Creative Colleagues Roundtable: Heroic Fantasy Round 1

For this month’s Roundtable, I sent out questions way, way before deadline. If you know writers, you already understand my mistake. I ended up with only two replies and a couple of requests for a nudge closer to the drop-dead.

A little over a week ago, I sent out that nudge with the original questions, this time to a slightly larger group. The response was larger—so much larger that I’ll spread the answers over the next few weeks.

This month’s topic is heroic fantasy. Consider these answers a starting place to continue the conversation right here in comments. One randomly determined person who comments 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

Don’t forget to check out the websites, and especially the books, of those who’ve bestowed their jewels of wisdom on our humble site.

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?

Lou Anders: When I was a tween, my father handed me a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars and said, “You’re going to read this.” I automatically objected to anything my father was ordering me to do, so I looked for a way out. We were a conservative southern family living in Alabama, so even though I rather liked the beautiful Michael Whelan cover illustration, I used it as my line of attack.

“But it has a naked woman on the cover,” I pointed out. Actually, my accent was a bit thicker back then, so what I said was “nekkid.”

“I know it has a naked woman on the cover,” my father replied. “But it’s still a good book, and you’re going to read it.”

Thus beaten, I read A Princess of Mars. Then the rest of the Martian series. Then every other book by ERB I could find over the next year. This led me to Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, and Michael Moorcock, and on to a life in genre fiction.

After fifteen years working as an editor in the science fiction field, I’m now a full time author, the writer of the Thrones and Bones series from Penguin Random House ( Having read thousands upon thousands of works of science fiction and fantasy, it’s somewhat surprising to me to find that these early influences are still perhaps the strongest in my work. I see Moorcock and Leiber all over Frostborn, Ian Fleming gets a nod in Nightborn, and you’ll see a big Burroughs nod when Skyborn is released next year.

Sometimes I’m writing in emulation of, others in reaction to, but these childhood influences never go away.

Bill Bodden: I think The Hobbit was my first epic fantasy read back in second grade. If that’s not epic enough for somebody, I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy soon after. My brother Mike funneled a lot of good books my way back then, and got me hooked on Michael Moorcock not long after. I hope my own writing takes a page or two from Tolkien, but I’ve read so much other good stuff that I can’t imagine its influence being too overwhelming.

I’m working on a novel right now that starts out with the good guys having lost and being on the run and where they go from there.

Richard Lee Byers: It’s been a long, long time for me, and I’m honestly not sure anymore. But some of the ones I read very early on are Conan the Conqueror by Robert E. Howard, Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson, The Incomplete Enchanter by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, and Witch of the Four Winds by John Jakes. I think Howard, Anderson, and de Camp and Pratt all influenced my approach to the genre. Howard showed me the exotica, violence, and darkness that underlie sword-and-sorcery, deCamp and Pratt brought a realistic perspective and humor to the form, and Anderson achieved a synthesis of the two. Though I don’t claim to be anywhere near as good, I think I take an Anderson kind of approach. (Jakes may have influenced me in some way as well, but I think that when doing heroic fantasy, he was essentially a Howard imitator, and if I took something extra away from him, I’m not conscious of it.)

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?

Lou Anders: My short hand for the difference between epic fantasy and sword & sorcery is that epic fantasy is The Iliad and sword & sorcery is The Odyssey. This could work as easily with The Lord of the Rings (epic) and The Hobbit (S&S). But the genres really aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s always a mistake to be prescriptive, rather than descriptive, with genre definitions, to draw lines in the sand or build fences and declare “always this, never that.” Michael Moorcock’s Elric series is surely one of the defining works of sword & sorcery (the term exists because he called for it and Fritz Leiber answered), yet Elric destroys all his gods and remakes the world—surely the most epic of epic-scale actions. For me, subgenres are mountain tops. You know it clearly when you are on their peaks, but as you walk down the hill and enter the valley between one mountain and another, things blend and mix. It’s a direction you are facing, a course to chart, but not a boundary you are forbidden to cross.

Bill Bodden: I don’t feel that the terms “epic” and “Sword & Sorcery” are mutually exclusive. The boundaries between most genres in the genre fiction category are so fluid now that even if S&S and epic weren’t commonly (and strongly) associated with each other, there would be no way to split them up easily and cleanly. Grimdark, or dark fantasy, fits into this category as well, but again, there’s a lot of overlap.

Richard Lee Byers: To me, all epic fantasy is sword-and-sorcery, but not all sword-and-sorcery is epic fantasy. In other words, If the story’s got swordplay, wizards, castles, monsters, all that noise, it’s sword-and-sorcery, but if it’s a short story about a couple rogues camped out in an alley who run afoul of a supernatural menace (“The Cloud of Hate” by Fritz Leiber) or a barbarian thief who sneaks into a wizard’s citadel and ends up releasing an imprisoned alien being which then takes its vengeance on the mage (“Tower of the Elephant” by Robert E. Howard), it’s not epic fantasy. The scale is too small. Epic fantasy deals with the fate of nations if not the entire world, and it lends itself to long stories which cover a lot of ground and have many characters and subplots. The tricky part is deciding on a threshold, the point at which sword-and-sorcery becomes epic. We would probably all agree that The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, and Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams are epic fantasy, but is Conan the Conqueror? It’s much shorter than any of the multi-volume works I just mentioned and has a much simpler, more linear story line, but in it, too, the fate of a great kingdom and probably the whole world of the Hyborean Age hangs in the balance. So people may well differ as to whether it meets the qualifications to be considered epic.

As for grimdark, my answer is similar. All grimdark is sword-and-sorcery, but not all sword-and-sorcery is grimdark. Basically, if your heroic fantasy has a noir-ish, cynical tone to it, that qualifies it as grimdark.

Elaine Cunningham: Urban fantasy isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we’re talking heroic fantasy, but I would definitely list several series under that banner. The first that comes to mind is the Kate Daniel series by Ilona Andrews. Kate is a classic fantasy hero. She starts out as a tough loner who was raised and trained for one purpose: to kill her insanely powerful father or die trying. She spent her childhood on the run and has always had to take extreme measures to hide her identity and her magic until she was powerful enough to have a chance of succeeding. But as she starts making connections with other people (and were-people), she takes on the responsibilities that come with the package. She makes her first real friend, adopts an orphaned teenager, falls in love, and risks her life over and over. Kate is, quite simply, heroic. If someone tries to harm her people, she’s there in front of them, sword drawn and half-understood (and frequently back-firing) magic blazing. Kate is currently my favorite fantasy hero, hands down.

Another example is Harry Dresden. It could be argued that he’s more of an anti-hero—especially now that he’s bound to the Unseelie Court and the half-mad Queen Mab—but despite his complicated history and current alliance, he’s as self-sacrificing as he is badass. Kevin Hearn’s Iron Druid series also has the tone and themes I associate with heroic fantasy.

Roundtable Contributors

Lou Anders

Lou Anders

Lou Anders is the author of FrostbornNightborn, and the forthcoming Skyborn, the three books of the Thrones & Bones series of Norse-themed fantasy adventure novels written for boys and girls equally. Anders is the recipient of a Hugo Award for editing and a Chesley Award for art direction. He has published over five hundred articles and stories on science fiction and fantasy television and literature. A prolific speaker, Anders regularly attends writing conventions around the country. Find Lou on Twitter at @LouAnders.

Bill Bodden

Bill Bodden

Bill Bodden has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, with numerous credits in magazines and in the Tabletop RPG field. Currently working on fiction as well, Bill has sold two short stories to anthologies: “In the Shadow of His Glory,” from Sidekicks (Alliteration, Ink) and “A Quiet House in the Country” in Haunted: Eleven Tales of Ghostly Horror (Flames Rising Press). Bill lives in Wisconsin with his wife, a cat, and piles of books on most flat surfaces.

Author Richard Lee Byers

Author Richard Lee Byers

Richard Lee Byers is the author of forty fantasy and horror novels including the “Black River Irregulars” trilogy (coming soon from Privateer Press), and the “Impostor” series (launching in February from Rothco Press.) He invites everyone to Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and Ello.

Elaine Cunningham

Elaine Cunningham

Elaine Cunningham is a former music and history teacher, but can’t seem to shake either habit. She performs with the Providence Singers, a symphonic choir associated with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, and is currently (and slowly) researching her first foray into historical non-fiction. Her publications include 20 novels, about four dozen short stories, some odds and ends of poetry, and a graphic novel. After taking an extended break punctuated by the occasional short story, she has finally begun writing a new novel.

Dave B&WDave Gross is the erstwhile editor of such magazines as Dragon, Star Wars Insider, and Amazing Stories. Among other settings, he’s written stories 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.

Master of Devils at Audible

Cover by Lucas Graciano

Cover by Lucas Graciano

Have you heard the one about Radovan, the Count, and the Monkey King?

Those whose favorite Pathfinder Tales novel is Master of Devils are my kind of people for more than the obvious reason. It was not my editor’s favorite, but I think that’s in part because he’d seen only two Chinese action films and didn’t like either of them.

It helps if you love Kung Fu movies, but even apart from that this is the most action-packed and arguably the most light-hearted (well, in certain chapters) of the Radovan & the Count novels. It was also in some ways the most fun to write, since there was so little campaign information written in stone that I was free to draw inspiration from my favorite Kung Fu movies.

Give it a listen and leave a review at Audible to tell them what you think of it.

Creative Colleagues: Jane Lindskold

Jane Lindskold and friend

Jane Lindskold and friend

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Jane Lindskold and I first met at Gen Con about 20 years ago. The previous year, she had published her wonderful debut novel, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls, coincidentally the same year as I’d made my first short fiction sale. We also discovered we’re both tabletop roleplayers, and my one regret of that convention is that we never got a chance to play together.

Jane and I exchanged letters and D&D books for a little while but eventually lost touch except for a brief greeting at a convention five or six years later. Since then, we’ve reverted, as so many have, to following each other on Twitter.

This past spring, a remark by someone at Tor prompted me to ask whether they’d send Jane a copy of my latest Radovan & the Count novel. Soon after, we resumed our correspondence and she asked me a few questions for her delightful blog. Our exchange was so much fun that I had to ask to turn the tables and continue the conversation here.

1. As a pragmatist, I’m of the opinion that writers aren’t born but made (or self-made). They come to the craft from many different vectors, including formal education, writers’ groups, the guidance of a mentor, and a thousand other angles. What was your trajectory?

“Trajectory” is a neat way to look at the process of becoming a writer. Let’s see…

For me, the launch pad to becoming a writer was telling stories—often based on my dreams—to my younger sister, with whom I shared a room until I was twelve. I also had a vivid daydream life, in which I would construct elaborate stories. And I’d play “pretend” with my youngest sister.

I’m not really sure when I started letting the stories out of my head and onto paper. By college, definitely, but my sister says she’d find fragments back when we were younger. I certainly never finished these, nor did I take them very seriously. At this point, I had no ambition at all to be a writer.

Freshman year in college I discovered RPGs. This was the year the AD&D hardcover guides came out, I believe. Gaming very much fueled my desire to actually write down stories. Often I’d construct an elaborate backstory for my character. These rarely were used, but I found myself stimulated by the process. Later, I’d write down portions of games—more or less unconnected fragments—but the attempt to put down on paper words that would convey to a reader something of the vivid sense of the characters and events from the game was there.

I even tried an epic poem in rhymed couplets.

At the same time, I was majoring in English, so I was reading a lot of wonderful material—or sometimes not so wonderful. Thinking about what stirred me and what didn’t helped shape me as writer as well, as did making friends who read SF/F and talking about books with them.

Basically, those four years when I was earning my undergrad degree in English, I was also, all unknowing, doing a second “self-directed” degree in fiction writing.

I did take one class, an elective, in short story writing. Honestly, the class didn’t teach me much that I hadn’t already figured out for myself, but it did force me to finish what I was working on. That—as I’m sure you know—is a huge step.

I went directly from undergrad to grad school, but even though I was intensely focused on my studies, I didn’t give up either gaming or fiction writing. When I finished my dissertation, I decided to slot fiction writing into the space where the dissertation had lived.

Above you mentioned “mentors.” If I had one, it was Roger Zelazny, who I met as I was finishing up my degree work. Roger read some of my early stuff and decided that I was already writing at a professional level. So, although we talked about writing a lot, he went out of his way to avoid making me, as he put it “into a cut-rate Roger Zelazny.” He never edited my stories or made more than the most indirect suggestions. Instead, he taught me about markets and various business aspects. Of course, I couldn’t have been as close to him as I was without learning a lot—I have a file drawer filled with his letters to me—but he never was in the least directive.

After grad school, I started teaching college English and writing fiction (and non-fiction) on the side. Eventually, I sold a short story or two… And even later, a novel (Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls). Twenty-four or so novels and seventy some short stories down the pike, I’m still at it.

2. I think you’ve both collaborated on fiction and finished someone else’s work, one of the things we have in common. How do those experiences compare with each other and with writing alone?

I’ve done collaborations with a couple of writers—two novels with David Weber (Fire Season and Treecat Wars) and a short story (“Servant of Death”) with Fred Saberhagen.

And Roger asked me to finish the two novels he was working on if he didn’t “make it” (as he didn’t). These were Donnerjack and Lord Demon.

I’ve also written stories set in other people’s “universes,” which—if you’re respectful of the source material—is a sort of indirect collaboration.

Each of the experiences was very different. “Servant of Death” was set in Fred’s “Berserker” universe, so he contributed the foundation. We talked over the story and I wrote the first draft. Fred then made some suggestions that he felt would draw the story closer to the “feel” of the universe.

Working with David Weber was very different. Since the novels were prequels to the Honor Harrington stories—set hundreds of years earlier—there was a lot of new material to come up with. Weber and I are good buddies, and he gave me a lot of room to play, as long as we didn’t violate anything he’d already established. One area he hadn’t done a lot with was treecat culture, since most of the treecats in the Honor Harrington novels are not exactly stay-at-homes. I came up with a long list of questions. If he didn’t have an answer, he gave me leave to come up with my own solutions.

Finishing Roger’s novels was completely different, since he wasn’t there to talk with. However, we had talked a lot about what he intended for both. He didn’t outline, so I had to go with what we’d talked about and what he’d already written. Earlier, I said he didn’t try to teach me how to write, but I feel that rising to the challenge of finishing novels by one of the greatest SF/F prose stylists of all time taught me an amazing amount.

Cover by Cliff Nielsen

Cover by Cliff Nielsen

3. More and more writers are open about being gamers, but you’ve never been shy about talking gaming. Is there still a danger of being “tainted” by association? And are there hidden or surprising benefits to gaming as a writer?

The other day, I realized that by my next birthday, I will have been gaming for two-thirds of my life… And it hasn’t been a casual hobby either. Except for a few breaks when moving between locations (and thus between groups) I’ve gamed the whole time. Right now I have a group that meets almost weekly, and I really look forward to Sunday evenings for that reason.

My first non-academic publications were gaming-related: two gaming scenarios for Call of Cthulu, published in Challenge Magazine. The second of these was badly messed-up in production, so I fear that any who tried to play it would have failed their Sanity roll at the outset.

I think that the danger of being negatively stigmatized for being a gamer is greatly reduced these days. I mean, when people realize that Hugo and Nebula award-winners like George R.R. Martin and Walter Jon Williams are gamers, it becomes really tough to justify equating gaming and poor writing.

Projects like the long-running Wild Card anthologies, and James S.A. Corey’s “Expanse” novels have their roots in games played by or designed by the authors. Neither of these are “game-related” but gaming had a positive influence on their development.

I think the benefits are myriad, especially for those of us who run games as well as just playing. When people ask me in what way a game is like a story, I explain that the Referee provides the setting—because even in those games set in an established gaming “world,” still the Ref is the one through whom the players “see” the setting. The Ref also provides most of the characters in the form of NPCs. The players provide the main characters. The Referee provides the start for the plot but—in a good game—the story’s plot is a result of collaboration between the Ref and the players.

4. What are some lessons writers can take from roleplaying games in handling magic and the supernatural? And/or what are some lessons one must never take from gaming?

Magic and the supernatural are a bit separate in my mind, so I’ll deal with them that way.

Despite reviewers who seem to frown at such, traditional magic is more often than not tied to a system of some sort. I wrote a long piece about this called “System = Unmagical” for, that I revised for my own blog in March 2013 and included in my book Wanderings on Writing, so I’ll spare you why the “numinous” magics so beloved of critics are actually less “realistic” than magic systems that use spell components, gestures, and the like.

That said, a writer can’t simply tag a spell by its game name and leave it at that. One thing I’ve found amusing when reading Pathfinder novels is how often I can tell precisely what spell is being described—and I haven’t played any version of D&D for over twenty years! A creative description of a spell effect is great, but just saying “Chromatic Orb” or “Spider Climb” is pretty clumsy.

The supernatural is another thing entirely. Gaming universes often mix up elements that came originally from numerous sources—fictional, legendary, mythological, historical, even movies and TV—with no attempt to justify why, say, a creature from continental India would be in the same area as European-style werewolves. In the gaming context, that’s fine, because that’s the fabric of the universe.

However, when writing fiction not set in that sort of universe, a writer must be careful to understand where various supernatural elements originated. A Norse elf and an Irish elf have element in common, but they are different creatures—despite the contact between the cultures. The same is true of a host of other creatures.

The same story that might delight a gaming audience can seem a ludicrous mishmash in another context—and consequently subject to rejection from non-gaming publishing houses.

Coincidence is another thing to watch out for. Gamers are accustomed to how the dice shape the story, but the chance success of a one-in-a-million hit or an out-sized spell effect even if “It really happened that way, honest!” can make for a weak story, especially if the plot relies on repeated “good die rolls.”

5. You and I, and a great many other writers, have an obvious affinity for wolves. What is it about those animals that remains so romantic in our imaginations?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I apparently imprinted on wolves at a very young age. One of my favorite imaginary characters had a wolf companion. When I’d speak about my enthusiasm for wolves, I was always told “Oh, you wouldn’t like real wolves,” but, in fact, I do.

Over the years, I’ve learned a considerable amount about wolves. What I’ve learned has not diminished my enthusiasm for them, but rather caused it to grow. I’ve even had a wolf in sit in my lap, been licked on the face by several, and the like…

This doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge that wolves can be dangerous. I try to get out the word that wolves are not meant to be house pets. I do what I can to support the mission of Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary here in New Mexico, which provides homes for wolves and wolf-hybrids who have been unfortunate enough to be victims to humans on a power trip.

Wolves are not monsters—not werewolves or Pathfinder’s “winter wolves” or anything of the sort. However, they’re not Firekeeper’s “Royal Wolves” either. They’re creatures who deserve to be respected for what they are.


Watch for Jane’s latest at her website.



Coming Soon

There’s an especially good installment of Creative Colleagues coming this way next Wednesday.

Otherwise, I’ve only a monthly Roundtable on tap, although there are a few sets of questions out to authors who’ve probably gotten too busy or distracted to reply. Until then, any requests for blog topics?