Epic List of Epicness

Jared (of Pornokitsch fame) and Justin (Staffer‘s) between them conned me into this. I don’t know why I didn’t say no – perhaps because, despite all the things piling up on my plate, I remain a sucker for punishment.

The challenge: construct a list of 50 essential works of epic fantasy. I confess to having played a little fast and loose with the definitions, but I like my list. I had fun with it.

Today, you lot get to see the first 25.

 

Jared’s list is over here.

Tansy Rayner Roberts was persuaded into joining us here.

Justin’s wrongheaded opinions may be found here.

 

The list that follows should be considered as – partly – descriptive of what I view as major influences on the field of epic fantasy. And partly me having fun.

 

1. Homer, The Odyssey.

 

Opinions are divided over whether one can call the epic narratives of antiquity epic fantasy, as such: but Homer stands at the beginning of the entire history of European literature, and the fantasy genre has itself made multiple uses of the adventures of quick-tongued Odysseus.

 

2. Plato, The Republic.

 

Plato’s ideal city is utopianist and dystopian at the same time. A fantasy of perfect governance, it is also a fantasy of perfect, stratified oppression. Philosophy may not be fantasy, exactly, but Plato too stands at the head of a whole number of intellectual traditions…

 

3. Ovid, Metamorphoses.

 

More even than the Aeneid, the influence of the Metamorphoses – changeable gods, shape-shifted mortals – is a rich vein that’s been mined throughout the history of European letters.

 

4. Lucian of Samosata, The True History.

 

A fantastical, satirical epic journey, encompassing the Moon and the Isles of the Blessed. War, peace, shenanigans, humour.

 

5. The Táin.

 

IRELAND REPRESENT! The Cattle-Raid of Cúailnge’s Cow. A story of jealousy, sex and revenge from Iron Age Ireland. This too, falls under the heading of “debatably fantastic” – but it’s part of my canon, and I’m keeping it.

 

6. The Mabinogion.

 

EPIC.

 

7.  Marie de France, Lais.

 

Medieval Europe isn’t a period I’m much enamoured of, but today’s epic fantasy is still recognisably in part a descendent of the courtly romances of the middle ages. Marie de France here stands for an entire genre – as one of the first to write courtly lays in English, and one of the first to involve Arthurian elements.

 

8. Snorri Sturlason, The Poetic Eddas.

 

No one can ignore the influence of Norse myth. As the Avengers have so rightly proven.

 

9. Geoffrey of Monmouth, A History of the Kings of Britain.

 

History? Well, maybe. There’s some Arthuriana here…

 

10. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess Newcastle, The Blazing World.

 

Is it fantasy? Is it science fiction? A utopian vision of a different world, ruled by a queen advised by spirits of the air…

 

And now we skip forward a few more centuries…

 

11. Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword. (1954)

 

Not nearly as foundational as The Lord of the Rings, and more in the sword-and-sorcery vein, still it can be said many works of epic fantasy are in dialogue with Anderson’s.

 

12. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. (1954-1955)

 

A foundational text of modern epic fantasy, and the one with which most subsequent texts are in dialogue.

 

13. Frank Herbert, Dune. (1965)

 

Sometimes science fiction and epic fantasy come in the same package. I’m just saying: Dune has as much in common with epic as it does with SF, perhaps more.

 

14. Barbara Hambly, The Darwath Chronicles. (1982-1983)

 

Portal fantasy, where the protagonists from our world cannot return home. The world of the Darwath Chronicles faces a cataclysmic threat: monstrosity and climate change combine to threaten all life. Brilliant, horrific, astonishing: read the later sequels as well.

 

15. P.C. Hodgell, Godstalker Chronicles. (1982-?)

 

It never ceases to delight me that we now actually have some hope of seeing Hodgell’s series finished and published in its entirety. Really imaginative epic fantasy that incorporates sword & sorcery elements, it is made of pure, delightful win – at least for me.

 

16. Tamora Pierce, Tortall. (1983-?)

 

Pierce was writing epic fantasy YA since long before YA was the New Hot Thing.

 

17. John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting. (1983)

 

Debatably epic, but astonishingly fantastic.

 

18. Elizabeth Moon, The Deed of Paksenarrion. (1988-1989)

 

A trilogy about a shepherd’s daughter turned mercenary turned god-chosen paladin.

 

19. Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time. (1990-2013)

 

The first of a series of writers to reshape the landscape of epic fantasy, beginning in the 1990s.

 

20. Janny Wurts, The Wars of Light and Shadow. (1993-?)

 

I’m a book behind on this series, which – it must be said – seems to have lost a little steam over the last couple of instalments. But its initial arcs are a powerful, imaginative entry in the epic lists.

 

21. Terry Goodkind, The Sword of Truth. (1994-2007.)

 

Goodkind followed in Jordan’s footsteps, and although now I can’t see what I ever saw worth reading in his first six books, at the time I first encountered them they contained elements that delighted me – like women who did fighty things. His financial success probably didn’t hurt in terms of paving the way for the next slow-growing blockbuster, GRRM.

 

22. Melanie Rawn, Exiles. (1994-1997)

 

An incomplete trilogy that is still one of the best pieces of fantasy I’ve ever read. Also, let Rawn’s place here on the list stand in for the place she also deserves for the fantasy-soap-opera of The Dragon Prince and its sequels.

 

23. George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. (1996-?)

 

These days, Martin’s part of the bedrock establishment of epic, but when A Game of Thrones first hit the shelves, its particular brand of medieval grittiness was doing something rather subversive with narrative expectations. In those days, killing off characters was still a shocking thing to do… and I got tired of it after the second book. But its influence can’t be denied.

 

24. Michelle West, The Sun Sword. (1997-2004)

 

I haven’t finished this series, but I admire what West’s been doing with it, and with its prequel-continuation, The House War.

 

25. Joe Abercrombie, The First Law. (2006-2012)

 

I read the first book. I didn’t really like it. But Abercrombie’s success – and, consequently, his influence on the features of epic fantasy – can’t be denied: I’ve been recommended The Heroes and Red Country, and will probably be reading them.

 

Tune in on Monday for the next exciting installment of EPIC LIST: PART II: THE EPICENING.

 

 

Tor.com review: The Gist. Written by Michael Marshall Smith, Translated by Benoît Domis, Re-Translated by Nicholas Royle

And you all can read it here.

The Gist, a novelette by Michael Marshall Smith, is the latest offering from Subterranean Press’s limited but honourable catalogue. To say it is by Marshall Smith—or at least, by Marshall Smith alone—is, however, something of a misnomer. Between The Gist’s covers are three novelettes and one novelette: Marshall Smith’s original, translated once into the French by Benoît Domis, translated again (without access to the original text) back into the English by Nicholas Royle. Two further recensions of the first text: three recensions of a single work.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s The Exiled Blade: a confession of unprofessional shirking

I was supposed to review this book. I wanted to review this book. (I really enjoyed the previous volume in the series.) JCG’s Orbit US publicist, a very personable person, sent me a review copy of The Exiled Blade

And, well.

There are some books that come along at the worst possible time for you to read them. Some books, regardless of their talent and ability – sometimes because of the directions in which talent and ability is bent – you can’t read then. Or sometimes ever.

I lasted eight chapters. I didn’t stop because Jon Courtenay Grimwood is a bad writer. I stopped because This should have been when we were happy [p50]; because JCG is in fact very good, and the level of pain and grief and despair he managed to evoke, the cold sense of lowering doom, heartbreak, incipient dread, made my teeth hurt. I stopped because this is a Hamlet, isn’t it? Nobody comes out intact, everyone comes out broken…

…And right now I need sweet little hopeful happy-ending lies in my life. I need stories that focus on joy as well as pain. Because I need to escape from hurting for a while, me, not face the world’s cruelty condensed and intensified in JCG’s viscerally-rendered courtly shadows, his dark and glittering Renaissance Venice.

One day I’ll be able to read this book without bile backing up in my throat. One day I’ll want a dash of bleak horror in my literary cocktail again. But not this month. Maybe not this year.

Until then, cheers. I’ll drink something sweet and sticky, and leave dry bitters to other folks.

Ebooks & physical books: reading processes & experiences

It may or may not surprise you, fair or foul reader (but where’s the difference?) to learn that I’m not exactly an early adopter when it comes to technology. You’re reading the words of someone who’s never owned an mp3 player, and isn’t likely to get a smartphone anytime soon, or a fancy tablet. Although I’ve been reading ebooks for years, I still don’t have an actual e-reader: all my electronic reading takes place on the screen of my laptop (and quite a nice screen it is too, even if I ought to get some of that cleaning stuff and clean it sooner or later).

But lately it’s come to my attention that I approach the process, and find the experience, of reading differently as I move between electronic and physical modes, and I thought I’d spend a little time considering the differences. Particularly, I’ve noticed it’s harder – in some cases, all but impossible – to read a book for review in electronic form, and this reasons behind this little quirk are something I’d like to explore.

Note, please, that I’m not denigrating ebooks or ereaders. There’s much to be said for ease of access, portability, and ease of storage, among other things. What follows is merely my exploration of my processes.

The experience of reading electronically

On my laptop is a folder called “ebooks” into which are bundled all DRM-free epubs, PDFs, and the occasional .rtf that’ve come my way from purchase, review, or rarely, shamefully, torrenting. DRM’d ebooks, which I object to on principle but in practice sometimes can’t avoid, show up in my Kobo desktop application. (Kobo is my preferred platform, so far. a)It’s not Amazon, and b)it believes me when I tell it lies about my location in order to access US/CAN books.)

These are difficult to arrange by read/unread, topic, subgenre, or indeed along any axis other than author and/or title. It’s impossible to take them all in at a glance. It thus becomes easy, unless you read the damn thing immediately, to forget you have a copy of a specific title.

So much for the organisation of files. What about the physical and mental experience of reading itself?

To be honest, it’s not always comfortable. For one thing, it can be hard to sit back and relax while reading on a screen. For another, without the physical guide of the shape in my hands, I find it easy to lose my place in a window of text. And without the shape and heft of the pages in my hand telling me Ooo, we’re getting to the middle, oo it;s nearly the end where’s the climax is this the climax wait there’re too many pages left WOW BOOM REVERSAL, I find it difficult to judge pacing. Leaving quite aside the fact that my laptop’s desktop is an environment replete with distractions…

And when I’m reading for review, it’s not as though I can mark up the pages of an epub with stickynotes and scribbling, can I? It’s not exactly intuitive to my process…

Experience is beginning to show that I read fluff as ebook much more readily that anything which requires thought. Romance. Tie-in fiction. (I recently mainlined the non-Romulan Star Trek novels of Diane Duane.) The odd short-story collection.

But epic fantasy, or science fiction more complex than SHIT BLOWS UP, or anything else that requires on my part some modicum of thought or emotional investment, fast becomes extremely hard to track.

The hardcopy experience

Paper, I’m native to. I can walk about the house with a book before my nose and hardly even trip on the cats. At least, as long as the typeface is decent – the UK paperback of Miéville’s Railsea seems to be grey type on shoddy paper, for example, and that’s not fun. It’s simplicity itself to mark a spot with a colourful bookmark for later reference, or take the volume down to the beach to read in full sunlight and blustery wind. And paper stacks, glaring at you accusingly from its mounting piles: impossible to forget about, easy to group by type and kind. And you can see what you have in a couple of glances – the rough outline of what you’ve stacked in any one room. You can underline, leave stickynotes, deface, spindle, and mutilate as the spirit moves you, including writing notes in the margin.

The physical experience of reading conditions my response to a text, apparently. At least in part. It’ll be interesting, in future, to keep track of this and see if, and how, it changes.

Linky moves in surprising ways

The World SF Blog with Editorial: The Hugo Awards:

And the thing is this – this is perhaps the first year in the award’s history (and the Campbell, a “Not a Hugo” award) where we see such a strong representation of international voices. I’m not sure I can highlight this enough. Saladin Ahmed‘s Throne of the Crescent Moon, for instance, is the first novel by a Muslim writer ever to be nominated for a Hugo. The first by an Arab-American, for that matter. (And this is when being Muslim in SF is still cause for a lot of nasty sniping, to put it mildly). Ken Liu, a Chinese-American author doing amazing work, amongst others, in translating Chinese science fiction into English, is nominated for Best Short Story. Aliette de Bodard, a French author of Vietnamese ancestry, is nominated for both Best Novella and Best Short Story, while Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt is a surprise nominee with a translated story in the Best Novelette category.

Even more exciting, the Campbell Award, recognising emerging writers, has author Zen Cho as a nominee – the first time a Malaysian author is so recognised.

The Hugos are changing, I think. Or SF as a whole is changing. The surprise is not that popular American writers are nominated for a Hugo – but that diversity is increasingly represented on the ballots.

Sam Sykes, who surprised me with his thoughtful contribution to the “grimdark” swings and roundabouts, talks about the weight of violence in the new Tomb Raider:

The violence was horrifying. Like, I say this as an unapologetic fanboy of God of War. It was more shocking than personally gouging out the eyes of someone (whose eyes you happen to be looking through) because the tone was different. This violence was presented as unexpected, horrible, out of the norm. God of War’s violence is…trivial isn’t the right word I’m looking for, but it’s close. It’s more like it’s procedural, it’s how you get from point A to point B, which is fine for the kind of story that God of War is telling. But Tomb Raider’s violence is telling a different story, something about the price of blood, the cost of violence, the measure of a human life and human suffering. Tomb Raider’s violence was different.

It had weight.

…When I talk about the weight of violence, I mean the impact it has on the story, the way it affects the characters, the way it shapes the world and the way it makes the outcomes of each conflict mean something.

(The more I hear from people who’ve played the new Tomb Raider, the move I want to give it a shot myself.)

Jim C. Hines, Bigots, Bullies, and Enablers:

People complained about the Locus piece because it was hurtful. This wasn’t an example of the court jester speaking truth to power. While the author claims he was trying to write satire, what he actually wrote was another in a long line of jabs toward people who are already disproportionately targeted for a broad range of abuse in this culture.

It was bullying.

That’s what people are defending. They’re attacking Locus for not giving this person a platform with which to bully those he doesn’t like, based on an incident that happened several years ago. They’re telling the targets of ongoing bigotry that the best solution is to just ignore it.

That doesn’t work for the target of bullying. It only works for the bystanders who don’t want to deal with it. It’s a cowardly, ineffective, and downright shitty “solution.”

New Statesman: Hungary is no longer a democracy.

And some poetry, for poetry’s sake:

Drinking Alone with the Moon
Li Bo, trans. Vikram Seth

A pot of wine among the flowers.
I drink alone, no friend with me.
I raise my cup to invite the moon.
He and my shadow and I make three.

The moon does not know how to drink;
My shadow mimes my capering;
But I’ll make merry with them both —
And soon enough it will be Spring.

I sing — the moon moves to and fro.
I dance — my shadow leaps and sways.
Still sober, we exchange our joys.
Drunk — and we’ll go our separate ways.

Let’s pledge — beyond human ties — to be friends,
And meet where the Silver River ends.

Linky is behind in everything

Lavie Tidhar on the World SF Blog and the Kitschies:

To begin with, I don’t even know why I was feeling uneasy about accepting the award. I was looking forward to coming along and not having any responsibilities, like having to go on stage (my World Fantasy Award acceptance speech was two lines), and just being able to relax and enjoy myself. But I think I know what was bothering me, which crystallised when I stood up on that stage at the Free Word Centre.

I was looking out on a sea of white people.

Sofia Samatar, Reading feminist theory on the bus:

Him: What are you reading?

Me: Feminist theory.

Him: What?

Me (showing him the cover of Undutiful Daughters): Feminist theory. Ideas about feminism.

Him: Are you into women?

Me: Umm, why are you asking?

Him: I mean–what’s feminism?

Me: What?

Him: Feminism. What is that?

SF Signal on Epic Fantasy and the Dreams It Offers:

And yet, if you start looking for attempts to define the term “epic fantasy” you discover that they exist in abundance. The entry for it in Clute and Grant’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy links it to the classical poetic form but says that its use “by publishers to describe HEROIC FANTASIES that extend over several volumes” mean that the term has “lost its usefulness.” In The A-Z of Fantasy Literature Brian Stableford characterizes it as a label for multi-volume immersive fantasies that “gradually build up detailed historical and geographic images of secondary worlds, within which elaborate hero myths are constructed.” “[M]ost epic fantasies are strictly commodified,” he continues, but “the format readily lends itself to greater ambition.” Most definitions highlight structural aspects: length, scale, massive detail, but these are just means to an end. As Chloe Smith noted in a piece at Fantasy Faction, “The word ‘epic’ suggests a certain weight, a significance to the work that raises the stakes of the drama, that gives the tale it tells distinctive power and gravitas.” Jeremy L. C. Jones summarizes it thusly: “‘Epic Fantasy’” is gloriously broad, vague, and… resonant.”

(via Stefan Raets.)

I find Stevens’ conclusion later in the post somewhat vacuous and over-broad – What dreams? How do such “dreams” work? And particularly important in many cases, whose dreams are in question? These questions are implied but not answered, and I may have further thoughts on’t, but I lack time at present to complete them.