This December, my esteemed colleagues tackle questions on Heroic fantasy. Consider their answers a starting place to continue the conversation in comments. One randomly determined person who comments by the end of the month here, on the blog—not on one of the social media sites advertising this post—will receive a free copy of Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, Queen of Thorns, King of Chaos, or Winter Witch from audible.com.
If you missed last week’s responses, you can catch up here.
What was the first heroic fantasy novel you remember reading? Has your own writing emulated it or responded with an alternative take on the genre?
Matt Forbeck: When I was an asthmatic kid being hauled back and forth from the specialists in Madison, Wisconsin, my dad took me to a bookstore and asked for a recommendation. The woman behind the counter gave him The Riddle-master of Hed by Patricia McKillip. I absolutely loved it, and I devoured the entire trilogy. After that, I discovered Terry Brooks’s Sword of Shannara and later The Lord of the Rings. I was hooked good.
When I was starting out, I think my writing emulated many of those high-fantasy tropes those books created and propagated. That’s especially true since my first published novels were Dungeons & Dragons books, which lean heavily on those tropes.
However, I also wrote Blood Bowl books back then, and those gleefully take those tropes apart and send them cartwheeling around the room. So there was clearly some room in my head for alternative takes. That likely came to a head with my Shotguns & Sorcery series, which blends heroic fantasy and detective noir tropes into a tasty cocktail that kicks like a hanged man’s boots.
Jaym Gates: First heroic fantasy novel: David Gemmell, and he influenced not only my writing but also my life. There are few things that make me happier than that a favorite character—Jaim Graymauch—and I kind of share the same first name. I ran into Gemmell at the same time as Tolkien, just as I was headed into my teens. I learned a lot about antiheroes from him, and while I’d already tended to the dark side, he taught me how to create a morally complex antihero.
Kate Elliott followed not long after that, and blended Tolkien and Gemmell really well. I was an absolutely voracious reader as a teenager, so there’s no way I can remember everything, but those two stand out.
Scott Fitzgerald Gray: As I suspect is true of a lot of fantasy fans of my generation and white-bread English-speaking heritage, the first heroic fantasy novel I ever read was The Hobbit, at about nine years old. I actually consumed it twice in quick succession at that age—first when my third/fourth-grade class had it read to us aloud by our teachers, the awesome Mrs. Smith and Miss Vesterback, and then immediately afterward when I read it again for myself. And though I like to think I’ve pushed beyond the boundaries of Tolkien in my own writing (as one must), I do emulate The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the same way a lot of other fantasy writers and game designers do — with an insufferable passion for detailing fictional worlds.
I’ve read The Hobbit a lot of times since third grade, but I still remember that initial exposure and the way the things that dragged me into Tolkien’s world were often far removed from the main plot. Rivendell and Elrond’s moon letters. Beorn’s story. Dale and Laketown. Those and so many of the other snippets of history and culture that Tolkien weaves into his narrative opened up my nine-year-old mind to the notion that great fantasy doesn’t just exist in the vacuum of the moment. Rather, great fantasy is built on all the other unseen and unheard stories that came before it, just as it should set up a sense of all the stories that might yet come.
Whenever I’m writing, I’m conscious that every tale of heroic fantasy is, in some way, the middle of some larger story. I’m conscious of the shape of the world I’m creating, and all the different cultural and historical threads from which that world is woven. Heroic fantasy is about the process by which the present churns up the past to generate the future. No matter how focused the short tale, no matter how long and convoluted the novel series, any fantasy story one can tell is effectively also a single act in some larger history. Of all the things Tolkien did that I loved—and as a counterpoint to the number of things he did in his fiction that I’m not crazy about—I think that’s the most significant for me.
Heroic fantasy is a blanket term that includes popular genres like epic fantasy and sword & sorcery. Do you feel epic and S&S are mutually exclusive? Or can (and should) we mix them like peanut butter and chocolate? Are there some other, overlooked subgenres of heroic fantasy? And does grimdark fit under this blanket or lie outside?
Matt Forbeck: No genres are mutually exclusive. They’re just sections on shelves in bookstores, ways we categorize individual works to make them easier to talk about as a group. We should mix and match them with undaunted delight. That’s how we come up with new and fresh ideas and stories out of even the most common ingredients.
Jaym Gates: I absolutely think we should mix them! I’m the first to say I can’t stand Game of Thrones, and this coming from the woman who still reads a lot of very dry politics and history books. When I want fantasy and SF, I want it to be different from life. S&S, on the other hand, can often be a wee bit shallow—again, Gemmell was one of my foundations, but I like some meat on the bone.
Phillip Jose Farmer’s The Magic Labyrinth is a great example: it’s epic in scope, but has all that gorgeous weirdness I love in Clark Ashton Smith and some of the other S&S luminaries. Most of the authors in the Pathfinder Tales novel line are doing rollicking good tales in an epic setting, which might be the best blending of the two subgenres.
I also think that there’s been a more subtle crossover. Epic fantasy is lightening up, and S&S is getting some meat on its bones. Baen and Pyr put out some really solid S&S offerings over the last few years and were recently joined by Angry Robot. The fantasy coming out of Orbit and Tor, meanwhile, has some pretty awesome action and adventure in its epic settings—particularly authors like N.K. Jemison (Dreamblood is as dark and nasty as anything from Clark Ashton Smith, but as rich and deep as any of the epics I grew up on!), Victor Milan (Dinosaur Knights), and Martha Wells (Stories of the Raksura). Epic is having more fun, I think, and S&S is growing up (this is not to cast shade on any of the previous works—see my bases of Tolkien and Gemmell!), and we all win.
More Epic S&S for all!
Scott Fitzgerald Gray: I’m always a big fan of shooting genre conventions in the head whenever possible, and as a result I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the different subgenres of heroic fantasy, either as a reader or a writer. I understand and appreciate them mechanically, and I think it’s entirely reasonable to be able to say, “I’ve read too many end-of-the-world multipart epics; recommend me something that’s more straightforward action and adventure.” But my big problem with subgenres is that for a lot of readers and writers, they can become an effective barrier to free creativity by creating a sense of boundary and exclusivity.
I think that sense of subgenre-as-limitation can work two ways, both of them potentially harmful. From the perspective of the writer, it’s counterproductive to say, “These things aren’t allowed in this subgenre, so I need to limit the scope of what I’m doing.” And from the perspective of the reader, it shortchanges the genre as a whole to have the expectation, “This particular subgenre doesn’t deal with [fill in the blank], so I’m obliged to ignore it.”
Looking at it another way, both epic fantasy and sword-and-sorcery have specific strengths. To cite the two most foundational examples, epic fantasy typically allows for maximum intensity in world-building, while sword-and-sorcery often provides better access to gritty character story. And to my mind, if one can identify both those things as individual strengths of the overall genre, why try to make them mutually exclusive? Fantasy is a genre built around the notion of bringing the imaginary to life. And as such, it shouldn’t bog down under notions of, “If you like reading A, you’ll hate reading B,” or “If you’re writing X, you’re not allowed to do Y.”
Matt Forbeck is an award-winning and New York Times-bestselling author and game designer. His latest work includes Halo: New Blood and Marvel’s The Avengers Encyclopedia. For more about him, visit Forbeck.com.
Jaym Gates is an editor, author, and communications specialist. In other words, she gets paid to use a lot of words. More info can be found at jaymgates.com, or on Twitter as @JaymGates, because she needed more places to talk.
Scott Fitzgerald Gray (9th-level layabout, vindictive neutral) is a writer of fantasy and speculative fiction, a fiction editor, a story editor, and an editor and designer of roleplaying games—all of which means he finally has the job he really wanted when he was sixteen. His latest novel is Three Coins for Confession, the second book in the high-fantasy trilogy The Exile’s Blade.
Dave Gross is the erstwhile editor of such magazines as Dragon, Star Wars Insider, and Amazing Stories. He has written novels set in the Forgotten Realms, Iron Kingdoms, and the world of Pathfinder Tales. His latest novel is Lord of Runes, and his most recent story “The Wendigo” in Gods, Memes, and Monsters.