Oct 12 2008 1:19pm

Greetings and Curve Balls

Hello everyone! 

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 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?

1. katster
I feel like I'm about to let my ignorance show, but maybe this is the best time to ask. What's the difference between high fantasy and swords and sorcery? I get that Arthuriana is things like The Mists of Avalon or other fiddlings with the Arthurian myth, but the distinction between the other two is throwing me.

Also, what's the difference between science-fantasy and urban fantasy?

Maybe this is obvious to everybody else, but sometimes the differences between categories can elude me. Enlightenment is appreciated. Thanks in advance.

2. EmmetAOBrien
I think of High Fantasy as specifically needing a Dark Lord and a world-saving quest, whereas swords-and-sorcery can also include your Conan-types wandering around having adventures at other scales.

Science-fantasy, to me, would be something that was on the borders of SF and fantasy in feel and content - like frex The Book of the New Sun - whereas urban fantasy would just to me mean set in a city, overlapping spaces defined on different axes.
Paul Howard
3. DrakBibliophile
Urban Fantasy is a Fantasy story apparently set in the Real World. The Harry Dresden novels about a Real Wizard in 'our' Chicago is a good example. Most people in Harry's world don't know magic, vampires, werewolves and the Fairie are real but Harry has to deal with them.
4. Michael M Jones
My understanding is that it sort of goes like this:

High/epic Fantasy: Tolkein, Jordan, and that ilk. Immortal elves, bold heroes, brave warriors, dark tyrants, epic quests, a certain flowing language and a deeply magical, beautiful, grand scheme to things. The shiny is shinier, the pretty prettier, the magic magicaler, the evil eviller... High fantasy is a world unto itself, where nothing is small. Except the hobbits.

Sword & Sorcery/Low fantasy: Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard. More down to earth. Grim and gritty. Flawed heroes and anti-heroes. Mighty-thewed barbarians stalking the land in search of adventure, ale, and whores. Good versus evil on a smaller, more visceral scale. Chain mail bikinis, tentacled horrors, maidens in need of rescuing.

Urban Fantasy: Things of magic set in a familiar setting, i.e. the here and now (for the most part.) Science meets superstition, technology meets magic. Wizards, witches, elves, vampires and werewolves dwell among an often-unknowing humanity. Emma Bull, Charles de Lint, Jim Butcher, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Holly Black are all fine examples of this rapidly growing sub-genre.

Paranormal Romance: See urban fantasy, but add in a strong emphasis on the romantic relationships and matters of the heart - and sometimes sex - between the main characters. There's a broad overlap between the two, but no one's find the exact line of divide. Paranormal romance bleeds into romantic fantasy.

Science Fantasy: If I ever figure that one out, I'll let you know. I suppose that dwells out in the realm of "any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic" and vice-versa.

The great thing about all of these genres is that they overlap, and there's a space in the middle where they can all meet.

Sadly, for all that, I can't think of any high fantasy short fiction offhand that really calls to me at the moment.
Sammy Jay
5. Malebolge
Tales from Earthsea was probably the first High Fiction book I ever read, and it reeled me in from the start. So much so that when, years later, I picked up Eragon and read about the way magic worked in THAT universe- that everything had a true name which, once learned, became controllable- I couldn't help but pick up a lingering sense of deja plagiarism vu.
- -
6. heresiarch
My non-sf reading friend completely ruined Eragon for me before I'd ever read it by noticing that "Eragon" is just the word "dragon" with the first letter moved up one. I don't know why, but since then I haven't had the slightest desire to read them.
- -
7. heresiarch
katster @ 1: When I'm curious about the meaning of some genre term, be it musical or literary or other, I find Wikipedia to be very useful--at least for getting a general sense of things. They are remarkably thorough =) So:

Wikipedia on high fantasy. On swords and sorcery. On science fantasy. On urban fantasy.
8. Jody Speight
I think Michael has hit it on the head, though I find it interesting that there are so many various definitions for the sub-genres among fans and writers and editors alike. I appreciate the definition where magic ranks highest in high fantasy and sword and sorcery focuses on more of the physical conflict. Like Mike, I cannot think of any short works of high fantasy (my loss), though I have leaned more toward fantasy in my writing and reading for the past decade. Ask me about my favorite sf short and I can describe it in great detail, but I cannot remember the title. The imagery just really "stuck."
Irene Gallo
9. Irene
Michael - Thanks for the breakdown. 15 years working at Tor made me aware of the differences, but I never really heard them so succinctly defined.
10. confused
@ heresiarch: So Eragon is dragon with the d replaced with an e. Makes sense to me, the book was about a dragon rider. Earthsea is a combination of the words Earth and Sea - and used because the story is set on islands on a sea. All titles mean something - otherwise they would be dull and useless. I am not understanding why this would be something to repel you from reading the book, especially since from your comments it would otherwise have been in your 'to read' pile.
Jonathan Warner
11. Shadowjak
I really enjoyed George R.R. Martin's The Hedge Knight. I think it is a fine example of short form High Fantasy. In fact, the entire "Legends" collection of stories is a delightful example of this form (in my opinion).
Justin Adair
12. Hobbyns
I have to admit, I've been almost completely unaware of high fantasy novelettes or novellas, besides the occasional tie-in to a larger series. George R. R. Martin's The Hedge Knight springs to mind, which ties in nicely to the greater Song of Ice and Fire mythos. The only other ones I can think of are the Bauchelain and Korbal Broach side stories to the Malazan books. Whether that even qualifies as high fantasy I'm not sure.

Michael M Jones at #4: Fantastic summary of some of the different sub-genres of fantasy. I couldn't agree more.

I will be looking forward to this ongoing column/discussion with interest, as I also grow weary of the doorstopper tomes that are ten books long. Short and well written in the genre sounds refreshing.
Sammy Jay
13. Malebolge
With regards to Eragon in particular, I was repelled more by the all-too-familiar story elements than a potentially asinine title. This is just personal taste, obviously, but while there are times when it's enjoyable to sink into a pretty straightforward run-of-the-mill High Fantasy universe, I prefer to be a little surprised; worlds that can be described as 'It's Earthsea, but with...' make me frown.
eric orchard
14. orchard
This one's really tough. I've been looking at my book shelves and considering this all day and am really struggling to come up with any short high fantasy that hasn't already been mentioned.
Also, Michael's genre breakdown has me realizing much of what I thought was high fantasy is actually sword and sorcery. This partly explains why I don't like so much that I believed was high fantasy. I'll keep thinking...
Sammy Jay
15. Malebolge
Oh hey, does Gaiman's Stardust constitute high fantasy/short fiction?
Sandi Kallas
16. Sandikal
Maybe there needs to be a category for fairy tales and myths & legends.
Douglas Cohen
17. DouglasCohen
Malebolge @ 15, I don't know the exact word count for Stardust, but I'm inclined to call it a short novel (and a good one!) I also tend to think of that one as an adult fairy tale.

Sandikal @ 16, that's not a bad idea, although I wouldn't be surprised if someone is brought in to cover these subjects. Still, I imagine I'll touch on these subjects from time to time.
- -
18. heresiarch
confused @ 10: Great! So I have this idea about a series set in a world called Furope, which is sort of a medieval Europe full of warring kingdoms but with magic! The main character is Xarrior, a skilled but amoral travelling knight. His loyal but idiosyncratic steed is named Gorse, and his quirky sidekick is Uhief, the light-fingered street urchin. Xarrior's story revolves around his somewhat unwilling quest to defeat Cadhuy, a warlord threatening to crush Furope beneath his jack-booted heel, and his budding romance with Orincess, a princess. Doesn't it sound so original and exciting!?!

We all have our pet peeves. Names are one of mine.
Sammy Jay
19. Malebolge
You forgot about how he was going to learn nagic from the Xizard, and get help from the Flves.

On the topic of names, that is one area where I have to give Rowling major kudos. I'm uncertain about how I rate her writing at the best of times, particularly given her success over writers that I could argue as better, but no other author comes to mind that really compares with original, thought-out names. There's a love of punnery and words there that I can't help but appreciate.

'Voldemort', for instance! Vol - de - mort. Flight of death/flight from death. It's clever, and works well and SHOULD be pronounced with a silent T.
I like it when there's cleverness like that.
eric orchard
20. orchard
Well, all in all Eragon did not raise the bar for originality in high fantasy and it's such a well worn sub genre that it really needs to be original. An interesting twist ion high fantasy is Jeff Smith's Bone comic. However that's pretty epic too.
Sammy Jay
21. Malebolge
Originality within the genre becomes difficult. Books like Lord of the Rings are so massive within the genre that they cover a whole host of potential plot points which individually could be novels within themselves. The kindly hippy woodsman, the giant she-spider, the mortal and elf lovers, the dwarves and the demons- these are concepts so pervasive, and the works so seminal, that when we think High Fantasy, it's impossible not to acknowledge their influence. This in turn makes originality within the limits of the genre perhaps more difficult than in, say, Urban Fantasy.
eric orchard
22. orchard
I agree. You could say the same for the Beatles and pop music. There are always original plots, worlds and characters to be found.
23. EmmetAOBrien

If we use that definition for urban fantasy, though, it kind of specifically excludes many such wonderful fantasies in urban settings not of our world as Swordspoint and The Malacia Tapestry, to say nothing of Walter Jon Williams' description of Metropolitan as Totally Urban Fantasy (it's basically Trantor with magic). And sometimes one wants a phrase for "fantasy in an urban setting" that does not specifically mean "in the real world". I'd really like a better word for the latter, because "urban fantasy" to me seems to say the former.
Torie Atkinson
24. Torie
@18 heresiarch & @ 19 malebolge

Can't breathe...laughing too hard. I love this community.

I am right there with you. It's half the reason that to this day, having attempted THREE TIMES, I can't get past page 50 of Dune. I haven't bothered attempting Stephenson, who everyone swears is totally different no really (uh huh).
- -
25. heresiarch
Malebolge @ 19: "On the topic of names, that is one area where I have to give Rowling major kudos."

Agreed--Rowling definitely has fun with names (Diagon Alley) in an enlightening and amusing way. My favorite, though, is Kingsley Shacklebolt. It just sounds awesome.

Torie @ 24: Glad you appreciated it. =)

But are we talking Neal Stephenson? What is it you're worried about? His names?
Blue Tyson
26. BlueTyson
Those struggling to find short high fantasy have mentioned Tolkien.

You know that Silmarillion book? I think that might have some :).

Lin Carter's Sword and Sorcery definition in a nutshell was this :-

Stalwart warrior vs the supernatural.

Often hardboiled to some degree, with competent mature protagonists. Should be elements of horror, too, in general.
Paul Howard
27. DrakBibliophile
Emmet, all examples of books/stories labeled as "Urban Fantasy" are books set in the "Real World". Sure there are good fantasy set in purely fictional cities (fantasy worlds), but they are IMO in a different category.

Hanna Clutterbuck
28. karracrow
to heresiarch: i don't think you missed a lot in crossing "eragon" off your list. maybe i'm letting myself in for it here, but it seems to me that you could watch the movie and a) save yourself a lot of time wandering around alagaesia wondering when the $%$@# anything's going to happen and b) get to listen to rachel weisz and jeremy irons which i think improves pretty much any experience!

Torie Atkinson
29. Torie
@25 heresiarch

Not names, but made up words. I can take them in small doses but in large doses they drive me absolutely batty. (Exceptions are books that use a dialect, like Clockwork Orange, Riddley Walker, etc. I consider those a different breed.)

High fantasy has the made up names problem (which I have a reasonable tolerance for) but the made up words problem is all over SFF.
30. JohnBrown
Sword & Sorcery ~ Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt, but with magic and swords.
- -
31. heresiarch
Torie @ 29: Ah, I see. Well, you'll doubtlessly want to avoid Anathem,* but there aren't very many made-up words in Cryptonomicon or the Baroque Cycle. Old words that you probably don't know, but he's not making them up. Unearthing them, more like. (You can see how he got from BC to Anathem, though--his discourses on "phan't'sy" and "con-fusion" definitely foreshadow "Apert" and "upsight.")

*Which I've just started and, while the dozens of made-up words are rough-going, I'm starting to think there's a method to his madness.
Sammy Jay
32. Malebolge
Well, there's made-up-words and there's made-up-words. There's the kind where you're clearly trying to separate a world from the one we live in, so you throw in stuff like The High Squigglyspootch and 'we're about twelve cubbots from Scibila', which gets really rough, and which I don't like at all if it's not done well- when it IS done well, when an author's literally invented a language with rules and things, then it's STILL rough, but I can commend it and appreciate it. Again, Tolkien is one of these; he did more than just make up words.
Then you get authors that make up words, but use English or Latin-ish roots to do so; look at Terry Pratchett's 'iconograph', which is a camera equivalent (granted, it works by having a tiny demon sit inside it and paint the picture, but still). It's silly and different and unique to his universe, but is understandable and memorable. And it's still making words up.
33. Jim Henry III
Someone mentioned the short stories embedded in The Silmarillion; I would particularly recommend the stories about Beren and Luthien and that about Turin Turambar.

F&SF publishes short high fantasy or sword and sorcery from time to time, though not as often as other kinds of fantasy; they've recently published good work by Ysabeau S. Wilce, Chris Willrich, and others.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment