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Epics

Posted by nightphoenix on May 27, 2011 in Books, Input, Process |

I just finished the Winds of the Forelands series by David B. Coe, and as fantasy epics go, it was pretty good. It’s rare that I pick up a series at random and have it be unique enough to hold my interest. Although it had many of the classic tropes of epics, they were combined and re-imagined in such ways that I couldn’t sit there and say “Ah, so it’s this kind of magic system”, etc.

What it did well:

The series made me care about every single character. I really couldn’t pick a favorite. Now I know that sounds like a “duh”, but honestly? That’s rare. That’s really, really rare. Anytime you have an epic with a huge cast of characters, there’s almost always going to be characters whose chapters you look forward to reading, and other characters whose stories you don’t care so much about, except that you’ve got to slog through them to get to your favorite POV again. It’s hard enough to create one character that everybody likes. Creating a whole cast of characters that everyone likes? In the Sword of Truth, I only really cared about Richard, Kahlan, and oddly, Nathan Rahl…reading about anyone else was work. In the Way of Kings, I liked Kaladin so much that it would take me a good two or three pages to get “into” anyone else’s story. Even the Wheel of Time couldn’t pull it off, though WoT manages to periodically bring various storylines to the forefront of my interest. I used to slog through Mat’s chapters because he just wasn’t as interesting to me. Now, with the introduction of Tuon, his is among my favorite storylines, and I find myself slogging through Elayne’s and the Forsaken’s chapters. Heck, there was a point around Book 8 where I was slogging through Rand’s storyline to get elsewhere.

In Winds of the Forelands, however, what would happen was I’d reach the beginning of a chapter with a new POV, figure out whose it was, and think something like, “Oh, yeah, them. I’d almost forgotten. There were having such and such problems, and this was going on…” and I was quite happy to keep reading. Those books were probably among the most balanced I’ve read, as far as juggling POVs and keeping interest up. The villains were as interesting and complex as the protagonists (a must for me, if I’m reading), and at various times I found myself honestly conflicted in who I was rooting for. This is something I really want to emulate in my Tindaari series…as every storyline is essential and I don’t want readers glazing over some to get to others.

The downside of this, however, is that while I cared about every character, there wasn’t one who really stood out to me. As I said, I couldn’t pick a favorite. Nobody really got to me, you know? The closest was Cadel the assassin, oddly enough, and he was killed off at the end of the third book. I really don’t think I was supposed to like him as much as I did…and it created in me an odd resentment towards one of the protagonists, Tavis. I’m supposed to be rooting for Tavis, and I did, but there was always this part of me going, “I wish I could like you more, but you killed Cadel. Yeah, I know he assassinated your fiance and framed you for it, and you’re going to be screwed until you get that sorted…but Cadel was awesome! I miss Cadel.”

Another aspect that bothered me about the series is that although the main storyline was tied off at the end, there were a whole slew of smaller subplots that I felt didn’t get finished. You sort of get the impression that all the smaller stuff will work itself out, but since I’d come to care about all these smaller situations, I didn’t like not knowing for sure. It felt like the smaller plotlines existed solely to propel one particular character, or a few characters, towards the final big battle at the end…and if we knew the fate of those characters, it would be enough. And I mean, I guess that is enough, ’cause there’s only so much wrapping up one can do before it gets boring. It just didn’t…feel like enough. Not for me.

But really, I can nitpick anything. Winds of the Forelands was a surprisingly good series, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes the genre and is tired of WoT and LoTR knockoffs.

I realized that my vague dissatisfaction with the series has less to do with the quality of the books themselves, but in the fact that it was a war story. Most epic fantasy is about war. Most epic fantasy concerns itself with nations and kingdoms and armies and warriors and borders and conquest and preventing conquest. Lord of the Rings. The Wheel of Time. Dragonlance. The Belgariad. Even Harry Potter has got one set of sorcerers trying to conquer and destroy the other set. The Sword of Truth and The Way of Kings have enough else going on that it pulls the spotlight off the battles, but still, there are battles. There’s always a war going on, or a war about to start. I noticed it in Winds of the Forelands, I think, because the entire story hinges on one particular war, and concerns all the smaller wars that lead into the big one. It’s not just a story taking place during a war…it’s a story about a war.

I don’t like war. Fighting battles, moving troops, swords and arrows and armor, thinking about how many men it will take to defeat a particular army…none of that crud interests me. I hate watching spear-carriers in stories get killed off in huge swathes in order to “up the stakes” for the good guys. It may be necessary but I don’t like it. It’s not what draws me to epic fantasy and I’ll be honest, it’s my least favorite part of it.

And this got me thinking, why is epic fantasy always about war? Well, for one thing, it’s big. It involves all kinds of people from various places. It forces people to move around a lot. It forces people to ally with enemies, and estrange themselves from allies. It’s exciting. It permanently changes the geographical and political landscape. No one walks away unscathed. Very few things are as epic as a war. It’s conflict writ large.

I never pictured Tindaari as a war story. I had vague plans of a war between the new priesthood and the magic users, but it was never anything definite because it wasn’t a part of the story I enjoyed planning. I was putting a war into the story because…well, that’s what you do in epic fantasy. You need all-encompassing, world-changing, epic battles between really awesome magic users and warriors with really awesome swords. So I’ve put myself in a position of writing a story in a genre that requires me to include something I don’t really want to write about.

That won’t do.

So I started brainstorming. After all, I don’t have to write about war. I don’t care if it’s the easiest way to make an epic…I don’t have to do it that way. I just need to think of something else, something equally as epic…but something that interests me. What sort of event brings people together on as massive a scale as a war, but isn’t a war?

Natural disaster comes to mind pretty quick. But really, that’s just replacing people against people with people against nature. Plague, famine, the sudden appearance of superpowers or curses among the population…which usually leads to some sort of armed conflict between supes and non-supes.

The only other kind of epic fantasy I can think of are what I’ll call coming-of-age stories. They concentrate on one single person’s life…though that person is usually some kind of hero or king, or is well caught up in the doings of heroes and kings. Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles is such a story, as is Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, as is Robin Hobb’s Assassins trilogy. (The Belgariad is a sort of hybrid, but honestly I think it’s the tongue-in-cheek humor that really carries that series for me.) Instead of creating an epic feel by spreading the focus wide, among a huge cast of characters…one narrows the focus down to a single individual, but takes that life in such detail that it becomes epic.

I just started The Wise Man’s Fear, second book in Rothfuss’ series…and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I’m enjoying the reading so much more than Winds of the Forelands. I think it’s simply because I happen to like life-epics better than war-epics. For one things, life-epics tend to unfold at a slower, more relaxed pace than war-epics. I can get comfortable with the character and the world before the really big stuff starts to happen, and I’m not as tempted to read ahead to ease tension. Tindaari is very well set up to be a life-epic…it is, after all, the story of Ravana and Linus growing up, growing into their powers and into the world.

This is, perhaps, where Tindaari could really be something unique in the epic fantasy genre, because it’s really the story of several characters coming of age and meeting each other. You get to know all of them from childhood, or at least young-adulthood. It would be a life-epic in structure, but still keep the multi-character focus and breadth of a war-epic. I think taking the time to follow these characters as they grow up will help alleviate that “really like some characters, bored with others” problem that crops up in epics.

And best of all, if armed conflict does happen within the story (and it probably will), at least I can feel like I don’t have to focus on that aspect of it.

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