Epic Fantasy Novels: They Are Epic

What can persuade a man to spend nearly a month reading one novel that is longer than the world encyclopedia five times over? A good story.

This post is part of my genre studies series where we dissect specific genres of books. Fantasy novels set themselves apart by being often incredibly long, sometimes upwards of a thousand pages.  But these books need such length for good reason. Think about Tolkein’s works. His Lord of the Rings, planned originally as a sequel to The Hobbit, spanned over 500,000 words. Compare that to the average novel which barely reaches 100,000. The story proved long enough to split into a trilogy, each counting well over 100,000 words. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series reaches over a million words in count.

Fantasy writers need a lot of words to fully convey the world they create. For that reason, fantasy writers are given more leeway over other writers on how long their novels can be. If a story is truly impressive, readers will gladly sit through 700 pages. While not regarded as an epic fantasy, instead as a kid’s fantasy, Harry Potter novels are heralded as “long.” People even brag that they “read all seven Harry Potter novels.” Well, hip-hip-hooray for you. While that boats an impressive 1,084,170 words, other famous fantasy series contain thrice that.

Robert Jordan’s famous fantasy series Wheel of Time, which I have not read, has reached over 3 million words.

Now, I’m not the sort of writer who hails anyone with high word counts as a genius. The tighter and shorter you can make your story, the better. It keeps a good pace for the reader: a tightly plotted novel at 90,000 words can be devoured in one or two days and leave a great impact on the reader. A fantasy novel of great length, however, is not the same beast.

I began considering the place of epic fantasy novels in the literary canon when I picked up the first book of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. I know I’m very late in the game considering I was three when the first book was released. His latest installment, the fifth, was released in the past year. A Dance with Dragons was released to very positive reviews and gracious fan reactions. Likely because it was published six years after the fourth book. Imagine: you wait six year to find out what happens next!

And it is no easy thing, waiting to see what happens next, as I quickly found out. I picked up the books after watching the HBO series entitled Game of Thrones which follows the books basically word-for-word with little embellishments. By the end of the series, I could not wait another year to see what happened. I bought a box set of the first four books and got reading. And read I did. Already familiar with the first book’s plot, I plowed through.

What keeps a reader compelled through a 1000 page book is that the author places something on each page to keep you turning those pages. Which means something drastic and exciting on each page. Martin is a master of character development and over the course of a thousand characters, it’s entirely possible. Yet he strives not just to flesh out the main characters (we are allowed to see through a different set of POV characters in each book), he also includes so many knights, sorcerers, and war lords that they’re hard to keep track of. But he makes each one so incredibly unique, you find that it is not actually too hard to keep track of the liturgical family trees and countless minor characters.

Fantasy novels are often derided because of their content. Martin’s work is rife with the usual cliches: dragons, knights, honor, kings, and things that go bump in the night (may the Others take you). But he actualizes those cliches to make them his own. Drawing off medieval history and folklore, he creates something incredibly real, incredibly human, and incredibly cool. I’ve literally never been so excited to read about dragons as I have during the end of Game of Thrones. These longer fantasy epics can incorporate such massive story lines, such a vast band of characters, and so many nuances, that you became insanely invested in the story itself. Now you may see why it would pain anyone to wait six years to find out “what happened next” when production companies shell out sequels to popular franchises, one each year.

The epic fantasy is another book that could get a lot of help from the advent of e-readers. With my Nook, I carry around thousands and thousands of pages at a time, a huge library. Lugging around books that almost reach 2000 pages is cumbersome, but I have the first four books in e-book format along with a few others. Those first four books, if you’re interested, comprise of more than a million words.

Fantasy novels allow us to explore worlds entirely not like our own. Martin’s world is one where treachery and honor relentlessly cut each others’ throats and swords clash and kings rule. We do not live in a world where dragons exist. America is not a place where we “bend the knee” to any king. Yet still in this strange place, the characters are painstakingly human. We can explore fellow people like us take on incredible tasks that we may never face. Yet we still learn something. There will always be a special place in my heart for dragons and centaurs and fairies and wizards.

Because no matter what genre you read, every reader is looking for something “magical.”


12 thoughts on “Epic Fantasy Novels: They Are Epic

    1. I’ve heard books 4 and 5 get a bit iffy. I am currently halfway through “Clash of Kings” so I keep talking to everyone about the series. But I’m not sure whether I’m going to keep reading after I finish “Storm of Swords.” I might wait until the sixth book is about to come out to continue reading them. I’m not sure I could take the suspense.

  1. I love this post! I think you’re right about people looking for something magical when they’re reading. I know I’m drawn to fantasy and sci-fi novels because I love exploring the other worlds created by authors. The more detailed and intricate the world, the farther I’m drawn into the story. Maybe that’s why the most popular fantasy books come in series and long epics instead of singular titles.

    1. Without sufficient room, it just wouldn’t be possible. I’ve seen great characters in short works but if a world must be realized from nothing, it does take a long time to explain. Or rather, not explain. To seamlessly describe a world without long passages of exposition, a writer must show the world and that….. well, that takes a long time indeed.

    1. I wasn’t either, except for the classics like Tolkien. But I’ve been trying a lot of new genres lately, stepping out of my comfort zone.
      When I was younger, I devoured young adult fantasies like crazy but this is the first fantasy series I’ve read in awhile.

  2. As a writer of epic fantasy, I’m used to being told to chuck epicness under the wheel in favour of ‘modern’ stuff such as urban fantasy. Thanks for this post – it warms my soul more than the most potent cup of mead. And I’m definitely going to check out Martin’s work.

  3. Indeed….and the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true. (The Court Jester, for those of you who don’t know…)

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