Over at SFFWorld we have had regular discussions over what constitutes Epic Fantasy – generally its ‘big’, but in what aspect? Well, there’s no single answer (which is why we’re still debating it), but the gist of the points seem to be based on size. Epic Fantasy usually involves a largeness of scale - lots of people, or a variety of places, or events over a long period of time. Being Fantasy, it must also include an element of fantasy central to the story – magic, dragons, unusual events or such like. It may also be a tale where the consequences of what could happen will have world-scale changing events, the significance of which creating the Epic-ness.
Some may quibble over the fine details – “When does Sword and Sorcery become Epic”, or “High or Low Fantasy – Which do you prefer?” or even “Does Harry Potter count as Epic Fantasy?” What I’ve tried to do here is make a list of the entry level examples: ones with similar styles, motifs and themes that you’d like to read primarily for entertainment.
This is one for those readers who, by reading them, realise they’re in for the long haul, the lover of those books produced by the pound in weight as well as the pound in pocket. If you like multi-multi-multi volume series, these may be worth your while.
There’s quite a few to choose from, so to narrow this down a bit, let’s get some obvious ones out of the way. These are all readily available.
Part A: The ones you may know.
Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
The grand-daddy of this list, as it is the trilogy that even non-Fantasy fans know of. Putting it simply, if you’ve liked the films, many find the books a richer experience. For those who don’t know (is there anyone?) it is a tale with a lengthy history of lost rings, elves, wild wizards and hobbits (small, usually shy creatures with big hairy feet and a love of food, pipe and beer.) More honourable and higher-mannered than many of those mentioned here, the three books that make up the trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954) and The Return of the King (1955)) together number over 1000 pages. There are reasons why people read and re-read this one. Part of the reason is the depth of the story which works on various levels. I would add that it may not be for everyone, though, as the style of the writing may be off-putting for some. For those wanting a smaller (and easier) read, but with a similar feel, The Hobbit (1937) (thankfully much, much shorter than the movie versions) may be a place to start. Though it is less epic.
The Shannara Series by Terry Brooks
One of the more popular-selling choices in this list. Often regarded as one of the breakout Fantasy series of the 1970’s – and certainly one of the first bestsellers of the genre, with the first book (The Sword of Shannara) in 1977 being the first Fantasy novel on the New York Times Paperback Bestsellers list. There are now nearly thirty books in the series to date, and counting, with the recent books linking Terry’s Shannara books to the more Stephen King-like Word and the Void Series. A version of Epic Fantasy similar to Lord of the Rings with wise Wardens, elves, orc-like Demons and young protagonists, but with easier to follow characters and (thankfully) less poetry.
The Riftwar series by Raymond Feist.
Although this series was part of the boom in Fantasy in the 1980’s, (partly due to the success of the Shannara series), the Riftwar series has only recently been finished with Magician’s End (2013). There are more than thirty – yes, thirty – books in the series to read through, although they often run in trilogies. Whilst the later books in the series are considered by many to be less successful, the first book (Magician (1981)) is a terrific scene setter. A tale of magic and apprentices, kings and dimensionless rifts. According to Wikipedia, the books in the series “feature the worlds of Midkemia and Kelewan. Human magicians and other creatures on the two planets are able to create rifts through dimensionless space that can connect planets in different solar systems. The novels and short stories of The Riftwar Universe record the adventures of various people on these worlds.” If you like it, the next dozen or so will keep you busy. I know of some fans who prefer Raymond’s spin-off series co-written with Janny Wurts. Try Daughter of the Empire as well.
The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson)
In terms of size, one of the big-hitters, perhaps the biggest continuous story in this list. First published in 1990, with The Eye of the World, there are fourteen volumes (with a prequel novella) and nearly 10 000 pages of text that makes this an Epic tale. This is a story long in the telling, of orc-like Trollocs, High Lords, mysterious cults and braid-tugging. To quote the Dragonmount Community website, “The overall plot is about a man who learns that he is the reincarnation of the world's messiah and is once again destined to save the world from the Dark One -- but possibly destroy it in the process. This saga is not only his story, but the story of an entire world's struggle to deal with war and change, destruction and hope.” The series definitely has its fans, who can verge on the evangelical about the books, but for others may be too long, repetitive and slow-moving. (I must admit that I have yet, despite three or more attempts, to get past Book Five in the series.) Following the death of Robert Jordan in 2007, the last three books were completed by Brandon Sanderson, based on an outline from Jordan.
Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin
Of the more recent Epic Fantasy, this series is the one-to-beat. To paraphrase what I’ve said above, if you’ve liked the TV series, the books are better, even though in this case we may still be a way off an ending. Currently there are five books in the series, with a proposed two more to go. The first (A Game of Thrones) was published in 1996 – the others since have had increasingly lengthy gaps of time between them (1996, 1998, 2000, 2005, 2011.) Bolstered by the phenomenally popular HBO TV series (begun in 2011 and now about to start its fifth season) this is the one that seems to be the standard all others aspire to. Big, epic in range and scale, complex, and with lots and lots of characters, this is a darker and perhaps less idealistic equivalent of Tolkien’s epic.
The Malazan Series by Steven Erikson
Also a very popular recent production. Again, the writing may not be for everyone, but for complexity and bewilderment this now-completed series takes some beating. Epic in scope and its huge range of characters, from Book One (Gardens of the Moon, 2001) it is clear you are arriving in the middle of a place with a dense and fully-formed backstory. Consequently it may take a little while to work out what’s going on, although the first five books can be read separately – the last five build on what has happened before. Dark and violent, this is a story of decaying Empires, mercenary soldiers, native uprisings and magic. A prequel series, The Kharkana Trilogy, was begun in 2012, with the second novel due in 2015. If you like these, Ian Cameron Esslemont’s half-dozen Novels of the Malazan Empire, using the same world he co-wrote with Erikson, may be worth a try. They are written to dovetail into Erikson’s series.
The Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson
Another set of monster tomes, this time from the completer of the now-sadly-deceased Robert Jordan. There are ten books planned in this series. Two have been published to date (Way of Kings, (2010) and Words of Radiance (2014)), and already the page-count is over 2000 pages. This is another series with a huge character list, a long history and unusual people and places that you can wallow in. The basic plot is that of a range of characters fighting evil (Voidbringers) in a heavily class-based system who live on a world dominated by ‘highstorms’, storms characterized by a very violent storm front followed by weaker rains. Flora and fauna have evolved to cope with this condition. There are over thirty different magic systems integrated into the story, a trademark of Brandon’s solo work. Whilst some have felt that the characterisation is a little too simple, (although this may change over the remaining books) it cannot be denied that this will be a major series over the next decade.
Part B: to follow next week!