If I wanted the principle that life is nasty, brutish, and short hammered into my head over and over, I would be reading Hobbes, not a fantasy series.

    I think the series that I enjoy the most take the darkness in life and confront the characters with it, but also include those little happy moments that come even in the worst of times. The ability to do this, in my opinion, is what keeps Steven Erikson at his best from being boringly dark: his characters may be soldiers stuck in the grime and muck, watching their friends die, but they’re also joking with each other and enjoying the good times when they come. Overall, I’d like to see a little more variety in the epic fantasy offerings (Our Heroes don’t always have to be soldiers or warriors of some form or other, and the setting doesn’t always have to be easily identifiable as northern European) and variation within the stories themselves (they don’t have to be unrelentingly dark). The books I enjoy most tend to include very dark themes, but the characters are not crushed beneath the weight of them and are able to grow, develop, and overcome despite them.

  31. City Brats – Sanderson’s Mistborn, JV Jones’ Baker’s Boy, Pehov’s shadow Prowler, Canavan’s Black Magician, Lynch and Snyder, Juliet E mckenna, Brent Weeks, Douglas Hulick, Anne Lyle. Even Fiest has done it with Jimmy the Hand, And Lackey too did it a while back, it has been done and it doesn’t make that much difference

  32. I think epic fantasy needs a certain degree of patience in reading, of being able to pace yourself and immerse into a secondary world. For many of us we do this without thinking – I read my first epic fantasy at 12 so that’s true for me.

    But after I had my first baby my attention span went out the window and I read little but YA and short stories for years. When I came back to epic fantasy almost by accident – picking up a friend’s excellent trilogy – it was a struggle at first and I realised what I had been taking for granted all those years. I built up the ‘epic fantasy reading muscles’ again but it gave me a new empathy for people who find fantasy fiction difficult or inaccessible.

    I also really get now why GRRM is the one recommended and beloved for/by readers who don’t otherwise read or appreciate much epic fantasy – Book 1 is basically a primer in how to read the genre. Short, effective and targeted chapters, shifting characters, dripfed worldbuilding and a “filmic” visual style. By contrast, Book 2 has much longer chapters and less snappy ones – Book 1 had a significant plot-moving event in every single short chapter, while Book 2 is not nearly as tight. But then it doesn’t have to be – anyone who made it through Book 1 is well trained in the world, the characters and what to expect, so the book doesn’t have to make it quite so easy for them any more.

  33. A friend of mine in Sweden took a picture of the fantasy section of a bookshop in Stockholm to show how the genre was represented over there – and overwhelmingly, the selection was mostly male. The only female authors were recent releases – not a single book on the shelf that was more than 5 years old was by a female author.

    This happens a lot, the genre gets whittled down until all anyone remembers about ‘old’ epic fantasy is Robert Jordan, Raymond E Feist, Tad Williams, Terry Brooks, etc. All those female authors I read in the 90’s have now disappeared from the shelves.

    Jonathan & Gary have talked on the Coode St Podcast about what little critical work there has been on epic fantasy compared to almost any other sub-genre in the field. I think this is an important point – we are LOSING the history of the genre, and what remains is that handful of male authored titles that “most people” remember.

  34. This epic fantasy discussion has made several of my “shelved” characters restless–including a middle-aged mother riding through a fantasy landscape. It will be fun finding out what my next project turns out to be!

  35. “I think one thing about gritty–although *I* may be making assumptions here–is that it doesn’t challenge assumptions but rather reinforces preconceptions.”

    This is my impression too – and I think it’s because the popularly understood definition is a bit circular at times – as are most genre definitions. We can sit down and say “epic” is this “gritty” is that and “grimdark” is this other thing (as Liz attempted to do for epic, urban fantasy, conservative, and liberal recently) and we probably should as those would be more sensible and useful definitions. But the truth is that people tend to come to genres backwards. You read something you like and then learn what it is and look for more of it.

    So oftentimes aspects of privilege are baked into the emotional, cultural definition of various genres, so to speak. Based on what people who do read the genre have said, I get the impression that the books that get called “grimdark” etc. do question some assumptions – or, rather, include reactions to a certain tone that was once often found in epic fantasy. But also that, at the same time, many of the aspects of privilege from those epic fantasy novels are still found within grimdark books.

    Not only does this lead to the same FAIL, only now with the violence turned up a notch or two, but it also means that only certain kinds of “grit” count as “gritty.” Does the desolation and abuse in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian count as grit? (Does it matter only that it’s contemporary fic, not fantasy? Or is the problem also that the evil in the book is so ordinary?) How about using moss for diapers in Orleans? (Does it matter more the book is Scifi? Or that the grit is just as likely to be related to childcare and disease as war?) Above is full of grit and sorrow as well. (Is is the fairies or the urban setting that makes it not “gritty”? Or something else?)

  36. That’s an excellent point about definitions becoming circular via reading something you like and then hunting for it backwards through “definitions.”

    I do think there are issues with stuff by women which is gritty grim and dark not being identified as that because . . . well . . . I don’t know. Maybe because one of the parameters of so called grimdark is the male gaze? As you say about Orleans, if the grit is too related to disease and childbirth and not to war and certain mandated forms of violence, then does it fall into some other category?

    Also, your point about privilege is one I think very important. When writers talk about the edginess of grit and the pushback against the old tone of old school epic, I tend more to see the places where privilege isn’t being questioned or even seen. So that’s where I’m coming from.

  37. Yes, I go through phases where I don’t have as strong reading attention muscles, so I see what you mean. The reading protocols for fantasy and sf are specific ones; I know a lot of people who simply can’t read it for the reasons you cite.

    Also, that’s an excellent point about Game of Thrones. Although when it first came out I recall people saying that the opening sequence was a very slow set up.

  38. Yes, exactly. And what little critical work done on epic fantasy tends to be those same guys and Robin Hobb. So either way it goes, the women — and the books women wrote in the 80s and 90s — vanish.

  39. I, too, like a mix of dark and light, winning and losing, the bad and the good.

    That’s an interesting point about launches of new series. I find what seems like new trilogies launching but the big ticket multivolume series, maybe not so much. Not sure about the actual stats on that, though.

  40. Thank you for asking.

    1) Do you read epic fantasy? Never, sometimes, often, depends?

    Sometimes. I used to read it a lot more when I was younger. I really, really dislike grimdark, so perhaps that’s a factor.

    2) What do you think epic fantasy does well?

    World building is the number one thing I like about fantasy, epic or otherwise.

    What do you think is missing from epic fantasy today? What would you like to see more of? Less of? What does epic fantasy mean to you, and where is it reaching its potential and where falling short?

    To me, epic fantasy means people having adventures in a setting which is different (and therefore more interesting) than the real world. I really like fantasies where the setting is based on a place/time other than medieval Europe, such as Jane Lindskold’s “Through Wolf’s Eyes” series and Mercedes Lackey’s “Joust” series. So I would say, fewer medieval tropes, more cultural and racial diversity, and more settings where men and women are equals. Fantasy and Sci-Fi are such great vehicles for putting that out there, and I think we’re slowly starting to see more of that. Unlike historical fiction, you don’t have to think about whether the social and gender norms are realistic; it’s YOUR setting and you can give the characters whatever attitudes you want.

    On the cultural diversity tack, can we give it a rest with the monarchies? Other forms of government can exist. Also, how about tribal societies as the main culture instead of playing the role of the strange barbarians in contrast with the civilized,* “normal” culture.

    *I want to make clear that I’m using the word civilized here to mean ” a culture that has cities” not as a synonym for culture, manners, or the arts.

  41. There are getting to be a subset of those who make their Evil Bad Guys have believable, even sympathetic, motivations–sometimes from early on, sometimes only revealed later on. Sanderson has done so repeatedly.

    Some even dare to invert the entire trope, such as Jaqueline Carey’s Sundering duology.

  42. My favorite middle-aged epic fantasy character is Maskelle from Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells. She’s somewhere in her 40s I think (maybe 50s?). The main cultures are also non-Western as well, and the characters are very much shaped by their respective cultures. The book isn’t shaped like a lot of epic fantasy–it begins near the end of a journey…of the main character coming home after a long exile. A fair portion of the story takes place in the city, her own hometown. And yet, it *is* an epic fantasy.

    It was one of things I remembered from the movie Willow–it followed so many of the other “classic” fantasy tropes, but it did dare to make the main character the father of two children, a settled down married man.

  43. I’m going to start out by saying “me, too” to most of the above posts. I don’t read nearly as much epic fantasy (or really, any book reading) as I used to. And what I do read, I’m incredibly picky about it.
    I tried to read Game of Thrones and actually threw it across the room (between the darkness for the sake of darkness and the “oh, let’s have incest for shock value” scenes, it just turned me off). I find I lean more towards female authors because I’m more interested in the psychology of the characters (their motivation, their culture, their personal history), and, in general (a few men like Tad, Jack Campbell/John Hemry, Tolkien are the exception), women are more balanced about showing both the big and small moments. I love the things that don’t necessarily advance the plot, but do advance my understanding of the characters and hence help make the plot logical and understandable. I love the grandness of scope, generational in nature, the interplay of people, the travelogue, the escapism of epic fantasy. I want to be swept away (kind of like Scarlett after Tara burning, or the moment when Steve Rogers becomes Captain America in his heart) and taken away from the mundane for a little while.

    So authors like you, Theresa Edgerton, Kit Kerr, NK Jemisen, Glenda Larke, Loise McMaster Bujold, Trudi Canavan, CJ Cherryh, etc are who I will turn to first.

    That said, I was all for some strong female characters (of all ages) and started rereading the Darkover novesl by Marion Zimmer Bradley in historical sequence (e.g., starting with Darkfall). I’m gagging at all the places where she was obviously trapped within her own time and she failed to envision a time where a woman wouldn’t be known by her husband’s married name — things like that. So I’m off to find a different series isn’t dismissive of one sex just to prove the other is worthy.

    What I’d like to see more of — well done political intrigue (a la House of Cards or West Wing), characters of all backgrounds, nonwestern European settings (or at least non medievel — I would love a great story set at the end of the Roman Republic, before the Empire, or something set in Russia in the 1700’s), magic systems that are ‘realistic’ (one thing to admire about MZB is that in her Darkover novels — laran cost energy and could kill the owner of the laran).

    I’d love to see more nonhuman (your trolls, etc) that are really nonhuman (or at least as nonhuman as the author can envision), if they are located on Earth, they are well researched (nothing worse than to pick out “oh, that street doesn’t go there” because you lived in the area they’re writing about), the authors think about what happens offscreen, and where all the pieces (big and small) are important to the story and not just there on authorial whim (e.g., the incest scenes).

  44. I once taught a freshman composition class at a major university and the lit theme was sci fi…I was amazed at how much I had to teach them how to read it. They had trouble following the plot of short stories that seemed straightforward to me–that was when I really realized how different a set of “muscles” genre fiction could use. You have to pay a lot more attention. Instead of the author’s words bringing to mind details of a world you already know, those words have to teach you about a world you don’t know at all…and as a reader you’ve got to exert more effort to learn that world.

  45. 1) Do you read epic fantasy? Never, sometimes, often, depends?

    I read epic fantasy fairly often. I suppose it depends, in part, on where you draw the borders of subgenre. If you’re talking about a world with magic and events on at least the scope of nations if not larger…quite often. If you whittle off the YA, and the ones that just barely reach a national scope, and the ones that don’t feel medieval because that’s what we’ve come to expect from epic fantasy or don’t have any long journeys for the same reason…then less, but still some.

    2) What do you think epic fantasy does well? What do you think is missing from epic fantasy today? What would you like to see more of? Less of? What does epic fantasy mean to you, and where is it reaching its potential and where falling short?

    I think one of things that fantasy generally–speculative fiction generally–does well is defamiliarization. By plunging the reader into a world that is–on at least one axis, if not more–strange and unfamiliar, it forces the reader to look at what is familiar in a new context and, hopefully, resulting in new insight.

    Epic fantasy, at its best, is good at doing this on a large scale, looking at questions of cultural assumptions, political and social models…and looking at how individuals interact with this Big Things.

    At its worst, epic fantasy so rehashes the familiar settings of previous epic fantasies that you loose all sense of defamiliarization because it is, in fact, quite familiar.

    Some of these rehashings are understandable though, because the genre is in conversation with itself. Someone reads an epic fantasy and goes “well, that was an interesting point about X, but what about Y?” and goes off and writes their own…and like a scientist who doesn’t want to change too many variables to muddy the results, keeps a lot of the factors the same, just shifting those key to Y. And the best of those can be fascinating. I mentioned Carey’s Sundering above and it is a brilliant reply to Tolkien, among other things.

    There are a handful of people who seem to be doing quite new things. Martha Wells Raksura books are more vividly new and different with an impressive array of non-human races (including *all* the main characters)…and they are amazingly poignant for all that they are about non-human characters whose very physiology and instincts as well as culture sets them apart from humans.

    It’s funny thinking about it in terms of definitions. Rothfuss’ books one must presume to be epic in scope because of the hints in the frame tale. But Name of the Wind in particular is actually quite personal in scope for the majority of the story. I have to count Sanderson’s Mistborn as epic fantasy in many ways, but the crowded cities combined with very logical magic system make it almost sci fi in flavor given the accretion of expectations built up around epic fantasy. MZB’s Mists of Avalon mentioned above seems to not quite qualify because it takes place in the “real” world…except it’s a world with magic, so where is the line between something like that and something like your Cold Fire books or Carey’s Kushiel books with their more deeply alternate Earths? It’s a blurry line with other series in between on that continuum.

    What does it mean to me? Lots of different things. But I think the one at the heart of it for me is changing the world. The characters in epic fantasy get to change the world. And so when they are everyday people, people who see a chance to make a difference and take it, not Chosen or Special, that makes it all the more poignant, all the more real. It is about the hope that we might be able to impact our own world…it is about challenging us to try.

  46. I do respond to the idea of people making an effort to change the world. Sometimes they are Chosen but sometimes, as you say, they are just people striving to make a difference.

    One of the most interesting things to me about the genre is that element you mention, in which writers are continually having conversations with what came before, what they’re reading, how they reacted to it. The Carey Sundered books are a great example, a really intriguing (and under-read) response to Tolkien.

  47. Great list of things to look for. I probably read less Big Ticket epic fantasy than I used to. Like you I love the contrast between the big moment and the small moment.

    Btw, what is House of Cards? I’ve seen it mentioned but have no idea what it is about or the setting.

  48. Vicky, thank you. I’ve gotten such great answers, like this one.

    I’m hoping that the pushback against kneejerk gender roles will start percolating in a bigger way into fantasy.

    Besides the element of fantasy being, well, fantastical, most of the arguments I’ve heard for the historicity of women being invisible or confined to one or two roles as bland personality-less characters arise from people who don’t actually know history well regardless.

  49. Pingback: Sirens » Sirens Newsletter – Volume 5, Issue 6 (April 2013)

  50. “I’ve heard for the historicity of women being invisible or confined to one or two roles as bland personality-less characters arise from people who don’t actually know history well regardless”

    That’s true. I was thinking more along the lines of society’s attitude. Like having an organization that is half men and half women where there is no barrier to the women achieving leadership positions, and it’s all very business-as-usual, versus a setting where the female characters have to fight the stereotype of ‘You can’t do that, you’re only a woman!”. I watched a documentary not long ago called “Top Secret Rosies” about female computers during WWII (fun fact: before the invention of computer machines, people who did complex calculations were called computers). After the computer machine was invented, some of these women were the first programmers. Unfortunately, they were not recognized for their achievements because they were seen as “just” clerical workers. They were not even invited to the dinner celebrating the first successful run of the computer.

    Anyway, I have to go now. I have to secure my copy of Cold Magic, as well as check out the other books and authors suggested in this thread that I haven’t read yet. 😀

  51. House of Cards is a political drama staring Kevin Spacey as the House Whip (and a Rep from South Carolina) and Robyn Wright as his wife. What is really wonderful about it is they have Kevin’s character Frank (only his wife calls him Francis) break the 4th wall during the episode. All action stops as he does this aside to the audience to explain what he’s doing and why. Like how he manipulates a couple of constituents by out humbling them (during the 4th wall moment, he explains why he’s confident his fake humility will turn a situation to his favor). And these asides are as important to the plot, as any of the ‘real’ action.

    Robyn’s acting is equally delicious — talk about a strong female character! Claire’s got a cool, contained exterior covering up a lot of hurts inside that slowly reveal themselves over the course of the mini-series.

    Political power, used effectively behind the scenes, and only pragmatically corrupting.

    I think you have Netflix, yes? It’s on instant watch for when you have time.

  52. I want to read the one about a middle aged mother riding through a fantasy landscape!

  53. The US House of Cards series was inspired by the older UK series of the same name.

    They’re both excellent and both available on Netflix. It’s fascinating to see the same basic story told in two different time periods and two different political systems, both very well done, but differing in a number of ways.

  54. Thanks, Brian. For some reason I’m not familiar with either (but I have Netflix!)

  55. Yes, yes, yes to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, I’m surprised more people haven’t heard about this. When they want different politics, variation on the age and occupation of heroes, and not a farmboy trope, I feel all of Brandon Sanderson’s original works break this mold.

    Siri in Warbreaker is the “redundant” princess sent to broker an alliance over her sister with all the training.
    All the “lesser heroes” in Mistborn are widely varied. Clubs is a gnarled war veteran, Breeze is a low-ranked nobleman who escaped his family politics, Spook is an awkward teenage boy from the hinterlands, and Dockson is the farmboy all grown up who helped the city boy Kelsier in his insane plots.
    In Elantris the one who finally figures out what was going on is a prince who was left for dead.

    I wish I came up with ideas that great.

Comments are closed.