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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Weekend Discussion: The Deal With Epic Fantasy Is...

I'm going to admit something to you that I used to not care about, but am now embarrassed to bring up.

Over the past few days, I've been reading a book.  It's in a genre I used to stay far away from, but have since stopped being hesitant to read.  This particular book reminded me why I used to avoid these novels like the plague as I wrinkled my nose in distaste, reaching for Fiction/Literature or Science Fiction instead.

I have a slight prejudice against epic fantasy.

Now, before anyone tries to defend epic fantasy or comment with the positives before reading the rest of this post, or skimming and pretending you've read it, I do have experience that backs up my preferences and remember: it's now a slight prejudice.  I'm only hesitant now, not completely avoiding of it.  That I was even reading this book is proof of that.


I remember the first fantasy book I read (note: fantasy, not epic).  I'd just spent an entire summer devouring Star Wars books and thought I'd be brave and adventurous.  I was in a grocery store, saw a book with a black dragon on the cover against a snowy background and was intrigued. The jacket copy convinced me I wanted to read it.  I bought it.  I've since come to regret that decision.

The book was not to my liking. In fact, I disliked it so much, I was put off from the entire genre for another few years.  A classmate in high school recommended the first in an epic fantasy series (after noticing I had read and loved Dune and Ender's Game).  Thinking the years had distanced me enough from what I felt was a silly bad first experience and not wanting to let that ruin an entire genre of books for me, I took his advice and bought the book.

I couldn't get past the first 100 pages.  Unlike the other book (which I still own as a reminder to my experience)--in which the writing didn't bother me, just the plot--this book, I felt, needed more editing.  I now know that lots of fantasy books suffer (yes, suffer) from a gross overabundance of unnecessary descriptions. These descriptions don't add anything for me. In fact, they detract from the way I like to read a book. Why should I be pulled away from the momentum of the story when the author forces me to stop and look at one character and what they're wearing, or what they look like?  I find it awkward.

I am very embarrassed to say this book didn't improve my outlook on fantasy. It lowered my expectations. What's worse is the degree that I pushed my experience of these two books onto any future experience I might have reading any other fantasy book.

Enter my job at a bookstore in college with a co-worker who ABSOLUTELY LOVED epic fantasy and politely teased me about my snot-nosed snobbery when it came to authors I'd never even read before.  She recommended another fantasy title.  Again, it'd been years and I thought I'd be able to rise above my silliness, but no.  That book wasn't any better than the others. I'd spent my money, I was disappointed again and thought I was hopeless.

Then I shelved a new release called Elantris by Brandon Sanderson and fell in love.  His writing was engrossing; his plot, engrossing; his themes, literary and mythic (I immediately drew a connection between Egyptian mythology and this book and LOVED it because of this--I had fun pointing it out to my co-workers and our company newsletter via phone--to anyone who would listen).  I'd finally found the author that broke me out of my slump and I was excited.  Sure, he didn't completely pull away from the conventions I'd come to dislike, but there weren't any dragons; there weren't any elves, there wasn't any magic like I'd been so used to seeing magic; there were no dwarves; there was no bad dialogue; it wasn't a derivative of Tolkien's (whom I like, mostly) work.  He showed me fantasy could be good.

But to get back to my main point…  I've skimmed the surface about why I dislike fantasy and epic fantasy--it probably sounds shallow.  After Sanderson, I began trying other fantasy books with success.  The problem?  I still haven't been able to find an epic fantasy book (Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy was good, and so was Warbreaker, but neither has managed to impress me as much as Elantris) that completely Wows me.  The Name of the Wind came close, but like the other books I picked up, I put this one down just as quickly; a lot of convincing went in to getting me to pick it up again and keep reading because "trust me, it gets better."  Honestly, it did, but I want to be able to put down an epic fantasy book after having finished it all on my own and think, "I've found another favorite book."

And honestly, the book I'm reading now, that brought all of these awful memories back and threatened to bring my prejudice rising to the surface in ways it hasn't been present in years, didn't really bother me because of the plot, or because it had dwarves and elves in it.  My dislikes are due to completely different reasons altogether that could be applied to any book in any genre.  It just so happened to be an epic fantasy book.  And so, when I began to feel my nose wrinkling, I immediately remembered the last time(s) I'd felt disagreeable toward fantasy and epic fantasy in particular. It was then I was reminded tangentially of why I tend to stray from epic fantasy.

What I'm asking you, my fantastic readers, is this:

Recommend to me a stand-alone or epic fantasy series that you think I might like.  Frankly, I'm tired of this prejudice, but am reminded how picky a reader I still am when I try to dive into one of those books and absolutely can't stand it.  Poor writing, poor character development, unnecessary tangents, incredulous abuse of arbitrary magic system, gratuitous exposition, history, details, or descriptions that do nothing but make something prettier--they don't even comment on some other theme or line of thought that can be extrapolated from the text--there are a lot of things that bother me and I hate to say my experience has found an exaggerated presence of these things in fantasy and epic fantasy.

Please, prove me wrong, but remember that I've tried to be as honest and open and polite with you as I hope you are with me.  I really am asking and not trying to rub anyone the wrong way. I'd love to hear what you have to say.

If my track record is anything to go by: I do listen to advice. Did you see how many times I tried books that were recommended to me? My trust, however wary, is there and proof enough that I am open to trying new things!  And that I'm stubborn, determined, and convinced I will one day find something I like.  I didn't open each book with a groan, rolling my eyes and steeling myself for the worst.  I went in thinking, "so and so thought this was good--let's give this a go with a blank slate."

Offer me your recommendations!  Ask me for any clarifications!  I'm eager to see your recommendations. :)

12 comments:

TJ said...

Well, of course, I think Brandon Sanderson proves the epic fantasy dislike "wrong," but I can see where you're coming from.

Epic fantasy is a HUGE investment. It's called "epic" for a reason, after all. I'm currently engaged with the entire Wheel of Time series and it can be a little disheartening to know that I have a 1000ish pages a month to read. It's simply a matter of finding what sort of epic fantasy you prefer, because there's an epic for all types. (As proof of this, I'll tell the slightly embarrassing fact that I loathe Tolkien. Not for his ideas or world, but for his long-winded, slow-paced writing... He just didn't work for me.)

Also, note that I mix and meld the genre of high and epic fantasy. Generally speaking, they've become very close to being the same thing. High fantasy has the swords and sorcery while epic merely needs to tell the story of an average person's journey to becoming a hero on a much larger scale (usually nation or world-wide).

Some great epic fantasy titles & series (in no particular order):
1. Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series (some bdsm sexual content, but fantastically written series)
2. George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series (although the end is slow coming)
3. Ursula K. Le Guin's The Eartsea Cycle technically counts, I believe.
4. Elizabeth Moon's Deed of Paksenarrion (very easy reading)
5. Kristin Cashore's Graceling and Fire (easy reading and simple amazing, plus YA!)
6. Anything set in Valdemar by Mercedes Lackey

(Also, I'm sure Daniel Abraham fits the genre, but I haven't read anything yet by him. Also, I'm willing to bet that your Naomi Novik titles fit the definition, as well.)

Now, you'll notice that none of these are titles like Tolkien or Robert Jordan or Terry Goodkind. Certainly these are the "kings" of epic fantasy, but they're simple a lot more painful reading, unless they really suit you. Nor are most of these titles nearing a thousand pages per volume. The length of epic fantasy is incidental. You can have an epic story and not have an epic length--it's just harder. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that I can only stomach Jordan because I was initiated to the genre by these other titles. Does one have to read the "kings" to be a "true" fan of epic fantasy? I'd say not. And I'd say that one should try "enjoyable" titles rather than those that "should" be read.

Confining the genre to everything Tolkien, Jordan, Goodkind, and even Martin would be silly. Fans that are proponents of that sort of thought are equally silly. Every genre should push boundaries.

Erika said...

@TJ: I think you've made an important distinction that just may have saved me a lot of trouble. I think my problem is with High Fantasy, not Epic Fantasy. This makes it so much easier to navigate...

On that note, length has never been an issue for me. When I approach a High/Epic fantasy story, the length only bothers me because of what I worry I'll be subjected to for 600+ pages. It's the content, spread out over time, that makes me cringe.

Thank you for list of recommends! I've read both Cashore titles and am now really looking forward to reading the Le Guin trilogy and the Abraham books for my Summer of Series challenge!

I haven't been at all drawn to the Carey books--this is a sad case where I've been judging the books on their covers, but I promise I'll give them more than cursory glance next time. :)

GRRM's series is one I've been going back and forth for years. The same co-worker I mention above said I may like them. She mentioned a comparison to the War of the Roses and immediately, I wanted to snatch the first book off the shelf and start reading. I don't think she knew how appealing that description was to me, nor am I even sure how applicable it is, but I've been curious ever since.

I'm going to wait for your review of Oath of Fealty to see whether I should read Paksenarrion before or if it matters if I read it afterward. :) I like accessible authors, especially if it's to help induct me into a type of genre I've been hesitant to jump into.

Valdemar? Ok, I will keep that in mind when looking at Lackey titles. I think right now, I only have one of her books to read, Firebird. I picked that one because it's a Fairy Tale re-telling and I really, really love Fairy Tale re-tellings. :D

I feel weird about Tolkien. I like him, but I think, even as I read him (high school), I placed him in the context of his time. Correct me if I'm wrong, but he was one of the first (I'm not sure how accurate saying "the first" would be) to gather all of these elements we've now become quite familiar with and place them together as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He's the Year One for me that all other Epic (or rather, now that you clarified for me, High) Fantasy authors seem to keep trying to go back to. I can't say if they're actively doing this, but in my opinion, it appears that way.

I agree: confining the genre is silly! That is one of my main reasons for bringing my plight to everyone's attention. It can't all be as bad as my experiences have shown me. I feel like Sanderson pushed those boundaries. That is why I found his writing and his ideas so fresh and attractive. He was quite innovative.

I'm really glad I brought this whole topic up. You've already taught me something very important and made some great recommendations. :)

Thank you so much, TJ! You have no idea how excited I got when you put High and Epic Fantasy into two separate locations (that sometimes cross, but not necessarily always) for me. I am relieved, to say the least. I'm also glad my determination to find a series or author I like is confirmed by your assurance that all it takes is finding the correct author or series to suit the reader. Maybe I should just stay away from High Fantasy? ;)

TJ said...

I think length isn't in itself the problem, it's only that those that do have the insane lengths tend to fall into these detail-driven craziness that can be a turn off. I've certainly sat through each book of WoT so far and thought, "Okay, you're the master and your world is crazy, sure. But this could have been 200 pages shorter easily. I don't NEED to know this, or this or this..."

That's what I think all the titles I recommended do well. Some have more elements of epic or high fantasy, but each sticks to a compelling narrative above all.

If you don't mind a little bit of sex, the Kushiel series is very well written. And it shifts from disturbing to elegant to beautiful. Really, though, the first book is the best. Second and third are okay, though I feel some of the plot falls into the same tropes. But the first is well worth reading--very intriguing stuff.

GRRM, at least in the first 3 books, keeps to a driven story. His was one of those series that most everyone has trouble putting down, which is what makes it so incredibly popular amongst epic fantasy fans, I think. It's refreshing. It also brings in more elements of high fantasy as the story goes on, but slowly.

Moon is forever an accessible author, which I respect very much in her. I'll let you know about Oath as soon as I can.

I read Lackey's Valdemar books in high school. If you do choose to give them a try, I was fairly enraptured by the Magic series (Magic's Pawn, Price, and Promise), which feature a gay Mage-Herald main character. And even if the writing isn't super elegant, it's very to-the-point and it's a very inviting series. The only major fault I have with it is in the ending of the third book.

More Tolkien Confession: Sure, Tolkein was the first. And incredibly meticulous...which is in itself admirable. However, I still can't bring myself to like him. I'll read him, so I have the basics down, but...never for enjoyment.

High/Epic fantasy has trouble with its boundaries, I think. I'm not sure why... Sanderson works incredibly well within the genre because he re-works everything and never loses sight of his intricate story. Meanwhile other titles attempt the same, but fall flat.

Sometimes genre definitions can be incredibly helpful or unhelpful! In this case I think it's important to be aware of both. I certainly am less the fan of high fantasy than epic fantasy, but that isn't to throw away all high fantasy. After all, a few titles I mention intersect the two (even if most are admittedly heavier on the epic portion).

I hope you find something that will bring you to break your dislike and open up a new world of reading! Just keep trying every once in awhile if you don't, it may be rewarding! :)

Erika said...

@TJ: I think length isn't in itself the problem, it's only that those that do have the insane lengths tend to fall into these detail-driven craziness that can be a turn off. I've certainly sat through each book of WoT so far and thought, "Okay, you're the master and your world is crazy, sure. But this could have been 200 pages shorter easily. I don't NEED to know this, or this or this…"

Exactly! Because you understand this so well, I'm looking forward to trying one, or more, of the books you recommend. :)

Sex I don't mind, but I'm a little iffy on anything disturbing or in the direction of abusive. I will keep the Kushiel series in mind, but will be a bit wary.

Lackey has so many books, it's good to see one particular trilogy recommended! I've got them all written down now.

I feel a bit like you do about Tolkien. It's all a bit of an academic approach, but I really enjoyed The Hobbit on an entirely different level. I used to love watching the Rankin & Bass cartoon as a kid and still pop the DVD in every once in awhile for nostalgia. I remember it, and the LOTR cartoon movies (also Rankin & Bass) better than the more recent feature films. :) My soft spot for Tolkien is entangled deep within happier childhood memories.

Epic or High Fantasy, I think it's best I do try with baby steps. The Summer of Series reading challenge will definitely help set me in the proper, adventurous mood to perhaps try GRRM or Moon's fantasy titles… :)

calico-reaction said...

As long as you know ahead of time what you're getting into with Kushiel, you should be fine. Just remember: the heroine feels pain as pleasure, and not in a sadistic kind of way, it's just how her brain translates the feeling. I've read the first Kushiel book, loved it, and look forward to reading the rest.

I'll second the Martin rec too, with one note: I found the second book to be overwhelming with details I didn't care about, but as me and a friend of mine discussed recently, we just skimmed those, because the story itself IS definitely worth reading.

I'll put Abrahams on your list too, but you're already going to read him this summer, so...

Let's see. I loved THE NAME OF THE WIND, but you've been there, done that. So...

I'll second Cashore's work too. Love her!

Let's see, I can't remember if you've read Maria V. Snyder or not, so I'll recommend her POISON STUDY, and if you like that, read MAGIC STUDY, FIRE STUDY, STORM GLASS and SEA GLASS. Snyder's light and fun and an incredibly fast, engaging read.

There's also Megan Whalen Turner: THE THIEF, THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA, and THE KING OF ATTOLIA. One warning: there's a HUGE style difference between the first two books, and that may color your reading of the second. Some people read the second and third first and find the first last, and that works too, but it's quite good, and it's YA (though closer to middle grade, I think).

If you like Le Guin's EARTHSEA, you may want to try her more modern YA trilogy: GIFTS, VOICES, POWERS (that's three books, not the title of one). I've read the first, and it's enjoyable. I mean to get the rest one day.

I loved, loved, LOVED Gregory Frost's SHADOWBRIDGE and LORD TOPHET. WARNING: when you start SHADOWBRIDGE and find yourself liking it, get LORD TOPHET asap. Trust me.

And since you're asking for recs, and while this is neither high nor epic fantasy, you gotta read Catherynne Valente's THE ORPHAN'S TALES. Book One is IN THE NIGHT GARDEN and book two is IN THE CITIES OF COIN AND SPICE.

MALEDICTE, by Lane Robins, is dark fantasy more than high fantasy, but it's got it's politics. Quite good though, and worth checking out. Excellent look at gender issues too.

Hope all of this helps!

Chris Hall said...

Well shoot. I was going to recommend Sanderson.

Lackey can be pretty good (borrowed most of those senior year of high school... must have read a book every day or two with 6 AP classes. Really not sure how that worked.)

Just thought of a good author but can't remember her name... my mind is blanking :( This is going to bug me for days and I don't think I actually own any of her books, so that is no help.

I had issues with Tolkien. Stopped reading The Lord of The Rings in elementary school because I was bored of the travel scenes. Haven't read the series completely in maybe 6 or 8 years.

Still need to pick up Graceling and Fire. I hear so many good things about them.

I must have picked up Martin in middle school, but I haven't read through his Song of Ice and Fire (must have read the first one or two...) Last thing I read of his was his piece in the Legends anthology maybe 2-3 years ago. (Would be nice if he finished the series before I got around to reading it.)

Aside from my Robert Jordan re-reads and Sanderson, I haven't read a ton of fantasy lately, it seems. Although I did just finish Ken Scholes' debut novel Lamentation, which I thought was quite good. Not an overwhelming number of viewpoints, tightly woven story, lots of hints for the next book.

Lots of YA fantasy in my TBR pile (Justine Larbalestier), and Spellwright if I ever get a copy.

TJ said...

Well, it's good to see a few of my recommendations validated with a second opinion! I completely agree with everything Calico said about Kushiel's Dart, too.

Erika said...

@calico-reaction: Hmmm.. I'll keep the Kushiel series in the back of my mind, but I'm still not sure I'll be trying hers first. With the recommendations I've been getting, I think it's more likely I'll be picking up A Song of Ice and Fire!

Snyder's an author I've wanted to try, but one I've been putting off for no real reason… but I've heard good things from the series you mention, as well as Turner's books! I did hear they were more MG than YA and so think I may look for those at the library in the future.

Oh! I saw Le Guin's YA trilogy! I was so confused and thought it was part of some other series she'd already done without even bothering to pick up one a read the back! Shame on me. I'll put those on my "books to consider list," too.

Will also add the Frost books and the Valente ones. Now she's an author I've got on my regular TBR list with Palimpset. What else can you tell me about Frost, Valente's books?

Dark fantasy is good; gender issues are even better. Robins is for sure going on the list. Thank you!

@Chris Hall: Sanderson's become quite a popular author, hasn't he? :) The travel scenes were pretty drawn out in Tolkien's books. I was pretty incredulous Peter Jackson was able to turn The Two Towers into such an interesting movie when I found the book the most boring of the trilogy.

You should pick up Cashore's books! They're great books and appeal to an older audience as well. Her writing is so layered and her characters are incredibly dynamic…

calico-reaction said...

Frost: the world-building is pretty unique. You've got a water world with a bridge spanning the ENTIRE THING, and that, beside a few islands that you have to climb down to, is where people live. So setting-wise, it's unique, and the heroine is a puppeteer! It's a great story, but book one ends with a cliffhanger, so make sure you have book two on hand. And that's the whole series, BTW: books one and two.

Valente: people have commented on its similarity to ARABIAN NIGHTS, which I haven't read and can't comment on. But the first volume won the James Tiptree Jr. award (hello, gender focus!) and is well worth the accolades. It's about an orphan girl who lives in the garden of a young prince, and he sneaks down every night to hear her stories, which are tattooed on her skin. It's an absolutely BEAUTIFUL BOOK, and it's another that's a completed series made up of two volumes (and yes, if you find you're liking book one, get the second ASAP).

Some people read LOTR as a tradition every year. If I were going to pick something to read every year without fail, it'd be the Valente.

Yes, MWT is definitely more middle grade than YA, but it's written well. THE THIEF is a lot of fun with a great voice, but then the style shifts in QUEEN to something far elegant. Don't hold me to it, but I consider these books so far to be a cross between THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORRA and Martin's SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series, without all the staggering amount of detail.

Hope this helps!

Loni's Little Treasures said...

My husband and I have both read Sanderson's Mistborn and Elantris, but we both liked Mistborn a bit better. Just Sunday we lent Mistborn to a friend- he just moved into a new apartment and has yet to get internet, TV or anything- doesn't even have a computer desk or bed yet, so the guy needed something to read! Well, only a day and a half later, last night, we get this voicemail from him thanking us for the air mattress we lent him, as well as for the book. "I am thoroughly enjoying the book," he says, "and it says it is a trilogy, so if you have the second book, please bring it on Thursday!"
Unfortunately we do not have the 2nd and 3rd books, but we're going to lend him Elantris to hold him over for a bit longer.

Needless to say, you've already read more Sanderson than I have, so I guess I can't recommend those :)

I will recommend Guy Gavriel Kay's books, however. I've only read 3 of his- Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, and the Lions of Al-Rassan. (In that order, which I do recommend them in that order though they aren't linked) Kay uses history as his basis, so Lions of Al-Rassan, for instance, parallels the Moors vs the Christians in the history of Spain. I believe one of the others was based in medieval Italy (Though with a different name of course!). You don't need to know the history to enjoy the books- I didn't realize there was any parallel to history until after I'd read the first 2 books! I can't speak for his other books, but I really enjoyed these three. They all have some sketchy parts, though I think Tigana is the only one with a bdsm scene but there is a point made through it. Essentially it's a "is this what we have become? Have we turned into animals?" point, or at least that is what I got from it. Most of it is a bit more subtle than that. Overall though I love Kay's writing. His characters are realistic and they really fight for what they believe. That being said, the ending of Tigana annoyed me because not everything I wanted to happen did, but I still think it was written well.

Erika said...

@calico-reaction: That helps a lot, thank you. :) The Valente titles in particularly sound lovely. Everything, though, has been added to the list!

@Loni's Little Treasures: I've had Guy Gavriel Kay's Ysabel on my wishlist for awhile, but you make a good case for the other three! Fiction seems to be the only way I can manage history (hence, my love of historical fiction); Kay sounds right up my alley. :) I think I'll add Tigana to my list and keep the others in mind if I like it, thank you.

calico-reaction said...

YSABEL is freaking fantastic, but I consider it contemporary fantasy, not epic or high. But DEFINITELY well worth the read. I've got TIGANA and have heard wonderful things about it, but haven't read it yet.

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