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Epic fantasy? What does that even mean?

Yesterday I finished the final draft of The Prince of Lies – yay! – which inevitably left me feeling more than a little punch-drunk, like I’d been hit round the head with a 135,000-word manuscript…So I goofed around on Twitter a bit, and whilst chatting about book lengths and genre I realised that fantasy really needs a new name for a rather common sub-genre.

Cover art for “Shadow’s Master” by Jon Sprunk
Cover art for “Shadow’s Master” by Jon Sprunk

OK, before we get going, yes I know that sub-genres are artificial and that you shouldn’t try to shoehorn your work into one of them, but once you have a book – or three – written, and you start to look at what market you’re going to be aiming at, it can be helpful to have a label so that everyone knows what you’re talking about. Except – are they really talking about the same thing?

The discussion that sparked this was about the ideal length for a debut epic fantasy, which varies from agent to agent, but certainly somewhere in the 100-150k ballpark as a rule. For other kinds of fantasy, as well as SF, the suggested length is more like 90-120k.

The thing is, what do agents mean by “epic fantasy”? I suspect that for some in the business it’s a synonym for secondary world fantasy, or indeed anything that isn’t very clearly either steampunk or urban fantasy. Because it’s like Tolkien and George R R Martin, right?  And in one respect they’re right – all non-contemporary fantasy has broadly the same audience, and it’s distinct from (though it may sometimes overlap with) urban fantasy/paranormal romance.

The thing is, a lot of the secondary-world fantasy that I read isn’t what I’d call epic. There are no continent-spanning wars or treks through sweeping landscapes, no wide-eyed young heroes venturing out of their comfy hobbit-holes and being swept along on An Adventure. Typically they’re based in one city (just like urban fantasy), with a cast of characters who are far from innocent: thieves, spies, assassins and the like. You know, those Hooded Men who’ve been gracing the covers of our favourite books for the past decade…

(As an aside, if you google “hooded man” images, the cover art for The Alchemist of Souls comes up quite high in the results. Which is ironic, since there’s not a hood in sight!)

This sub-genre used to be known as swords’n’sorcery, and it was typified by Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories. Lots of swashbuckling swordplay, but also lots of monsters and evil wizards and the like. The thing is, modern-day S&S is typically quite low in magic and often the characters are all human, so the label doesn’t really fit any more. Nor does the newer label “grimdark” really help, as it’s a tone, not a subgenre as such. Both GRRM and Joe Abercrombie have been described as writing grimdark, but their books are also epic fantasy.

I raised this on Twitter, suggesting “cloak’n’dagger” as an alternative. I got some great (not always serious) alternative suggestions:

  • The Streets of Darkness
  • Hooded Figure Fantasy
  • Poignards’n’privies (very apt in my case!)
  • Mock-Tudorpunk
  • Grime’n’punishment
  • Alchemical romance (by analogy with Wells’ “scientific romance”)

What do you think? Do we need a new label for non-epic, non-contemporary fantasy?

Comments

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Anne

FWIW I agree, but I was questioning the partitioning of debut manuscripts into “long is good” and “long is bad” based on unclear criteria 🙂

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Erica Wagner

High fantasy gets used sometimes, and can be synonymous with epic fantasy. But there are a lot of different definitions of HF, and for many, it conjures up images of a world with most of the traditional fantasy elements: powerful magic, dragons, elves, knights, quasi-medieval settings etc.

My own novel is in sort of a lala land between old style S&S and HF. Magic plays a major role in the story (but magic that follows physical laws), and my protagonists are decent people who want to do the right thing and have to figure out what that is in a morally ambiguous situation, but they’re far from noble or perfect human beings. A lot of the themes in the story deal with their transformations as people and their relationships with one another. And the setting is not traditionally HF. The social organization/technology level is more renaissance like (though magic and science reinforce and inform one another to some extent), and there’s nary a knight or dragon or elf in the tale (though I do have a matriarchal hyenoid race). And most of the story takes place within a relatively small geographic area (at least in book 1).

You can see why I like your books, Anne 🙂

I’ve been told to query mine simply as fantasy and let any interested agent/editor figure out which sungenre it best fits with. Hope that works.

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Celyn.A

First of all, YAY on finishing The Prince of Lies!

Secondly, I’ve been pondering the same thing: my WIP is a secondary world fantasy, but doesn’t have a whole lot of magic, no elves, dwarves and definitely no *%$£ing dragons, and the “Weimer Stakes” are… sort of medium.

Another factor is that it is conceived as a complete story, with no hanging threads at the end, but with a planned sequel. I tend to think of epic fantasy as either trilogies or “book 1 in a series of loads” a la Jordan, Martin and the rest.

There are many books and series that aren’t “classic” epic fantasy but don’t really fit into the swords and sorcery, urban fantasy or other sub-genres. Your books of course, also everything Guy Gavriel Kay has written since Tigana, N.K Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, Paul Kearney’s Macht Trilogy are just some that spring to mind. (Although could yours, Kay’s and Kearney’s be marketed as “quasi-historical fantasy”?) Like Erica says, maybe we should just call everything “fantasy” and have done with it… but the word count issue you mention is a real one.

Thirdly, thanks for correcting my spelling of “poignards” 😉