I just finished reading Carol Berg’s THE DAEMON PRISM (which, like nearly everything Carol writes, is on my list of Favorite Books), and it got me to thinking about what makes epic work and what makes it work on a huge, international bestseller level.
Carol’s epic fantasy usually focuses on a handful of people, rather than a cast of thousands, like (for example) GRRM. They’re very different storytelling styles and obviously bring different things to the table, both of which I find appealing in different ways.
I wonder if one or the other has a more general appeal. Do people *prefer* to have the cast of thousands, or the more narrow handful of viewpoints? If the latter, is it driven partly by the fear that the author is going to keel over before finishing that epic with a thousand viewpoints, or is it just that actually we’d all be perfectly happy if the story was told from Arya, Tyrion, and the Hound’s PsOV? (Uh, my bias may be showing there. Move along.)
If the former, though–if we really do love all those viewpoint characters, then what is it about that particular style that catches people up so dramatically? Part of it must be the agonizing wait, right? The fact that it’s really not all that unreasonable for a book of that magnitude to take several years to write. We clearly enjoy that kind of torture to some degree.
But what else is it that catapults a series into GRRM territory? *Is* it the cast of thousands, the fact that we have so many characters to love and hate and cheer and curse? Part of it’s certainly the “holy shit, I can’t believe he did that” aspect, which is a bit hard to repeat at this stage because no matter what you do somebody’s going to say GRRM did it first, but pfft, nothing new under the sun, there.
Some of it is the so-called gritty realism portrayed in GRRM’s books, although heaven knows Carol Berg’s, Judith Tarr’s, Kate Elliott’s, Michelle Sagara’s, Juliet E McKenna’s also contain plenty of gritty realism (dear god, go read Kate’s Crossroads Trilogy if you don’t think they do, or Juliet’s Hadrumal Crisis, for fantastically realistic characters in extremely real-feeling situations). And yes, I am calling out female epic fantasy writers deliberately here, partly because I *read* a lot more of them than I do male epic fantasy writers, and partly because I still don’t see them in the same eschelons as GRRM, despite feeling they’re equally good writers.
But I wonder if a part of it isn’t the overt magic. ASOIAF opens with a promise of magic: the first chapter/prologue/whatever takes place beyond the Wall, and it’s clear the Magic Is Coming. But on this side of the Wall, for a long goddamned time, it’s all about politics and manuevering. Daenerys, who is the most overtly magic-controlling character for a long, long time, still takes what, at least one full book, before she even touches that territory. But in all the authors I’ve listed above, the magic is considerably more *there*, right from the start.
I can’t help thinking that’s part of it. That it’s a question of massaging the magic in, as much as skill in storytelling or cast size. And there is invariably the question author gender, which on one hand is perhaps impossible to truly account for and on the other, well, I know I have a bias and I know *why* I have that bias. (OTOH, I /know/ I have a bias, which appears to also be an important factor.)
I know there aren’t simple or straight answers to any of this. In the end it’s all in what serves the story. But if I was going to write epic fantasy, I wonder what would be considered the more appealing style, cast of thousands or a handful of protagonists, and where/when the magic should really come into the story.
These are the questions that keep me awake at night. :)