8 Nov 2019

A Brief Essay Regarding Epic Fantasy

Hello readers!

Today I am sharing a brief essay (or perhaps “musing” is a more accurate description) regarding some trends I’ve observed in the epic fantasy genre over the past couple of years. Although Fallen Love is an urban fantasy novel, my first novel, the Necromancer, was definitely in this genre. It’s still my all-time favourite genre, as both reader and writer, and one I care very deeply about.

Thinking Big and Small

One of the trends I’ve observed in many epic fantasy books over the years is a tendency to go bigger and bigger: the world has to be bigger, the plot lines must be increasingly far-fetched, and the characters have to be bigger to accomodate the increase in bigness. Likewise, the word count of many epic fantasy books is becoming increasingly ridiculous—well-established authors are the big culprits, but even less well-known authors write manuscripts in excess of 150,000 words.

Guys, it’s time to dial it down a bit. Writing a 6-book series at 150,000 words a pop isn’t going to produce a better story. The great Scottish poet Robert Burns was praised for his ability to capture everything from the magnificence of a landscape, to the relationship between husbands and wives, all the way down to the life of a mouse—in only a handful of words. This is something that, as fantasy authors, we should try to emulate.

I’m not saying epic fantasy shouldn’t contain great battles, mighty dragons, or terrifying dark wizards. It wouldn’t be epic fantasy if it didn’t have the magic ingredients. But I also want to read about the little things in life—the wonder of a young boy as he discovers magic; a sweet romance; or the snappy comeback of an annoyed teenager. Heck, I even enjoy seeing the occasional joke in a fantasy book.

Speaking of Jokes...

Seriously, why is fantasy so dark these days? I enjoy a well-written grimdark novel as much as the next dude, but I also want to read fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Not in the sense that it can’t be serious literature—I do want to read about death, loss, politics, love and hope—but in the sense that it doesn’t have to show us gore, profanity, and bad sex to do it. (I enjoy a book with good, passionate sex in it, which is rare in an epic fantasy novel.)

Heroes and anti-heroes

This is another area where epic fantasy needs to wake up and do something different. The first fantasy books—ye olde fantasy by the likes of Tolkien, Le Guin, later Eragon and the Belgariad—popularised the trope of the hero. This hero is male (nearly always), young-ish, and a do-gooder.

Then a new wave of fantasy came along. The old heroes were deemed “cliché”, and they invented the anti-hero in his stead. The anti-hero is usually male, but sometimes female. The men are rough, violent, and not afraid of a little dirty work; the women are usually dagger- or magic-wielding super-assassins (yes, I’m looking at you, Mark Lawrence). The anti-hero can be found in most of today’s grimdark books by the likes of Joe Abercrombie, Richard K Morgan, and GRR Martin.

The anti-hero has become even more of a cliché than the hero was, I would argue. Or at least, the anti-heroes are not always as interesting as they are supposed to be. They suffer from the same problem as the heroes: lack of variety. The anti-heroes nearly always seem to be manly warriors or femme-fatales, and to my mind there are a lot of unexplored possibilities. What about dark magicians trying to do the right thing? Strong kings who gained their power through violence, but have to try and unite the nation against a much greater outside evil? What about arrogant elves who end up trying to save humans? Rebellious angels?

Show us imagination

This is my conclusion, and my advice to fellow fantasy writers: fantasy is about imagination. Let’s see more of it!

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