Saturday 12 September 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 9

If 1977 was the year that epic fantasy came of age, it took another couple of years for the genre to start unfolding in earnest.


Stephen Donaldson rapidly followed up on Lord Foul's Bane with two sequels, The Illearth War (1978) and The Power That Preserves (1979), completing The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. He then immediately launched into The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which attempted to answer the lingering questions from the first trilogy, such as whether the Land is real or not, by introducing a second major POV character, Linden Avery. The Wounded Land (1980), The One Tree (1982) and White Gold Wielder (1983) were also big sellers, establishing Donaldson as a successful author.

However, Terry Brooks took a bit longer to follow up on the success of The Sword of Shannara. He'd taken a decade to write the first book and was still writing around his law practice hours. This problem was magnified by his originally-planned sequel being rejected by Del Rey Books when it was three-quarters done (with Brooks struggling with the ending). This necessitated a page one restart and rewrite. This proved fortuitous, for although it delayed the publication of The Elfstones of Shannara until 1982 it also resulted in a rather stronger book than otherwise may have proven the case. The Elfstones of Shannara, although another classic quest narrative, was considerably different to its predecessor (and Tolkien) and was much more warmly received. It's still widely regarded as Brooks's best novel, and forms the basis for the first season of the Shannara TV series due to start airing in January 2016. In fact, Brooks was unusually slow (compared to some of his contemporaries) to exploit the Shannara brand. The third novel, The Wishsong of Shannara, did not appear until 1985 and it would be another five years before he returned to the setting with the four-volume Heritage of Shannara series, after a stint writing the Magic Kingdom of Landover comic fantasy series.

During this period another highly influential work appeared, although it is not epic fantasy in itself. Instead, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun (written as one novel but published in four volumes between 1980 and 1983) belongs to the Dying Earth subgenre of fantasy, being set on Earth in a remote future epoch when the Sun is dimming. Influenced by Jack Vance's Dying Earth series, the Book of the New Sun can be read as a sustained study of fantasy tropes. The "hero", Severian, is a torturer who has committed amoral acts and is only moved to a more repentant life when he falls in love/lust with one of his victims. As the story continues it becomes clear that Severian is some kind of "chosen one", but he is isn't necessarily a benevolent or kind one. In fact, Wolfe makes it clear that Severian is a liar, and the novel is riven with the inconsistencies and contradictions of a supremely unreliable narrator. Wolfe also equips Severian with a number of magical (or highly technologically advanced) weapons and items, such as the execution sword Terminus Est, but unlike many epic fantasies Severian is not dependent on such trinkets, and achieves his destiny by his own means. The Book of the New Sun and its sequel, The Urth of the New Sun, are both rationalised and revisionist fantasies, challenging the conventions of the genre but employing them to make their points. Two sequel series, The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun (the three series combined forming the 12-volume Solar Cycle), are more overtly SF.

More traditional epic fantasy had to wait until 1982, when two more important and influential books arrived within a few months of each other.

Pawn of Prophecy

David Eddings had been a frustrated writer for many years. He'd published an adventure novel, High Hunt, in 1973 but it had not been a big success. In his late forties he was considering his next writing project when he was surprised to see a copy of The Lord of the Rings on a shelf in a bookstore. His reaction was to say "Is that old turkey still around?" Then, leafing through the book, he was shocked to see it was on no less than its 78th printing. Realising there was money in them there epic fantasy hills, he went home, revised an old fantasy map he'd doodled a few years earlier and set to work.

Eddings did not write alone but collaborated with his wife, Leigh. Together they wrote a traditional (but not completely standard) epic fantasy trilogy and started shopping it around. Lester del Rey, searching for a follow-up to The Sword of Shannara, fell on it like a starving man and not only published it but blitzed it with ideas: the three books were chunky, so he divided them into five novels with slightly corny chess-inspired titles. He then decided that co-authored books would not sell (Weis and Hickman, two years later, would prove him wrong on that) so he had them credited to David Eddings alone, something that mildly irked the writers until they were able to change it a decade later. With some canny marketing and more maps than you can shake a stick at, the result was one of the key early works of epic fantasy: The Belgariad.

The Belgariad opens with a farmboy, Garion, discovering that Dark Forces are awake in the world and have taken a Special Interest in him. He is whisked away from his home by the Grumpy Mentor Wizard Belgarath and learns that he is the Chosen One who will both oppose the Dark God and is fated to rule as the High King of Riva. He reluctantly falls in love with a Feisty Princess, Ce'Nedra of Tolnedra, and eventually defeats the bad guys with the help of Prophecy.

The series is pretty standard, but has a few individual flairs. None of the standard fantasy races are involved, the tone is reasonably light-hearted throughout and the characters are all pretty damn reasonable. Sworn blood-enemies become best friends just by chilling with one another for a while and even the bad guys are treated with compassion. In fact, the sequel series (the considerably inferior Malloreon) is largely concerned with bringing in former enemies from the cold to work with them. There is a lot of humour, and although a lot of it is tired and repetitive there are some genuinely good ideas: the prophecy is semi-sentient and at times seems exasperated with the poor material it has to work with (less-whimsical echoes of this may be detected in The Wheel of Time). None of this is earth-shaking stuff, but it does make The Belgariad a little bit more interesting and bearable than it might be otherwise. The series has more recently been repackaged as a Young Adult series, which is a sensible move that has won it over a legion of new fans.


One of the curses of epic fantasy, and indeed any author who opens with a massive hit, is that authors often find it hard to achieve that success again with another work. The preponderance of long series in fantasy is partly down to this issue. Stephen Donaldson found that his sales more than halved when he completed the then-six volume Thomas Covenant series in 1983 and moved on to Mordant's Need, a less serious, more Zelazny-influenced duology. When he moved on again to space opera, with the brilliant Gap saga, his audience more than halved again. It wasn't until he returned to the Land with The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in 2004 that he found his sales shooting back up again. Frank Herbert experienced the same issues when he moved away from his Dune series.

Raymond Elias Feist's experience is a bit odder. He's sold somewhere in the region of 30 million copies of his thirty novels, which is impressive. However, apparently between one-quarter and one-third of those sales have come from his debut novel alone: Magician.

Feist started writing Magician in 1977, when he was 32 years old. He was a mature student at the University of San Diego and, whilst studying, played roleplaying games with some of his fellow students, initially on Thursday nights and later on Friday nights. One of the other guys in his gaming group, Stephen Abrams, had created his own fantasy world complete with a detailed geography and history. The group collaborated on producing materials for this world, which was dubbed Midkemia. With their permission, Feist started writing a novel set 500 years before the "present" of the setting.

Magician was published by Doubleday in 1982 and was an immediate success, winning some laudatory reviews and soon some big sales. As a debut novel, it has some problems in prose and dialogue, but for the most part it is a fast-paced, action-packed and rather unusual fantasy novel which disposes of many of the key features of the genre.

The book opens with two young boys, Pug and Tomas, living and working in the castle of Crydee, the administrative capital of the lightly-settled Far Coast of the Kingdom of the Isles. This remote, largely-neglected area is thrown into chaos when a strange ship washes up on the nearby rocks and mysterious invaders are soon spotted in the nearby forests and mountains. It is soon revealed that a magical portal has been discovered, linking Midkemia to the world of Kelewan. Kelewan is light in metals and the powerful Tsurani Empire wants to establish a foothold on Midkemia to strip-mine its resources. The Kingdom, allied with the local elven and dwarven kingdoms, soon launches a military campaign against them and the result is a desperate struggle, with the Kingdom's numerical superiority threatened by the Empire's more devastating and powerful use of magic in war. Tomas inherits the magical powers of a long-vanished race and is able to turn the tide against the Tsurani at the risk of his own soul, whilst Pug is captured and taken to Kelewan.

Magician is a novel that pays homage to standard tropes: Pug is an orphan boy with a great destiny, there is a desperate journey through an ancient mine which splits the party of the heroes and there are numerous, large battles. However, the book also dispenses with other cliches: Pug's parentage is utterly irrelevant (they were just peasants and Pug has no bloodline-related fate; sometimes a spade really is just a spade), the ancient magical spirit in the mine is friendly and, very weirdly, there is no main bad guy. There are antagonists, such as the Tsurani Warlord and Guy du Bas-Tyra, but one of them is merely an opportunist and the other is redeemed in one of the sequels. The characters are instead all at the mercy of circumstances. There are no prophecies and no dark lords.

Magician is also, refreshingly, a stand-alone novel. It ends fairly decisively and the narrative is self-contained. Feist did write more material setting up sequels, but this was cut by the editors; his revised edition of the novel, published in 1992, reinstated these elements but the book remains very readable on its own terms. In fact, Feist did such a good job of wrapping up the story that only a relatively small number of readers moved onto the sequels, although still enough for them to sell very, very well.

Magician's impact on the genre can be seen in several key ways. It was the first epic fantasy novel to be spun directly off a roleplaying campaign. It was the first epic fantasy book to be built around collaborative worldbuilding. It also took on board elements of travel between multiple worlds and realities, bringing in both a second planet to serve as a location as well as different planes of reality. Sword and sorcery had dabbled with this (such as in Moorcock's own multiverse) but Feist's version was more orderly and less chaotic.

It also established a slightly iffy precedent for the publishers of epic fantasy to split up novels into smaller volumes for financial gain. Magician is not a very large book (under 300,000 words, maybe even shorter than The Sword of Shannara) but the paperback was split into two volumes for the US paperback, entitled Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master. The UK edition remained in one volume. Annoyingly, many later and more recent books have suffered from this as well, with a lack of coherence on what makes a book too big for one volume. Obviously Tad Williams's To Green Angel Tower (at 520,000 words) was too big for one volume but it's also clear that George R.R. Martin's A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons (both 420,000 words) - both split in the UK - could have both been one volume each in paperback, and in fact were in the USA. More recently, the UK edition of Pat Rothfuss's The Wise Man's Fear was published in one volume but Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings and Words of Radiance were both split, despite the books being all the same size and the publisher being the same (Way of Kings has since been reissued in one volume, suggesting that Sanderson's sales are now high enough to justify the one-volume treatment).

Magician was a solid book with some nice humour in it, but epic fantasy as a whole remained a fairly serious field at this point. But fortunately there had already been some attempts to make a funny epic fantasy, and the biggest fantasy series since Tolkien was about to begin with a warm satirising of the genre.


Russ said...

Just wanted you to know that I am thoroughly enjoying this series of articles.

anrake said...

Totally awesome stuff. You could publish this series of articles into your own book!
Having grown up in the 80's, this is like a trip down memory lane. I loved LoTR and looked for similar books in the library all the time. Zelazny was OK, but I lost interest somewhere in the middle of the Amber series. For some reason, Eddings and Brooks just didn't cut it for me and when i finished the Dune books I gave up reading fiction. I think Donaldson and Wolfe were over my head at the time since I never finished the first volumes. Interestingly enough, they were the same people who got me back into reading fiction and fantasy as an adult. One day I took home a copy of Lord Foul's Bane from my parent's house for the flight home and nothing has been the same since. I've been burning through SFF books about 1 per 2-3 weeks for years now.

Unknown said...

These articles are amazing!

ediFanoB said...

This is such an excellent post series which I highly recommended to the readers of my blog.

I agree with anrake that this series is worth to be converted into an ebook.

Adam Whitehead said...

That's something I'm actively investigating. Of course, it would be much bigger with more book entries and individual entries for each author.

It's a shame the licensing would be prohbitive, otherwise I'd also stick in classic fantasy covers and maps :)

Anonymous said...

Really loving this retrospective!

Dave Ellis said...

Loving these articles. Belgariad and Magician were my post-tolkein reads as a young teen and loved them, I could never get into Shannara as it was too much like LoTR (a fact I lied about when I met Brooks as I wanted him to sign my copy of Running with the Demon, which I adored)

Bringing back a lot of memories but inspiring some long overdue reading too...except for Gene Wolfe, I've tried many times to read Book of the Bew Sun as the first volume of the Fantasy Masterworks and failed miserably.

Thanks for this Adam