So, are the books and stories set in the the world of the Seven Devils (‘The Storyteller’, Blackdog, and The Leopard, which is part one of a two-volume series called Marakand) epic fantasy or sword and sorcery?Epic fantasy seems the best description among the contemporary crop of sub-genre labels, but there are also readers who regard them as leaning more to S&S.
Well, labels are dangerous. I don’t think about labels when I write, or when I read. I can say that I definitely do write fantasy. I definitely do not write paranormal romance or mystery or westerns or vampires. Nor do I write ‘urban fantasy’, which name seems to have been pinched from de Lint and handed over to paranormal romance, or . . . what other types of fantasy are there? Well, probably there are more that I don’t write. It all gets a bit hazy. I came up with my own classifications for recent trends in children’s fantasy when I was writing the litcrit book Beyond Window-Dressing: Canadian Children’s Fantasy at the Millennium. Adapting those, I’d be inclined to call what I write for adults ‘traditional secondary world fantasy’ and leave it at that. Too much refinement in categorization just ends up becoming exclusive, not helpful as a guide to “You might like this book, give it a try.” However, with so much on the virtual shelves these days, people do need some guide to narrowing down their search for that next thing in their to-read pile. The drawback of that is that not only do the labels risk becoming rigid barriers, rather than fluid and overlapping circles, but that the meanings keep drifting anyway.
The term ‘high fantasy’ seems to have pretty much dropped out of use in the last twenty years. ‘Romance’ as in W.P. Ker’s Epic and Romance, has been taken over for another genre entirely, except for its continued use in its proper sense by medievalists. When my publisher first began publicizing Blackdog and calling it epic fantasy, I breathed a sigh of relief. Ah, so that’s what I am. It was embarrassing not to be certain. But as I said above, some look on it as sword and sorcery. My impression of S&S is that it is usually about a hero or two off having adventures without much external cause beyond their own urge to keep going. They don’t have an end to achieve, except to survive whatever villain they’ve run afoul at the time and improve their own lot in life. They’re not initially desperate to save the world/kingdom/village, on the large or small scale, though they can find themselves in a situation to do so as they go on. Jennifer Roberson’s Tiger and Del series is a fairly recent example of that. Epic fantasy, in contrast, involves a larger picture, a larger world with a greater complexity of politics and history revealed on stage, and heroes whose motivations are external as well as internal; they want not only to survive and achieve some personal victory in whatever is driving them, but from the start, they want to achieve something for a greater cause. As time has gone on, we’ve reached a point where the description ‘epic fantasy’ is being applied more and more to pseudo-histories that become so vast that there is no room in them for the Hero, only a huge cast of characters enacting a history, as in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen. It’s possible we’re on the verge of another subdivision of sub-genres, about to discover a need (a marketing need?) to divide epic fantasy into differing types again. But between epic fantasy and sword and sorcery, where do ‘The Storyteller’, Blackdog, and The Leopard fall?
A good case could be made for looking on ‘The Storyteller’ as sword and sorcery. Stranger comes into village, tells a strange tale, things happen, stranger walks away, leaving smoking ruin behind . . . But the story she tells and which unfolds around her audience and engulfs them, there in the queen’s hall, is that of the first of the of seven devils to have escaped his grave, and so it is rooted in an older history that still affects those kingdoms of the north, and which is the catalyst for events that will come to pass in the lands along the caravan road in the future. However, for Blackdog and The Leopard, my publisher was quite right; ‘epic fantasy’ is the best shorthand label (the story unfolds in a setting of prior history which shapes and drives it, and what happens has tendrils that reach out both off the map and into the future). However, since they’re on the more character-driven end of that epic spectrum, they have that sword and sorcery appeal, too.
To be continued in part two, Blackdog and The Leopard: character-driven epic fantasy #SFWApro