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.

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

#SFWApro

Gender Bending Entry #4 by Jackson Harris

Some of you have questioned whether we (the authors) are deliberately trying to trick you, so for the record:

Several authors submitted pieces they had lying around. I asked only that they choose something that would not easily be identified with their writing style. Fans can easily pick up on an author's voice, and since several of the authors are very well known, I didn't want people recognizing specific writing styles.

When an author didn't have something lying around, they wrote a piece just for this blog, primarily because we knew that once it hit the interwebs, it would become a freebie for everyone.

We took a brief hiatus for the holidays; however, I'm back now and will be running posts until we reach the end of the contest. Please keep your comments focused on the question at hand.

As always, please don't break my website.

Here we go ...

READ THIS FIRST: The rules and the prizes. Your mission: comment on whether you believe the author of this excerpt is male or female.

Untitled Entry #4 by Jackson Harris

Chet hung his EVA suit up in his locker, checking over it to make sure there were no new signs of fraying. The far end of the locker room had a group of newbie passengers crowded around Brokedown Sal.

"Reliable." Sal nodded his head ominously. "That's what we all thought of Starky. When the dude missed last night's roll call, therewas more than panic, there was fear. Yousee..."

"Oh, what utter bullshit," Chet said. He slammed his locker door, holding a handstrap so the momentum wouldn't push him across the room. The clang echoed through the room. "You aren't going to start the newbs out on the station with a freaking' ghost story are you?"

One of the newbs had drifted free of his footholds and was pawing at the suit of a friend, trying to pull himself back down to the floor. The station wasn't zero g, but it was close enough this far in to the hub that it would take him a long ass time to fall back down.

Sal folded his arms the way he always did when he got stubborn. "Dude. Not a ghost story."

"Dude. Starky is in his bunk nursing a hangover." Chet said, pushing off. He aimed his long leaps for the door. "Teach your passengers how to hold on instead of trying to scare them."

He should not let Brokedown Sal get on his nerves. The man couldn't help being a chronic liar and it didn't interfere with his skills as a shuttle pilot, but still, it made Chet crazy. Especially when rotation put Sal in charge of giving newbs the tour. Chet hop-floated through the corridor until he got to the down tube. Snagging a rung, he started climbing down to the next level. He wanted some real gravity and a drink.

#

Crammed into a single room on level 4, the Sheltered Fish had tried to create the ambiance of a down-planet bar through a clever use of paint. If you didn't look too closely, the plasteel counter gave the impression of a fine oak grain and the ducting overhead could pass for brass. They'd painted the airlock dog wheels to look like giant gears so the whole thing almost, almost looked like it was a genuine steampunk bar.

Chet sidled up to the bar and ordered a wetpack of brandy. They couldn't do anything to disguise the serving containers. Even in the gravity portions of the station, everything came in low-grav packaging, just in case they lost spin. He hated drinking beer with a straw, so brandy had long ago become his drink of preference.

Drink in hand, Chet turned to see who else was holed up here. Across the room, Mbali stood at one of the bar tables talking to Gerhardt. Even from here, the way the slender black woman leaned back, arms crossed, obviously meant that she wanted to escape Gerhardt's company, but on a station with a population of 352, you couldn't risk alienating anyone. Not even a sixty-year old physicist who would hump a water line.

"Howdy, folks," Chet said, sliding between Mbali and Gerhardt as unobtrusively as he could.

Mbali latched onto him like a shuttle to a loading door. "Chet! Gerhardt was just telling me that Starky saw an alien last night."

"Been talking to Brokedown Sal, huh?" He sipped his brandy, trying to pretend that he could smell it.

Gerhardt shook his head. He said, "Heard it from Starky."

Chet squeezed the wetpack in surprise, spraying his drink in his face. "You're kidding me."

"Nope." Gerhardt put his hand on Chet's chin, delicately wiping the brandy off. He licked his fingers, smiling at Chet. "Come back to my bunk and I'll tell you all about it."

At least the man was equal opportunity. Chet exchanged glances with Mbali. "You know I wish I could, but seeing Mbali has reminded me that we need to prep for the influx of newbs. When you have time?"

"Now's good." Mbali said, pushing away from the table with a tad too much eagerness for subtlety.

Chet capped the straw on his drink and slid it into his pocket. "Great. Come on."

"Anything I can help with?" Gerhardt rested his hand on Mbali's shoulder. "You let me know." He just brushed her breast as he pulled his hand away.

She smiled tightly. "Great. Thanks. I'll keep that in mind."

The moment they were in the corridor, Mbali let out her breath in a long string of curses. Chet raised his eyebrows appreciatively. "How many languages was that?"

"Six. If you count Middle English and Early Modern English as separate languages." She ran her hand over her cropped hair. "Which you should."

"I'll keep that in mind. That's the second time I've heard Starky's name today."

"Where've you been? It's all over the station."

"I was out doing EVA repairs on the solar panels for most of the morning. First I heard was from Brokedown Sal."

"Yeah, well, he's telling the truth for once. Probably. What did he say?"

"Just starting to tell a bunch of newbs that Starky didn't show last night."

Mbali's eyes lit up. "I'd forgotten they were coming on board today. Sam Brooke is supposed to be in this batch."

"And he is?"

"She. She is the other prog--"

A klaxon sounded and the hall jolted under them. Chet grabbed for a handrail, but inertia hurled him away before he could. Mbali grabbed his foot as gravity faded and died. Up and down the corridor, people cursed and shouted questions.

The intercom cut in with a buzz of static. "All hands. All hands. Unidentified boarders. Recommend full EVA gear. This is not a drill. Repeat. This is not a drill."

Mbali hauled him in so he could grab the handrail. He clenched it, palms sweating. "You said aliens?"

Do we assume all women write YA fantasy; Or what’s in a name?

The first six months after Miserere was published, I felt that I made a mistake publishing under my real name. I am, after all, a woman—a woman who writes fantasy. I think a lot of genre fans made an automatic assumption that a woman who writes fantasy is either writing: a) young adult fantasy; or b) paranormal romance.

I say this for a couple of reasons. My first clue that assumptions were being made came from my initial reviewers. Many of the prominent genre fiction reviewers understood Miserere was an adult novel. However, there were several reviewers that obviously entered the novel fully expecting a Middle Grade or YA fantasy. I believe this little gem of a review encapsulates the confusion nicely:

I had trouble relating too or liking any of them [the characters]. It left me a bit confused about what age group this book is aimed at. Lindsay is a pre-teen, yet there is too much torture, violence and sex for this to be a middle grade or YA book. Rachael and Lucian appear to be older, in their forties or fifties maybe? Their older age and frame of mind made it harder to relate with them as characters either.”

The question that nagged me after I read that review was simply this: Why did she automatically assume this was a Middle Grade or YA novel?

Although Lindsay does have a significant role in the novel, she isn’t a main character. She is not mentioned in the blurb, nor is she pictured in the cover art. That was Night Shade Books’ decision and I thought it a wise one. As a matter of fact, Night Shade Books did not market Miserere as a YA fantasy at all.

Nor did I. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I enjoy reading and writing fantasy for adults. Middle Grade and Young Adult fantasies are wonderful and I occasionally indulge, but not often. I enjoy the complexity of adult themes. So I remained baffled as to why some readers continued to assess Miserere as if it was a YA novel.

At some point in all this, I read one angsty review too many and snapped. Frankly, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often with debut authors. We’re under a tremendous amount of stress and every review influences the overall perception of our novels. Authors are told to say nothing. In some authors this “say nothing” rule creates a powder-keg effect, and mine erupted in the manifesto, “I write dark fantasy.”

Shortly after that blog post, people started taking me seriously as an adult fiction author. Suddenly, I noticed a 180 degree change in attitude regarding Miserere. People viewed the story differently.

Hmmmm, said my brain.

I became curious and looked at reviews for male authors such as George RR Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Doug Hulick, Mark Lawrence. No one mistook their novels for YA or Middle Grade. Stina Leicht took some heat because her urban fantasy Of Blood and Honey was very dark and didn’t meet the hunky urban fantasy romance prototype, but no one banged Alex Bledsoe for doing the same type of dark urban fantasy with The Hum and the Shiver.

Hmmmm, said my brain. (My brain says that a lot.)

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that a strong possibility existed that people automatically equated Miserere as being a YA novel because I am a woman. The reason I infer a “strong possibility” is simply because I have no data with which to support this hypothesis; all I have is circumstantial evidence. However, the more I evaluate the situation across the board, the more I realize it’s entirely possible.

I’m also quite cognizant of the fact there is an overall assumption by non-genre readers that all fantasy novels are written for young adults. However, the reviews and confusion about Miserere came from people who read genre fiction on a regular basis.

So. The unanswered question, of course, is: If I had published under the name T. Frohock, would people still have made the YA assumption about Miserere? I don’t know. The thought has haunted me from time to time over the last year, and it has certainly made me more aware of my initial assumptions when I see an author’s name.

Me?

I’m going to publish under Teresa Frohock. I’ve had that name for quite some time and I’ve grown rather fond of it. I will change your mind about how you perceive my work. I love a challenge.

And please allow me to clarify once more, so there is no confusion:

I write dark fantasy.

For adults.

You know the drill. *winks*

Tell me if you make assumptions about an author’s work simply by looking at his or her name. I’m in interested in what you think.

writing, thinking about dark fiction

I had an interesting Twitter discussion on dark fantasy versus "dark and gritty" fantasy earlier this week. I'm curious if you have any thoughts on dark fantasy. Personally, I always saw dark fantasy as being fiction that resonated much like fairytales and think of authors such as Tanith Lee. Yet I now see the term "dark" bantered around to define anything that isn't heroic fantasy.

What about you? What kind of fiction do you consider dark fantasy? And for a bonus round, what turns you off or turns you on about dark fantasy?