Epic fantasy or sword and sorcery?


For the next eleven days, there is an Epic Fantasy Storybundle on sale. You donate what you want, above five bucks, and you get a hefty pack of books, including an anthology of short stories as a fundraiser.

I have a book in it (excerpt here tomorrow) and so have been reading the other offerings. I’ve really been enjoying this pack of stories and books, with an overriding sense of there being a much wider range of works under the umbrella of “Epic Fantasy” than I had assumed.

So while I read, I’ve been thinking about what makes Epic Fantasy ‘epic.’ Especially when my growing up years didn’t even have a category of Epic Fantasy: there was Sword and Sorcery, and  . . . that stuff, whatever you called Lord of the Rings and Gormenghast. I’ve already ranted in this blog about how, as a middle teen, I was not permitted to write up Lord of the Rings for a school book report, because it was not regarded as serious literature. Whereas certain books then popular, and now painfully dated, were.

But that rant is old news, and the richness of the genre around us makes it fairly clear that fantasy has established itself for at least this generation in literature’s lineup.


So I want to get back to the types of fantasy, especially the slippery definition of “epic.” I spent a morning poking about the Net, and found discussions and attempts at definition. Some were are pretty comprehensive—but conflicted with others, especially when it came to examples who is “doing it right” and “doing it wrong.”

For instance, most agreed that Lord of the Rings is the defining Epic Fantasy of modern times. Then some go on to say that to differentiate Epic from Sword and Sorcery, you need an appealing/holy fool/demonstrates moral growth/Campbellian Hero’s Journey hero like Frodo at the center of the cast of thousands, sweeping action, and world-changing stakes.

But particularly in the last few years, there are those who point out various anti-heroes and protagonist-villains of tales that otherwise fit the Epic, featuring a cast of thousands, sweeping action, and world-changing stakes. Sword and Sorcery is defined as more personal in scope, of course with the (usually flawed) hero using a sword in a world filled with magic.


But the pre-industrial sword-only requirement no longer fits a lot of current fantasies, perhaps influenced by steampunk, in which firearms of various types make an appearance. Not to mention airships and magically driven clocks and gears. So is steampunk a step-child of Epic or S&S? On a panel a couple years ago, I remember one person insisting that steampunk was a cross between historical novel and mystery with the weird science theories of the past (phlogiston, etc) made conveniently real. Bypassing fantasy entirely.


I saw one definition somewhere that insisted that S&S featured the supernatural in the form of gods and demons present and active in the story, and Epic held the supernatural at a distance, sometimes imbuing it with the barely perceived scintillation of the numinous, as again in Tolkien’s LOTR.

Result? A a raft of examples of books that fit the requirements for Epic but have gods and demons up front and center. Or meet all the requirements for Epic, except that there is no supernatural. Oh, and there is no magic! Elves, goblins, dwarves, and orcs required, or not required. Maps, yes! Maps, no. The definitions are circling around like planes over LAX in a fog.

I think one of the best aspects of genre now is that people are mixing up the familiar elements, creating new conversations with fantasy, however one defines it, while examining the old tropes in new ways. I talked a little about this a couple weeks back when I looked at two new books that to me, at least, evoked the old pastoral fantasy. And sometimes the same book is defined by readers as different things, like my Stranger to Command has been called coming of age fantasy, military fantasy, S&S, and Epic.


Anyway, back to the Storybundle, which I’ve been reading. What a variety of lengths and types of fantasy!

Take Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Alchemist. It’s tightly focused at first, a mage losing his family and livelihood as he struggles to find a cure for the evil bramble spreading all around the city. When he nearly loses his six year old daughter to bramble, he’s galvanized to desperate effort to find magic to save her. Gradually the stakes widen out while keeping the emotions at a desperate pitch, and the entire story is imbued with magic through beautiful prose. I would have called it Sword and Sorcery according to its elements, but Epic by its feel.

Tobias S. Buckell, in The Executioness, wrote a companion story to Bacigalupi’s. It continues the mystery of how to defeat the deadly bramble, which grows every time magic is performed. In the story of middle-aged Tana, who, to rescue her family, raises an army of women with mostly peasant weapons and they go on the attack against the raiders. More of the S&S feel, but a nifty modern twist.

beasts of tabat

One of the books in the bundle that holds an interesting conversation with the tropes of both S&S and Epic is Cat Rambo’s Beasts of Tabat. The beginning appears to be a conventional young adult fantasy tale as young teen Teo is taken by a master to begin his life learning magic. But when the master is killed, Teo finds himself on his own in a weird city full of beasts, shifters, and humans, all tied together by magic. I haven’t finished it (I’ve been sampling them all in order to write this blog post) but it gets both complex and dark fairly fast. And predictable, it is not. Nor is it YA.

James A. Owen calls his series Invisible Moon fits into “…an Urban Fantasy Pulp Adventure epic.” It reads like pulp, urban fantasy, and Epic fashioned into the shape of a mystery, with his patented fascination with maps, archives, and secret manuscripts.

hard times

One Horn to Rule Them All, edited by Lisa Mangum, started out as a joke, but as so many projects–especially themed anthologies–have, turned into a serious project: in this case, write a story featuring purple unicorns. In spite of the origin, it is not an excuse for cuteness-meant-to-be-funny. Several stories make purple unicorns into monsters, with a suitably serious tone; there is urban fantasy and epic fantasy. Jeanette Gonzales made her “Korgak’s Daily Schedule” funny without any cute. I haven’t read them all, but the one donated by Peter S. Beagle (this anthology is a fundraiser for a young people’s writing program) is a standout.

I was sucked right into Matt Forbeck’s Hard Times in Dragon City, as a humorous voice is almost always going to get me. The hero is a cynical, worn out ex-adventurer who gets drawn into solving the shocking murder of some friends, which adds in the mystery of a missing person. S&S feel,  . . . except that the stakes, and the landscape, widen to a truly Epic scope.

John D. Payne’s The Crown and the Dragon starts its prologue with a straightforward S&S battle, but chapter one shifts tone as well as expectations with a conversation between two women, one young, one old, who both intend to fix the disaster resulting from that lost battle. Payne gets in viewpoints from those at the top of the power pyramid as well as those at the bottom, conveying an Epic sense.


Kevin J. Anderson’s Gamearth looks like standard S&S based on a game, but he’s introduced a twist: no only is the game world real, but the players are aware of the outside world. Doesn’t that make it Epic?

Jody Lynn Nye’s The Magic Touch is a fantasy about fairy godparents, written for youngsters, providing a contrast to the more serious and darker tales in the bundle—such as Matthew Caine’s The Ghosts of the Conquered, which is making its first appearance here. I’ve just barely started reading it, and got sucked right in by the protagonist, who is a burned out gladiator in a coliseum, told in vivid, engaging style.

Finally, to complete the overview of the bundle, Kevin J. Anderson offers to throw in a free steampunk story called Clockwork Lives. It’s apparently part of a novel to come out soon. The cover is really beautiful.

There is a lot of reading here–I’ve been at it for over a week, enjoying myself very much. There is a lot of bang for the buck!

clockwork lives




Epic fantasy or sword and sorcery? — 26 Comments

  1. I’ve struggled with the definition in cataloguing my library and I’m pretty sure, from looking over the search results my software comes up with, that I’ve changed my mind more than once over the last few years. I think right now epic, for me, means any hugely world-changing story with a large cast, and sword and sorcery is a little more down to earth and…personal, maybe? But I think it’s possible that the definition is a case of “I know it when I see it.”

    • Yeah. I agree. Especially if the story begins squarely within the parameters of one, but seems to change to another. I think that is one of the most interesting things about many books I’ve been reading of late, how writers will examine the expected tropes, and in so doing, turn them inside out. Or mix’n’match.

    • That’s the way I go.

      Then, when discussing the difference, I tend to talk about a wall that looks like it’s been hit by two paintballs producing a lot of splatter. It hasn’t. Someone’s plotted all the relevant story aspects (and being really talented has done it 2d). What looks like the paintball is the center of the respective genres. (Lord of the Rings and Conan the Barbarian respectively) Works splatter about, some drawing more near the other genre, some farther away from both.

      Most of the discussion about the genres is how, exactly, they were plotted, and where, exactly, do you draw the circle about the center to say, “This is border between in and out.”

  2. Back in the day, Tolkien was high fantasy, and s&s was Conan and Fafhrd and Elric and such. High style and literary bent, versus shorter, lighter, tilted more toward entertainment, with mighty thews and moody eyes and such.

    Epic now seems to mean long, more than anything else, though I see people labeling just about anything “epic” to get in the same Amazon category as Game of Thrones. I always considered the Avaryan books high fantasy, but I guess now they’re epic. Also secondary-world.

    High fantasy would also be the likes of Melanie Rawn, who is definitely epic, for both length and scope, though she’s being called grimdark and for my eye, hell no. She’s got plenty of moral ambiguity and there’s tragedy and characters making fatal mistakes based on fatal flaws, but the good guys have perfect marriages and their kids are cute and lovable and the domestic details are appealing and relatable. Grimdark for me is you hate them all and the ones you love are all going to get killed off bloodily, and the world is all ugly and nasty and gives off a similar vibe to dark-end horror. You want to visit Stronghold and Dragon’s Rest and it would be a fun world to live in, but in true grimdark, as the meme says, No, no, we don’t need to visit, we’re good, thanks.

    • Wow! Grimdark? Really? I always thought Melanie Rawn wrote romantic fantasy–like you said, the good guys had perfect marriages, perfect kids, etc. Even the villains had beautiful eyes and hair, at least in the ones I read, and the prose seemed an expert blend of romance and fantastical.

      But then I am not drawn to grimdark, so maybe I’m missing something!

        • Well, for a while there male critics certainly discounted girl cooties as far as taking fantasy seriously. But we know that rant.

      • This was some Very Serious Discussion, I forget where now. I assumed the assumption was that because one good-guy-faction person goes all revengey and genocidey, and people you love get killed off, that must be grimdark. I don’t think it’s romance, either, though the romantic elements are fairly strong. It’s more a kind of hommage a Dunnett with a geopolitical slant. It’s very much concerned with the uses and abuses of power, and the economics of the fantasy world. Lots of meetings and discussions of trade and monetary systems. If you build that fancy palace, you have to make sure you can pay for it. Which I think was unique at the time.

        Grimdark is all grim all the time, for me. I tried to finish The Mirror Empire, but couldn’t push through. Brilliant, complex, original, fascinating. And so bleak and awful I couldn’t stay there any more. Even while I admired the writing and the worldbuilding and the characters. Had a Life’s Too Short reaction and went and read a bunch of Elliott and Jemisin instead (speaking of rock-solid and deeply imagined epic fantasy).

        • Yeah–when reading a book is like a fantasy version of reading the news, I find it difficult to engage.

  3. I’d wondered recently what characteristics placed a book into the epic fantasy category, so I enjoyed your post. Thank you.

    Also, I hadn’t heard about this Storybundle yet, so thanks for mentioning it, too. Sounds like some great offerings.

    • Thanks for dropping by! There is a lot of bang for your buck in this bundle! (How that for alliteration, eh?)

  4. Yah — what is epic? Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, for example, isn’t fantasy, but is historical and is fiction, features 19th century sciences and technologies of all sorts from ship building to finance, horticulture and botany and biology. There are world-changing battles and conflicts. It includes a diverse variety of cultures, classes, peoples, politics — and genders! — on a global scale, though the stage is primarily the lands and seas of India and China. It is epic indeed.

    A question, i.e. curious: how many titles in this bundle are in the YA – New Adult category?

    • I’ve seen debate on whether the Mahabaratta is epic fantasy, as well as Journey to the West.

      I think two would be considered YA or new adult, mine and Jody Lynn Nye’s.

  5. I like the notion of epic being anything on a grand scale, whatever direction the grandness takes, whether it’s field of play, or stakes, or maybe something else. I guess maybe I assume epic also has an external rather than an internal focus (not to say we don’t get intimate with characters’ thoughts, feelings, and development, but just that that’s not the main arena)… but I don’t know. I think I could easily be persuaded otherwise. But I think epic implies grandeur of some sort.

    The books sound varied and interesting!

    • Yeah, so do I. Big stakes, big reach, big questions. Some books start small and get big. Actually LOTR did–starts in the Shire, very small.

  6. When the idea of “epic” is brought up, I’m inevitably brought back to my Epic and Romance class from undergrad. We studied as epic, The Iliad, and as romance, The Odyssey. The reason The Iliad was the epic was because it was a sweeping tale of a major event, revolving around many characters and involving a large conflict. (This was about 10 years ago so I’m a bit rusty on the definition, but that’s what I generally remember about it.) The Odyssey was defined as a romance because it was a personal journey focused on the progress of a single main character. That’s where I think a lot of people go wrong in defining a lot of the S&S as Epic Fantasy (or even High Fantasy). Epic and High Fantasy have always gone hand-in-hand for me, although I do see where they could be separated. But stories focused on a single protagonist (there may be other surrounding characters but none as important) going on his own journey (also read as “coming of age” or “the chosen one” stories) would not count as epic to me, but rather Romantic Fantasy (and not in the “romance” sense of the word).

    Some interesting discussion all around, though.

  7. Just FYI, The Magic Touch was not written for kids, although it is accessible to them.

    Thanks for the comprehensive rundown of all the great books and stories in the Epic Fantasy Bundle! I’m proud to be a part of it.

  8. Yeah I love sword and sorcery – one book that was not mentioned was read by my 12 year old son that I also got the pleasure to read called Libellus de Numeros from author Jim West <a href="http://www.magicaemathematica.com&quot;. What an awesome middle age fiction book about math, fantasy, and sorcery.