The books above are some of my favorite books, period. Some of them are long-time friends, others are new. They are all beautifully written, strongly imagined, and they define, for me, the genre of Epic Fantasy. This genre is where I live. Let me try my best to explain a little bit about what Epic Fantasy is. There’s been a lot of debate about this, and my definition is by no means definitive. It just reflects how I feel, and what tells *me* that the book is Epic.
First, size. The shortest of the books above is over 250,000 words, five times what new novels are supposed to be. These books are what are called chihuahua killers. They’re physically massive. They are bricks. I love the feel of a good, solid book in my hand. If you are able to print the author’s name and the name of the book horizontally, and large enough that I can read it from several feet away, while scanning a bookshelf, then that’s already a recommendation for the book. Also, the books are almost always the first book in a larger series, but not always. The Sword of Shannara is complete tale all by itself, and the other books in the Shannara universe are only loosely connected as far as characters are concerned.
But size extends beyond physical size. It also means the size of the world. Epic Fantasy is a sub-genre of high fantasy. High fantasy had its own worlds. Generally, they’re recognizable as our world, with some differences, and usually a much lower technology level. In an Epic Fantasy, we need to see large parts of this world, and dive deeply into some of them. Almost always, the characters need to range across the world, perhaps even coming from different parts of it. The story-line often involves a journey across this world, through the many different cultures and races that inhabit it. The races and cultures also make up part of the setting. All of the books pictured above have at least one race of sentient, non-human beings in them.
There needs to be a lot of interesting world-building behind any Epic. Rothfuss said in an interview, “Rule of thumb: 10 percent of what you know should be in your story. For me, it’s about 4 percent.” I can tell when I’m reading a book where 90%+ of the world-building is in the story. These stories are either incredibly info-dumpy, and really need some of that information trimmed away, or feel like they’re thin, and if you poke too hard, you’ll find gaps where the author doesn’t actually know what’s going on. If you have a massive backdrop for your story, and you only show us part of it, but you do it competently, I can tell that the rest of it is there. And that sucks me in.
The cast of characters. This one is a little bit shaky, but I’m going to argue it anyway. Most Epic Fantasy books have a large cast of viewpoint characters. The Wheel of Time, well. Just look here. The Name of the Wind breaks this a little bit, as there’s really only one viewpoint character throughout the book. But if you count the number of characters he interacts with regularly as main characters as well, then it’s definitely expansive.
Not only are there a lot of characters, but the main character, or characters, need to have a massive arc. They need to go a long way, and have a lot of progression. Often this takes place as a sort of coming of age story, though it always manifests in some way as a series of realizations of what life really is, and what ones’ purpose is.
Something that’s not talked about very much, but I feel makes a *good* Epic Fantasy is a strong ending to each book. I think that The Way of Kings does this particularly well, and it left me satisfied, yet wanting more, for the time until the second one will be published. It’s not necessary for a book to be Epic, but I definitely like to have it, and feel cheated without it. You have a massive canvass to write on, and you’re using all of it. So point it at an ending, and use it to make the ending even more powerful, even more emotionally moving for the reader. If you can do that to good effect, then you’ve created something truly special.
Why do I read Epic Fantasy? Because of the depth and richness of the world. They feel so utterly real, and they are so engaging. I read, in general, to lose myself in the book. I’m often depressed, and if I can get away from reality for a while, lose myself in a really good book, it helps a lot. When it’s an Epic Fantasy, I can loose myself for hours on end, emotionally invest myself in the characters, be rewarded, and be utterly swept away by the originality and engaging nature of the world.
In short: I don’t do drugs. I do Epic Fantasy.