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.
Part C: Others of interest: an alternative list
Here, in this last part, I’ve suggested other connected reads and influences that have all affected or been affected by the series mentioned in the earlier parts. Whilst they may not be big enough to be ‘Epic’ series, I think that they’re all important in their own right and they are all some of my favourite reads.
Conan by Robert E Howard
Another oldie. From the Weird Tales era of the 1930’s, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter (see Part B) these stories of Conan the Cimmerian have aged and their dated views on race and the role of women in a male-dominated society are very much a sign of their times. But there is a certain enthusiasm here that can’t be denied, and the imaginative world-building, not to mention the athletically-boggling gymnastics on display, has inspired many a more modern writer (for example, CL Moore (see below) and Fritz Leiber (see Part B) have already been mentioned in this series.)
The tales are mainly short stories, but together form Howard’s Hyborian world. Collectively they involve dark magic, warrior women, pirates and the titular barbarian character, who in the books is more nuanced than the Swarzenegger films and the Jason Momoa remake would suggest. The popularity of the character was such in the 1970’s that other writers (Sprague de Camp, Andrew Offut, Karl Edward Wagner (see below) and Robert Jordan, already mentioned) added to Howard’s roster. (Howard committed suicide in 1936 at the age of 30.) If we add these books to the list there are over twenty. Had there been longer works I would have included Conan higher in the list.
Jirel of Joiry by CL Moore
There’s not too many stories about Catherine Moore’s red-headed heroine (I counted six) but in my opinion they are a deserving read and criminally under-read today. Jirel, a female sword-wielder from the 1930’s (1934-39), was inspired by Howard’s Conan and a definite inspiration for other authors – including some of the other authors mentioned here. The stories, set in a medieval-esque France, involve Jirel fighting magic and defending castles against supernatural horrors in that Weird Tales style. They are collected in the book Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams (2002) which is now quite hard to get. (When I last looked, second-hand copies were being sold for about £30.) In the US they have been made available by Planet Stories as Black Gods Kiss, which may be easier to obtain. If you can get a copy, I highly recommend them.
Kane by Karl Edward Wagner
A series very much in the Robert Howard style, initially relatively unknown, but now, (thanks to word of mouth) rated by many as a classic. Karl, who had written and edited Conan stories, attempted to bring the Conan mythos up to date (or at least to the 1970’s.) Dark, gritty and relatively short (three novels and two story collections), I have included them here because of their influence on other Epic works and writers. Like Conan, had there been longer works I would have included Kane higher in the list.
This series involves our anti-hero Conan – sorry, Kane – an immortal killer available for hire, and his battles against all manner of horrors - evil magic, untrustworthy women and unpleasant occult religions. Like Howard’s work these are violent and exciting. These are hard to get in print, although new editions are expected later in the year. The e-book editions, available from places such as the SF Gateway, are easier to obtain and, by comparison, breathtakingly cheap. Start with Darkness Weaves (1970). Sadly, Karl died in 1994.
The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson
Another tale, short of size (less than 300 pages) but high on the Epicness, being styled upon Norse Epic legends. Published in 1954, this is the tale of Skafloc, elven-fosterling and originally son of Orm the Strong. According to Wikipedia, “The story begins with the marriage of Orm the Strong and Aelfrida of the English. Orm kills a witch's family on the land and later half-converts to Christianity, but quarrels with the local priest and sends him off the land. Meanwhile, an elf named Imric, with the help of the witch, seeks to capture the newly born son of Orm. In his place, Imric leaves a changeling called Valgard. The real son of Orm is taken away to elven lands and named Skafloc by the elves who raise him. As the story continues, both Skafloc and Valgard have significant roles in the war between the trolls and the elves.” The book was an influence on Michael Moorcock’s later Elric (see Part B.)
The Drenai Series by David Gemmell
Another very popular series, but more in Europe than in the US, strangely. It is worth starting with Legend (1984), though there are others in the series that, in my opinion, are better written – Legend was David’s debut novel. Filled with characteristically strong Fantasy tropes – loyalty, honour, family – the first book introduces us to Druss the Legend and his trusty Axe, Snaga. Eight others follow. David expanded his repertoire over the next twenty-odd years, writing historical fiction and post-apocalyptic tales as well as the Fantasy novels. Sadly, David died in 2006.
The Chronicles of Morgaine by CJ Cherryh
Although Carolyn Janice (CJ) Cherryh is perhaps better known for her SF (including the sixteen books-plus Foreigner series), she has written some great Fantasy novels. One of my personal favourite series is The Chronicles of Morgaine (1976-1988), a Fantasy novel series albeit with SF trappings. Start with Gate of Ivrel (1976), though I would recommend the trilogy in the omnibus edition – Gate of Ivrel, Well Of Shiuan and Fires of Azeroth. There is a fourth book, Exile’s Gate, and a new, complete omnibus later in the year. CJ has a reputation of writing complex and thoughtful tales, and these books deal with issues such as the importance of duty, responsibility and friendship. Also liked is the five-volume Fortress series, a more traditional Fantasy series but just as meaty. Start with Fortress in the Eye of Time (1995.)
ASH A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Five books in one omnibus volume (in the UK at least). ASH (2000) is a complex tale, ostensibly a Historical novel with a kickass heroine but in the end a tale of strange machinery, quantum universes and multiple-changing realities. One of my personal favourites, and one I return to time and time again.
Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series
Again, not sure whether this is strictly Epic, although in terms of its global coverage this one sneaks in. Try Temeraire (2006), (aka His Majesty’s Dragon in the US) where we first meet Captain William Lawrence and the dragon Temeraire with the British Royal Navy in Napoleonic England. Think Sharpe, but with added dragons. Later books in the series (there are seven so far, with an eighth due later this year) expand on the global nature of the alternate history and involve Temeraire reaching places as far afield as China, Japan, South America and Australia.
The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss
One that makes the list more by way of page count rather than traditional Epic Fantasy tropes. Patrick’s trilogy, of which two are published so far, are terrifically well written, and despite a lack of dragons and armour-plated swordsmen and women, have a deceptively easy style and great characterisation. Written as the transcription of a verbal autobiography, with one day’s narrative depicted in each book, the plot drifts between the present and the past to tell of Kvothe, a renowned musician, magician, and adventurer, now living anonymously as a rural innkeeper.
Start with The Name of the Wind (2007) and I suspect you’ll want to move on quickly to its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear (2011). You may have to wait for the third book, though, provisionally titled The Doors of Stone – it’s not due until at least 2016.
Even allowing for the books that have yet to be published, hopefully you’ve found enough books here to revisit, reread or discover. Happy reading!
Now, where’s my broadsword… ?