Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Difference Between High Fantasy & Epic Fantasy

For quite a while now, there has been constant discussion regarding the difference between High Fantasy and Epic Fantasy. Most have concluded that the two are interchangeable, and that there’s not much difference between the two. High Fantasy is not a term that a lot of fantasy authors use these days to describe what they write. Most subgenre terms used today are Epic Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Grim-Dark, YA Fantasy, or just plain Fantasy. High Fantasy has kind of fallen out of term, and has likely evolved into the term Epic Fantasy, which is why the two terms are considered to be interchangeable.

I’m not completely sold on the two terms being the same. I agree that High Fantasy is a work of fiction set in a secondary world filled with a riot of fantasy races—like elves, dwarves, dragons, gnomes, and so on. The setting is mostly based on the medieval period, populated with a character or more bound on a task or adventure. Examples are: The Hobbit, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels.

Epic Fantasy takes the High Fantasy elements and ramps up the magnitude of the story. The stakes are greater; the land/world is in peril; the conflict shakes all who dwell in the world of the story. J.R.R. Tolkien took his High Fantasy world of Middle-earth (introduced in The Hobbit) and composed it masterfully into a long epic: The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings is Epic Fantasy, and really the first of its kind in modern fiction, setting the mold for High/Epic Fantasy up to today. Just as Leo Tolstoy’s novel, War and Peace, took historical fiction to an epic scale, Epic Fantasy is that transformation of High Fantasy into epic proportions; usually a long story, stretched out over multiple volumes and building a host of characters within an ongoing conflict.

Epic Fantasy does not have to keep the exact identity of what High Fantasy is. It still dwells in a secondary world; however, one is not bound to only use the medieval setting, nor use the many different fantasy faces often found in High Fantasy. Works like the Wheel of Time series and the first Shannara trilogy are epic fantasies that followed in the same vein as the Lord of the Rings. But Epic Fantasy does not have to stay in that fashion.

Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy is Epic Fantasy and has the medieval setting, but does not have “sorcery” or “magic” so to speak, but abilities (powers). And there are no fantastical creatures, at least not like we’re used to seeing, as all the different kinds of beings in the story are of humans. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is epic, and, though it has dragons in it, and even giants, you will not find very many High Fantasy components within the story, as they are toned down around a host of characters in a dark medieval setting, but still very much fantasy in many ways.

Thanks to the likes of the new Flintlock Fantasy, works like Brent Weeks Lightbringer series, Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy, and Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series, Epic Fantasy does not have to dwell in a secondary world based only on a medieval setting. 

So, to sum it up, High Fantasy can be Epic Fantasy, but it is not always. And Epic Fantasy does not necessarily have to have all the elements that make up High Fantasy. But, these two terms are closely related—not interchangeable—but near-identical siblings.

The Secondary World
Inspirations of Fantasy
Epic Worldbuilding
Epic Characters 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Three Different Approaches to Fantasy - VIDEO

Below is a video of a discussion panel at Spain’s Celsius 232 convention, featuring fantasy authors Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie and Patrick Rothfuss, on the Three Different Approaches to Fantasy. Watching the video can be kind of tough for those of us who do not speak Spanish, as every time the authors give their comments in English the whole thing has to be translated in Spanish by the translator. With that said, the comments that the authors give are gold, so I feel the need to share on this blog.

To make things easier, I have broken down the time frames where the authors speak before and after the translator gives his translation in Spanish. So see the breakdown below, and you can use that as a guide to skip to where the authors are speaking (in English).

Topic: Reality in Fantasy
  • 2:54 to 4:35 – Joe Abercrombie
  • 6:52 to 8:39 – Patrick Rothfuss
  • 10:26 to 12:05 – Brandon Sanderson
Topic: Recipe for a Hero
  • 14:50 to 17:19 – Patrick Rothfuss
  • 19:12 to 21:00 – Joe Abercrombie
  • 23:03 to 27:38 – Brandon Sanderson & Patrick Rothfuss
  • 32:03 to 33:55 – Joe Abercrombie
Topic: Successfully engrossing and moving the reader with story (How do you do it?)
  • 37:50 to 40:23 – Joe Abercrombie
  • 43:07 to 45:49 – Brandon Sanderson
  • 49:28 to 50:05 – Patrick Rothfuss  
The last 20 minutes are Q & A, in which you can navigate through as you wish.  

A Discussion Panel of Fantasy Authors - VIDEO 
How A Game of Thrones Changed Fantasy...or Did It? - VIDEO  
Brandon Sanderson & Brian McClellan on Google+ Hangouts - VIDEO 
Discussion Panel on Epic Fantasy - VIDEO
Fantasy Authors Discuss the Genre & Writing - VIDEO
Discussion Panel on Magic Systems - VIDEO 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

History in Fantasy – Part 3


In my last two posts about History in Fantasy (Part 1 | Part 2), I gave an overall summary of historical influences in fantasy fiction and mentioned some works of historical fantasy. In this post, I will point out a small list of works inspired by history, but were translated into a secondary world.


In August of this year, I talked about the secondary world in fantasy fiction and how it is rooted in the medieval period—thanks to the father of modern epic fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. As a medieval scholar, Tolkien created an immense world from the inspiration of history, mythology and literature, yet giving us a unique world never seen before his time. Though Tolkien’s work has a handful of solid characters, the world of Middle-earth, and its distinctive histories therein, is what enriched his story. In today’s modern fantasy, authors who were influenced by Tolkien were also inspired by their love for history, and so they continued the genre with such inspiration.

Katherine Kurtz’s understanding of medieval Europe aided the creation of her world in the Deryni novels. Kurtz’s Eleven Kingdoms is an alternate medieval Europe, harboring the same structure and societies of the era, yet she realigns it with her own dynasties, religion, and histories, while adding in magic to give her world its fantastic element. First published in the 1970’s, the beginning of the Deryni series is said to have been the work of fantasy fiction which popularized the use of an alternate Europe in the genre. Since there are so many similarities to the structure of medieval Europe in the Deryni series, it is not a work of fantasy that has fleshed out an in-depth, epic fantasy world, but it is surely one of the originating works of fantasy which took the genre down a different path in the use of the secondary world—with the help of history.

Like Katherine Kurtz, Guy Gavriel Kay uses the method of taking a historical period and alternating it within a fantastical world, yet still heavily inspired by real historical events and societies. His novel Tigana pulls inspiration from medieval Italy, in a world with two moons, containing some sorcery and a story of freedom fighters against tyranny. His novel, The Last Light of the Sun, was clearly based on the Viking invasion on the Anglo-Saxons in the 9TH century. As usual, Kay set the story in an alternate world and changed names of people, nations, and groups, putting in fantasy elements (like faeries).

Kurtz and Kay are mostly referred to as authors of historical fantasy, rather than epic/high fantasy, due to the way they take actual history and simply change the names of things and drop in some kind of fantasy element. However, I would say that their efforts to try to take the reader out of the real world and place them in a setting that is more than alternate history with fantasy elements is to be commended.

R. Scott Bakker’s epic fantasy series, The Prince of Nothing, is inspired by the Crusades, where the two main religions in Bakker’s world (the Inrithi and the Fanim) are in a Holy War, which is the setting of the series. Budding fantasy authors, Brian McClellan and Django Wexler, are both writing their own worlds of fantasy fiction set in a period akin to the Napoleonic era. McClellan’s Powder Mage series and Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series are a part of the few epic fantasy novels that take place outside the medieval times and in the Age of Enlightenment.

I think what we can say here is that history has had a profound impact on the setting of fantasy fiction. Mythology may have brought about the fantastic elements that populate the fantasy stories, but history has been the building block for setting the stage for the fantastic populace. For decades now, fantasy writers have been taking pieces of history, whether with subtlety or without, and building their worlds and their plots with it. History has been the inspiration for many different genres of fiction, but fantasy fiction has more fun with it, and tries to reinvent it with what-ifs and elements of things out of this world. 

History in Fantasy - Part 1 
History in Fantasy - Part 2 
The Secondary World
Inspirations of Fantasy
Epic Worldbuilding
Flintlock Fantasy

Saturday, November 1, 2014

How A Game of Thrones Changed Fantasy...or Did It? - VIDEO

Here is a video of a panel of fantasy writers at the New York Comic Con last month, featuring Patrick Rothfuss, Seth Fishman, Cinda Williams Chima, Gail Z. Martin, Garth Nix and Robin Hobb. Moderated by David Peterson, the panel discusses how A Game of Thrones affected the fantasy genre. All the authors had interesting opinions on the subject, but I think what Patrick Rothfuss conveys at the 12 minute mark was spot-on.  


Monday, October 27, 2014

History in Fantasy – Part 2

This is part two of my post about History in Fantasy. If you have not read the previous post, you can read it here.

As previously mentioned, Historical Fantasy is the sub genre of fantasy fiction where the story centers on a historical period in the “real world” (instead of a secondary world) and brings in fantastic elements. There are many variations of renderings by different authors in this sub genre, most taking form within medieval Europe. I would say that it is the Arthurian legend that triggered the influence of Historical Fantasy; with the story of King Arthur, Merlin and Excalibur being the beginning of a type of Historical Fantasy.

The historical account of a real-life King Arthur remains inconclusive amongst historians; however, the legend—stemmed from the account of the 9TH century Welsh historian called Nennius and the pseudo-historical account of the 12TH century Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth—has become one of the most retold and honored stories in the western world. The story of King Arthur penned by Geoffrey of Monmouth shaped the mythology of Britain that we’re familiar with today, producing a wealth of novels such as: The Once and Future King by T.H. White, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and The Pendragon Cycle series by Stephen R. Lawhead, just to name a few.

“Secret History” is a popular formula within Historical Fantasy, where the author takes historical persons and/or events and creates a story based on occurrences in that period of time that were censored from historical records. Novels like Mary Gentle’s Book of Ash series (a single volume in the U.K.) and Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age series use this type of method. The Book of Ash tells the story of a fictional 15TH century female mercenary captain in Europe, receiving military tactical guidance from a voice in her head—akin to Joan of Arc. Though the setting of the story of Ash is late Medieval France, elements of fantasy and science fiction are found in the book. Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age series contains that mixture of Urban, Historical and Epic Fantasy that I hinted at in my previous post. The first two books of the series deal more in the contemporary times, but the last two books in the series (prequels to the initial two), also known as The Stratford Man Duology, take us back in the Elizabethan Era—using historical figures such as English dramatists Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare as key characters in fictional form.

J. Gregory Keyes (also known as Greg Keyes) went all out with his Age of Unreason series using historical figures like Sir Isaac Newton, a young Benjamin Franklin, and King Louis XIV of France in an epic tale full of magic, demons and adventure. In similar fashion, the Traitor to the Crown series by C.C. Finley is set during the American Revolution where witches, magic and supernatural beings have a great impact on the tensions of the Revolutionary War. Historical figures like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin appear as supporting characters in Finley’s series.

It is Historical Fantasy’s duty to shake up and change history. John M. Ford was applauded for his method in The Dragon Waiting, which won him the 1984 World Fantasy Award for best novel. In The Dragon Waiting, Ford sets up an alternate 15TH century Europe where Christianity never excelled and Islam never existed, the Byzantine Empire threatens Europe, and the worship of Roman gods is very active. Add in the workings of magic and vampirism (as the result of a contagious disease) and The Dragon Waiting becomes another rung in classic Historical Fantasy. The popular Temeraire series by Naomi Novik takes readers into a world where dragons are real and used in the Nopoleonic Wars. Not only is the world different because of the existence of dragons, but Novik also spins nations like China, the United States and Mexico with alternate histories.

Two Historical Fantasies released this year, which sound interesting, are Mark Alder’s Son of the Morning and Angus Watson’s Age of Iron. You can read the authors' explanation on their works by checking out these two postings: Son of the Morning here  |  Age of Iron here

I could go on and on with other examples of Historical Fantasy, like Judith Tarr’s The Hound and the Falcon trilogy, David Gemmell’s Stones of Power series, or D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker Chronicles—works which have entertained many. This is a sub genre which can stretch on and on into new and intriguing stories; however, like Epic/High Fantasy, the overdose on Medieval Europe is apparent. The works described above set in the 18TH and 19TH century, even dealing in American history, make for something appealing to readers—because it’s not overused. With the spark of Flintlock Fantasy reaching for attention in the genre, I hope we can see more settings in the Age of Reason.

In my next and last post on History in Fantasy, I will discuss fantasy books that deal with the inspiration of history within secondary worlds.

History in Fantasy - Part 1 
History in Fantasy - Part 3  
The Secondary World
Inspirations of Fantasy
Epic Worldbuilding
Flintlock Fantasy

Monday, October 13, 2014

History in Fantasy – Part 1

When you set aside the fantastic from epic/high fantasy you can surely conclude that you are reading a story that is not modern, but set in a time long past. Today, fantasy fiction is pretty much presented in three different facets—High Fantasy, Urban Fantasy and Historical Fantasy—but sometimes mixes some of the three. Urban Fantasy is usually set in the “real world” in contemporary times, but the other two facets, High and Historical Fantasy primarily takes place in a setting that is far from modern.

High Fantasy is predominant in the use of Anglo-Saxon history, holding strong to the Medieval period for its entire setting, but in a secondary world. Historical Fantasy takes a historical period in the mundane world and adds elements of the fantastic. From this point forward, when I talk about fantasy, I will be talking specifically about High (Epic) Fantasy and Historical Fantasy, as these two sub genres are the keystone of fantasy fiction.

Fantasy is a kind of mosaic of different inspirations from various histories and cultures, with the flavor of magic, adventure, and fantastic creatures—like a recipe of many ingredients to form an imaginative story. Most writers of fantasy are people fascinated by history in one way or another; with a good handful of them being historians themselves, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Judith Tarr, and Sara Douglass, just to name a few.    

Think about how history is presented to us. Whenever a historian writes a non-fiction book about a prominent historical figure or event they construct it into a story in a way. They do not have any way of knowing for sure what Cleopatra was thinking, or why Alexander the Great did a certain thing, or how George Washington acted when he was a kid. The historian is taking recorded facts about an individual or event and piecing it together into a cohesive narrative, often speaking as if they were there and are certain that every account that they are reporting is accurate. But, at the end of the day, it’s all constructed; it’s not entirely true in a sense. Likewise, paleontologist piece together fossils and bones and try to illustrate and describe the appearance of long-extinct creatures and convince us of their survival habits, but they cannot be 100% certain.

The power of the human imagination can take a historical figure like Bishop Nicholas of Myra and turn him into Santa Claus, or take an affair between Cleopatra VII and Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) and romanticize it, or be inspired by Vlad III Dracula to bring about the iconic character of Count Dracula. A lot of people probably obtain most of their knowledge of Julius Caesar from William Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, which was a fictional dramatization based on the conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar. Creators of fiction, in great sums, have an almost natural urge to be inspired by historical persons and events. It seems to be mankind’s desire to write, read and watch stories of mankind in any shape or form—even in the form of fantasy.

Guy Gavriel Kay is widely know for his fantasy books inspired by historical persons and events, transforming real historical periods within secondary worlds and bringing life to fictional characters inspired by people of the past. He said, “I do as much research as I can in a period of history, and then I do a quarter-turn to the fantastic. …that quarter-turn to the fantastic is under-penned by respect for the actual period and the actual people that I’m using as the inspiration for my novels.” Kay’s strategy is to craft stories out of real settings, letting some of his characters be fictional representations of figures in history. He stays away from retellings of history; in his own words: “…not wanting to project my imagination on to the real lives of real people.”

Robert Jordan noted the use of bits and pieces of historical cultures in his Wheel of Time books; such as the ancient Celts, the Shogunates of Japan, and 17TH century France. In regards to the city-state of Mayene in his books, Jordan said, “Mayene is based culturally on the cities of the Hanseatic League, as well as Venice and Genoa when those cities were world commercial powers and city-states in themselves.” These were just a few of many things he took and used as influences on his fantasy world.

In regards to his book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin said, “…although I've drawn on many parts of history, the War of the Roses is probably the one my story is closest to.” He also said, “I like to use history to flavor my fantasy, to add texture and verisimilitude, but simply rewriting history with the names changed has no appeal for me. I prefer to re-imagine it all, and take it in new and unexpected directions.” In an interview with Time Magazine (online) back in April of 2011, Martin speaks a little more about his work and briefly on how history is related in fantasy fiction—click here to read it.

In my next post I’ll continue the discussion on history in fantasy, expounding on more authors and books that pull inspiration from history. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Maps in Fantasy

The map is the second most sought after work of art in a fantasy book (in many cases). Apart from the book cover, readers of the genre love flipping through the first couple of pages to behold the layout of the world/land that they are about to explore (via the characters). Fantasy maps are a great way of bringing visualization to the author’s world, helping to provide just a drop of imagery in the reader’s mind. They assist the reader with locale and perspective while journeying through the pages. They may even help embellish one’s imagination.

Maps in fantasy go as far back as 1908 when L. Frank Baum presented his map of the Land of Oz, projected on a large screen, at his multi-media stage shows (The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays); which were used to promote his first three Oz books. In 1914 the first printed Oz map was included in Tik-Tok of Oz, the eighth Oz book, along with another map at the back of the book titled Map of the Countries Near to the Land of Oz.

One will not find a map in all fantasy books, but any fantasy novel set in a secondary world most commonly will feature some kind of map. As stated above, this can assist in visualizing a world not like our own, and help pull the reader into a “belief” of that fantasy world.

Not every reader of fantasy likes or has respect for maps in fantasy. Some ignore them completely; others glance over it with a shrug; yet others tend to delve into them like one on a quest. There are even cases where people will select or reject a fantasy novel based on whether or not it contains a map—or based on the judgment of the quality of the map. Like the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover;” the same should apply to judging books by their map(s).

Fantasy maps are an extension from the text. The fascinating thing about reading fantasy books is being able to use one’s imagination; but wrapping that imagination around a visual relation to the story can often expand that imagination. Yet, this is not so for all readers. Personally, I tend to be the one who simply glances over the map and then move on with the story. However, if I find myself really engrossed in the story, I will look more intently at the map just to suck up as much as I can of the world that I’m experiencing.

On the blog, a Fantasy Reader, there’s a neat list of links to the maps of various popular works of fantasy. Click here.