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Death comes for us all.

Keep her as your friend.

 Read "La Santisima"

What's New:

Miserere is now available at Audible.

My short story "Naked the Night Sings" is only one of the many fine stories in the urban fantasy anthology Manifesto: UF, edited by Tim Marquitz and Tyson Mauermann, Angelic Knight Press, 2013.

Novels

"Filled with show me now and tell me later prose, [Miserere] was one of the finest debuts of 2011 and remains a novel that I remember details from nearly three years later." Justin Landon, Tor.com

Download an excerpt of Miserere here

« do spider webs make my site look fat? | Main | The Heir of Night--Review »
Monday
Aug052013

epic or not, that is the question

When I wrote the review for Helen Lowe's Heir of Night last week, I started thinking about epic fantasy--what it is and what does it mean in relation to my own novels. I know fans and authors have a lot of definitions of "epic fantasy" but I just wanted a good literary description of "epic." In my search, I came across this:

"Epic" refers to long narrative poems portraying adventures. The adventures consist of episodes which contribute to the formation of a race or nation. The "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" are two folk epics attributed to Homer. Other examples of epics include "Beowulf," and "Mahabharata."

Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia; 1996, p324-324, 1/5p

If we remove "poem" from this definition and change the term to "story," then we have: "'Epic' refers to a story portraying adventures. The adventures consist of episodes which contribute to the formation of a race or nation."

Epic fantasy would then be a story that portrays adventures. The second portion of the definition is where we sometimes shift our focus from the people (or intelligent non-human race) to the world. World building can easily overshadow the human or racial elements of the story, depending on both the reader’s expectations and the author’s intent.

Everyone refers to Tolkien as the archetypal epic fantasy, and occasionally the discussion becomes so mired on the epic nature of the story and world building that people sometimes forget that Tolkien's characters shaped the story through their choices. Boromir's ambition overcame his better nature and he failed to make the right choice whereas Aragorn remained true to the Fellowship from beginning to end.

Tolkien spent a lot time on his characters' respective backgrounds and he did it for a reason--how an individual is brought up can very easily shape his or her nature. Aragorn lost his father when he was too young to remember him, but he was raised amongst the elves with Elrond as his adoptive father. He was surrounded with positive influences. That is not to say he was perfect. Aragorn was given to self-doubt, yet he always struck me as a humble character, one whose early misfortune was counterbalanced by Elrond's steadying influence.

Boromir, on the other hand, had a much different upbringing and personality. His father was a grim man. Boromir desired the trappings of a king rather than the more humble position of a steward. He craved honors and questioned the leadership of Gandalf and others within the company. Although his intentions were not evil, his behavior often placed the Fellowship at risk.

Here, it seems I've slipped off course, but not really. The fate of Frodo and the ring (and therefore the fate of Middle Earth) hinges on these two men and the decisions they make from the core of their integrity. To me, that is much more epic than the world building.

Another excellent example of relationships in an epic fantasy is Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. Here, the relationships and decisions of Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar shape the course of Britain. The entire culture is affected by who wields the most influence over King Arthur. Yet Bradley keeps the focus of her work deeply attuned to the relationships between the women in Arthur’s court.

Epic.

In both of these stories, and many more, the characters shape the course of the world through their decisions. For a very long time, I avoided using the word epic in regard to my own work, because I don't write about worlds--I write about people. Worlds bore me. People, on the other hand, hold an infinite number of possibilities. Our choices are more often based on emotion than we would like to admit. Allegiances can change on the spur of a moment, based on logic, impulse, and the proverbial gut feeling.

Is Miserere epic? In many ways it is. Rachael and John's choices influence Woerld's events. The course of the war with the Fallen depends on the choices that Rachael, John, and the other Seraphs make. Lucian switches his allegiance from the Citadel to his sister, then decides to switch his allegiance back to the Citadel. His decision changes the course of the war and shifts the balance of power, yet he changes his allegiance not for the good of Woerld but for very personal reasons.

Under this definition, Garden in Umber is much more epic than Miserere. Guillermo, Diago, and Miquel must overcome their pasts in order to shape the course of their world and ours; however, unlike Miserere, the ramifications of any decisions in Garden will have more immediate impact on the characters and their world. Since Garden is still on submission, that is all I can say about it right now, but even more so than Miserere, Garden falls within the definition of epic.

Epic fantasy is about how worlds and cultures are shaped, but only in the most peripheral sense. Epic fantasy is really very much about the people who shape those worlds.

Does this mean that all fantasy is epic? No. There is a great deal of breadth within the sub-genres that leave room for all types of fantasy, but epic fantasy is, in all probability, the best known.

One of the most wonderful aspects of epic fantasy is its many faces: some stories are the more traditional epics such as the ones written by Lowe and Brooks and others are of the darker* variety such as those of Martin and Lawrence. My work falls somewhere between the two extremes, but leans more toward dark fantasy than the more traditional versions. I avoid nihilism, because I simply am not nihilistic myself. Yet I don't shy from the hard facts, the terrible scenes, because to me, these are the quintessential moments that shape our lives.

It is only in our darkest moments that we find our true light, and I believe very much in redemption. Boromir recanted his failure to act nobly when he recounted his crime against Frodo to Aragorn. People can change, and those changes often do affect the course of nations. Likewise, an individual's decision not to change his or her behavior can also create turbulence not just in the personal realm, but in the greater world as Mark Lawrence shows us with Jorg.

Once upon time, I avoided the "epic" tag to my work for fear that people would mistake my novels for young adult forays into the genre. I don't feel that young adult novels are bad; however, I saw the negative feelings that YA readers had when they read my work. I don't want to misrepresent what I write. I certainly don't want people to read a book they won't enjoy.

My work is dark and sometimes borders on horror. My friend Peter Cooper once dubbed me with the tagline of "deliciously creepy" fantasy. I'll take that.

Drop your "epic" opinions into the comments if you like, or share them on Facebook, Twitter, or your own blog. I'm always interested in hearing your views on the subject. If you want to tell me why you think Miserere may or may not be epic, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

_____________________________

*I avoid the use of the terms "grimdark" and "gritty" fantasy. These two terms are meaningless.

#SFWApro

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Reader Comments (10)

Hi Teresa,

My definitions of what is epic and what is not don't quite dovetail with yours, but are certainly in the same kingdom.

The relatively short length of Miserere sort of confounds expectations on its epicness [Erin Hoffman does the same thing for me] but since the fate of Woerld and Earth are at stake, it fits my definition of "Stakes". If Lucien and Rachel do not succeed, all hell is going to literally break loose. That's epic.
August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul
I definitely see what you're saying. A lot of people equate epic with huge word counts, but look at Mark Lawrence's works ... the novels themselves are not epic in length, merely epic in nature and theme. Ditto Mazarkis Williams and the Tower and Knife trilogy; epic in nature and theme but not in length.

I doubt any of us will ever come to a perfect definition for epic fantasy, but I love analyzing it and seeing what everyone else thinks.
August 5, 2013 | Registered CommenterT. Frohock
Hi Teresa,

For me Miserere eaily falls in the epic fantasy camp as the story is built around the notion of characters whose live have been affected across various dimensions. Your world has different levels to it and crossovers affect each of them on differeing amounts. That's some epic world0building right there ;)

One of the easiest fantasy writers to be classified as epic fantasy is Brandon Sanderson simply because of the scale of the world he presents in his stories (that also adds up in page count). Conversely Sarah Ash, Myke Cole, Philippa Ballantine all write slim volumes but their stories are no less epic than Sanderson as their stories also deal with characters whose actions change the world and people around them.
August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMihir
Those are some wonderful examples, Mihir (and more additions to my already burgeoning reading list)! Thanks!!
August 5, 2013 | Registered CommenterT. Frohock
I think that before you can define epic fantasy, you have to first succinctly define epic. My own definition is heavily influenced by my academic training. My English Lit professor focused on the epic hero in defining an epic: The epic hero is one who embodies the ideal qualities of a particular culture, as seen in Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, or Beowulf. (There is a book on this whose title/author escapes me at the moment....)

In addition, there are certain aspects of the epic hero's life that are generally found in epics. These include something unusual or mysterious about his birth, talents manifesting at an early age, sometimes even a disability. I took an entire class on the epic and was amazed how these played out over and over again and were valid for non-Western epics such as the Mali tales of Sundiata and Son-Jara and even obscure Japanese epics featuring women as epic heroes.

These aspects can be instrumental in helping to distinguish between the epic hero, the tragic hero and the Shakespearean hero. It also gives food for thought. According to these definitions, Star Wars is an epic! :)

It is an interesting field of study, to say the least. :)
August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlinda Harrison
Hey, Glinda! The Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia definition that I found was for "epic" not "epic fantasy." I twisted it. ;-)

I love what you said about the non-Western epics too and how the same themes play out across culture. I've noticed that in folktales too.

I wonder if anyone does consider Star Wars an epic? The entire hero paradigm works out ... more to think about ...
August 5, 2013 | Registered CommenterT. Frohock
Great post! I agree completely that any novel that prioritizes world-building over character is fatally flawed. I'm intrigued, however, by that element of the original definition that mentions "the formation of a race or nation." This seems to go beyond world-building; we're not just talking about creating a geography/mythology/religion/cosmology/history/etc, but about telling a story that occurs at a particular inflection point for a particular people. The battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata, for instance, is foundational to a whole people, perhaps in a way that the events of Beowulf are not. I wonder if there's a productive distinction to be drawn here?

Thanks again for this!
August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Staveley
Hey, Brian, thanks for posting! I read your comment earlier and didn't want to snap off a reply. I think what you said here is interesting:

"The battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata, for instance, is foundational to a whole people, perhaps in a way that the events of Beowulf are not. I wonder if there's a productive distinction to be drawn here?"

The only thing I can say is that it is a matter of scope. I've studied Beowulf, probably more than any of the other works mentioned, but not the Mahabharata. I wonder if there is someone out there who is familiar with both that might be able to answer that. I'd love to see what they have to say.
August 5, 2013 | Registered CommenterT. Frohock
I will have to look at my notes from the class, to find the source of the Star Wars article my prof used as a handout. Here's a link to one article I found on the internet: http://www.articlemyriad.com/epic-hero-and-star-wars/
August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlinda Harrison
That is cool. I agree with the points Smith makes in her post. Thanks for finding that for us!
August 5, 2013 | Registered CommenterT. Frohock
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