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Posts Tagged ‘epic fantasy’

There are stories that don’t fit the Tolkien mold. Not as many as there should be, but it’s hard to defy reader expectations.

For my money, the best of these is Lois McMaster Bujold’s SHARING KNIFE series, which consists of four full-length books, and one novella: BEGUILEMENT, LEGACY, PASSAGE, HORIZON, and “Knife Children”.

Like LORD OF THE RINGS, the SHARING KNIFE is not really a series in the classic sense, but more of one long story published in four parts, with the follow-on novella published later. It shares a lot of other similarities with LoTR, too. Intentionally, since the author was consciously writing an answer to LoTR.

The world of THE SHARING KNIFE doesn’t have a single Dark Lord. Instead, an ancient magical experiment went very wrong, seeding the world with an unknown number of dormant monsters called malices or blight bogles that emerge randomly. Each malice essentially eats the essence of the world around it, creating a blight reminiscent of the aftermath of a nuclear blast—everything in the area dies and nothing can live in that area for decades, centuries, or, in extreme cases, millennia. It’s dangerous even to step into such blight. And the longer a malice lives, the more powerful it becomes and the more of the world it blights to sustain itself.

And only one group of humans, called Lake Walkers, can kill malices. Only they, with their innate magic, can make the weapon necessary to kill a malice—a knife made from the thigh bone of a Lake Walker and primed by being plunged into the heart of a dying Lake Walker, so that the knife can capture the essence of that death to share with a malice and teach it to die. Two Lake Walker deaths for each malice death.

Lake Walkers patrol obsessively to find and kill malices before they can do too much damage, with no hope that the threat will be eradicated in their lifetimes. Only hoping that the long war will not be lost in their lifetimes. Their lives are defined by this task. Meanwhile the rest of humanity lives largely in blissful ignorance, most not even believing that blight bogles exist. But if ever a malice escapes such a death, it will destroy the world.

For further analysis of the similarities—and differences—between LotR and THE SHARING KNIFE, try these two articles:

Tussling with Tolkien: Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife: Horizon | Tor.com 

Absent Gods, Absent Catastrophes : The Sharing Knife and The Lord of the Rings – DataHead — LiveJournal

I love LotR, but there are more than enough stories now following that pattern. And, frankly, one-dimensional dark lords and simple solutions are beginning to get a little old.

I want more stories like THE SHARING KNIFE, too. And others in which the answer isn’t simple—or immediate. (Simple is not the same as easy. Destroying the ring to destroy Sauron is a simple solution, but anything by easy to accomplish.) But that kind of story—even though it may have many exciting battles—doesn’t seem to satisfy readers of epic fantasy, who have been taught to expect the one battle to end all battles.

I don’t know, maybe we need a new sub-genre of epic fantasy for these kinds of story. But what would we call it?

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THE LORD OF THE RINGS is surely not the first example of epic fantasy. Myths and legends from ancient times have plenty of examples—including the Arthurian legend I’m currently working with. But it has become the archetypal example of the genre, what most people think of first when the subject comes up. It’s a good example of epic fantasy—but not of all that epic fantasy can—or even should—be.

Because part of any story, and particularly speculative fiction, is to reflect the common experience of its time in a way that allows readers to process that experience differently, to look at it in a neutral setting in a way that’s not possible with real world events. Tolkien, in part, did exactly that with LORD OF THE RINGS. But LoTR reflects his experience of war, which is not ours.

Tolkien fought in World War I. So, let’s take a quick look at that war. WWI lasted four years. It was the first major war in which air planes (open-cockpit bi-planes, back then) were used extensively. The first major war in which chemical weapons were used (and they were banned by most of the participants shortly after the war). Much of it was trench warfare.

Just superficially, we can see a lot of parallels with LoTR. The Nazgul are given flying not-quite-dragons. Too close a brush with the Nazgul results in an affliction called “the Black Breath” in which the sufferer sinks slowly into death. In the books, the orcs dig trenches across the Pelennor fields before the battle (though the trenches don’t seem to have any impact on the battle once it starts). But look a little deeper.

Honestly, most of the Fellowship have no business just leaving everything behind and taking off on this quest. Boromir, in particular, is his father’s general and Minas Tirith is already at war. Sam appears to be his Gaffer’s sole support. Most of the others have responsibilities at home, too. If you think about it, it does seem odd that they just take off for the duration.

This does reflect Tolkien’s experience, in which most of the young men went off to war and then returned to pick up their lives when the war was over. Except those who died or were too badly wounded, physically or spiritually, of course.

And not very many wars—or military actions—are completed in only four years anymore. But, again, that was Tolkien’s experience. One side won and everyone, at least on the winning side, could go back to their lives. Which most of the Fellowship also do after the war.

We haven’t lived in that world or experienced war in that way for a couple of generations now. It’s only reasonable that our generation’s epic fantasies should reflect our experience, not our parents’ or grandparents’. Yet reader expectations of epic fantasy still seem to be centered on a big battle to end all battles before the survivors go back home.

I like those exciting—and final—endings, too. Sometimes. But . . . shouldn’t we have both kinds of stories?

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I mostly want to share some of my thoughts about reader expectations of epic fantasy. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

It’s probably best to start by defining what epic fantasy is—and what it’s not. Epic fantasy is defined by the reason the characters attempt whatever it is they’re trying to do and the stakes if they fail. As with the Hero’s (or Warrior’s) Journey, the characters in an epic fantasy set out to accomplish something that will be of benefit to more than just themselves. Frodo goes to save Middle Earth from enslavement by Sauron, for example. (There’s a reason why epic fantasy usually has at least on character who is also on a Hero’s (or Warrior’s) Journey.) And the stakes, if they fail, are greater than just the chance that the hero may die. The stakes in LORD OF THE RINGS are all of the world, including Frodo’s beloved Shire, being cruelly enslaved.

This is what differentiates epic fantasy from its first cousin, sword and sorcery. The two sub-genres are superficially similar. Both tend to be second world fantasies and very often involve a quest. But sword and sorcery is much more about some personal gain for the characters—adventure, treasure, or revenge, most often. And the stakes are usually the risk that a character may die in pursuit of that goal. For sword and sorcery, that’s the ultimate failure. Whereas, in epic fantasy, a character’s death is not a failure so long as it helps to achieve the larger goal.

Sword and sorcery stories are usually smaller in scale to match the smaller goals and stakes, though, of course, the characters may have more than one adventure over the course of a series, like Conan the Barbarian, to name only one classic example. By contrast, epic fantasies have a greater tendency to be . . . well, epically long. The greater stakes can support a bigger—longer—story.

But all of that is not what really defines reader expectations of epic fantasy. That’s more defined by the story that really popularized the sub-genre: LORD OF THE RINGS. More on that in my next post.

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I decided to start with character profiles/backstories for the principal characters in MAGE STORM. This isn’t something I usually do, but I thought it would be useful in this case since I’m trying to get a new start on a story I wrote some time ago. Also because I’ve changed the roles of a couple of characters–actually switched the competencies of the two principal allies. I needed to give them better and more extensive backstories to support their skills.

I’ve almost finished that. I need to do a very little more research into a certain personality type for my antagonist/villain. So far, I’ve got a much better feeling about those two characters in particular and–unlike the last attempt–I actually feel ready to write in their points of view.

I’ve also decided to go ahead and create a map for this series. I’ve had a really basic hand-drawn . . . thing . . . that I used as a writer’s aid for the first version. Believe me, this is even less ready for prime time than my usual hand-drawn maps. But, it’s been a while since I last worked on a map with this software, so I’m having to go back through the tutorials.

Then, when that’s done, I should be ready to start writing/re-writing this story. I still haven’t decided on the sword and sorcery vs. epic fantasy question. This story sort of lives in the grey area in between. But, that doesn’t have to stop me from writing the first book. The question will only come up in how I build–or fail to build–the greater arc in the later books.

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Originally, the plan was to work on MAGE STORM through August and then switch back to the revisions on BECOME: TO RIDE THE STORM in September.

StormCover2

But, I haven’t been getting any traction on MAGE STORM. Beyond the initial issues I had–deciding on a ground-up rewrite–I’ve discovered some other things that need to be considered.

See, the original version was conceived as a sort of open-ended series, with each book being a separate story–building on events in the previous books but not creating a greater world-saving arc. That’d work fine if I decided to make this sword and sorcery. But I don’t think that’s what I want. The idea of the rewrite was to make it epic fantasy.

Now, as I said before, this story has an epic problem. But the sort of open-ended series–that doesn’t have an arc building to the epic climax just doesn’t work very well for epic fantasy. That world-saving or world-changing conclusion is as expected in epic fantasy as a happily-ever-after is in romance. Favorite characters can get killed along the way. The quest can even fail. But there has to be that big bang at the end.

So, I’m going to have to rethink, not just the first story, but how all the others fit into a larger, more epic arc. I think I can see a glimmer of how that might work. Or, at least a little of it. But I need to have a better feel for that before I start the rewrite.

Therefore, I’m going to go ahead and start the revisions on BECOME: TO RIDE THE STORM. It’s been three weeks. And, as distracted as I’ve been lately, revision–using the critical side of my brain–is probably a better fit than trying to write from scratch–or nearly–anyway.

And, in the meantime, maybe I can figure out how all the pieces of MAGE STORM and it’s sequels fit together into an epic arc. Or what has to change to make them fit. Or, of course, whether it’s just better suited to being an episodic sword and sorcery after all. There’s actually nothing wrong with that. It’d just mean a change of perspective and expectations for this story.

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