Today I am delighted to welcome fantasy, science fiction, and alternate history author Beth Bernobich to the site! She is the author of the River of Souls trilogy, The Time Roads, A Handful of Pearls & Other Stories, and more. (I especially liked her short story “River of Souls”—you can read it by clicking the artwork for this story at the end of this post.) The entire River of Souls trilogy has been released, but there is currently a Kickstarter in progress for the production of a novelette set thirty-five years after the end of Allegiance, “Nocturnall.” Rewards include books (of course!), writing critiques, and the LOL Cat Reward.
Quiet Moments in Epic Fantasy
EPIC, adj.: Vast in scope. Grand and heroic.
I love epic fantasy. I love the drum roll of its vast armies, the crescendo when kingdom battles kingdom for the fate of the world. I love its thousand-voice chorus of political intrigue, secret agendas, of heroes and heroines. I love its quests and sweeping drama of events writ large. It’s the 1812 Overture with extra cannons.
But you know what else? I love the quiet moments in epic fantasy too.
In between the explosions, I want to catch my breath, to absorb what all that action means for the characters. Most important, I need to connect with individual people, and not nations.
The epic story needs this contrast or all those cannons are just noise.
Tolkien knew all about quiet moments. The Lord of the Rings is stuffed with heroes and battles and a quest to save the world. But Tolkien chose to make his hobbits the central characters, and hobbits are all about the quiet and the ordinary. One of my favorite scenes in The Two Towers comes in the chapter “The Road to Isengard.” Gandalf, Aragorn, and company are riding into Isengard, having just fought the Battle of Helms Deep…
…and suddenly they were aware of two small figures lying at their ease, grey-clad, hardly to be seen among the stones. There were bottles and bowls and platters laid beside them, as if they had just eaten well, and now rested from their labour. One seemed asleep; the other, with crossed legs and arms behind his head, leaned back against a broken rock and sent from his mouth long wisps and little rings of thin blue smoke.
It’s unexpected. It’s humorous. And it’s deeply emotional because here in this quiet moment, the long-separated friends are reunited. This is the epic made personal.
Those quiet moments are not the relic of an older era. Judith Tarr’s Alamut is set in the times of the Crusades, with all the swords and assassins and grand events you expect from epic fantasy. There are also luminous moments of the personal, both for the men and women in this story.
Here’s one interlude that hooked me:
Odd how one could feel a presence, even without sun to cast a shadow, even without step on stone. She stiffened, but she would not turn. In the three days since he came, she had not seen him…
…It fixed her eyes on the fish. Even when a hand filled itself from her bowl, and cast as she had cast, rousing them to a new dance. For him they leaped high, even into the air, as if they would fill his hands with their living gold. Even they knew what he was.
A quiet moment, an ordinary one, with two people feeding fish in the fountain, but one with layers upon layers of emotion that a battle scene cannot provide. (And OMG, everyone should go out and buy every one of this woman’s books. Really.)
Then there’s Harry Connolly’s epic fantasy trilogy, The Great Way, which had the working title of Epic Fantasy With No Dull Parts. He’s not kidding. The first book starts with monsters invading through a magic portal. The world ends, then things get worse.
But “no dull parts” doesn’t mean the books are all cannons and monsters. After six chapters of death and mayhem, the main characters gain a temporary respite and look back over the city they escaped:
“Lost,” Doctor Warpoole suddenly said. Her voice was full of sorrow, but her expression was blank and deadly. “Peradain, the Morning City, and everything we were trying to build there….All lost.”
One of the protagonists, Tejohn, realizes that Warpoole meant more than things lost. They had, all of them, lost children, friends, spouses…people. And he goes on to remember the people, grand and ordinary alike, whom he had encountered that morning, and who were now dead. That is where my heart breaks, that is where I engage with the story of people, as well as their epic struggle to survive.
Sometimes the quiet interlude is much (much) longer than a scene. Michelle Sagara West’s series The Sun Sword is a grand and sweeping epic fantasy, with armies marching to battle and the fate of kingdoms at stake. The she wrote a second series, The House Wars, with events that overlap the first. The first book, The Hidden City, starts with the small and the personal, with an orphan girl and the man who gives her shelter. The child Jewel’s goals are also small and personal. Pay her debts. Feed and shelter other orphans. Rescue the ones she sees in her nightmares. West doesn’t hurry her characters, so we readers have a chance to walk alongside Jewel as she takes these first steps on her journey into the epic.
Epic fantasy is grand. The best epic fantasy knows when to set aside the drums and cymbals and play a quiet measure.
Beth Bernobich is the author of the epic fantasy trilogy, River of Souls, from Tor Books. Her latest book is The Time Roads, an alternate history about mathematics, murder, and time. You can read more about her on her website: http://www.beth-bernobich.com.