This year, I’m doing a new series: Fantasy Focus. Each month will have a week-long focus on a different fantasy subgenre- fantasy is as varied as its creators’ imaginations! If you’ve missed them, there have been fantasy focuses on comedic fantasy, grimdark and romantic fantasy. This month’s focus is on high and epic fantasy.
I’m delighted to feature a guest post from Roland O’Leary, author of The Hand of Fire, book one in the Essence of Tyranny series.
I’m delighted to be here on the Witty & Sarcastic Book Club discussing epic and high fantasy. Fantasy is an increasingly broad church, but I think its foundations and highest spires are crafted from epic high fantasy. It’s fair to say I’m a fan.
I’m in the process of writing my own contribution to the genre, The Essence of Tyranny series. The first book, The Hand of Fire came out in 2020 and was in the SPFBO7 competition. In this post I’ll cover what it is about high and epic fantasy that appeals to me as a reader and author, and also where I see the pitfalls in the genre.
Housekeeping first – what do those terms ‘epic’ and ‘high’ fantasy even mean? I can’t say my answer is definitive, but this is what I am talking about when I use those terms.
‘High’ fantasy is the counterpoint to ‘low fantasy’ – this is a scale measuring the prevalence of fantasy elements in a novel. If the book is set in its own imagined world, with created species, magic, dragons – that’s high fantasy. If it’s set in our own reality/world, with just a couple of magical elements, that’s low fantasy.
Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen are great examples of very high fantasy, with lots of magic, alien species and author-created realms. Similarly, The Wheel of Time series is at the higher end of the spectrum, with magic a huge element of the world and story.
I would say The Lord of the Rings is only medium-high fantasy. Yes, it’s a created world (albeit based on Dark Ages Europe), but there’s not that much magic that happens in the live action of the book. A good friend of mine talks about “the disappointment of Gandalf” as a wizard! George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice & Fire is in the middle of the range too, in my opinion – the action in the cities of Westeros is almost historical fantasy set in Renaissance Europe, lower end fantasy. But north of the wall, in the wildernesses of the other continents, there are “snarks and grumkins” – and indeed dragons. My favourite parts are always with Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen which are the high fantasy elements!
Low fantasy has lots of sub-genres. A common feature usually involves magic or magical creatures occurring in the ‘real’ world that we recognise. My favourite example is The Dark is Rising sequence, though there are lots of other children’s and young adult books that fit the bill. Personally, I don’t include things like Harry Potter where the real world is only a jumping off point into the high fantasy world of wizardry.
‘Epic’ is usually used to contrast with ‘sword and sorcery’. I think this is a gradation of the scale or scope of the story. Sword and sorcery is usually high fantasy in setting but the focus is the travails of an individual or small group, the dangers personal rather than existential. The stories often tend towards episodic encounters. Epic fantasy on the other hand encompasses the fate of nations, the world, even the universe or existence itself. They are often multi-perspective stories of sweeping scope, sometimes taking multiple books to complete the entire story arc.
One way I like to look at is using Homer. If they were translated into fantasy worlds, The Iliad would be epic fantasy, The Odyssey would be sword and sorcery.
So now we know what we’re talking about when we use the term ‘epic high fantasy’. What are the pros and cons for the reader? Let’s take the good stuff first. The high fantasy aspect means that you get the chance to encounter a new world, with different rules; different rules of society, of physics. Magic. It fulfils the human desire for travel, to experience novelty as you navigate the environs of a different reality. The epic nature of the story means you get to meet many characters and visit many settings; ultimately you get to spend more time in and see more of that world. If escapism is part of the reason you read, then epic high fantasy has a lot to recommend it.
As a reader I love the scale of the plots of epic fantasy and the stakes at play. If the characters don’t succeed in their goals then the whole of existence might be destroyed. That ramps up the drama for me, makes me invest in the characters more.
As an author I think the world-building of high fantasy is the purest act of creativity I know. I’m sure different authors approach it in different ways but I started with a map. The shapes of the landmasses and the terrain start to delineate nations, barriers of rivers and mountains and seas separating tribes who develop different cultures. Then I created a dated timeline of history of the whole world I’d invented, encompassing all its countries and races and cultures and religions and mythology. I invented some languages (although not being an expert in this I gave myself an ‘out’ of a common tongue too. Of course there is also a reason for that). This is all before writing a word of the story that I’d thought I was going to tell.
Once you have a whole world you can decide the entry point for your story in its history. My story takes place in the ‘now’, the present day of the world I made, but I have another series in mind which is set in its past. In epic fantasy you can also go big on the plot – mine ultimately involves entities that are considered to be gods by the human cultures.
That leads to an element that is both a joy and a potential pitfall for the high fantasy author. Dare I even mention magic systems? I worked hard at my magic system as an author but it won’t satisfy some readers I’m sure. Personally, as a reader, as long as the magic used is intriguing and consistent I’m content. I don’t even mind magic that makes characters super-powerful – as long as there are limits to their ability somewhere and it doesn’t resolve every single conflict. Other fantasy readers however are into their hard magic systems and may pick through your writing analysing whether your magic system is sufficiently realistic.
I’ll give only a glancing mention to the snobbery of some people against epic high fantasy, because this happens across the whole fantasy genre. As a reader across many genres I recognise that there are high and low quality novels in all of them. Some novels appeal to my taste more than others. As an author this kind of snobbery against fantasy can be a bit frustrating to encounter but ultimately I’m looking to appeal to fantasy fans. The people I’ve met who most look down on fantasy writing tend to be quite ignorant of it.
What are the other cons of reading (and writing) epic fantasy? Let’s talk tropes.
Good versus evil is a traditional theme, forces of darkness versus forces of light. This has been done a lot. It’s been done really well. Some readers are tired of seeing it again. Some readers will think it’s unoriginal. Similarly, there are other tropes: the chosen one, the dark lord, a pseudo-Western European medieval setting. As a fantasy reader there is an extent to which I want to see fantasy tropes to anchor the novel in the genre that I love. For me it is a matter of the deftness of touch, of the quality of story and writing and characterization that will distinguish a novel.
Some readers think good versus evil is an immature way of looking at the world. Good for one is bad for another, good is not necessarily a moral absolute. There is definitely a trend in modern fantasy for ‘morally grey’ characters. I like this but I don’t think it’s something special. In my opinion good writing is more about ensuring your characters seem like real people making real choices than the way their moral compass points. I personally feel that a story of good versus evil is satisfying at quite a deep psychological level. The world you create doesn’t have to break down into neat factions of good guys and bad guys. But as a reader I’m still happy to read stories that do. The prevalence of superhero movies suggests that there is quite a wide audience for this sort of story too.
I think originality is a difficult concept as every author has been influenced by what they’ve experienced and what they’ve read. I think it would be very difficult to be a good writer without being a dedicated reader. As I get older and read more and more I can see the influences on books I previously thought were completely original.
I’ve detected a focus on exploding or defying tropes in recent years. I don’t think in and of itself this is a worthy goal. In a sense, you are just as influenced as someone who is following a trope, you are still writing in reaction to something. My view is every person is a unique individual so the book they write will always reflect that, even if its influences are similar to another. I would say to authors not to let their reaction to a trope define their work. I don’t want to read a polemic against fantasy in the guise of a fantasy novel. Just aim for quality, whether you are using a trope or reversing it. Write a good book, as good as you possibly can. Pay that respect to your readers. And your readers will respect that in turn. Or not. One Amazon reader called my book “classic fantasy storytelling at its best”. Another called it “rehashed plagiarism at its worst”. I am certainly not a plagiarist – but the truth probably lies somewhere in between.
For me, I like reading fantasy because it enables me to experience things that I cannot in other genres, where the rules of reality constrain the story to what is possible in real life. I can read a well-characterised and well-written novel of intriguing plot and character development in any genre. What epic high fantasy gives is momentous scope and scale to place that story within. In The Wheel of Time I read on to find out whether Rand would ever overcome his trust issues, whether he would bear the psychological burden of the impossible role imposed on him. But I also wanted to know how the Last Battle would play out, to know what the end of the world looks and feels like.
I like real-feeling characters and dialogue, I like a well-crafted story that keeps me intrigued. But more than that I like to travel in an imagined world, to see its lonely places, its monsters, its gods and demons. I like to see battles that stretch my imagination. I like to see magic; huge conflagrations, world-altering spells. And sometimes, I like to see dragons.
As well as the traditionally-published books I’ve called out in the post above, here’s a list of recent SPFBO entrants that I’ve read that fit the epic high fantasy bill:
Dragon Mage – M.L. Spencer (SPFBO7 semi-finalist)
The Mortal Blade – Christopher Mitchell (SPFBO7 finalist)
Of Blood & Fire – Ryan Cahill (SPFBO7)
The Forever King – Ben Galley (SPFBO7 finalist)
The Sword of Kaigen – M.L. Wang (SPFBO5 champion)
There will be plenty of other brilliant indie epic high fantasy novels – I just haven’t read them yet.
Of course, you could always check out my own novel The Hand of Fire.
A quick note – if you like my book (or any indie published novel), it would be fantastic if you could leave a positive review or rating on Amazon. It means an awful lot to authors to learn about reader reactions to their novel, and a review also helps other readers find novels they will like in the absence of traditional publishing marketing spend/hype. It makes a big difference!
About the author:
Roland J. O’Leary is a lifelong incorrigible reader turned author. He lives in London, England with his wife and two young sons. He has been a barrister, a legal journalist, a marketing copywriter, and for the last ten years has worked in product management. He is still not sure what product management is. He is the author of The Hand of Fire, the first novel in an epic high fantasy series called The Essence of Tyranny. He’s working on the next book which should be ready within the next year. You can learn more about him, his writing and the books he likes at his website www.bookslike.co.uk.
To purchase The Hand of Fire: Amazon