Epic Fantasy: More Than Just Swords

by Gail Z. Martin

What makes epic fantasy so … epic?

Some of it is scope. Epic fantasy series tend to think big: the rise and fall of kingdoms, the machinations of kings, huge battles, the fate of the world in the balance.

Epic fantasy, almost by definition, tends to be in a medieval setting. Monarchs, walled cities, pre-industrial technology, battles with trebuchets, catapults and … swords.

Swords and sword fights are definitely part of epic fantasy, along with knives, crossbows, longbows and other medieval armaments. If you think that limits the inventiveness of battle, take a look sometime at Leonardo DaVinci’s schematics for war machines. I’ve used some of those machines in conflicts in my prior books, and they were fun game changers.

There’s so much more to epic fantasy though than just the swords. Sure, understanding the battle tactics and weapons that are period-authentic is important for credibility, and necessary in order to be able to write exciting and realistic combat sequences. But battles take place within a larger world, impacted by technology, medicine, magic–or the lack thereof, geography, and so much more.

In order to make an epic fantasy book and series compelling, it has to offer a window on a unique world, to take the reader somewhere he or she has not been before. World-building is a huge part of epic fantasy, because even if some elements are familiar from the real world, essential differences in history, magic, resources and politics provide the core of the story and the setting for the conflict.

Compelling epic fantasy ushers the reader into a world filled with sights, smells, sounds and textures, complex and multi-dimensional. It’s my job as an author to help you find your way around, understand what makes the world unique, experience it for yourself through the eyes of the viewpoint characters.

Those characters are products of their world, and they move through it native-born, forged from its history, politics, losses and conflicts. We understand the world through the eyes of those characters, through the lens of their experiences, through their reactions. The characters would not be who they are if they existed in any other reality. They have been shaped by their environment, and they are uniquely suited to fight and survive because of that.

In order to create a believable epic fantasy world, it helps to be well-versed in our own world’s medieval history. Real world history is a good starting point for insight into the politics, intrigue, battle techniques, weaponry, medicine, lore, superstitions, belief systems and even cooking techniques of a world with technology and scientific understanding on a pre-seventeenth century level.

It requires thinking about everyday life in a time of slow communication, no antibiotics, poor sanitation, travel limited to the speed of horses or a walking pace. It also requires understanding a very different web of human connection than we experience in our modern world. Most people never strayed beyond the village where they were born, and spent their whole lives around the same couple of hundred people unless they lived in a large city. Depending on their social status, they might owe fealty to a lord, or be bound to the land, might be slave or free, and would be obligated to conform to a set of social and religious conventions we moderns find difficult to comprehend.

All of those components are part of what I’ve always loved about epic fantasy, whether it’s as a reader or as a writer. Epic fantasy worlds are as real as our own history, but different thanks to magic and essential shifts in fate and fortune. I studied medieval history in college, and continued that education unofficially ever since, through books and travel. Walking through castles in Wales, wandering ruins in Rome, exploring walled cities in Malta or Croatia made it clear to me that while that history was unquestionably ‘real’, it was also as far removed from my personal experience as the magic-infused worlds of my epic fantasy. It took just as much imagination for me to think of myself navigating the everyday world of those real places as it did for me to think of myself inhabiting my own epic fantasy settings or those of my favorite authors, and that was without factoring in magic.

So for me, all of those elements make epic fantasy compelling. The swords are important, but they’re just part of a larger whole, a world apart, somewhere that reminds us of our own past, but with crucial differences. And magic. Swords–and magic.

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