Epic Fantasy: Let’s Get with the (Non-Medieval) Times
By Fonda Lee
Say the words “epic fantasy” and often what springs to mind are kings and wizards, knights on horseback, warring nations, sword battles and dragons. For most people, the concept of epic fantasy (and here, I’ll use “epic” in terms of scope and scale) was defined by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and these days, it’s been refreshed in the public consciousness by George R.R. Martin and Game of Thrones. Although Middle Earth and Westeros are not our world, both Tolkien and Martin set their sweeping stories in a recognizable historical context and aesthetic that is often taken as being synonymous with epic fantasy itself: namely, medieval Europe.
As much as I love both those works, there is a downside to their iconic stature. When I critique the work of beginning writers in convention workshops, perhaps two-thirds of the fantasy stories I see take place in a medieval setting, and many of them feature elves, dragons, sorcerers, and the like. My question, invariably, to these writers is: why? Why are you writing about this geography and time period? Is it simply because it’s familiar to you? Or do you have something new and fresh to add, something uniquely yours that I can’t get from all the writers that’ve come before?
The medieval period is generally defined as the history of Europe from the 5th to 15th centuries. Recorded human history spans approximately 5,000 years. When you consider that the Middle Ages cover less than 20% of the history of the second-smallest continent on Earth, you can only conclude that there’s an awful lot of history that’s underused by fantasy writers and readers.
If you’re an epic fantasy fan looking for historical variety, there are plenty of novels to choose from, if you go looking for them. In fact, you could easily embark on a “medieval-free” book diet and discover enough to keep you happily fed for years. Some eras in history have spawned their own sub-subgenres, such as Greco-Roman-inspired fantasy (occasionally known as “sandalpunk”), including Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series, David Gemmell’s Troy series, and Paul Kearney’s The Ten Thousand. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss evoke the Renaissance. Recently, I heard Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series and Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage series described as “flintlock fantasy.”
You’ll get a great deal of satisfying mileage by leaving Europe altogether. Elizabeth Bear set her Eternal Sky series in a pre-modern world inspired by Central Asia and the Silk Road. Aliette de Bodard’s epic Obsidian and Blood trilogy is Aztec noir. Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty saga is, by his own definition, “silkpunk” influenced by the history of the Han dynasty in China.
I set my own novel, Jade City, in a late twentieth century-equivalent era. My choice of setting and time were very much a part of my vision for the story from the beginning. I wanted to write a gangster fantasy saga set in a period of rapid economic growth and modernization. The Roaring 20s in America were known for prosperity, social change, and urbanization, but also Prohibition and the violent rise of Al Capone and the Mafia. The Green Bone clans in Jade City are not quite Triads or Yakuza, and the fictional metropolis of Janloon is not based on any one city in Asia, but I wanted all the worldbuilding cues of time and place to create a cohesive and congruent experience.
In our world, the economies of Japan and the “Four Asian Tigers” of Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea rebuilt in the decades after World War II and exploded with growth to become what was commonly cited as a post war economic miracle. Here then, was when I would set my story about magical jade, family loyalty, and clan rivalries — against a backdrop of rising wealth, social change, and global trade, and evoking all the elements of a good gangster story: cars, guns, money, drugs, and men in suits with murder on their minds.
I once saw a comment online that argued the reason why most fantasy takes place in the pre-modern era is because modern technology doesn’t fit with magic: it’s too “real” so it ruins the presence of magic in fiction. I disagree. If anything, the success of the urban fantasy genre, and series such as Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, prove beyond a doubt that readers are more than happy to see the magic and the modern in co-existence, even welded together. Perhaps it’s because, in this relentlessly digital age, so much of technology feels like magic anyway, or perhaps we’re realizing that our smartphones, like dark wizards, promise all forms of knowledge and power but don’t hold the answers that unlock any of the big questions in life.
In any case, the sweeping themes often explored in epic fantasy — the fate of people and nations, the weight of history and myth, the challenges, triumphs, and failures of those who try to change the world — these are unbound by time or place. Epic fantasy would do well to get with the times.
Fonda Lee is the award-winning author of the YA science fiction novels Zeroboxer and Exo. Born and raised in Canada, Lee is a black belt martial artist, a former corporate strategist, and action movie aficionado who now lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. Jade City is her adult debut.