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Thursday 20 December 2001

New Worlds of Epic Fantasy

by Claude Lalumière

Epic fantasy: a literary genre that promises to be the grandest of playgrounds for unfettered feats of imagination. Yet, in the popular mind, epic fantasy has become synonymous with a very specific type of story, a limited set of props and tropes, and a decidedly unimaginative and highly derivative setting.

Too often, epic fantasy, as regurgitated ad infinitum by Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Robert Jordan, Melanie Rawn, Terry Goodkind, and their legions of cohorts, is an all too familiar blend of Tolkien, Arthurian myth, and Dungeons & Dragons, usually with a dash of Robert Howard's Conan and/or Anne McCaffrey's Pern. If you like to reread the same story over and over again, in more or less the same setting, I guess that's fine. But, if, like me, you yearn for novelty and diversity, it gets dull and bland rather quickly.

There's nothing intrinsic to the genre of epic fantasy itself that limits it to transparent clones of Arthur, Merlin, Bilbo, and Conan. Epic fantasy authors don't have to write about a teenager with a secret royal heritage. They don't have to incorporate dragons, elves, and hobbits into their stories — and even if they do, they don't have to stick to old clichés (see, for a superlative example, Lucius Shepard's "Dragon Griaule" novellas). There's no rule that fantasy adventure must come in one set of clothes only. We're talking about fantasy: there should be no formulaic restrictions to the rousing scenarios dreamed up by imaginative writers.

Sadly, the fantasy shelves are overstuffed with hundreds of books that are barely distinguishable from each other. And the current fanfare surrounding the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings certainly threatens to further overshadow different takes on the epic fantasy genre. Nevertheless, there are alternatives...

I'd like to point the way towards seven epic fantasy series that do not complacently copy the usual romanticized pseudo-medieval setting, do not follow the overworn plot contrivances of quest sagas, do not unquestioningly glorify the birthright of royalty, and do not rehash the same bland imagery. These fantasists create new worlds of adventure and wonder. Armed with a fresh perspective and daring ideas, they infuse their creations with their own idiosyncratic imaginations. And so, without further ado, here's a brief guide to other — and different — visions of dark lands, ancient realms, lost worlds, weird realities, and mythic times.


The Black Company, by Glen Cook
The Black Company (1984); Shadows Linger (1984); The White Rose (1985); The Silver Spike (1989); Shadow Games (1989); Dreams of Steel (1990); Bleak Seasons (1996); She Is the Darkness (1997); Water Sleeps (1999); Soldiers Live (2000)
The tears were gone. The anger was quiet. It was not right that Fish should have fallen to cholera after taking the worst that could be thrown by the world's nastiest villains. But there was no justice in this world.
—from The Silver Spike
The Black Company, often referred to as "epic fantasy noir," describes a world in which the typical tropes of fantasy play out logically, i.e., a world in which these conflicts between self-important royals, manipulative wizards, terrifyingly powerful demigods, and violent soldiers all have dire consequences not only for the main actors but also for the unfortunate populace caught in the crossfire. Disease, treachery, callous depravity, famine... all of these are portrayed unflinchingly. There is no good versus evil; there's only conflicting self-interest — and the resulting lies and carnage. More often than not, everything goes wrong. And it never fails to get ugly and nasty. Glen Cook combines — to great effect — a hardboiled attitude, a martial chronicle, and a world of dark magics.


Master Li, by Barry Hughart
Bridge of Birds (1984); The Story of the Stone (1988); Eight Skilled Gentlemen (1991)
He was old almost beyond belief. He could not have weighed more than ninety pounds, and his frail bones would have been more suitable for a large bird. Drunken flies were staggering through pools of spilled wine, and crawling giddily up the ancient gentleman's bald skull, and tumbling down the wrinkled seams of a face that might have been a relief map of all of China, and becoming entangled in a wispy white beard. Small bubbles formed and burst upon the old man's lips, and his breath was foul.
—from Bridge of Birds
Bridge of Birds, a World Fantasy Award winner, is one of my all-time favorite novels. Number Ten Ox (who is a young man, not an ox) sets out to find the renowned old "sage with a slight flaw in his character" Master Li to help cure his fellow villagers of a mysterious illness. The irascible ancient and the impressionable youth set out on a grand adventure that reveals the splendors and nightmares of a mythological ancient China. Number Ten Ox, who narrates the tale, is very much the Watson to Master Li's Sherlock Holmes. The tale has the rousing sweep of Raiders of the Lost Ark (and then some). The result is an alchemical delight, an unforgettable masterpiece of fantasy and wonder. In the subsequent volumes, the pair becomes an established detective duo. As he gains in experience, Number Ten Ox loses some of the naive charm that was so essential to the success of Bridge of Birds. Nevertheless, The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen remain fascinating blends of detective fiction, fantasy adventure, and Chinese mythology.


The Navigator Kings, by Garry Kilworth
The Roof of Voyaging (1996); The Princely Flower (1997); Land-of-Mists (1998)
Kumuki saw the wave part before him, allowing him a narrow passage over calm waters between tumultuous seas. Once his canoe was through and he was safe the gap closed and the wave continued on its relentless path towards the hapless atoll. When it hit the outer reef it thundered over the coral bed, drumming the island from a distance and causing climbers to be shaken from the palms like insects. They fell screaming to their deaths. Coconuts followed, raining on their twisted forms, pounding their bruised bodies into the coral dust.
—from The Princely Flower
Garry Kilworth plays fast and loose with real-world geography in order to create this unusual and gripping tale of a clash of cultures between the Polynesians and Celts of antiquity. Each volume of the trilogy is self-contained, while the whole thing paints one grand tapestry. Filled with ribald humor, mythological shenanigans, and details of Polynesian myth, history, and life, The Navigator Kings offers a vividly different twist on the epic fantasy genre. Book 1 describes how the Celts Seumas and Dorcha come to live with the Polynesians; book 2 is an Odyssey-like quest showcasing Polynesian sea lore; book 3 tells of a war between Polynesians and Celts. The last volume isn't quite as fascinating as the first two, which are fantastic in every way, but the series as a whole is splendidly fresh and original.


Tales from the Flat Earth, by Tanith Lee
Night's Master (1978); Death's Master (1979); Delusion's Master (1981); Delirium's Mistress (1986); Night's Sorceries (1987)
Narasen, the leopard queen of Merh, stood at the window and watched Lady Plague walking about in the city. Lady Plague wore her yellow robe, for the sickness was a yellowish fever, yellow as the dust that swirled up from the plains and cloaked the city of Merh and choked it, yellow as the stinking mud to which the wide river of Merh had turned.
—from "Narasen and Death" in Death's Master
not in print
Ornate language, baroque settings, perverse demons, and doomed passions are all endemic to Tanith Lee's Arabian Nights-flavored neo-mythology of a distant past when the Earth was flat and demons roamed the world. This series is recounted in the form of a complex web of interwoven adult fairy tales. Tales from the Flat Earth — with its mythologized deep antiquity, its aura of horror and terror, its strange language, its weird adventures, and its decadent eroticism — provides an unusual reading experience. The first two volumes are especially enchanting.


The End of Time, by Michael Moorcock
The Dancers at the End of Time: An Alien Heat (1972) / The Hollow Lands (1974) / The End of All Songs (1976); Legends from the End of Time (1997)
Somewhere, it seemed to Elric, as he parried and thrust at the attacking bird-monsters, rich and rousing music played. It must be a delusion, brought on by battle-madness. Blood and feathers covered the carriage. He saw the one called Christia carried off screaming. Bishop Castle had disappeared. Gaf had gone. Only the three of them, shoulder to shoulder, continued to fight. What was disconcerting to Elric was that Werther and the Duke of Queens bore swords absolutely identical to Stormbringer. Perhaps they were the legendary Brothers of the Black Sword, said to reside in Chaos?
—from "Elric at the End of Time" in Legends from the End of Time
Michael Moorcock's The End of Time is a decadent time-travel fantasy populated with the supremely powerful and equally supremely bored denizens of the end of time. It's loosely connected (as is all of his work) to his oeuvre-encompassing Eternal Champion saga. The first three volumes — The Dancers at the End of Time — tell of the unlikely and intricate love story between Jherek Carnelian from the end of time and Amelia Underwood of Victorian England. The tale is simultaneously unabashedly romantic and amusingly perverse. The capper to Moorcock's delirious invention, Legends from the End of Time, has a rather convoluted publishing history. Suffice to say that the definitive edition of this peculiarly beautiful collection is the 1997 British mass-market paperback from the Millennium imprint. It includes the original 1976 collection of the same name; the full text of the 1977 apocalyptic novel known, confusingly, as either A Messiah at the End of Time, Constant Fire, or The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming; and the hilarious 1981 story "Elric at the End of Time," in which the brawn of Moorcock's most famous character is no match for the wit of his greatest creation.


Gilgamesh, by Robert Silverberg
Gilgamesh the King (1984); To the Land of the Living (1990)
I am he whom you call Gilgamesh. I am the pilgrim who has seen everything within the confines of the Land, and far beyond it; I am the man to whom all things were made known, the secret things, the truths of life and death, most especially those of death. I have coupled with Inana in the bed of Sacred Marriage; I have slain demons and spoken with gods; I am two parts god myself, and only one part mortal. Here in Uruk I am king, and when I walk through the streets I walk alone, for there is no one who dares approach me too closely. I would not have had it that way, but it is too late to alter matters now; I am a man apart, a man alone, and so I will be to the end of my days. Once I had a friend who was the heart of my heart, the self of my self, but the gods took him from me and he will not come again.
—from Gilgamesh the King
not in print
In Gilgamesh the King, Robert Silverberg retells one of the the oldest of tales, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Combining elements of myth and history, Silverberg has created a deeply personal meditation on life and death, a work that illuminates many of the recurring themes and obsessions of his science fiction, the genre in which he is best known. A vast sweeping epic, a tale of consuming lusts and deep friendship, the story of a great hero with a great flaw, an evocative adventure culled from the dawn of civilization, Gilgamesh the King is imbued with a primal vitality. Silverberg's masterful storytelling and his pitch-perfect first-person narration (in Gilgamesh's voice) create a mesmerizing atmosphere.To the Land of the Living, a mosaic adapted from two novellas that originally appeared in the Heroes in Hell anthology series, is a much lighter affair, but thoroughly enjoyable. Dead, Gilgamesh roams the underworld in search of Enkidu, the friend he loves more than life. Along the way, he encounters Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, who mistakes the Sumerian king for the hero of his repressed homoerotic fantasies.


The Soldier Sequence, by Gene Wolfe
Soldier of the Mist (1986); Soldier of Arete (1989)
This morning, when I saw the three women, I did not know their names, nor why they danced. The others were still asleep when Elata returned to our camp. I did not know then that she was one of our party; but she told me that she was, and after I had counted the horses I knew that it was true. Besides, the others accepted her as I have seen since.
—from Soldier of Arete
not in print
Considering how much of Western culture is steeped in classical Greek lore, it's rather surprising that it is only rarely the source of epic fantasies. Gene Wolfe's The Soldier Sequence is one such. Reading it is to be drowned in a sea of seductive mysteries and enchanting riddles. The protagonist, a mysterious warrior suffering from a strange form of amnesia, records the events of his days on scrolls before they fade into oblivion each morning. With each new day, he must read what he can of the scrolls or trust that his companions are being truthful. He is called Latro, but has no idea if that is his real name. The novels are a transcription of Latro's scrolls. Readers have the advantage of being able to remember the whole story, while Latro, of course, does not have time to reread hundreds of pages each morning. Wolfe imbues his oblique epic with an aura of painful beauty. Latro's narration is incoherent and inconsistent and is filled with ambiguities — all of which result from his affliction, which might or might not be a divine punishment. Similarly, Latro encounters creatures and people that might or might not be supernatural or divine. And even Latro's own nature (let alone his identity) is far from clear. A certain amount of familiarity with Greek myth certainly helps lift the veil of mystery from some passages, but even those that remain cloaked in ambiguity are described with a powerful evocation of awe and wonder. Frustratingly, the series was left incomplete after two volumes; however, word is that Wolfe will soon be returning to the adventures of Latro.


Claude Lalumière is a freelance writer whose criticism has appeared in The Montreal Gazette, The National Post, Montreal Review of Books, Blue Coupe, and Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. He is the editor of the upcoming anthology Telling Stories: New English Fiction from Québec (Spring 2002). His published criticism can be found through his website.

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