Epic: Legends of Fantasy, edited by John Joseph Adams, is an anthology of stories written by some of the biggest names in epic fantasy. The book clocks in at over 600 pages not just because it’s very difficult to tell short epic stories (though some of these authors do manage to pull it off) but because here the authors are not just telling epic legends, they are legends in and of themselves. George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, Robin Hobb, Paolo Bacigalupi, Brandon Sanderson, Ursula K. LeGuin, Kate Elliott, Orson Scott Card, Tad Williams, Aliette de Bodard, Michael Moorcock, Melanie Rawn, Mary Robinette Kowal, N.K. Jemisin, Carrie Vaughn, Trudi Canavan, and Juliet Marillier all contributed stories to this volume.
Epic: Legends of Fantasy opens with a novella by Robin Hobb, “Homecoming,” set in her Rain Wilds world. This haunting (literally) story tells of a band of exiled traitors who try to make a new home in a swamp, but find themselves under the spell of an ancient civilization that lived and died there long ago. The changes, both physical and psychological, that the settlers have to deal with provide a beautifully told and heartwrenching tale of the resilience of the human spirit, and of the temptations of the flesh. Even after reading all the other stories in this volume, this is still the story that sticks with me the most, and I’m determined to go read the books that Hobb has set in this swampy jungle.
Hobb’s expansive tale was followed up by the shortest entry in the volume, “The Word of Unbinding” by Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m kind of famous among the other FanLit reviewers for not liking Le Guin, but this story may change my mind. In just a few short pages, Le Guin relates the epic tale of a wizard trying to fight against the biggest evil his world has ever known, and failing and failing and failing again. Le Guin manages to create a world with a few carefully chosen words that resonates with beautiful memorable imagery.
Tad Williams offers up the tale of “The Burning Man” about a young woman whose father dies, and then her mother remarries an invader who will unite all the kingdoms. But the invader is challenged by questions of theology that will cause him to seek answers in the darkness. And those answers may force this woman to sacrifice everything she holds dear to keep her allegiances. This story was a gripping tale of the trials of a young woman who has no real place in her own society, and the cost of being a pawn.
“As The Wheel Turns” by Aliette de Bodard is an Asian-influenced tale of love that exists beyond lifetimes and a philosophical discussion over what is more important in upholding an empire, Fear or Duty. A young woman is forced to choose between the two, and the repercussions will echo across generations. I was not familiar with de Bodard’s work before, but I thought this story was a beautifully told and visually evocative telling of a legend that feels like it belongs to our world, yet is definitely fantastical. I will be seeking out more of her stories because of the beauty and depth of this one.
Paolo Bacigalupi continues his string of excellent fiction in the story “The Alchemist.” In this world, using magic causes the growth of a plant that overruns cities. No one has found a way to destroy the plant, and touching it can kill a human. So what do you do when your daughter is sick, and the only way to cure her is magic? And what would a government do if it developed a way to tell who is using magic, and to control where the plants grow? This story firmly cements Bacigalupi on my “must read” list.
“Sandmagic” by Orson Scott Card tells the story of a young man who seeks revenge by using the magic of the desert. Though the setting was interesting, I didn’t find the story particularly original. Young man seeks revenge for the death of his father through dark magic is an old tale, and there was nothing particularly revelatory about the way this one was told.
“The Road to Levenshir” by Patrick Rothfuss tells part of the tale of Kvothe from The Name of the Wind and its sequel The Wise Man’s Fear. In fact, this story appears in substantially different form in The Wise Man’s Fear. It tells of Kvothe avenging the deaths of a group of troupers, the Edema Ruh. Kvothe is a compelling character, bordering on anti-hero territory at times in this story. The world is well realized, and the various depictions of the dregs of society are recognizable yet horrible.
“Rysn” by Brandon Sanderson is the other contender for shortest story in the collection at only eight pages, but in it he creates a fantastical world where humility is prized over boasting, the grass doesn’t move away from your feet when you step on it, and scrap metal is worth a small fortune. Excerpted from The Way of Kings, this small appetizer will definitely make you want the full entrée, and you will want to dive into the works of Brandon Sanderson after this.
The most jarring inclusion in this volume was “While the Gods Laugh” by Michael Moorcock, featuring the albino anti-hero Elric of Melniboné. From the first sentence, “One night, as Elric sat moodily drinking alone in a tavern, a wingless woman of Myyrrhn came gliding out of the storm and rested her lithe body against him,” I knew I was reading an older story. With an original copyright date of 1961, this is by far the oldest story in the collection, and while it is definitely an epic tale, and you can’t overstate the way in which Moorcock changed the genre of sword and sorcery fantasy, it read like a historical piece to me; it is a sort of “look how far we’ve come” inclusion, especially in its depiction of female characters.
The next story, “Mother of All Russiya” by Melanie Rawn is an amazing story of a woman who avenges the death of her husband through magical means. Based on an actual woman, Olga, the historical records show that she did avenge herself through killing emissaries in the interesting and horrifying ways depicted in the story, and went on to found Kyiv (Kiev.) Rawn adds a more magical flavor to the story, but suffice it to say, this is one woman you would not want mad at you. I question the inclusion of this story in a book of epic fantasy since it is based on actual historical events.
“Riding the Shore of the River of Death” by Kate Elliott takes place in the same world as her CROWN OF STARS series. It features Kereka, a young woman desperate to prove herself a warrior before she is forced to marry and spend the rest of her life as a woman. Out on the hunt that is her final opportunity to prove herself before her wedding, she encounters a witch, and must make a decision that could change not only her life, but the lives of many others. Kereka is a complex character, and while I didn’t always sympathize with her, or agree with her, she made for interesting reading.
Mary Robinette Kowal is mostly known for her Victorian era fantasies, so I was very surprised to read the gripping story “Bound Man,” which features the mother and warrior Li Rieko, in a 6000 year clash between a matriarchal Chinese-flavored society and a very misogynistic Viking society. This story made my heart ache, both for Rieko, her children, and the women she sets out to avenge.
I think I am one of three people left who haven’t gotten around to reading N.K. Jemisin. After reading “The Narcomancer,” I may have to bump her to the top of my Kindle. Two clerics are sent out to stop bandit raids on a rural village, but what they find challenges their own faith in their vows as well. This story is amazing in its creation of a complex religious and cultural society within just a few pages. The system of magic here is unlike any I have read before, and she manages to touch on both its abilities and costs, while not sacrificing character development. Her worldbuilding is phenomenal, and the characters are engaging.
“Strife Lingers in Memory” by Carrie Vaughn is a heartbreaking tale of what happens after the epic journey is over. When your Heir to the Throne battles all the forces of evil and miraculously wins, what cost does he pay for the rest of his life? An interesting examination of PTSD in epic fantasy, this story has reverberations for the way our military is currently treated. Not many authors can offer thoughtful fables for our day without sacrificing the quality of the story, but Vaughan does just that in this wrenching tale of a hero paying the price for the rest of his life, and the costs on those he loves.
Trudi Canavan returns to one of her familiar worlds to tell the story of “The Mad Apprentice.” This fascinating story explores the question of what happens when a megalomaniac gains massive magical powers to help in his quest to rule the world, and what happens if you are his sister? Told both from the point of view of the sister and the magicians guild that is hunting down the mad apprentice, this is an intriguing investigation of the bonds of family loyalty and how far they can be stretched. I get the feeling that if I was more familiar with the world the story is set in that I would recognize some of the names of minor characters, but it is still a gripping adventure without any more familiarity with the world.
“Otherling” by Juliet Marillier tells the story of Bard, the title handed down from one Singer to the next, who foretells the future a season at a time to protect the people of her country. However, Bard’s powers come through a chilling sacrifice, and when a Bard falters in that ceremony, can the damage ever be fixed? Marillier is talented, as this story feels like a folk tale a thousand years old. Her prose is beautiful, and her imagery is gifted. I could see this world in detail as I read the story.
The final story is “The Mystery Knight” by George R.R. Martin. Set in Westeros, this story tells of the adventures of a hedge knight Dunk and his squire Egg as they join a marriage festival with the thought of making some money in the lists and getting a full belly at the feast. I know people are going to throw things at me for saying this, but I don’t really care for Martin’s writing. The story is interesting, but his way of telling it puts me off. I don’t feel like his characters are multi-dimensional, and his story is complicated, without being complex. But if you want to talk epic, it doesn’t get much bigger than the world and story Martin has created in Westeros. (Please note, I have not read A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, and am making these comments based solely on this short story.)
I read a lot of short stories, both individually and in anthologies, and I must say that this is the best anthology I read this year. John Joseph Adams is gifted in both selecting and organizing the stories. While there were some stories I enjoyed more than others, there were no actual misses, which is rare for an anthology. There are a few anthology editors that I trust to put together excellent volumes on a regular basis, such as Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, or Sharyn November. This is my first anthology edited by Adams, but I have a very strong feeling it won’t be the last. It took me longer to read than most anthologies, just because some of the stories were so engaging I felt I needed to take a break of a few days to let one story digest before I headed into another world again. I highly recommend Epic: Legends of Fantasy for all lovers of epic fantasy fiction. You will not be disappointed.