By the time I was in my late teens, I’d pretty much run the science fiction and fantasy gauntlet: Asimov and Pohl, Tolkien and Lovecraft, McCaffrey and Le Guin. When I started college, my personal reading was eclipsed by a series of syllabi, and by the time I finished, I’d lost my focus on speculative fiction. I read it over the next 20 years, but only as part of a more generalized reading list that included mainstream and “literary” fiction, detective stories, thrillers, and even the occasional romance.
When I started focusing on speculative fiction again, it quickly became clear that though I still liked science fiction, and really dug the dip into magical realism that some urban fantasy was taking, I didn’t have a lot of interest in straight-up fantasy, and at the very bottom of my list was Epic Fantasy, which I’ll define using the Wikipedia definition, with the understanding that I’m thinking of both an imaginary world and epic characters, theme, and plot.
Is Epic Fantasy too Repetitive?
When I see a cover with a knight, princess, or evil wizard on it I run the other way, and when I imagine a band of weary adventurers, travelling through peril from point A to point B, in search of… something… to prevent… something else… I wonder if there’s anything appealing on the list of last year’s Hugo nominees, because something tells me that the book I’m looking at doesn’t have anything new to offer: I’ve read the best, why bother with the rest?
As Martha Wells notes in the SF Signal Mind Meld: What’s “Wrong” with Epic Fantasy?, “there’s a perception that epic fantasy has to be set in a created world based in medieval Europe, and that has a lot of potential to be tedious.” I agree, though I’d be less likely to call it out as a failure to create a world true to medieval life, and more as a problem of recycling the same (or very similar) settings, again and again and again. How many feudal systems can we read about before we get tired of them? How many kings? How many quests? My feelings pretty much run parallel to Teresa Frohock’s, from the same article: “I found myself bored,” she says, “by the very tropes that I used to love.”
Am I Too Old for Epic Fantasy?
Epic Fantasy is, as often as not, the hero’s journey in one form or another: heeding the call to adventure, the wise old man, death and rebirth – blah, blah, blah. I’m tired of these archetypes, or at least I’m tired of seeing them presented in the same old ways. Maybe I’ve just outgrown them. Though I’m still attracted to the story of the young hero, it no longer speaks to me in the same way – the stakes that I play for at 46 are very different than what they were in my 20s: at this point in my life I’m less interested in the possibility of a great, archetypal adventure than I am in the very real adventure that I’m in the middle of – an adventure that is less about large, symbolic gestures than it is about small, thoughtful ones and is less about defeating enemies than it is about carefully evaluating choices.
Though I still love exploring imaginary worlds, my mental landscape and my experience of the other have evolved. Maybe the story of Epic Fantasy just isn’t my story, any more.
Less heady, if more pragmatic, is my reticence to commit to a series, especially if I might not finish it. My reading time is finite, and grinding through 350,000 words is by no means guaranteed when I pick up book #1. Just last year, off the top of my head I can think of two series (The Split Worlds, and The Machine Dynasty) for which I read the first book, but consciously decided not to read the second. In both cases I enjoyed what I’d read, but didn’t find the world or characters compelling enough to justify sacrificing something new in order to return to something familiar. Wondering what I would miss was frustrating – but not enough to make me continue.
The SF Signal podcast that started this conversation brought up the occasional overabundance of details in Epic Fantasy, that can sometimes drag it down – and I’d add, out: sequels and trilogies should be the byproduct of necessity, but when I look around at the current speculative fiction market, I can’t shake the idea that some of those stories are being artificially lengthened, and characters’ journeys drawn out, in service of creating sequels. The susceptibility of Epic Fantasy to this phenomenon, coupled with my anxiety about getting dragged into something longer than it needs to be that I may not finish, anyway, is a major stumbling block.
I’d like to think that my experience is like Teresa Frohock’s: that the problem isn’t Epic Fantasy, but me, and that if I step away from it (or in my case, return to it), I’ll be able to enjoy those tropes, again. I have urges to “solve” this problem, by reducing epic fantasy to its seed, replanting it, and seeing what different ways it could be grown; perhaps somebody else has already done that, and as Nathan Barnhardt says, the problem is that I haven’t looked hard enough because I’ve gotten turned off by the subgenre. If that’s true, what I really need is guidance.
Maybe I’ll never get back to a time when the idea of slaying a dragon, or experiencing the world through the eyes of a young man who finds out that he’s special will intrinsically excite me, but maybe there are other ways that story could be told that I would still enjoy. How about it? Given the struggles that I’ve laid out, is there anything you would recommend?