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Is There Hope for Epic Fantasy?

So I took up Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind on Katherine Coble‘s recommendation. Several things initially worked against my decision. For one, I’m a slow reader. So the book’s 700-plus page count didn’t rev me up. Secondly, was my waning interest in epic fantasy.

A bit of background: I like epic fantasy. At least, I used to. That was before Tolkien. I’ve read the the Lord of the Rings trilogy twice. The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. And I own the Extended version of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy (if that counts). After reading the trilogy, I remembered wondering aloud if any work would ever measure up? Still, I began searching to fill my then budding fantasy fix. So I read the first part of the Thomas Covenant series. And while I enjoyed it, it was no Tolkien. Then someone recommended Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara series. I only made it through the first book.

And the slow disinterest began.

The more I read and watched epic fantasy evolve, the less it seemed that there was anything original. Elves, dwarves, and wizards, creature classes, rustic maps, misty mountain ranges and enchanted forests, talking trees, warrior kings and genteel oracles. And of course, magic swords. Everything seemed to be a rehashing of Tolkien’s template. The Lord of the Rings didn’t just set the standard for epic fantasy, it made everything else feel derivative. I could not pick up an epic fantasy novel without it (or an endorser) screaming THE NEXT TOLKIEN! It left me less a believer in Tolkien than a skeptic in original epic fantasy.

Patrick Rothfuss has me rethinking that.

No. I’m not up on the genre. I haven’t read epic fantasy in at least a decade and am sure there’s other great fantasy series and authors out there. And I’m not prepared to place Patrick Rothfuss anywhere near Tolkien. However, there are so many reasons to love The Name of the Wind. Its complexity, its voice, its scope, its subtlety. But the main reason I found myself enthralled with this novel was the sense of originality.

The Name of the Wind just feels… fresh.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been out of touch with the genre — my “distance” from it has made epic fantasy feel fresh. Maybe the market has caught up and we’re witnessing a sort of 21st century-style epic fantasy. (Rothfuss would be a good example of a blending of modern scientific theory and old world arcana.) Or maybe this is really just a screed against derivative novels. Then again, every novel is derivative in some way. Most likely, it’s indicative of my own personal growth as a reader and my own evolving tastes.

Either way, I can feel my love for epic fantasy stirring. Should I be afraid?

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{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Carradee July 25, 2011, 6:50 AM

    Afraid? Nah. I agree that a lot of the epic fantasy out there “feels” the same—but then, that’s true for any genre. It’s finding those outliers that makes any genre love worth it, I think. 🙂

  • logankstewart July 25, 2011, 7:35 AM

    Indeed, it’s Rothfuss’ voice (and beautiful prose) that makes NOTW such a great novel. I picked up this book just days after it was released back in 07 on a whim, and it renewed fantasy fiction for me. I’ve been a lifelong reader of the genre and had basically reached the conclusion that everything was trite and Tolkien-esque, but then along came Pat (and truly a modern wave of original SFF authors) and I felt renewed.

    (Wow, that whole paragraph has me sounding like a rabid fanatic…)

    Anyway, I hope you enjoy the book. It’s excellent.

    • Mike Duran July 25, 2011, 7:48 AM

      logan, thanks for leaving a comment. It’s interesting that you reached the same conclusion as me about epic fantasy after reading Tolkien. More than once, I’ve had to check myself to make sure it wasn’t just a matter of elitism and snobbery on my part. BTW, I like your website. Hope you visit again!

      • logankstewart July 25, 2011, 9:05 AM

        No, definitely not elitism, just truth. I’ve followed your blog for a while (referred to me from Brandon Barr’s blog), and I enjoy your thoughts and commentary on faith issues. Good stuff.

  • Johne Cook July 25, 2011, 7:40 AM

    Patrick Rothfuss is blazing his own trail using tried-and-true weapons from the other epic fantasy masters and his various and sundry geek brethren. Becoming a fan of his brand of epic fantasy shouldn’t be misconstrued as rediscovering the genre as a whole. He is an outlier.

    However, he’s so good that others will surely follow in his path. Some of them may even eventually be good, but that will likely be awhile. In the meantime, enjoy him for what he is, a genius from our own time.

    • Mike Duran July 25, 2011, 7:50 AM

      Johne, in what ways is Rothfuss’ brand of fantasy outside the norm, and who would you consider more a “mainstream” representative of the current genre?

      • Johne Cook July 25, 2011, 9:01 AM

        Much of what I see as the current Fantasy norm is Tolkiensque. Rothfuss acknowledges the existence of that great tradition but has planted his own roots instead of writing from the relative safety of the existing Tolkiensque root-system.

        The usual suspects are classic if not terribly unique: Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, Raymond Feist, David Eddings. I tend to prefer fantasists who blaze their own trail, including Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, George R. R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson.

        As for Rothfuss and his achievement, the fact that Jo Walton is doing a detailed multi-part re-read is evidence enough for me. It’s worth reading her introduction to get a feel for why that prolific reader and author is so very entranced by Rothfuss and his achievement with NotW.
        http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/04/the-patrick-rothfuss-reread-introduction

        • logankstewart July 25, 2011, 9:08 AM

          I’m with Johne. I’ve been following along with Jo Walton’s re-read, too, and it’s been excellent.

          A few other “original” authors I’d throw out (in addition to the “trailblazers” above) would be Joe Abercrombie and Peter V Brett. These guys, and Sanderson and Rothfuss, too, give me hope for the genre’s future.

    • Katherine Coble July 27, 2011, 11:19 AM

      Mike’s story is sort of my story. I’ve been on a Epic Fantasy/ High Fantasy boycott since reading the first Terry Brooks Shannara book and deciding that if I wanted to novelise my AD&D games I would just do that instead of paying to read someone else do the same.

      I have pushy friends who shoved me into Martin last June and from that first taste I chased the dragon into Rothfuss and Peter V. Brett.

      I have had many bad hits, though. Robin Hobb? Eh. Okay. Gregory Keyes Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone? Started strong but just ended like a bad acid trip–or how I’ve heard they end. I’ve never had any kind of acid trip at all. Unless you count the last book in that series. I keep hearing that Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book Of The Fallen series is good but Gardens Of The Moon is apparently written in a sort of Esperanto that only LOOKS like English, for all the good it’s done me to try to read that book.

      And the less we speak of Robert Jordan and his Flat Tire Of Time the better.

      So, essentially, if there is any hope for Epic Fantasy I’d say that it’s name is “Patrick Rothfuss” and leave it at that. You’re definitely right, Johne, to say that Pat is an outlier.

      Of course GRRM is his own category, which I think is how he best likes it.

      (I will say, though, that I am kind of impressed with Daniel Abraham, if he gets his world-building powers a bit more honed. )

  • Anton Gullt July 25, 2011, 7:55 AM

    No slight to JRRT but he pillaged European and Scandinavian folklore for much of what people now assume he invented. Poul Anderson’s “A Broken Sword” would be another, somewhat less epic, example of this.

    • Mike Duran July 25, 2011, 8:04 AM

      Agreed, Anton. Tolkien was “derivative” in his own way. Nevertheless, he did bring a lot of these elements together in a more “contemporary,” serialized, even academic framework. But I definitely wouldn’t want to be interpreted as suggesting Tolkien was totally original. Thank you for commenting!

  • M.E. Anders July 25, 2011, 9:12 AM

    I’m not much of a fantasy reader, either. I have only watched the Lord of the Rings movies a few times, but I have not yet read the series. Some authors can tell a story in such a way that it feels fresh…It sounds like Rothfuss did that in this epic.

  • Kat Heckenbach July 25, 2011, 9:22 AM

    You’re definitely not alone, Mike. I love fantasy, but so much epic fantasy reads the same, same, same.

    I read The Name of the Wind about a year ago, and when I reached the end of that 800 -page behemoth, I wished it had been longer…I wanted more. I’m now reading the second one, A Wise Man’s Fear, and it’s over 1,000 pages. I’m a little nervous that same magic won’t happen for me with this one, but I’m hopeful. I literally just started it last night, though, and so far it seems to be following in the footsteps of NOTW.

  • Donald S. Crankshaw July 25, 2011, 11:38 AM

    I’m probably an outlier in that I read (and write) a lot of epic fantasy, and I don’t feel that it’s all the same at all. It sounds like you’re judging the genre by where it was twenty years ago. You might try some of the more recent works, such as George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings or Mistborn or Jim Butcher’s Alera Codex. Even older works can be very original, such as Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster of Hed or Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. Elves and dwarves are out of favor in fantasy these days, but I’d be reluctant to judge a work’s originality by the presence or absence of elves or dwarves. Consider Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry.

  • Patrick Todoroff July 26, 2011, 5:38 AM

    This book keeps cropping up in discussions. Guess I’ll pick it up at some point.

    Sympathize with your hiatus from fantasy, but I recently discovered Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy and can’t speak highly enough about them.

    • Katherine Coble July 27, 2011, 11:22 AM

      Patrick,

      PLEASE read this book. Our tastes seem similar enough that I can’t help but believe you’ll be enchanted with it, just as i am.

      Or maybe not and this will be the exception that proves the rule.

      I will try Abercrombie, since you seem to like it. I’ve been nervous because I’ve heard conflicting reports. But if I can try Hobb, I can try anything.

      • Patrick Todoroff July 27, 2011, 2:23 PM

        Katherine – OK. I’ll get NOTW.

        Oh and if you try Joe Abercrombie, start with the first book of the trilogy “The Blade Itself”. Local library, PaperbackSwap .com, or Amazon’s used sellers should carry it for cheap.

  • semmie July 26, 2011, 8:06 AM

    Ditto me that, Patrick.

    I very seldom read books on recommendation because I am a slow reader and I don’t want to waste my time on something I’m not seriously interested in. However, I’ve heard nothing but praise for NotW. I think I need to give it a try!

  • Scott August 2, 2011, 5:41 AM

    I just can’t get past the stilted language in most epic fantasy; it feels like I’m eavesdropping at a Renaissance Faire.

    LOVED Tad Williams’ “Otherland” series, tried picking up “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” and put it down after slogging through 300 pages.

    Similar issue with “Song of Ice and Fire,” but I also got tired of Martin’s cruelty toward his characters. Should I try Rothfuss – or are there other recommendations?

    • Katherine Coble August 2, 2011, 9:11 AM

      Please try Rothfuss. And Id also recommend Peter V. Brett

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