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.
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.
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!