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Today’s guest is Martha Wells, who is joining us for Women in SF&F Month once again! (She discussed her Books of the Raksura during the very first event in 2012.) Her work includes the fantasy novels The Element of Fire and The Death of the Necromancer, collected in the upcoming edition The Book of Ile-Rien (2024), and City of Bones, which is being rereleased on September 5, 2023. She has also written books set in the Star Wars and Stargate Atlantis universes, and she is the author of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling science fiction books in The Murderbot Diaries, winner of the Hugo Award for Best Series. Her next novel, the fantasy book Witch King, is described as “a remarkable story of power and friendship, of trust and betrayal, and of the families we choose.” It’s coming out on May 30, but in the meantime, you can learn more about it (as well as a few other books) in her guest post, “Deconstructing Epics.”

Cover of Witch King by Martha Wells

Deconstructing Epics
by Martha Wells

The typical image of an epic is a set of thick multi-volume novels. But the secret is, you can write epic fantasy and science fiction at any length, using any structure you want.

When I started writing Witch King, I thought I was writing a story set in the aftermath of a multi-volume epic fantasy. What happens after the evil empire is defeated. I’ve always liked stories that start after the classic happily-ever-after. Like The Cloud Roads, where Moon finds his people and the home he’s always been searching for, but that’s just the start of his problems.

In the past of Witch King, a conquering genocidal empire has invaded a group of civilizations who had been living together in peace. The main characters are immortals with a deeply personal stake in their world, and even though the war is over, they find themselves in a deadly political battle to keep the alliance that defeated that empire from turning into an empire of its own. But to tell that story effectively, I realized I needed to show at least part of that past. Then I realized the past and the present storylines were intertwined and equally important, to tell a story about found family and betrayal and fighting to preserve the world you fought so hard for.

I know I couldn’t have written this book ten years ago and I know it certainly wouldn’t have found a publisher. One of the things I love about the last decade or so in science fiction and fantasy is the way it has broken out of restrictive categories and storytelling conventions. The influx of new writers and new voices and established writers employing a greater range of storytelling styles and subjects has generated a lot of brilliant and original work. And I’ve been heavily influenced in the last several years by writers writing epics, but at shorter lengths or using structures that aren’t typical for epic fantasy in western fiction.

For me, probably one of the best examples of epic storytelling at a shorter length is The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo. It’s a brilliant short novella that tells an epic story of revenge and the fall of empire, as a historian and cleric interviews the one remaining witness who was in the room where it happened. This is an intensely personal story of a woman who masterminds the fall of the emperor who imprisoned her and the people who gave up everything to help her cause. This is an epic compressed down to bite-size length, but for me it makes for an even greater impact.

For a science fiction example, Karen Lord’s upcoming novel The Blue, Beautiful World is set in the same universe as her novel The Best of All Possible Worlds. Though the new novel follows some of the same characters and continues their storylines, it also tells most of the story — the culmination of  a tense long-ranging effort to stop the exploitation and takeover of Earth by aliens — from outsider perspectives, that of the people who are being taught to help save themselves.

The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera is not a short novel, and it’s the first part of a trilogy, but it’s also a gripping epic fantasy in one volume, telling a generational story of Imperial and cultural and personal conflict and a war against encroaching demons. All through the focused lens of an intense first person account of a lifelong friendship and romance between the two women main characters.

Fantasy and science fiction has been called a genre of tropes, but the secret is that you can do anything you want with it, and tell your story in the way that works for you. The element that makes each story special is the person writing it, and the more of yourself you put into it, the better.

Photo of Martha Wells Martha Wells has been an SF/F writer since her first fantasy novel was published in 1993, and her work includes The Books of the Raksura series, The Death of the Necromancer, the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, The Murderbot Diaries series, media tie-in fiction for Star WarsStargate: Atlantis, and Magic: the Gathering, as well as short fiction, YA novels, and non-fiction. She has won Nebula Awards, Hugo Awards, and Locus Awards, and her work has appeared on the Philip K. Dick Award ballot, the BSFA Award ballot, the USA Today Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List. She is a member of the Texas Literary Hall of Fame, and her books have been published in twenty-five languages.