Heroic Fantasy Part I: A Discussion with Hot New Authors

Heroicabercrombie_3 For awhile now, the heroic fantasy field has been experiencing a revival through the stellar efforts of authors like George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb, Steven Erikson, R. Scott Bakker, and the godfather of modern heroic fantasy, Glen Cook. Now, another wave of re-interpretation and innovation is sweeping across the Fantasy field like an invading army--providing gritty, realistic, and complex storylines and characters, within the wider context of giving readers hours and hours of exciting entertainment. I thought it would be a good idea, then, to interview a few of the most interesting authors from this "next generation": Joe Abercrombie (The Blade Itself), Karen Miller (The Innocent Mage and The Awakened Mage), Brian Ruckley (Winterbirth), and Brandon Sanderson (The Final Empire and Well of Ascension). And, over the next year, I'll make sure to feature ever more of the new generation of heroic fantasy writers, including Patrick Rothfuss, K.J. Parker, and Daniel Abraham.


Amazon.com: What makes your take on heroic or epic fantasy different?


Joe Abercrombie: I try to write fantasy (emphasis on try), with all the grit, and cruelty, and humour of real life, where good and evil are a matter of where you stand, just like in the real world. I try to write characters with real contradictions, confusions, complexities, obsessions, and to put the reader right inside their heads. I try to leave world-building in the background and concentrate on the people and the interactions between them.


Karen Miller: My work is predominantly character-driven. Most of the action derives from the internal landscape, desires and psychologies of the characters, rather than huge external set pieces and sweeping vistas, as it were. Those tend to form the backdrop of my novels--what really interests me is the impact of events on a cast of individuals. How the big picture looks through the eyes of the people involved.


Heroicmiller_3 Brian Ruckley: The single commonest word used by readers to describe Winterbirth seems to be "gritty," so I guess that might be it. I tried to make my imagined world pretty realistic, in everything from its landscapes to its politics, its characters to its battles. This is fantasy in which no character is safe once the world starts to slip towards chaos, and where even the bad guys think they have good reasons for most of what they do


Brandon Sanderson: I'm the magic guy. (Hum. That sounds a little odd when I write it that way.) How about, "I'm the guy with the cool magic systems." I love the old epic fantasies, but I always felt like I wanted to understand the magic better. What exactly are Gandalf's powers? Why does this hero suddenly gain this ability at this time? I was a chemist my first year in college, and though I jumped ship to English, I retain my love of the sciences. I love magic that feels like a science, and have a distinct love for the old days of alchemy when magic and science blended together.


Amazon.com: What’s your favorite part of writing heroic fantasy?


Heroicruckley_3 Joe Abercrombie: Writing heroic fantasy that’s as un-heroic as possible. Trying to apply my black-hearted view of the world to the classic fantasy scenarios. Trying to use the cliches to blindside readers with the unexpected. That and the big-ass fight scenes, of course. You can’t knock a good swording.


Karen Miller: The research, because I pillage human history in order to create the social backgrounds of the places I'm writing about. There's something unbelievably endearing about reading a letter written on clay tablets four thousand years ago, in which a father chastises his son for going through his allowance so fast...And in which a son complains to his father, "How come you send my brother shoes and you don't send me any? You always liked him better than me!" Humans just don't change.


Brian Ruckley: Probably the fact that it allows you to paint on a big canvas, and tie lots of different elements into a single story. You get to do conspiracies and politics, huge battles and one-on-one sword fights, quiet scenes where characters learn about themselves and their world and dramatic scenes where magical powers are unveiled.


Heroicsanderson_3 Brandon Sanderson: There is so much of this genre that hasn't been explored yet, and it's thrilling to be part of the new wave of fantasy writers. My favorite part of the actual writing would have to be world-building, specifically designing the magic that goes into my books.


Come back Friday for the conclusion to this roundtable discussion! --Jeff

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For those interested in exploring this topic, you might like to know that this kind of conversation is currently going on over on Daniel Abraham's blog, http://www.danielabraham.com/newsite/?p=38. Mr. Abraham is mentioned in the first paragraph of this article. He organized a discussion on the nature of Epic Fantasy that included several bonafide pros, and he's writing about the results. Interesting stuff.

Posted by: Josh Gentry | Tuesday November 6, 2007 at 9:53 AM

Cool interview idea! I LOVED Karen Miller's duology, and I picked up The Blade Itself and Winterbirth earlier this week. Can't wait to start reading those two. I do have all 3 of Sanderson's books too, though I am waiting for the last book in Mistborn to come out next spring before starting that series. Will look forward to the rest of the interview tomorrow.

Posted by: Jeff C | Thursday October 25, 2007 at 7:33 PM

Sure, there's a difference between all of these :

sword and sorcery
heroic fantasy
epic fantasy/high fantasy

which is why I am wondering.

One end doesn't generally have your protagonists running around casting spells all over the place, etc. The other end more likely to have 'sanitised' if you like battle scenes as you suggest, there.

Posted by: Blue Tyson | Thursday October 25, 2007 at 5:25 PM

I'm glad you're featuring these guys. Sanderson's the only one of these four initial authors I've read yet, but I'm glad he's around. Rothfuss is actually the one who most gave me the old-school epic emotional experience I remember from being 13 and reading about Weis & Hickman's Raistlin, with this new intimacy of association and modern sensibility and humor, but Sanderson takes the old epic structure and has more surface-level fun with it, tweaking the formulas and seeing where it takes him. I also like Sanderson's website, how interactive with readers he is, and how he's obviously prolific - and not just in one world he's been obsessing over his whole life (which certainly can result in good series, but doesn't always).

@Blue Tyson: I think there's a difference between sword & sorcery and heroic fantasy, though they are of course related. But I do suspect Sanderson would feel an affinity with a lot of the old-school heroic, and he does seem to like the battle scenes plenty as well - they're just not excessively "gritty" battles.

Posted by: Crash | Thursday October 25, 2007 at 5:13 PM

On heroic fantasy

If you draw a line that has Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber outright sword and sorcery at the far left end and say, Tolkien and Eddison at the far right, who actually considers themslves to be down at the left end hanging out with say, David Gemmell and Glen Cook and Scott Lynch or in that area?

As I am reading the Abercrombie now seems to me that he would.

Would be surprising if Miller and Sanderson did given the people I have seen talk about those?

Posted by: Blue Tyson | Thursday October 25, 2007 at 2:52 AM

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