I’ve written a variety of novels by now. I’ve got a handful of violent and fast paced supernatural thrillers. I’ve got a literary post-apocalyptic book that I’m incredibly proud of and which has earned my most scathing reviews. I’ve got a horror novel. I’ve got this and that, but lately, these past few days, these past few nights, I’ve found my thoughts turning to epic fantasy.
You know the kind. Door stoppers. Huge series that follow the adventures of a band of young ne’er-do-wells as they seek to save the world from Sauron. Replete with a map at the beginning of the book, and if you’re lucky, a glossary at the back that tells you that kaf is this world’s version of coffee.
Why? Haven’t enough trees been killed in the name of epic fantasy? Well, sucker, ebooks. But still. Why go epic? Why go big or go home? Because I loved those books as a kid. I’ve not read any epic fantasies recently (Sanderson’s Way of Kings aside), but still. Anybody out there read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionovar Tapestry? Those books literally thrilled me. Or what about Feist’s Magician books? Again, old school favorite. The Deed of Paksenarrion. These were epic works of imagination, entire tapestries of creative world-building that swept you up and carried you away, far, far into the reaches of the night.
I’d like to try my hand at creating some of that old school magic. Nevermind that I’m about to publish Book 3 of the vampire series, and will then work on completing the series with Book 4. Still. My mind, it wanders, it strays, and like a no-good cheating backdoor man, it visits the house of epic fantasy each night even as it wakes up and puts on its tie each morning in the house of vampire urban fantasy. Go listen to Howlin’ Wolf’s Back Door Man ().
But one does not simply waltz into Mordor. Tolkien is famous for spending over three weeks of his summer holiday in Brighton creating the whole of the Simallarion and those Elvish languages and going down to the pub to get inspiration for all those songs and ditties. Robert Jordan was consumed whole by The Wheel of Time, and is rumored to still be alive, Elvis style, just lost in the depths of his world creation room. He had one, by the way. How cool is that?
So how do you go about creating a multi-part epic series that isn’t simply a rehash of Tolkien and Jordan, or hey, even George R.R. Martin?
First, what’s epic fantasy? Long story short, go read this essay by Chloe Smith, who nails it. She says, and I quote:
Ultimately, when we try to settle the question of what counts as epic fantasy, we shouldn’t ask how long the book is, or whether or not it describes heroes joined in massive battles, but rather, in the spirit of the epic tradition, how significant is the change it marks on its world? How big is the scope of its conflict, and how significant the power of its eventual resolution?
So you want a) a world and b) a plot and cast of characters that changes it significantly. Man, that’s a tall bill of goods. Luckily I have a place to start. Luckily I’ve got myself some ideas. Now, they aren’t coherent yet, but this is what I’m working with:
One, take my novel Blood From the Mountain which deals with the rise to power of a lowly mountain orc as he seeks to become all Genghis Khan. It was pretty good, given that I wrote it in less than a month. Gimme a shout out if you read it back in my One Million Words days.
Second, blend in some fine, fine Constantinople history. If GRRM gets to play with the Hundred Years War and War of the Roses, I get to cut events whole cloth out of the history of the Byzantines, and man, is there some epic and crazy stuff to be had there. I’d go into some details, but this post is long enough already. If you’re curious, check out Justinian II, who was mutilated, deposed, escaped into exile for a decade after escaping his prison, and then returned with a Bulgar and Slav army to lay siege to his old capital. He eventually snuck in via the aqueducts with a group of friends and retook the palace single handedly, installing himself once more as Emperor and exacting such a wrathful vengeance on his enemies that he went down in history as insane and was deposed and killed within the year.
So posit a rising Genghis Khan-style orc thing going on over here, and then a Constantinople over there. Bring in all the politics of the Byzantine age, along with magic, the rise of engineering, and a variety of view point characters. Maybe have the orcs play the role of the Ottomans as they came and conquered? Throw in a Siege of Belgrade, and you’ve got yourself something to work with.
But it ain’t epic yet. Which is why I still have my work cut out. I need more. It’s got to be so wide you can’t get around it, so high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t… you get the picture.
Still. It’s a start. I’m going to finish these vampire books, and then, well. Maybe I’ll draw a map. Maybe I’ll come up with different names for the days of the week. Maybe I’ll come up with a whole fantasy world, just so I can burn it down.
Share your thoughts – what makes an epic fantasy, well, epic? What are your favorite examples of such, and why?
Actually, I’m pretty serious about all this, to the point where I’m re-reading Jordan’s Wheel of Time and checking in on this re-read that Leigh Butler posted on Tor.com. It’s like an informal graduate course on epic fantasies. I’ll leave off with a quote which shows how useful it’s proving:
Part of what makes the world building of the Wheel of Time work so well is its feel of authenticity in the stories told within it. And what I mean by that is how the various legends and references are rarely if ever completely true, or completely false, but are usually both. And I think that resonates. Anyone who’s had experience with media bias, or been the target of gossip, or been told FOAF stories, or played Telephone at a party, or ever set foot inside a high school—i.e. everyone—that ambiguity dovetails perfectly with our experience of the way stories work in the real world.
Stories, especially orally told stories, are adulterated things; the very act of telling them changes them from what they were previously. The older they are and the more times they’re told, the more altered (or decayed) they become. Which is more or less the core notion upon which the Wheel of Time series is built (combined with the notion of circular time, so that all stories eventually come back around to their origins again).