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Author Topic: Epic Fantasy, has it become stagnant or is it still growing?  (Read 942 times)

Offline Eclipse

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http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/blog/2012/08/27/where-is-the-fantasy-genre-going/


Posted on August 27, 2012 by Lee Sibbald
Where is the fantasy genre going?

The many sub-genres of fantasy. By Jasper de Joode

Where is the fantasy book genre going? A short article on past and current fantasy themes based on personal experiences

Can you still remember the first fantasy book that you ever read? For me, the introduction started when I was 16 with Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Not your typical starter some might say. This was eight years ago but these books were already written before I was even born. This is the beauty of books – however old they get you can always find a copy of them somewhere. In the last four years my reading has picked up speed, and even more since I started reviewing for Fantasy Book Review.

The fantasy book genre is divided in many sub-genres with epic/high, urban, alternate, sword & sorcery, science fiction and steampunk being just a few. Reflecting, I think that the major work that has promoted fantasy in itself is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; it is seen as a standard in Epic/High Fantasy.

Another large inspiration, mainly for the children/young adult audience, would be The Chronicles of Narnia from C.S. Lewis.

But this was all some time ago, and now comes the question: has the fantasy genre grown or has it remained stagnant in all the years since Lord of the Rings? Is living up to the standards of Tolkien and Lewis impossible?

I will try to make a comparison between the early works (for me) from about 1980 – 2000 and 2000 and onwards, as well as look at the current trends in fantasy.

The books I have read that were first published in the 1980 – 2000 era are from authors like Robin Hobb (The Farseer Trilogy), Tad Williams (Memory, Sorrow and Thorn), Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time), Celia S Friedman (The Coldfire Trilogy), Raymond E. Feist (Magician Series) and let’s not forget about Roald Dahl (I had double the pleasure growing up with the Dutch translated books and then getting to read them in English again!).

I do not know if it’s pure coincidence, but almost all of these books fall within the same High and Epic Fantasy category. It is not a bad genre at all, it can actually be quite grand and ambitious and I was indeed impressed with each and every novel (though I still have to finish Wheel of Time series). But I think that in the early years these were the authors that took the first step delving into the world of fantasy, and more often than not these books are classified as heavy weights.

What I think caused the majority of the earlier works to fall into the High and Epic Fantasy category is that it was a category that had been proven to work. High Fantasy is rock solid, the ingredients are simple, and it will probably always sell. Veering of this track and pioneering into new things is risky, and often it can be a wild guess whether or not a book like this will be liked by a major audience.

But I found one author ambitious enough to veer away from this trend early on – Stephen King with his Dark Tower series. Although it falls under the same category, Epic/High Fantasy, it also has many other features i.e the travelling in between worlds (with hints of science fiction) and King also wove many of his other written works into the plot  line of this series. This offered, for me at least, more diversity earlier on.

From the early 2000 till now there is more diversity in the fantasy genre. I’m of the opinion that with the advent of TV, movies, computer games, the whole fantasy genre was challenged to step up their game. Trying to grab people with a book can be more difficult than a TV show or movie.

Some authors that for me showed an  unexplored or hardly explored path into fantasy were Tad Williams (War of the Flowers) and Neil Gaiman (American Gods). Both showed new perspectives in the ways of combining fictional elements with non-fictional elements. And of course one series that set the trend for me was Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen (yes I know Garden of the Moon was published in 1999). This series really showed many virtues, a great plot line maintained over several volumes, world building to the maximum, character building, development throughout the series, and storytelling through multiple points of view. Also, when compared to the Wheel of Time series, the plot lines and dialogue are much more understandable and more engaging.

Another series that was noteworthy in, yes, also 1999 was J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. This is for me one of the best young adult fantasy series, next to the Chronicles of Narnia.

So coming back, yes I think the fantasy genre has evolved tremendously, and it needs to continue to develop. Not with more genres per se, but by using them in ways to lift the standard of the genres even higher; raising the bar.

China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and The Scar were both masterpieces. I’d read steampunk before but not in that way. Wow. Each Bas Lag novel added much to the current repertoire of steampunk. Similarly, the books of Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn), Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora), Joe Abercrombie (First Law), Kate Griffin (A Madness of Angels), and Brent Weeks (The Black Prism) also gave much more insight into what authors are capable of now days. These authors all combine great writing style with even greater ideas.

However it is not only the genres which makes the books great, it also the writing style which is important. The writing style used in books today — of course dependent on the author –  is more loose, feels more natural, and is of this time. Even in High fantasy to some degree. Writing styles can either make or break a book. Lord of the Rings is known to be heavy in material mainly due to the use of words and the phrasing of sentences unlike what is normally seen now  a days. This makes Lord of the Rings in no way less magical, but with the current writers I do notice a shift to a more understandable, everyday phrasing with writing styles. With these styles I find most of the stories more engaging.

What is the current trend nowadays in 2012?

Looking at the publishing schedules of some of the major publishing houses, more and more books fall under the genre of Urban Fantasy; it draws a wide target audience, young and old, male and female. I think that most of the new authors use this theme for their debut novels since it is easier to start a series and get known. Again a combination of both TV and film has led to the increase in this genre. Urban Fantasy: Vampire, Werewolves, Urban Magicians. What’s not to like? Authors can exploit these themes to the fullest, and every book can be unique. I have to admit I am not a huge fan of Twilight and such, but the Urban Fantasy theme has still proven to be fruitful for me.

The other genres have remained stable over the last few years; the majority of the authors stick to their favourites, and many series are yet to be finished. In here in find Brandon Sanderson a prime example. Picking up The Wheel of Time series is no small feat. There will be a lot of weight hanging on his shoulders with the release of A Memory of Light. His other books all have the Epic/High Fantasy themes but he manages each time to write a brilliant book with his fresh ideas. We need these types of authors who each time try to better themselves with fresher and newer takes on the proven fantasy genres!

In short, the trends from the early 90s till now have changed, not through an increase in the amount of fantasy fiction genres, but through the writing style of the authors. Diversity and change is needed in the world of books to keep them appealing and engaging. Often times my friends say “why read the book when you can watch the series or movie?” I then reply: “Reading is magical and nothing can beat my own imagination” and they stare at me with blank expressions.

I’m happy to see that fantasy fiction genres are developing, with more and more authors writing non-standard stories with plenty of fresh ideas to keep my book shelves filled. But what are your experiences with the fantasy genre? Do you think the genre has become stagnant? Or does this genre continue to grow from strength to strength? And… what was the first fantasy book you read?
I'm Saloninus, by the way. And I tell lies, from time to time. Which goes to prove the old rule; never entirely trust a man who talks about himself in the third person.

Blue and Gold by K.J Parker

Offline Delaney

Re: Epic Fantasy, has it become stagnant or is it still growing?
« Reply #1 on: July 16, 2017, 01:12:05 PM »
In my eyes the SFF genre is growing bigger and better every year. With all of the new sub-genres and the amount of cross genre writing currently on the market, I only need look at the diversity of my ever expanding wishlist/TBR pile to confirm this.

I read The Hobbit, Chronicles of Narnia and various other fantasy books as a child but it was Terry Brooks Shannara series in my early teens that really got me hooked on fantasy.

Offline Peat

Re: Epic Fantasy, has it become stagnant or is it still growing?
« Reply #2 on: July 16, 2017, 07:45:52 PM »
Are we talking Fantasy as a whole, or Epic Fantasy here? Because those are two very different things if you ask me and that would change my answer a lot. Conflating the two doesn't work.
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Offline Eclipse

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Re: Epic Fantasy, has it become stagnant or is it still growing?
« Reply #3 on: July 16, 2017, 07:59:01 PM »
Yeah I should have just said fantasy, but you can give me comments on both !
I'm Saloninus, by the way. And I tell lies, from time to time. Which goes to prove the old rule; never entirely trust a man who talks about himself in the third person.

Blue and Gold by K.J Parker

Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Epic Fantasy, has it become stagnant or is it still growing?
« Reply #4 on: July 16, 2017, 08:30:11 PM »
This observation is almost like answering a question with a question, but I wonder: have fantasy readers' expectations of depth, pacing, distinctiveness, and [insert features like same-sex relationships, grimdark tones, etc.] reached a point where they are routinely not satisfied / only rarely satisfied?

Many of these expectations are directly or indirectly mutually exclusive, such as depth (world building, character depth, nuanced situations) and pacing, because it takes a lot of space and time to convey these things, greatly complicating and burdening the exposition/pacing balance.
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"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell

Offline cupiscent

Re: Epic Fantasy, has it become stagnant or is it still growing?
« Reply #5 on: July 16, 2017, 11:23:16 PM »
TGC, I think it's more a case of not being able to please everyone, because while one person might not want all those mutually exclusive things, each person wants something different. F'rinstance, I love deep character exploration in detailed worlds, and find a lot of popular epic fantasy to be "too pacey", sacrificing the stuff I like in the name of lots of stuff happening. But that stuff is popular, so clearly lots of other people like that, and would probably be bored by the deeper, slower stuff that I find so delightful. So yes, I am dissatisfied by lots of books, but I'm also absolutely thrilled by lots of books. And I love that the genre's become wide enough to offer such a breadth of stuff to please so many different tastes.

Offline Lanko

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Re: Epic Fantasy, has it become stagnant or is it still growing?
« Reply #6 on: July 17, 2017, 12:12:19 AM »
Epic Fantasy is almost always a "save the world" quest. Even happens when books that start small start to grow in scale.
It's also a case of "the journey is more important than the destination" because I have yet to see a single story of the kind that the world is actually destroyed, so the final outcome is predictable, so you just want to know how they do it (the sacrifices, relationships established, tension for losses or relief of getting away with it, etc).

For pace, the world is large and cast of characters is also large. A trilogy may feel like some parts weren't properly build up or deeply explored but if you go for more volumes you also have the problems with padding stuff or just adding new stuff without solving any of the prior problems.

They say all stories have already been told and it's all a matter of execution on the details, and I will agree, as we can give tons of examples of "saving the world" stories that are vastly different from each other on that aspect.

I myself am working on smaller scales (I also think it's easier to begin).

For Urban Fantasy it also seems overloaded with vampires, werewolves or some kind of animal shapeshifter and magic societies hidden from the world. The ones that aren't are made on fictional worlds and I would like a "what if" on our own world. 
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Offline Ryan Mueller

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Re: Epic Fantasy, has it become stagnant or is it still growing?
« Reply #7 on: July 17, 2017, 01:37:26 AM »
Epic Fantasy is almost always a "save the world" quest. Even happens when books that start small start to grow in scale.
It's also a case of "the journey is more important than the destination" because I have yet to see a single story of the kind that the world is actually destroyed, so the final outcome is predictable, so you just want to know how they do it (the sacrifices, relationships established, tension for losses or relief of getting away with it, etc).

Now I want to write one where the world is destroyed, but that would happen somewhere in the middle of the series, and then the rest of the series would involve putting things back together.

Offline Lady Ty

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Re: Epic Fantasy, has it become stagnant or is it still growing?
« Reply #8 on: July 17, 2017, 01:41:20 AM »
I believe epic is growing, expanding and becoming even more exciting as time goes on. I agree with Lanko's excellent summary of epic and it is nearly always a Save the World quest with certain standard ingredients. Nowadays though, like modern cookery, there can be new and exciting elements included even whilst still using some old basics from the pantry.

The methods in which all those new ingredients are combined with the old ones and the manner in which they are presented is strange and unexpected, but we still end up with a satisfying and delicious meal of three or more courses. Heston Blumenthal has taken us there, rather than Mrs Beeton, and used beetroot and matcha with ice cream in the dessert as a bonus. 

OK enough already, metaphor hat off, I can't garden any more, but I at least can still play around in the kitchen. ;)

Seriously, Mark Lawrence's trilogies being prime examples of modern epic.  Complex interesting characters, both protagonists and side kicks, in a strange teasing world, ours but dystopic. Jorg and Jalan going on vastly different journeys, both forced reluctant and certainly not based on noble endeavour. Dangers and threats were novel and strange, even if they still included some of the basic magic, witches or Viking raiders.
Brandon Sanderson's  Mistborn is another epic, but the world building and magic way beyond what we previously came to expect.

I am sorry the view about urban fantasy being just vamps and werewolves predominates. Yes, I agree there are plenty of those, even so some are extremely well written and not at all conventional, Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch for instance. Others with not a vamp in sight but strange and intriguing, such as any Mieville, or Robert Jackson Bennett's Divine Cities. Agree they are not set on our world, but relate in so many ways.

So my personal answer to question, certainly not stagnant, growing well in wonderfully imaginative directions.

Just seen Ryan's post, yes, go for it. Let's have some failures ;D ;D

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Offline Peat

Re: Epic Fantasy, has it become stagnant or is it still growing?
« Reply #9 on: July 17, 2017, 09:19:03 AM »
Yeah I should have just said fantasy, but you can give me comments on both !

Well the answer is I think the fantasy genre is quite vibrant; full of growth and strange new things. There's a lot of different flavours of fantasy these days. There's so many cool ideas that I want to read and haven't got around to yet like Napoleonic dragons, Ancient Greek philosophical experiments, Aztec Blood Magician Detectives etc.etc.

Epic Fantasy, on the other hand, feels a bit stagnant to me. To a certain extent, that's fine and to be expected. This is a well-codified subgenre with a lot of commercial popularity - of course the needle's not gonna move all that much. But even so, I think I'd expect more movement than I see and I hear more people muse about stagnation than I think I should. About the only thing separating the Epic Fantasy I've read being put out now from the Epic Fantasy of the 80s is a darker moral tone. I like what Abercrombie's doing - although debatably, if being picky, he's Heroic Fantasy rather than Epic. I should probably check out Lawrence. The rest? Same old same old.

This is of course, a matter of taste. I'm fairly sure a library comparison between myself and Lady Ty would reveal a pretty similar set of experiences, yet she's seeing exciting new progress and I'm seeing a dog chasing its tail.

But as I said earlier, I do seem to find more people questioning whether Epic is currently to their taste than I think I should.
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Offline Lanko

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Re: Epic Fantasy, has it become stagnant or is it still growing?
« Reply #10 on: July 17, 2017, 09:49:58 AM »
Mark Lawrence (at least the Broken Empire) doesn't really feel Epic Fantasy until around the middle of book 3. It's fairly contained in the first two (the first is a pretty straightforward Revenge tale with Jorg returning home after years as a bandit and on the second is mostly about defending his kingdom from an invasion).

Though the backstory of the world does have that Epic feel of "something really big happened".
“Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”

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Offline Lady Ty

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Re: Epic Fantasy, has it become stagnant or is it still growing?
« Reply #11 on: July 17, 2017, 12:23:59 PM »
Peat, out of curiosity  I just did a quick GR comparison of our books after reading your post, also noticed we have quite often liked the same books. We're 77% similar which is quite high and our star ratings surprisingly close on many.  ;D

Guess we view epic from different angles and also have read books. I hope you try Lawrence sometime. I preferred The Red Queen's War for character, but The Broken Empire is excellent as well despite being considerably grimmer.
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Offline Peat

Re: Epic Fantasy, has it become stagnant or is it still growing?
« Reply #12 on: July 17, 2017, 02:34:53 PM »
Quick tangent - Puffed up rascal fool?

Yeah, I remembered the last time I used the tool we came up quite similar (and I have barely any Pratchetts on yet!). And on all we've discussed on books, I struggle to think of where we'd differ in what we're looking for.

I will let you know when I read Lawrence.

Riffing off Lanko here - how many Epic Fantasies start straight up Epic? I feel a lot of them start fairly contained and personal.
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Offline tebakutis

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Re: Epic Fantasy, has it become stagnant or is it still growing?
« Reply #13 on: July 17, 2017, 04:02:06 PM »
Quick tangent - Puffed up rascal fool?

You missed a missive from a rather memorable troll - not Chuck Tingle level in his/her prose, but close! I honestly wanted to claim PUFFED UP RASCAL FOOL as my title, but Lady_Ty got it first. :)
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Offline tebakutis

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Re: Epic Fantasy, has it become stagnant or is it still growing?
« Reply #14 on: July 17, 2017, 04:03:27 PM »
Now I want to write one where the world is destroyed, but that would happen somewhere in the middle of the series, and then the rest of the series would involve putting things back together.

Just go play Final Fantasy VI/III again!

If I ever write another fantasy, I'd love to go that route.
T. Eric Bakutis: 2014 Compton Crook Finalist and author of Tales of the Five Provinces