The fantasy genre has a complex and diverse landscape–and incorporates the kind of assortment of tropes, conventions, and magical creatures that can make you head spin. The challenge of writing fantasy comes from having a good overview of the genre, knowing to nod to what’s come before, and build upon it. In fact, one of the SF/F editors I talked to recently said that the two most common mistakes writers make in submissions are that they either try to reinvent the wheel and, unbeknownst to them, write a story that has a plot similar to one of the all-time SF/F classics or they rely on genre paradigms that were the rage decades ago and are no longer popular. If you want to be published today, you have to be familiar with what’s published today as well as know your ABCs when it comes to fantasy: J. R. R. Tolkien, Mercedes Lackey, George R.R. Martin, Philip Pullman and so on. You have to be fluent in fantasy.
That’s why we wanted to spend some time on the epic fantasy genre–a pretty “hot” genre of late, and demystify the small but significant ways in which is differs from other fantasy subgenres such as historical and traditional fantasy.
Epic fantasy originates from the so-called sword and sorcery type of fantasy, which one book describes as “muscular heroes in violent conflict with a variety of villains, chiefly wizards, witches, evil spirits and other creatures whose powers are–unlike the hero’s–supernatural in origin.” Epic fantasy fiction has evolved into a diverse genre of stories with a complex and sweeping plot, detailed worldbuilding, warfare and political intrigue, a big cast of characters, and a setting often borrowed from history.
The difference between historical and epic fantasy is less self-evident than it might seem because epic fantasy writers seem to scavenge the historical books and find inspiration in real historical figures and events as well. In The Song of Fire and Ice, George R.R. Martin uses Medieval Europe as a blueprint for his Westeros and heavily draws upon the War of the Roses.
Historical fantasy novels, however, go beyond mere inspiration; they take place in a recognizable historical era, usually prior to the twentieth century. Guy Gavriel Kay’s books exemplify this. His novel UNDER HEAVEN is a fictionalized version of the An Shi rebellion during the rule of the Tang dynasty in China. The magic in the book is ancillary to the plot and could have been edited out–the book could have found a place on the historical fiction shelf. What prevented Kay from categorizing it so is his adherence to a highly ethical view of history: staging his book in the fantasy realm removes the need to (spuriously) ascribe words and actions to historical figures, so that he can make these figures his own. In historical fantasy, history takes precedence. In epic fantasy, history is a jumping-off point.
The difference between epic fantasy and traditional fantasy is even murkier. Aren’t they both about sword fights, kingdoms and magical creatures? Indeed, that could be the case; the differences are predominantly about scope. The plot of a traditional fantasy is much more contained. For example, fimilial drama is at the center of Juliet Marillier’s THE DAUGHTER OF THE FOREST–a novel loosely based on the tale of the Six Swans about a sister undertaking a perilous journey to reclaim the lives of her brothers. While family drama could be an important theme in epic fantasy, the stories are much larger in scope and involve the fate of whole empires–not just families. The ACACIA trilogy follows the lives of royal Akaran children over a long period of time, and yet it plainly shows how their lives are connected to the destiny of the Acacia empire–and subsequently the whole world. There are multiple cultures positioned in different geographic regions, and the complex worldbuilding reveals different shades of religion, politics, economic policy, and social mores.
Epic fantasy blows up fantasy’s key features on a grander scale: a big cast of characters afford a rich, kaleidoscopic view of the world; big military scenes delight the military aficionados; and the rise and fall of kingdoms are at the heart of the story unfolding. Long word counts reflect the vastness of the story: epic fantasies are 100k words on average and can sometimes even reach 200k words.
A recent trend in epic fantasy has been toward dark and gritty books–a tendency toward realism we can safely attribute to the popularity of A Song of Fire and Ice and its HBO counterpart, GAME OF THRONES. Does that mean we should all write realistic, bloody epics with lots of explicit content? Not really–trends are fickle, and the industry might be on its next fad by the time you plot out and complete a novel to fit a particular trend. As Sara Megibow said in a recent interview, “[B]rilliant writing has been the “hot” thing all along.”
Keeping a close eye on what’s in and what’s out is always a good idea. Follow the first commandment of writing on Book Country: “Know thy genre!”
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