On Epic Fantasy

Magical books

I really enjoy reading.  And I have found more time to read recently as I have started a new job that mandates an hour for lunch everyday, along with two fifteen minute breaks.  I really don’t need that much time to eat, but it is nice to have the time to step away from work for a while and relax before going back at it.  I have taken advantage of this time allotted me to read.  And one thing that I really enjoy reading is fantasy.  It has been that way for a long time, I remember one fateful day in the seventh grade I was walking past a classmate’s desk and he had a book, Sword of Shannara.  I really liked the cover art, it looked pretty interesting, so I got a copy from the library and I read it.  All 726 pages.  That was my introduction to the genre of epic fantasy.  And I have enjoyed it ever since.

But recently I have noticed a trend in epic fantasy, what I call “Epic Fantasy for the sake of being Epic.”  These are stories like Wheel of Time, Game of Thrones, or Brandon Sanderson’s new Way of Kings.  First, let me state that I have read all of these, at least partly.  I have read Way of Kings, I have read the first 7 books in the Wheel of Time series, and I have read the first three of A Song of Fire and Ice.  To be honest, that was enough for me.

Now I do love fantasy, and even epic stories, such as Lord of the Rings, which I reread about once a year, or Harry Potter, or a personal favorite, the Belgariad by David Eddings, but I can’t read too much of those epic series that seem to only exist to give the author a steady income by writing more books in the series.  Sure, the characters are interesting, what they do is interesting, the stories flow well, but there’s this whole sense of ‘it’s never going to end.’ These books will just keep on going on detailing every aspect of each of the hundred characters’ lives.  Like a literary soap opera.  There will always be another episode, always be another book.

Some people love the epic fantasy precisely for that reason, they love the characters and the settings and the events that happen, and the author’s writing style, and would kill for more stories.  I know I wouldn’t mind another Harry Potter novel or two.  But there is a difference between wanting the story to continue and trudging through a story that doesn’t end.  Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter each had an end goal in sight, we knew that eventually Frodo would reach Mount Doom and destroy the ring and the story would end, we knew that eventually Harry would defeat Lord Voldemort and the story would end.  But reading Wheel of Time I find myself asking after the fourth or fifth book, “Where is this going?”  A Song of Fire and Ice was the same way for me, and I couldn’t read more than the first three before I became bogged down in the epic-ness of it all.  Don’t get me wrong, the action is exciting, the characters are intriguing,  but there is something missing:  that sense of closure or finality.

Maybe what we love so much about these stories is the very fact that they will end.  Knowing, as we do in the back of our minds, that the journey will one day be over makes it that much more satisfying.  It is much like life, in that way.  Knowing, as we do, that life will one day end, makes our living that much sweeter, that much richer, that much fuller.  As often as we may wish to be immortal, to live forever, I’m sure we would soon find ourselves bored with the prospect of living forever, day after day doing the same things, or same sort of things, with no end in sight.  The fact that life does end makes life valuable.  The fact that some stories do end, do complete make them that much more impressive.  In a way, you could say that it takes talent to know when and how to end a story properly.  I remember one experience in high school, my US History teacher was also the choir teacher and so a lot of our studying of US History came through music.  I can’t remember what specific song she was referring to, but once she mentioned that she disliked those songs that ended with a fade out.  She said it was the mark of a lazy songwriter who didn’t know how else to end his song, so he just had it repeat until it faded completely out.  Not that I want to call epic authors like Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, or Brandon Sanderson lazy for not knowing how to complete a story, but there is talent involved in wrapping things up, answering most (but definitely not all) questions and loose ends, and leaving it at a place where the reader still has room to imagine their own continuation.

Maybe these thoughts are derived from my own attempts at writing, or is it that my own attempts at writing are heavily influenced by these thoughts? Whichever came first, I find that as I prepare to write I always have the end in mind.  I usually start with a couple of characters, some sort of idea as to the setting, and I know where my characters start and where I want them to end up.  Then the planning starts and I get to have fun figuring out how to get these characters from Point A to Point B.  It has sometimes happened that during the writing process the actual location of Point B shifts and becomes a much more interesting Point C, but I always start out at least knowing where I would like to end up.

I have enjoyed the writing of Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, and Brandon Sanderson.  I did make it through several thousand pages of their books, but without a final destination clearly outlined and expected, I soon found my interest waning. I have tried several times to read the whole Wheel of Time series, but I can never make it through more than 6 novels at a time before I need a break from Robert Jordan, but by the time I’m ready to read them again, I have forgotten what was happening.  I think this next time I should probably start with book 6 or 7 and then I might be able to make it through the end of the series.  For now, though, I’ll be reading or rereading those stories and series that  have that wonderful sense of accomplishment to them.

3 thoughts on “On Epic Fantasy

  1. I must completely disagree with what you have labeled as ‘the author just trying to make more money’. I would totally agree if you were talking about say, the Robotech books, the Xanth books, or maybe even some of Asimov’s books. But Sanderson’s and Jordan’s series both have an overarching story arc that was planned out well before they began. To be fair, I have not read “A Song of Fire and Ice.” Often when reading a series that ends after only 2-4 books, I feel cheated that the story wasn’t well-developed, and the characters less than believable.

    I understand the annoyance with the tendencies of series to become soap-opera-ish, but granting a fair number of characters some real depth is no easy task. I’d criticize the Ender’s shadow political thrillers before I’d criticize Sanderson’s Way of Kings. Every other time I’ve read a Sanderson book, I always feel like I’m missing something– some kind of detailed look at this wonderful new world– as if I only got to see it through cloudy glass, rather than actually going out and exploring.

    1. A valid point, obviously, and an opinion you’re entitled to. I didn’t mean to say that I did not enjoy reading Way of Kings or Wheel of Time, just that I reached the point where I was wondering where it was going. But maybe that’s exactly what the authors of these vast epics are going for — emulating real life by providing a story that has no clear end goal, but merely doing what is right (for the good guys, at least).

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