Despite being part of the genre of the fantastical and the weird, epic fantasy is often rooted in the real. It riffs off real history, real events and real people, sometimes to the point of being set in Europe with just a few names changed, a dragon dropping by and magic being used to blow up Versailles. Other fantasies employ mythologies from real-life sources as their main influences and inspirations
Back in 1950 Jack Vance published The Dying Earth, creating the entire Dying Earth subgenre of fiction (which later gave us The Book of the New Sun and Mark Charan Newton's recent Legends of the Red Sun, amongst others) and the Dungeons and Dragons magic system in one fell swoop. For an encore he wrote many of the greatest science fiction and fantasy novels of all time, such as the Demon Princes series and Big Planet.
Despite both a prolific and greatly accomplished career, Vance had avoided the epic fantasy subgenre. He wasn't one for writing huge battle scenes, or massive doorstop novels, and his sometimes whimsical humour and astonishingly accomplished dialogue seemed better deployed in science fiction. But then he got a good idea for a fantasy series, and ran with it.
The Lyonesse Trilogy was published in three volumes: Suldrun's Garden (1982), The Green Pearl (1985) and Madouc (1990). They are among Vance's longer novels, but still short by modern standards and the entire trilogy is available in omnibus. The trilogy may represent, as a completed work, one of the most accomplished works of fantasy since The Lord of the Rings.
The trilogy is set in the Elder Isles, an archipelago located in what is now the Bay of Biscay, off the west coast of France, the north coast of Spain and the south coast of Ireland. Much of the action takes place on Hybras, the largest of the islands (about the size of Ireland itself), which is falling into war due to the hostile actions of Casmir, King of Lyonesse, who desires to rule the entire island. Casmir's imprisonment of Aillas, one of the heirs to the throne of Troicinet, sets in motion a sequence of events as the young, canny Aillas seeks revenge both for his own part and also to bring justice to the isles.
So far, so standard. But Vance layers in some interesting elements to the story. He disdains violence and instead prefers depicting his characters engaging in formidable battles of wits. He also mirrors the struggle between Casmir and Aillas with the battle between their respective wizardly allies, Tamurello and Shimrod, arbitrated by Murgen, who seeks to preserve the magical balance of power over the isles. The multiple kingdoms of the Elder Isles are depicted well, and in the Ska, violent raiders from the northern isles who consider themselves a breed apart, George R.R. Martin (a huge fan of Vance) may have found the inspiration for his ironborn.
The most notable thing about the series is its clash between the weird and whimsical (fairies, magic, erudite magicians battling with wits and cunning) and the mundane and ordinary (court politics, assassinations), a clash that epic fantasy is uniquely positioned to explore but rarely does so, and certainly not as entertainingly and intelligently as in this trilogy, one of fantasy's masterworks.
Katharine Kerr began writing Daggerspell, which she envisaged as a short story, in 1982. She completed that same story in 2009 with the publication of the fifteenth novel in the series. The complete saga, The Deverry Cycle, tells the story of a group of people who are reincarnated again and again several times across centuries in the fictional kingdom of Deverry.
Whilst Deverry and its neighbours are fictional, Kerr deeply rooted the story in Celtic history and mythology: Deverry was in fact founded by refugees from our world trying to escape the Roman invasion of Gaul and were transported to the fantasy world by a sorcerer. Whilst the series proceeds in a different direction afterwards, the Celtic roots of the story remain prominent and explored in greater depth by Kerr, who was frustrated with any Western European-leaning fantasy being labelled "Celtic" even when it had nothing to do with that period of history or group of people.
The history of Deverry unfolded over four distinct sub-series: The Deverry Saga (1984-90), The Westlands Saga (1991-94), The Dragon Mage Trilogy (1997-2000) and The Silver Wyrm (2006-09). These moved backwards and forwards in time through the history of Deverry and its neighbours, but Kerr used the conceit of characters who are born and reborn in different bodies and times to explore events of historical interest, as well as the destinies of characters who interact with each other again and again as different people. Combined with some interesting uses of linguistics, these factors make the Deverry Cycle arguably the most significant work of modern epic fantasy to employ Celtic tropes and motifs.
The Lions of Al-Rassan
Guy Gavriel Kay's fantasy career got off to a pretty amazing start: in 1974 he was asked by Christopher Tolkien to assist in the editing of The Silmarillion for publication. In fact, Kay's writing skills were called upon to finesse a couple of chapters that J.R.R. Tolkien had not touched in decades, making him the only person other a Tolkien to work on an officially-published Middle-earth book in a writing capacity (if only of a very minor nature).
After that heady start, Kay worked on his first fantasy trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry, which was published in 1984-86. This concerned a group of students from the University of Toronto who are drawn into Fionavar, the First of All Worlds, which is under threat from dark forces. The experiences they have there are profound and shape who they are, with ripples which extend into the quasi-sequel Ysabel (2007). Although rooted in mythology, the trilogy is more overtly an original fantasy creation.
With his next novel, Tigana (1990), Kay established what would be his more familiar writing style of taking a real location and place in history and writing a novel (not a long series) about how it is changed and influenced by the addition of fantastical elements. Tigana is heavily influenced by Italian history but the fantastical conceit is that the name, history and indeed soul of the country have been magically removed from the mind of its inhabitants. Only a band of rebels led by those who remember the country before its occupation by an enemy power can remember the Tigana that was, and therefore are fighting for the very existence of their nation in a more literal fashion than is normal in fantasy. Kay interlaces themes of love, redemption and tragedy into his story, disdaining (as he usually does) war and violence as the primary means of solving dilemmas.
These themes continued into A Song for Arbonne (1993), a novel which does a similar thing for Renaissance Provence. But it was his 1995 novel, The Lions of Al-Rassan, which solidified things. Kay's works now took place on a world pretty much identical to our own, with each novel mirroring real events more explicitly than previously. The Lions of Al-Rassan, perhaps Kay's greatest masterpiece, expertly combines the stories of El Cid, ibn Ammar and the Reconquista of medieval Spain. Two great warriors, their love for the same woman, their loyalties and their passion for the land of Al-Rassan (also called Esperana) vividly play out across a beautifully-described backdrop.
Kay would continue to explore similar themes in later works: the Sarantine Mosaic duology (1998-2000) is based on Byzantium under Justinian I; The Last Light of the Sun (2004) is centred on England at the time of King Alfred the Great; Under Heaven (2010) is based on the Tang Dynasty of China and its end in the bloody An Shi Rebellion; and River of Stars (2013) is based on Song Dynasty of several centuries later and its transformation in the Jin-Song Wars. His next novel, Children of Earth and Sky, will be published in 2016.
Kay is, arguably, the greatest fantasy writer at taking a real time and place, repurposing it for the purposes of fantasy and doing so whilst still saying something of importance.
The Roof of Voyaging
Published in 1996, The Roof of Voyaging is an unusual fantasy novel. It's the first volume of a trilogy, The Navigator Kings, but Garry Kilworth throws a lot of the normal epic fantasy rules out of the window and moves the action to the other side of the planet (culturally and literally). The action takes place in the Pacific Ocean, deeply rooted in Polynesian mythology and history. This is an epic fantasy which riffs off the legends and past of the myriad peoples of Polynesia, in many ways completely alien to European sensibilities, with scores of gods and a richly-described culture threatened by the invasion of Celts from the south: in a bizarre twist, New Zealand has been swapped out for Britain.
The result is an often barmy and irreverent fantasy trilogy which has huge amounts of fun in doing things completely different to the conventional and tells a hugely entertaining story whilst doing so.
Ash: A Secret History
Published in 2000, Ash: A Secret History is a colossal novel that is part historical novel, part fantasy, part science fiction, part modern thriller and completely bizarre. It's set in France in 1476 and starts off chronicling the misadventures of the Lion Azure, a mercenary company led by Ash. Ash is mired in a political attempt to remove her from command of the mercenaries (a female warrior captain setting uncomfortable precedents) but this is soon superseded when the armies of Carthage invade Europe en mass from the south. In another storyline set in the present, bemused historians are trying to decipher the text of Ash and are constantly bewildered about references to things that never happened.
The result is a novel deeply mired in the traditions of historical and epic fantasy - battles, sieges, political skullduggery - but which brings on board influences from science fiction, alternate history and weird fantasy in an unusual but highly compelling blend.
Published in 2001, Kushiel's Dart was the debut novel by Jacqueline Carey. It's an interesting blend of genres, mixing some epic fantasy tropes with different cultural groups and religions battling over a continent, with alternate history: the continent is Europe, although the country names and history are different. The books also employ a lot of eroticism, with politics and warfare often assisted (or negated) by seduction or desire on the part of the players involved.
There are nine books in the series (collectively called Kushiel's Legacy), divided into three trilogies (the Phedre, Imriel and Moirin series), spanning over a hundred years in the history of Terre D'Ange (a fantasised version of France) and its neighbours.
The Cardinal's Blades/His Majesty's Dragon
More recently, fantasy has played around with much more straightforward and dramatic variations to real-world history to create something interesting. Two prominent recent fantasy series used much more recent historical periods as their base setting, but with some dragons thrown in to spice things up.
French author Pierre Pevel's Les Lames du Cardinal (Cardinal's Blades) trilogy (2007-10) is set in 1633 Paris and sees an irregular group of soldiers and investigators re-constituted as an elite, deniable group working directly for the formidable Cardinal Richelieu of France. Historical events such as the Thirty Years' War play a role, but the series deviates from history due to the presence and existence of dragons, formidably dangerous (if rare) creatures. The books mix fantasy tropes deriving from the existence of the dragons with swashbuckling derring-do, sword fights in the back alleys of Paris and political intrigue between Richelieu and his enemies.
Far better known is Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, which spans nine novels (2006-16), starting with His Majesty's Dragon. The series has a fairly straightforward premise - it's the Napoleonic Wars "BUT WITH DRAGONS" - which the author initially seems to treat simplistically, but then engages with in more depth as the series continues. The books feature both Britain and France deploying dragon mounts as weapons of war and means of transportation during the war, but their mutual use of dragons creates a stalemate with the war more or less proceeding as it did in real life. Variations from established history occur when African dragons are used to end the slave trade (with devastating effects) and it is discovered that the Chinese employ dragons as equals and even superiors. The use of dragons in this setting is initially absorbed into the historical status quo but is later used to spin history off in different directions.
The use of real history and mythology in fantasy would continue, and one author would take those inspirations to create the longest and most successful, outright epic fantasy since J.R.R. Tolkien.