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Epic Fatigue: Has modern Epic Fantasy become just too…epic?

Cover via Barnes & Noble

At long last, I finally finished George R. R. Martin‘s latest book, “A Dance with Dragons” a week ago in one of those sort-of-regrettable-but-fun reading binges that ends at 3 AM on a Thursday night.  Truth be told, I’m kind of embarrassed that it took me as long as it did, both to finally get started with it and to finish it.

Granted, it is over a thousand pages.  Which makes it worth at least two or three normal books.  So, see? I wasn’t completely slacking.  It was slacking on par with, say, a 9 year-old not wanting to clean his room, not like teenager-sleeping-until-4-and-going-back-to-bad-after-Lucky-Charms  or anything.

The book, the fifth installment for the A Song of Fire and Ice series (the basis for HBO’s wildly successful “Game of Thrones”) was years in the making (literally, six of them; the previous book in the series was published in November, 2005).  In other words, we’d been waiting for it for a looooong time; I should have jumped on it with enthusiasm of a toddler cranked up from a sugar-laden visit to grandpa’s house the moment it came out last July (yes, a year ago, in 2011).

But, well, that didn’t happen.

I’ll argue that for a while I wasn’t reading much of anything, as finding time for leisure reading was overrun with spending most of my much-too-infrequent free time pummeling my own novel into shape.

Thankfully, I’ve since come to realize that I have to make time to read regularly as well as write if I want to be a well-rounded writer.  Plus, it’s probably helpful in avoiding the “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy” kind of situation that ends, rather poorly, with a hatchet in the hedge maze.

Anyway.  ANYWAY! I finished “A Dance with Dragons” last week, and feel, mostly, well, pretty meh about it.  I should be all a-quiver with longing for the next volume in there series,  “The Winds of Winter.”  Seriously, in my younger days, I’d no sooner set a finished book up on the self than I’d start hopping from toe to toe frantically, like a kid with a full-to-nearly-bursting bladder on Christmas morning that can’t choose between peeing or going to check out what Santa left.

But, for some reason, I’m just…not.

Cover via Barnes & Noble

The thing is, I guess I’ve been through this before, but I hadn’t learned the important lesson yet.  A decade or so ago, I was smack in the middle of The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan‘s epic 14-book series* that started with “The Eye of the World” in 1990.  Books 7-11 of that series sort of felt as though I was trudging my way through a knee-deep snow storm, and I constantly wondered if we’d ever reach The Big Dramatic Ending.  In the late 90’s and early 00’s**, a new novel came out every year other year or so, and I’d pour myself into it, only be unsure at the end how much, if at all, the main plotline hade really moved forward.

Mr. Jordan, I’m sad to say, passed away in 2007, after being diagnosed with a rare disease, cardiac amyloidosis.  He was kind enough, though, to assemble materials so that another writer might complete the series.  His wife (who was also his editor) selected Brandon Sanderson, another up-and-coming fantasy author, for the task.

Image via Barnes & Noble

Ironically, Mr. Sanderson, in addition to currently working diligently to complete Mr. Jordan’s work, published “The Way of Kings” in 2010, the first volume of his own epic fantasy series, The Stormlight Archive.  Incidentally, he has said he expects this new series to span ten novels.

FYI, the first one clocks in at 1007 pages, so um, yeah, we’re looking at 10,000 pages of new fantasy series.

And I still haven’t read it.  I have it.  A signed copy, even.  I stood before Mr. Sanderson’s signing table in the fall of 2010 and tried not to spew rambling word vomit like some tweaked-out librarian (because, if you’ll recall, that’s what I do at signings) while he autographed it for me with my favorite writer’s quote.  But for some reason, I never got farther than page 20.

For two years, I’ve been wondering why that book’s been collecting dust atop my desk, wedged neatly between my pair of Buddha bookends***.  Now, after finally closing “A Dance with Dragons”, I think I might understand why.

I think I’ve got Epic Fatigue.

What I mean by that is, epic fantasy nowadays appears to be predicated on gigantic series that have to be, at a minimum, 10 books long and not less than 900 pages per book or, well, you’re just reading baby fantasy.

And I kind of have a problem with that.  The original fantasy series, The Lord of Rings, the one that started it all, was pleeeeenty epic, and Tolkien was There and Back Again (see what I did there?) in just three books.  That’s right, a hobbit chronicled the rise of the Age of Man in Middle Earth in just a wee little trilogy.  Not seven books.  Not ten.  Not fourteen freaking deadly-blunt-force-object-tomes!  Just. Three.

And it’s a damned good story, too.

The first Dragonlance series, Chronicles, was only three books long as well.  Granted, there are more Dragonlance books now than hobbits in the Shire or Oompa Loompas in my basement, but that’s okay because they aren’t all part of one seemingly-never-ending plot.  It was Dragonlance that hooked me on fantasy in my younger days, and I’d bet I could re-read that first series in a month if I wanted.

In contrast, rereading either The Wheel of Time or A Song of Fire and Ice would likely take me the rest of the year, respectively.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe the big-name modern epic fantasy authors all made a bet over a game of Magic the Gathering and are now knee-deep in a pissing contest to see who can publish the most words in their respective lifetimes without ever writing those two little famous ones: “The End”?

Okay, okay.  I’m kidding.  Mostly.  Still, how come everything these days has to be ridiculously long to the point of feeling kind of bloated?  Can’t we tell good, in-depth stories with meaningful characters in a trilogy, or at most, five action-packed volumes anymore?  Do we really need every last detail about the frayed lace around someone’s pale green tunic or a blow-by-freaking-blow of every single dish served at the Great Summoner’s Feast of Antioc?  I mean, this isn’t a fantasy food blog we’re talking about here.

Look, I’m tired.  I’m tired of needing a spreadsheet to keep track of a list of characters (with unpronounceable names, mind you) longer than my arm.  Tired of trying to remember each of their last known locations.  Tired of trying to remember who hates whom, and whether it was character A that betrayed character B, or character B that betrayed character C while character A looked on and soiled himself in fear three books ago.

Mostly I’m tired of wondering if I’m ever going to get to the end of the story.  Because, no matter how hateful of epic fantasy I sound  in this post, I’m really just frontin’; I love all these series.  I really, really do.  Most of the characters, the main ones, anyway, mean something to me.  And I can’t stand to think that there’s all this journey with them, only to find out that the end never comes, or barely comes with a whimper.

I don’t need “happily ever afters”.  I have to have sunshine and rainbows and flights to the second star on the right.

But I do want an ending.  Preferably one that satisfies, with a great big bang and a hefty dollop of emotional investment.

Because, in these days of seemingly interminable epic fantasy, I’m afraid I’m feeling all too often like Mick Jagger.

So tell me, am I alone here?  Is it just me that kinda, sorta wishes maybe some of these series didn’t drag on forever?  Is “Hells yeah! Longer, more, better!” generally the way you roll?

Pud’n


*Well, it’s only 13-books to date, but the 14th, and final, volume, “A Memory of Light“, is due out in January. And yes, there will be MUCH rejoicing.

**It’s fun to say “aughts.”  Say it with me now…”aughts”…”Aughts”….”AUGHTS!”  Ahem.  Sorry.

***Sweet band name.  I’m just sayin’.

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7 comments on “Epic Fatigue: Has modern Epic Fantasy become just too…epic?

  1. My epics are highly limited…There are after all choices to be made. Harry Potter is the last whole series I’ve read. Any book that goes to 1,000 pages needs to be a reference volume not part of a story. I have read tons of mystery “epic series” but they total little more than comic books in terms of effort or time. Reading is essential but so is choice. How many new author entry novels could I read instead of a 14 book, 1,000 page each, series? So many books; so little time. BTW, I’m still looking for that attachment…LOL

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  2. The first time I ever read an epic I was in the third grade, it was “The Hobbit”, and my teacher thought I was mental. Since then, I’ve chosen to take the long novel/epic roads, but sometimes they get a little bit overbearing. For instance, when I was half way through “Storm of Swords” I finally figured out that I needed to map out who everyone was and where they fit in, because it was hard to keep track with everything else going on in real life. Aside from that I have this problem with the author’s complete details because those epic stories lead to a dissatisfaction whenever I read less detailed books. [=

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    • The fact that you read “The Hobbit” in the third grade is flat-out impressive! My first attempt at LotR was in grade school, probably 4th or 5th grade, and I just wasn’t yet ready for it. Bravo!

      Have you read the Wheel of Time? I’m curious what your spreadsheet for that would look like!

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  3. Frankly, if a book is over 1000 pages long and the author’s name isn’t Tolstoy, I’m likely to just pass it by. There are very few stories that merit that length in the telling.

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    • I’m starting to get the same feeling. The hardest thing for me is that I’ve read books that were 1000+ pages and did merit the length. Good reads that kept me turning pages deep into the night. More recently, though, I’m starting to get the feeling some books are that long just because the author feels compelled to write long books. And that’s a completely different thing altogether!

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  4. It’s funny how similar our reading tasted are. I read everything I could find by Weiss and Hickman (Dragonlance, Conan, etc.) once I read the Chronicles, but it didn’t stop there. I know more about the history of the D&D world than most people who played it simply because they were fun, easy reads. It is also good timing that you mention the old epics as I am (this week) re-reading the series that got me started: the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander. Quick, entertaining reads that don’t require a dedication on par with completing a college education. I will say though that I could not put down Marten’s books. Oh, and A Memory of Light, the last in WOT is in final edits (November release I think) if it makes you feel any better. I’m ready for that one to end too. Happy reading.

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    • Hah, similarities indeed! I haven’t thought about Prydain in so many years! I loved that series when I was a kid (and was not very pleased with what Disney did to it).

      Really, my only complaints with Marten have been with the last two books. Much like the middle few books of the WoT…but as the last few Wheel books have made up for the slog in the middle, I’m hopeful GRRM will bring it all back ’round in the next two concluding volumes.

      And I can barely contain myself at the upcoming AMoL release (Jan 8th)!

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