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Thursday, October 1, 2015

GUEST POST: Epic Fantasy: Dinosaur or dynamo? by Erin Lindsey


Game of Thrones won twelve Emmys last week, shattering the record for most trophies in a single year. Pretty extraordinary, when you think about it. Fantasy hasn’t staged a coup like that since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2004. The ever-building momentum of HBO’s juggernaut proves, if extra proof was needed, that fantasy has stormed the mainstream.

It’s a phenomenon that’s been building for a while now and shows no sign of slowing down. Television is positively bursting with speculative fiction, a trend that’s largely matched in Hollywood. What’s particularly interesting about it, though, is that while much of this exuberant growth is distinctively modern – post-apocalyptic, contemporary and urban fantasy, superheroes created by mutations and technology gone awry – the heavy hitters are still pretty traditional. Take Game of Thrones. The vast majority of SFF shows on television today are sci-fi, contemporary fantasy, and comic book adaptations, and yet none of them comes close to the commercial and critical heft of Game of Thrones.

In this modern world of ours, one show rules them all, and it’s the epic fantasy of the bunch. Same goes for movies: in the more than ten years since The Return of the King, we have yet to see anything that rivals The Lord of the Rings trilogy for sheer impact. Meanwhile, many of the biggest names in fantasy literature are churning out epic fantasy as their bread-and-butter and enjoying tremendous success in doing so. In other words, when it comes to that most amorphous and precious of currencies – cred – epic fantasy is still the big name on campus, to such an extent that many hardcore SFF fans seem to think it’s the only genre that qualifies as “serious” fantasy.

This has caused a certain amount of consternation among those who see epic fantasy as something of a dinosaur, an essentially conservative branch of genre fiction that never really evolves. And I get that – insofar as you consider “epic fantasy” and “traditional fantasy” to be synonymous. But the thing is, they aren’t. Epic fantasy needn’t be traditional. It can evolve; it is evolving. Epic fantasy shouldn’t be caught in the crossfire of a debate about “traditional” vs. “progressive”, because it can be both of those things – or neither. “Epic” isn’t a point along the spectrum of “old school” to “contemporary”; it’s merely a question of narrative scope. It’s perfectly possible to put a modern twist on epic fantasy – to offer, in the words of blogger Jared Shurin, “all the high fantasy comfort we love, but with fresh, high quality ingredients and contemporary presentation”.



Not only is it possible, it’s happening. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least four ways epic fantasy is evolving:

1) Diversity - Depending on how you define it, the list could stop right here. For the purposes of this post, though, I’m referring to diversity in protagonists. Granted, we haven’t come nearly as far as we ought to on this, but I sometimes feel that we don’t sufficiently recognize the progress we have made (which actually does a disservice to the cause overall, since it’s dismissive of the pioneers). There are loads of wonderful epic fantasies with females at the helm, and increasingly persons of colour and LGBT characters too. Not only that, some books are taking a refreshing angle on gender itself by showcasing very different gender roles. Again, we’re not nearly where we should be on this, and epic fantasy is admittedly behind the curve compared to many other genres, but we’re moving in the right direction. That means we should keep up the pressure – and recognize the progress that’s been made.

2) Non-European cultural reference points - Another generalization we hear a lot: epic fantasy is rooted in medieval Europe. Well, no. The Epic of Gilgamesh, seen by many as the first great work of literature (period), is from the Middle East. The Egyptians and Indians got in on the fun way before the Greeks showed up, and by the time Beowulf arrived on the scene, the battlefield was already littered with bodies. There is nothing especially European, let alone medieval, in the pedigree of epic fantasy. Okay, you say, epic fantasy might not be rooted in medieval Europe, but it’s certainly mired in it. To some extent, maybe, but that’s changing. From Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven to Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy to Bradley Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, different cultural reference points are cropping up all over epic fantasy. If you haven’t found them, maybe you haven’t been looking hard enough.



3) Subverting classic tropes - Plenty of epic fantasy still boils down to some variation on the hero’s journey. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As I’ve argued elsewhere, “trope” isn’t a dirty word; these things are classics for a reason. But sometimes the books you think are reveling in old tropes are actually subverting them in new and refreshing ways. I’m not going to get specific for fear of spoilers (in case there’s anybody left out there who hasn’t read Mistborn or A Song of Ice and Fire), but some of the biggest epic fantasy series of recent years have played mercilessly with our expectations, capitalizing on years of tradition to lead us to a very specific place – before dropping an anvil on our heads. Whether you go in for that sort of thing or not, it’s undeniably part of the dialectic pushing the conversation forward.

4) Contemporary themes - The best example I can think of here is The Hunger Games, with its unflattering and essentially antagonistic portrayal of the media as manipulator of the public, manipulated by the ruling class, and thus a powerful tool of oppression. It’s not strictly new, but it’s contemporary in the sense that it’s so very characteristic of our time, a fear that resonates with a broad audience in ways that it wouldn’t have even a couple of decades ago. Another example, just off the top of my head: The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a book about an accountant trying to overthrow an empire from within. Epic, certainly. Traditional, not so much.

More and more, epic fantasy is broadening its horizons in new and exciting ways. It’s evolving. For it to evolve further, we certainly need more diversity – and here I’m using the word in its broader sense, to encompass characters, worlds, themes, etc. But diversity is already out there, and that’s something to celebrate. It’s also tremendously reassuring, because it proves just how versatile the genre can be, how much exploring is left to do.

Sure, some dinosaurs still roam the earth. But plenty of others have sprouted wings, and they’re taking us along for the ride.

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Official Author Website
Order The Bloodbound HERE
Order The Bloodforged HERE
Read "Five Things I've Learned About War" by Erin Lindsey (Guest Post)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Erin Lindsey is on an epic quest to write the perfect vacation novel for fantasy lovers. THE BLOODFORGED, Book 2 of the Bloodbound trilogy, releases on September 29. She also writes fantasy mystery as E.L. Tettensor. You can find her on her website, or on Twitter @etettensor.

NOTE: Game Of Thrones cast picture courtesy of M. Blake and Reuters. A Song Of Ice And Fire cover montage by Matt Roeser.

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