What Is Epic Fantasy?

A couple weeks ago, I was reading Michelle Sagara’s The Uncrowned King when a friend asked me about it. I told her it was epic fantasy, and she asked what that meant. I forget exactly what I said at the time, and I think I just ended up describing the plot of the book instead.

What is epic fantasy?

I have a tag on this blog for “epic fantasy,” however I’ve begun to realize that I’m not entirely sure how to define the sub genre. There are some works which are clearly epic fantasy, such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Jorden’s Wheel of Time, Sanderson’s Way of Kings, or, indeed, Sagara’s The Broken Crown.

But what makes a fantasy book be epic fantasy? Is it the length? Is it the world? Is it the number of characters? The scale? Does there have to be an impending battle between great forces?

For my own part, I think epic fantasy has to be set in a different world. So I don’t consider Harry Potter to be epic fantasy, even if it is a long running fantasy series about a battle between good and evil.

I also think that to be epic, there has to be a larger scale. The stakes have to go beyond the protagonist’s personal life. At minimum, the fate of a single country has to be under threat (as in Robin Hobb’s The Assassin’s Apprentice trilogy). More typically, I think of epic fantasy as being where the entire world hangs in the balance. Even if the world is in danger, I think to be epic a fantasy book has to be about that danger, more so than it is about the protagonist’s personal life. Thus I don’t think of The Fifth Season as being epic, as I find it more about the protagonist’s personal life as she wanders through the chaos than the world itself (although the sequels may change this).

I’ve thought a lot about the length factor, but I think I don’t need for a series to be super long for me to consider it epic. N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is only one book*, but it’s at an incredibly grand scale with conflict between gods. Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris is another stand alone novel that meets the scale requirement, even if it’s more about nations than the entire world.

*Yes, there’s sequels to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but honestly I feel like that book meets the scale requirement all on its own.

Epic fantasy is a sub genre where there seems to be a lot of disagreement as to what it constitutes. If I look over at the “Best Epic Fantasy” list on Goodreads, there’s a lot of books that I like but wouldn’t consider epic fantasy. I love Discworld, The Bartimeaus Trilogy, and Howl’s Moving Castle, but I wouldn’t class them as “epic.”

How would you define “epic fantasy” and what are some of your favorite epic fantasy books or series?

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. thebookgator says:

    I’ve struggled with this one as well in my tagging… 🙂 I agree, there usually has to be some sort of larger political/world scope for me to call it ‘epic.’

    1. Tagging and epic fantasy is the worst. I went back through my epic fantasy tag when I was writing this post, and a lot of it seems really random.

  2. Oo, difficult question! I think that I do assume it has to be set in another world (rather than a version of ours) before I call it epic fantasy. And then like the Book Gator says, it has to be dealing with the major sociopolitical forces in the world.

    1. Those two were the only hard requirements I could pin down. So much of it seems to be about what “feels” like epic fantasy.

  3. imyril says:

    That’s a really good question. You have provoked thought and a sudden urge to go check my tagging. I frequently disagree with social tagging, and I’m sure I’m responsible for some crimes against sensible cataloging too (urban fantasy, I’m looking at you; it took me years to split you from paranormal romance).

    I agree entirely with your two criteria: for me, it’s all about scale. The consequences must be (much) more than personal – although I think I’m comfortable with them being regional rather than global (especially if it involves magic and/or divine intervention / influence). And the setting must be secondary world, including portal fantasy (Fionavar, Darwath, etc).

    Plus, having looked at my bookshelf and checked my tagging – the focus must be more than military. If it’s all about how a war is fought, I don’t seem to have included it in my epic tag (not that there’s a lot of this sort of thing on my shelf; I’m not big on military fiction of any genre). I also appear to have rejected any overlap between epic fantasy and grimdark, which suggests that – historically at least – I considered epic fantasy to be blessed with a happy ending *cough* although that also indicates I’ve made some big assumptions about where A Song of Ice and Fire is headed!

    I might think about that last bit though. This morning, I don’t have a problem with overlap between grimdark and epic. And GRRM (and Richard Morgan, actually) will probably push me to do a bit of re-tagging.

  4. Yeah, I think epic fantasy can overlap with grimdark. A Song of Ice and Fire has been threatening that “Winter is coming” for five books now, and a threatening army of wraith things does seem very epic fantasy. That said, I’m starting to be suspicious as to if winter will ever actually arrive.

    Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire series seems like another grimdark/epic fantasy overlap, although I haven’t read past the first book and am not planning to. It was TOO grimdark for my tastes.

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