What is Epic Fantasy?

“26 authors—13 women and 13 men—as well as an editor and a literary agent”, including the likes of David Anthony Durham, Steven Erikson, Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson, attempt to answer the questions posed by Clarkesworld Magazine: What is at the heart of Epic Fantasy? and Why do you write Epic fantasy? From Durham’s answer to the second question, this bit, which also explains why his work, despite its massive, massive flaws, is still so attractive

I love the unlimited creative possibilities of fantasy. I’d written three historical novels before starting the Acacia series. The third, Pride of Carthage, was about Hannibal’s war with Rome. It was a massive conflict with amazing events and twists of fortune and inspired leadership. It was epic. Leaving that novel, I wanted another epic. The world building I’d done for the ancient world got me craving writing in an imagined world where I had more freedom to mash things together that were never mashed together in actual human history. How could I write a novel that mixed opium addiction with the Atlantic slave trade in a pre-industrial world that includes Nordic, African, European and Asian inspired cultures in the same empire, and introduce a foreign invasion that endangers them all, despite their differences? If I was writing straight history that wouldn’t be possible. A lot of historical writers would probably never want to do something like that. I did, though. Fantasy was the obvious choice of genre that would allow me to recast all those things in one big package.

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Brandon Sanderson: Mistborn

Sanderson, Brandon (2007), Mistborn, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-5038-1

mistborn 1The speed and quality of fantasy writing is quite notorious. Fantasy writers are expected to crank out thick, brick-sized books, in remarkably brief periods of time. Remarkable novelists, such as Patrick Rothfuss, whose last novel had been published in 2007, and George R.R. Martin, whose last novel of his celebrated “Song of Ice and Fire” series had seen publication in 2005, have had to defend themselves against the ire of impatient fantasy fans. Brandon Sanderson, on the other hand, has kept, so far, on the good side of his fans, publishing more than one new book per year, ever since debuting with the standalone fantasy novel Elantris in 2005. Since then he has not just released a trilogy of fantasy novels starting with Mistborn (2006), and continued with The Well of Ascension (2007) and The Hero of Ages (2008), but also another standalone novel called Warbreaker (2009) and he has written, from Robert Jordan’s notes, The Gathering Storm (2009), one of three projected sequels to Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series, and is due to publish the second of them this year. This is an incredible amount of writing, but what’s more surprising, to be honest, is the quality of the resulting output. Mistborn is not on par with George R.R. Martin or even Rothfuss, but is still an above-average achievement, a smooth, smart novel that fuses literary, genre, religious (Mormon) and mythological inspirations to produce a great read. Nothing more but also: nothing less.

warbreakerFantasy fans have very specific expectations, and they fall, I think, into one of two camps these days. There are more traditional fans, grown up on a steady diet of Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks or Dave Eddings. They (a gross and unfair generalization, I’ll admit) enjoy books with swords and magic, orcs and elves, and an very clear set of roles and rituals. Whether it’s Goodkind’s Ayn Rand-inspired penchant for S/M-style sexuality, Tolkien’s Catholic sense of order, or just Jordan’s rank misogyny and elitism, these writers’ attitudes to power and class can be described, euphemistically, as traditional. The other camp contains writers like Martin or Rothfuss, who play with the elements of their genre, introducing a gritty realism (Martin) and even a careful consideration of class (Rothfuss). Mistborn doesn’t really belong to either camp or rather: it belongs to both, but doesn’t excel in either mode of writing. Neither Sanderson’s tepid realism, not his slouching use of the epic fantasy order is really fully convincing. This in-between nature of the book is probably its biggest problem, opening it to criticism from both camps. However, structure, original ideas and the heavy religious inspiration endow it with a very specific, unique feel, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys epic fantasy now and then. It’s on the strength of Mistborn that Robert Jordan’s widow approached Sanderson, asking him to finish her late husband’s unfinished series, and we can easily see why. Jordan’s main problem wasn’t his ideology. It was the terminal dullness that the books developed after a short while.

well ascensionWith a finite amount of authorized notes and ideas, Jordan’s widow needed a writer able to develop a plot quickly and satisfactorily, with effective and quick characterizations, yet with enough originality not to simply write a pastiche of Jordan’s style. Sanderson possesses all of these qualities in abundance, as Mistborn demonstrates. It’s rare for the first book of a sequence of fantasy novels, no matter of what length, to have a satisfying ending that isn’t at best a cliffhanger, wetting readers’ appetites for the next novel. The exasperation that fans feel with Martin and Rothfuss has, in part, its roots in the fact that they have offered no closure, the stories are in suspension, open ended. This is true for a great many writers, but not for Sanderson. As we finish Mistborn, we have been granted closure. The main story seems to be finished, almost all the open threads have been tied up and almost all questions answered. Within one book, Sanderson has told us the story of a rebellion against the Lord Ruler of the Final Empire, who appears to be God or at least God-like, he has, in deft strokes, introduced us to a wealth of characters, and sketched the history and culture of a whole new world, without any orcs or elves and with a very original, very interesting system of magic. His characters are so well sketched, so believable, that, as we pick up the second volume, The Well of Ascension, to enter a radically changed political landscape, and end up, almost directly, in an action-packed fight, we immediately recognize the characters from Mistborn. These are people we know, and due to Sanderson’s skills: people we know well. Sanderson does not, however, escape the trap of cliché in his depictions of both the characters and political machinations.

way of kingsThe hero of these kinds of books is often a young man, with the mind of a teenager and the budding skills of a medieval superhero. Vin, Mistborn‘s protagonist, is a woman, a teenager, with the budding skills of a medieval superhero. Oh, I exaggerate a bit, but not much. The one change here is significant and interesting, yet it also displays the full extent of the timidity of Sanderson’s realism. The story about (young) male heroes often turns around questions of heroism and masculinity. Stephen R. Donaldson’s cynical and arguably cowardly Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Robert Jordan’s trias of heros (exemplifying three facets of male adolescence and early adulthood), or “the Fool”, Robin Hobb’s fascinatingly glittering character from her two trilogies focusing on Fitz Farseer, are cases in point. Any change or departure quickly becomes part of this discussion. Whatever changes are made to the almost inevitably male hero, are just that, changes that reinforce the main template. Female heroes do turn up in number, though, especially in more recent years, but the context of their appearance is subtly (or not so subtly) different. Robin Hobb’s excellent Liveship Traders trilogy is a great example. Her heroine, Althea Vestrit, doesn’t get to be a heroine in the sense that the male heroes are. Her story is connected to female tropes, starting with water, to a very interesting communion with (some) living but (usually) inanimate objects. The focus is on questions of intuition, care, and fertility, rather than on discussions of power, violence, and strength. Even in Hobb’s able hands, these questions are channeled through and resolved by the still male characters. The same applies to Mistborn‘s Vin, although Brandon Sanderson goes further than Hobb.

rithmatistImpressively, Vin’s story is largely a very masculine one. She is quietly belligerent and the way she resolves problems is through seeking controversy and fighting her way through it. Through her use of magic she’s stronger than most men, and throughout most of the book, the only other person we know possessing this power (apart from the evil Inquisitioners and the Lord Ruler) is a man, modeled on the typical male hero. This may not sound like much, but it’s extraordinary, really. So much so, that Sanderson uses additional elements to weaken his heroine in other ways. Not only does she turn into a stereotypical little teenage girl as the book progresses, head over heels in love with a a mysterious and handsome young man, who softens her mistrust towards others. She also starts to wear dresses, going to balls, and enjoying the whole ladylike lifestyle. As if to ram the tedious point home, Sanderson has her defend ‘her man’ against another woman (possessing the same powers) in what feels uncomfortably like a catfight (though it is a fight to the death). Political power, meanwhile, is still elusive to women. It is debated and decided by men, all the important offices are held by men and all the planning is made by men. In fact, Vin (and the woman she fights) is the only noteworthy woman in the whole book. To Sanderson’s credit, however, she doesn’t become a stereotypical sorceress, queen, or mother at the end of the book. The usual fate of strong female characters, which sidelines them into the nooks and crannies of narrative, is spared her. She stays a fighter, soldier, assassin. She is and remains the strongest fighter in the book.

steelheartThis to and fro as regards Mistborn‘s attitude towards gender runs parallel to other instances of indecision on Sanderson’s part, such as his use of realism and originality. World-building is often considered one of the main tasks of speculative fiction: the invention of a world, distinctly different from ours, with magic, religion, science and, preferably, language newly invented or adapted for this new world. One of the predecessors to this kind of expectation is Tolkien, who invented a completely new language, elaborate mythology and history for his stories. In fact, by far the majority of his writing deal with mythical and historical stories, fleshing out the hints and allusions in his two main works of fiction. Sanderson’s approach is careful. He uses a well-known template, a simple medieval setting, he uses a generic understanding of roles and rituals (Vin is an exception), but he is also very inventive. His two main invention is his system of races and the kind of magic used in his world. In Mistborn, we only learn about two or three basic races. The Skaa, humans and Terrismen. Now, most of us remember China Miéville’s trenchant observation that no writing is innocent, not even fantasy writing. In our use of races such as orcs and elves, we don’t invent something out of the blue. Instead, we draw on stereotypes and images that we already have in our language and our cultural reservoir. Miéville asks us to be careful, to consider what the subtext is of using humanoid races like orcs, who are slow, big, and usually, with gnomes and goblins, the only non-white characters in books. Sanderson does not need such admonishment.

inheritanceHis races are, although I’m not sure about Terrismen, not necessarily racially different from one another. That racial difference exists in the heads of the occupants of Sanderson’s world, but we soon find that race in Mistborn is a signifier of class lines, so that humans are all noblemen, and Skaa are poor people, for example. The ability to use magic is hereditary and runs only in Noblemen, but not all Noblemen are able to use magic and any progeny of Noblemen and Skaa might be able to use magic, too. In a very deft move, Sanderson has found remarkably precise metaphors for racial and class tensions in our world. He also manages to anchor his magic in the earthly, bodily parts of his universe. They are not the amorphous weavings of Jordan’s Aes Sedai. In order to use magic, one needs to ingest metal and then ‘burn’ it. No metal – no magic. This dependance upon both the bodily process of digestion and the resources of the earth is laudable and quite unique. It’s quite saddening to see all these good ideas in a mind that isn’t able to put them to full use. Just as gender differences, on a deeper level, remain intact and problematic, so are questions of hierarchy and power affirmed in a traditional manner. The latter half of the book is infused by a deep mistrust of the common people. A people’s revolution is shown to be inevitably a brutal, rag-tag affair that will plunge the world into chaos. The people can revolt, but they need an authorized, upper-class leader to shape their anger into a politically sound result. This is what ails other instances of realism and originality, too. Sanderson’s take on a magically endowed thieving crew bent on overthrowing the empire eschews cliché depictions of ‘hard criminals’, so much, indeed, that this lack of grime has been criticized a lack of realism.

DSC01516I think it is an attempt to be more realistic, open, and humorous, but this doesn’t quite work, for one simple reason: Sanderson is a horrible writer about people. His mistrust of ‘the people’ translates into an unhealthy distance to them. Any decision to forgo cliché needs, I think, to be balanced by a strong alternative idea of how human beings behave, an idea which Mistborn severely lacks. Make no mistake: the characters themselves are believable, but their interactions and motivations rarely are. This is why the book so frequently feels lukewarm and a bit flabby. Too much of Mistborn feels conceptual without the sternness and consistency that good conceptual writing depends on. The concepts are partly the metaphors and structures I mentioned, but there is one other important pillar that they rest on: Sanderson’s Mormonism. Like many Mormon (and Catholic) writers, Sanderson’s religion heavily influences his writing in more than spirit. The most famous and popular Mormon writer, who leaves ample, obvious and specific traces and references to her particular religion (as opposed to a general Christian attitude) is probably Stephenie Meyer, the best one I know of is Brian Evenson. Brandon Sanderson, who teaches at Brigham Young University, is yet another one. Without attempting a thorough analysis, there are a few things especially that have a ring of Mormonism to it. The godliness of the Lord Ruler, specific basic properties of his magic and the “Well of Ascension” in particular evoke associations to LDS concepts such as the exaltation (actually, its hard not to read the three volumes as the three stages of theosis, but exaltation is a similar concept). Joseph Smith taught that “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens.” Through exaltation, we can all become ‘gods’. The Christ-like martyrdom of one of the book’s main characters adds an other layer to this.

DSC01322Finally, a catastrophe in the Mistborn universe that happened a few centuries ago, destroying many of the Terrismen, who are priest-like keepers of stories, history, religions and other knowledge, carries echoes of the Mormon doctrine of the “Great Apostasy”, which is a very particular version of a doctrine that many Christian churches teach. These specific references and allusions add a salvational urgency to Mistborn‘s narrative, which smoothly ties into the generic epic character of the story, but endow it with a more original power. As a whole, however, and despite all the specific changes and ideas that Sanderson brings to the table, there is an enormous amount of generic elements in his book, the worst of which is the actual writing. Without dropping to the abysmal lows of Terry Goodkind, his writing is at best serviceable, at worst dull, repetitive and, well, generic. He also displays the waste of spaced typical of his genre. While novels in other genres can describe a city, town or world, plus a set of full, believable characters in under 300 pages, many fantasy novels take twice as long without delivering twice the content. George R.R. Martin, who packs every page with action, intrigue and important observation is the exception here. More often than not, we are faced with page after page of ruminations, written in a laggard style and not serving any reasonable purpose, apart from helping to fill pages.

Still, at the end of Mistborn, lots of things have happened, and the reader has been swept away by the tide of events. It is, despite its faults, a very readable book, at least if you happen to like the genre of high fantasy. This is not one of the books that will appeal to those who dislike fantasy, but if you enjoy this sort of writing, Sanderson is a safe bet. He is an enjoyable, reasonably original and prolific writer who I very much look forward to reading more of in the months to come.

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Patrick Rothfuss: The Name of the Wind

Rothfuss, Patrick (2008), The Name of the Wind, DAW Books
ISBN 978-0-7564-0474-1

Once every few years, a new star rises from the murky depths of the fantasy mainstream. His or her work is subsequently hailed as original, new, groundbreaking, mostly inaccurately. In 2007 the rising star was a young man named Patrick Rothfuss. His debut novel The Name of the Wind made a deep impression upon the scene and had success far beyond the usual circle of fantasy readers. However, while the book is certainly an outstanding read, a huge amount of fun, and quite smart, much of the hype that has aggregated around Rothfuss’ novel, the first in a projected series of three (we know how that usually works out…), is not due to any specific excellency of his but to the dire and formulaic writing that dominates this genre. Even writers such as Tad Williams, who have a lot of talent, a great imagination and energy to spare, spend much of their time coasting along on the gentle waves of a genre the closeness of which to Romance writing (I’m currently making myself read a Sandra Brown novel, hence, perhaps, the association) betrays the conservative bent of the thinking that fuels much of it. Writers like Samuel R. Delany or China Miéville are the exception, not the rule in the field. Before embarking upon the proper review, let me tell you that Rothfuss does not break much new ground, if any. He does, however, rise above many of his colleagues, since his is a smart and self-reflective take on well-worn material.

The protagonist, a man by the fetching name of Kote, runs a bar in the middle of nowhere, as we enter the book. Strange things happen the origins of which are not explained (yet), but in the course of which we learn that Kote is anything but a measly barkeep. He has certain powers. When a man who calls himself Chronicler, apparently a, well, a chronicler, a collector and teller of tales, turns up at the Waystone Inn, Kote’s auspiciously named bar, we find out that Kote used to be a hero and a legend that went by the name of Kvothe, or to give his full name: Kvothe the Bloodless. Kvothe vanished and Chronicler hunted him down to write down his story. Kvothe demands full control over the result and subsequently dictates his life story to the writer. They agree to take three days for this. Hence the full title of Rothfuss’ novel: The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One: The Name of the Wind. The present, wherein Chronicler and Kvothe and a mysterious friend of Kvothe’s sit and create stories, keeps butting in, providing commentary but mainly disrupting the reading in a most pleasurable way, drawing attention to the telling. That is, generally speaking, something the book keeps doing, in different ways. It’s quite remarkable how consistently Rothfuss flaunts his concern with signs and narrative and how much this dominates the book. Basic genre assumptions of telling and authority are thus interrogated, if in a nice and gentle way. Rothfuss makes it easy to overlook many of these things by making them basic construction principles not objects of debate, but any good reading of the book would need to focus on these things, I think. His world is completely and utterly convincing, even now as I think back on it the smells and sounds and looks of his world rise before me. This is because he owes a large debt to Dickens, I think, at least as much as to his fellow fantasy wroters. But we’ll return to that.

Now we’ll return to Kvothe and the Chronicler. The full control Kvothe demands is not easily granted. Chronicler is used to be the storyteller, the shaper, the framer of stories, the man who writes and in writing constructs, creates an artifact that contains the basic, the salient facts of what people tell him orally. In Rothfuss’ vaguely medieval world, writing and reading is still a province of a few elite scholars, stories are proliferated by storytellers and singers. Songs especially are important. The connection between fabulation and truth-telling is a close and interesting one here. Rothfuss far exceeds most of his colleagues who, like him use songs both as described objects and as reprinted songs in the books, but, unlike him, use them for decoration mainly. Yes, Rothfuss uses them as decorative elements as well,but songs have a deeper significance, too. Most revealingly in a section early in the novel. Kvothe is part of a traveling troupe, a highly decorated and accomplished one; at the same time he is of a people called the Edema Ruh, who are but a thinly veiled allusion to Roma. All this is related in a series of nice vignettes, anecdotes, it’s all rather cozy and nice to read. Until, well, until Kvothe’s father decides to find out the truth about the Chandrian, a mythical figure that’s said to cause senseless massacres now and then. No one knows why exactly. Thousands of stories and songs about the Chandrian exist and Kvothe’s father listens to a slew of them in each village or town they pass.

He’s like a one-man Grimm brothers, but he is just interested in the story. By and by he assembles a mental library of tales and starts reading them closely, applying hermeneutic methods to these texts (which are at no point actual texts) and extracts from them a version of the truth which he then starts to turn into a song. The proof that the song is actually and emphatically true is in a gruesome event that ends Kvothe’s happy childhood. The Chandrian appears and murders the whole troupe, only Kvothe’s life is spared. Don’t come running and complain about spoilers. It is one of the book’s most interesting aspects that it constantly tells you what’s about to happen, its suspense is of a different kind. So, early in the book, Rothfuss rubs our noses into the fact that in his book, legends, fairy tales and songs can be made sense of within the limitations of truth-telling. Clearly, it suggests a similar reading might be applied to The Name of the Wind, too. I’m a bit befuddled tonight so the only thing that directly occurs to me is the Sinti and Roma tangent. See, traveling people such as the Roma always had a hard time, and today it’s getting worse again. Stories are told by all sorts of people but they are written down and kept and filed by authorities and in turn they help stabilize and reinforce them. The Edema Ruh just as the Roma do not get to write their stories, they sing songs, but when they die the songs die with them. Kvothe’s father’s song is forever lost. He was able to raise his voice but not to record it. So when Chronicler turns up at Kote’s bar and expects to exert full control over the material that Kvothe has to offer, Kvothe, with a lifetime of experience, stops him in his tracks and turns him into a tool. He’s using the writer, but controls him, checks what was written and decides what will be told and what won’t. His song will not be lost. His is a tale of disenfranchisement and of rising to the top despite of that. And it’s not just or even primarily about race, it’s also to a large extent about questions of class and power.

After his parents are killed, Kvothe travels to the next town where he lives on the street for the next three years, living the life of a street urchin. Far from having Gavrotte’s sunny demeanor, his experience in the streets is darkly Dickensian. This episode and much of what happens in the academy later is ‘realistic’, but in a critical manner. These early episodes of living on the street are about fear, first and foremost, about relearning one’s place in society. The trope Rothfuss is using to exemplify that are Kvothe’s feet, which he cut up during his first weeks and months, but which healed and grew thick and strong, sturdy enough to serve as shoes in the absence of money for those. Rothfuss’ gift is visible in the fact that he doesn’t merely use the trope to show Kvothe’s process in his time on the street, to be abandoned once shoes become affordable again. No, he returns time and again to his trope, refining it, proving it to be an apt metaphor for adaptive development. In fact, Rothfuss seems to use the three years in the wet and the cold, hunted by policemen and fellow urchins, sleeping in cellars and on roofs, as a launching point for his exploration of class. As I said, Rothfuss is rather mild-mannered about these issues, but his world isn’t Jordan’s where class is used a decoration, at best. The Name of the Wind returns to class as a factor in answering the question of What will I eat? Where will I sleep? Who will listen to my story? Most impressively in the events after Kvothe leaves the town that has raised him and decides to enter the academy to become what other colleagues would have called a wizard.

A school for people who want to become proficient in magic? Right. J.K. Rowling’s books clearly must be part of the frame of reference here. Harry Potter‘s become so inordinately famous that it needs to be considered and it’s the closest comparison that I could come up with. Usually arcane academies are less hands-on, contain less descriptions of what we would consider normal school routine. What’s more ,a comparison would be profitable, because Harry Potter‘s Hogwarts is so thoroughly different from Rothfuss school, and the main difference is probably this: Rowling’s books, especially the first one, are a paean to consumerism. Without being the least bit critical, she provides, more or less, a series of low-key fantasy examples for what Marx called the Warenfetisch, and constructs a consumerist wonderland. Yes, even in Harry Potter, there are poor people such as the Weasleys, but their poverty is exoticised, it’s cute and all in good spirits. They are jolly people who can’t always afford new brooms so younger kids have to take older siblings’ old brooms, etc. even though it’s a horribly outdated model. Compare this to Kvothe’s bloody feet. No-one, to my knowledge, is really threatened with having to leave Hogwarts on account of poverty, and is thus barred from knowledge. This, however, is the constant threat that hangs over Kvothe’s head and the academy takes steep rates, and is not in the habit of handing out scholarships, thereby ensuring that the skills and the arcane knowledge that can be gained in the academy stays in a certain circle. Kvothe has to fight and scramble to stay in the university and not starve. It’s just as realistic as necessary, but it is fantasy, after all. The mixture makes for addictive, sumptious reading. Kvothe’s struggle dominates the rest of the book, which also contains his quest to find out what exactly happened to his parents, the first beginnings of his legend.

Kvothe is a hero, as exceptional (compared to the common man) as any within fantasy. He’s almost supernaturally smart, agile and talented. But here’s exactly where he differs from the Rand al’Thors (and Harry Potters): his main superpower are his smarts. Rand al’Thor is thick as a brick basically and so are Goodkind’s and a good deal even of Hobb’s heroes. Kvothe is a born scholar, able to hold incredible amounts of knowledge in his head and break a cypher within minutes. He is more brain than brawn, although he fares well on that as well. But there, again, not something that he was born with (one of the most problematic constants in fantasy) but something that he acquired through his family business first and fighting for survival in the streets later. With this, Rothfuss cedes to a demand of the mainstream of his genre, as he frequently does; not without putting a twist to it. Rothfuss, as I mentioned before, is adamant in handing us key pieces of the plot beforehand. We know what will happen to the hero. He channels the reader’s suspense into his curiosity about the world, about its secret, its workings. To do this, one the one hand he uses and repeats certain tropes; on the other, he sends his hero off on a search for the Chandrian, fattening up the narrative with mysterious children’s songs like this

When the hearthfire turns to blue,
What to do? What to o?
Run outside. Run and hide.

When your bright sword turns to rust?
Who to trust? Who to trust?
Stand alone. Standing Stone.

See a woman pale as snow?
Silent come and silent go.
What’s their plan? What’s their plan?
Chandrian. Chandrian.

Just as this song, the book as a whole is rather simple, it wears its complexities lightly, it’s first and foremost a good fantasy read. I read it in all of two days, and enjoyed it every step of the way. Rothfuss writing is not remarkable in any way, not in a bad, as in Goodkind’s case, or in a good way, as Miéville’s. The book is a solid read, but Rothfuss proves himself a smart writer, who is aware of many undercurrents of his genre and turns that awareness into constructing devices of his book. If you like fantasy, you can’t really bypass this book. If you don’t, I guess you could be unhappy with many genre trappings that Rothfuss kept and reproduced. The Name of the Wind is, perhaps, not a very good book, but a very enjoyable one. It’s very much worth reading. I hope this review has made a good case for that.

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