I’m Douglas Cohen, and I’ll be popping in from time to time to blog about high fantasy. You can also expect occasional posts pertaining to other areas of fantasy that appeal to many of us high fantasy fans, such as sword & sorcery, Arthuriana, science-fantasy, etc. To tell you a little bit about myself, I’ve been the assistant editor at Realms of Fantasy for 3+ years. While there, I’ve plucked all sorts of fantasy tales from our slush piles, including several of the high fantasy variety. Besides the editing, I also dabble in writing. Last year, I published my first story in Interzone Magazine. And now...well, now I’m joining the ever growing hordes of the Tor.com Armies.
Now I’m betting that the words “high fantasy” leave 99% of you thinking of your favorite high fantasy novelists, along with your favorite books and/or series. That’s understandable. High fantasy tends to lend itself to the longer form. Walk into the fantasy/science fiction section of your local bookstore and you’ll find quite a number of high fantasy books into the third or fourth (or tenth) book of the series. There’s nothing wrong with such formats. I’ve enjoyed more than my share of these sorts of series. But for this first entry, I’d like to throw everyone a bit of a curve ball by discussing high fantasy in the shorter form.
To be more specific, I’m referring to anything shorter than a novel. When it comes to high fantasy, I think the short fiction sometimes gets overlooked. I would imagine part of the reason is that most high fantasy fans like BIIIG books. We like to fall into that strange and beautiful world for hours at a time, getting swept along with the characters and their situations. I think a lot of fans of this literature also appreciate the countless plot threads, intricate world-building, and armies of characters both heroic and villainous. I’m no exception.
Obviously a shorter work can’t explore these things in as much depth. But there are some advantages to reading high fantasy shorts. First, it won’t take you days to do it. You can read the entire story in one sitting, which can be rather refreshing. Second, if the series is ongoing, you don’t have to endure the agony of waiting another year (or more) to learn what happens next. Again, refreshing. Third and most importantly, there is some excellent high fantasy out there in the shorter form.
So I thought it might be interesting if we were to discuss some of our favorite shorter works of high fantasy. I’m happy to go first. One work that I absolutely love is “The Finder” by Ursula K. Le Guin. This story is set in Le Guin’s Earthsea universe, a series that is one of the cornerstones of modern high fantasy. This tale is a novella that tells the tale of the Founding of Roke, the isle that houses the great wizard school in the world of Earthsea. For those unfamiliar with Earthsea, this is a world where names are the ultimate power, and a person’s true name is a precious thing indeed that is carefully guarded. In this story, a lad named Otter (not his true name) wields a bit of magic. He learns more from the local mage, who is amazed at how easily the boy learns what he’s taught. We come to learn that Otter also has had a special power since he was a little boy, one he kept a secret. He is a finder, meaning he has the ability to...well, find things. It’s this power that captures the interest of the king’s magician, who puts Otter to work in the mines, looking for cinnibar. Cinnibar is the ore of watermetal. Watermetal, we learn, eats all other metals, even gold. It is the king of ores. King ...Allking...Body of the Moon. Quicksilver. Eventually the magician frees and befriends Otter, offering to teach him secrets of power. When the magician imbibes the quicksilver, we are offered a glimpse of his vast power. And the magician wishes to expand this power by gathering greater quantities of quicksilver. To do this, he wishes to gain complete control Otter by learning his true name. The stakes are raised when Otter learns of the great lode of quicksilver, a place deep in in the earth known as the House of the King. I’ll refrain from giving away essential spoilers, but as the story progress, much of what happens revolves around Otter and a young woman willing to share their true names with each other. This story taps into primal powers back when the world itself was still a primal thing. For some those powers are rooted in the names of things deep in the earth, for others they’re rooted in the names rooted deep in the human heart. If you’re interested, you can hunt this story down in Tales From Earthsea, which contains five novellas (four of them original to this book) set in this world. I’ll also add that if you haven’t read the Earthsea books, you should still be able to understand and appreciate all of the stories in this volume.
In the future I’m sure I’ll point out other high fantasy shorts I’ve enjoyed, but right now I’d love to hear from everyone else. So how about it? What are some of your favorite shorter works of high fantasy?