How Epic Is Yours?

I was intrigued to read about this bit of news from star editor and all-round Top Bloke, Lou Anders. It got me thinking about the differences between Swords and Sorcery Fantasy, and Epic Fantasy. I think there’s a distinction to make.

Epic Fantasy for me has multi-stranded plots, huge amounts of movement, deep worldbuilding, and is very much a complex beast. Writers such as Steven Erikson and George R R Martin etc have moved things on significantly in recent years. They are much more intelligent than many of the Tolkien clones of the 80s and 90s. They have matured, and the movement has gone on.

Swords and Sorcery may differ in that it’s much more lo-fi, less of the huge complexity (but not intellectually so) with an eye back to pulp-retro classics. Maybe it’s more fun and doesn’t take itself as seriously in some cases. Writers such as Abercombie, and Scott Lynch, are two of the more popular writers being labelled in this style. (But would they even see themselves in this category?)

The question of has Swords and Sorcery ever gone away is interesting. In bookstores, where the majority of people buy their fantasy books (let’s not forget this, not these online discussions we have), this distinction has never been there. There is fantasy or science fiction or horror.

Sub-genres are sometimes a case of who can be more anal, but in this case, I don’t think it has gone away. There have always been lo-fi fantasy novels on the shelves in lower numbers, they just never saw past the domination of bigger, Epic Fantasy titles.

Because that’s where the money is.

I think the review coverage online is skewing our treatment of these books to consider them as a significant movement. If we were to analyze book sales data (which I couldn’t really put online), I suspect the picture would be different, and the movement would be more difficult to see. And I for one would see those S&S writers I mentioned above treated as Epic Fantasy anyway. The term Swords and Sorcery for me is loaded with pulpiness. Whether that’s good or bad is up to you, but I’d certainly steer these aforementioned authors into more sophisticated categories.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

6 replies on “How Epic Is Yours?”

I’ve only started reading Erickson in the last six months, and I have to say I’m really impressed. The two things that got me into the genre as a whole were Tolkien and Star Wars, when I was very young. I consumed the typical weak sauce epic fantasy, but in high school I discovered Gibson, and pretty much left fantasy behind. Mieville got me back, but only in a very “glancing off the atmosphere” kind of way, where I wasn’t delving into capital F Fantasy as I had in my youth. And now Erickson is showing me the error of my ways, that there’s a tremendous amount of glorious stuff that’s been done there in the last few years.

Anyway. I’m intrigued. We’ll see where that gets me.

I’m glad you like Erikson, Tim. I really think people who aren’t so sure about gritty fantasy really should read the Malazan books. People have these views of what epic fantasy is like from the 80s or 90s, but the market is really sophisticated these days…

You make some good points about Epic fantasy and Swords & Sorcery. S&S is very pulpy and EF is by definition big “Epic”.

An issue that always bothers me is the pairing of science fiction and fantasy. How are these two related? Why are they alway paired off as a single category?

I think you have to believe that even science fiction is fantastical, else it isn’t science fiction any more. (All fiction is fantastical, I suppose, but SF relies on it more.) And the fan base is very similar.

Essentially, the rest of the fiction industry hates SF and F, so we best stick together, right? 🙂

I can’t remember where I heard it first, but these discussions on the genre divisions usually end with “In conclusion, Jack Vance.”

I see the differences between these two brethren of the genre is that S&S has more of a focus on a singular (or in cases like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, some Elric, Kull and Conan stories) two primary characters moving along in the world, whereas Epic Fantasy is concerned more with world shattering events and a larger cast of characters.

There is probably more to it than that, but for me, that’s as good a starting point as any.

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