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Exploring the Fine Art of Short Epic Fantasy

Todd: Hello, readers! We missed you, and it’s great to be back.

Howard: We didn’t actually go anywhere.

Todd: True enough. But it’s been a couple of years since we’ve collaborated on an article for the site. Those of you with long memories may remember some of our catchier titles, like “Five Classic Sword-and-Planet Sagas” and “Five Authors Who Taught Me How to Write Fantasy.” Today we’re going to continue the proud tradition of counting on our fingers by discussing the great works of short epic fantasy.

Howard: Maybe I’m a little rusty, but that topic makes no sense.

Todd: Stay with me. We’re talking about classic fantasy series that began as short stories, and evolved into something vaster and more ambitious.

Howard: Ah—now I get it. You’re right, the field has a lot of cool examples.

Todd: Let’s start at the top. For my money the master of the epic short story was Karl Edward Wagner.

Howard: You’re talking about the Kane books.

Todd: I am!

Howard: I’ve always thought of those as sword-and-sorcery?

Todd: The tales of Kane are as much gothic horror as they are sword-and-sorcery. Kane is a wanderer, a consummate warrior, and—although it’s not explicitly stated—it’s likely he is the biblical Cain.

Howard: The one who slew his brother.

Todd: That’s the guy.

Howard: Okay. We’re going to get to some heavyweights in a minute. Why do you consider Karl Edward Wagner the master?

Todd: You’ll find all the evidence you need in his 1973 novelette “The Dark Muse,” one of the finest sword-and-sorcery tales ever written. It’s the story of an ambitious poet who requests Kane’s help to summon the capricious muse of dream. In abandoned ruins at midnight the poet is finally drawn into a sorcerous dream, while all around him a crawling nightmare stealthily hunts Kane and his companions. It’s a terrifically moody tale of ancient secrets, betrayals, and twisted horror. And it really gets going when the poet finally awakens, and we get a glimpse of the dark secret he’s brought back from beyond the threshold of dream.

Howard: Okay, that sounds like a classic. And you’re absolutely right that Wagner was a major talent. He’s too often overlooked by modern readers.

Todd: He wrote about twenty Kane stories. Like Moorcock before him, he eventually needed a larger canvas and turned to novels. He produced three: Bloodstone, Dark Crusade, and Darkness Weaves. Night Shade Press gathered them all in two omnibus collections, Gods in Darkness and Midnight Sun. They’re some of the best heroic fantasy on the market—if you’re in the mood for tales of a dark and cursed hero.

Howard: Glad you brought up Moorcock, because he’s one of those heavyweights I mentioned. Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga, part of his legendary Eternal Champion cycle, is one of the great works of modern fantasy. Believe it or not, Elric’s first appearance was 62 years ago.

Todd: That’s not possible.

Howard: Look it up. Elric of Melniboné is the last emperor of the decadent island nation of Melniboné. Burdened with both a conscience and a soul-sucking sword of awesome power, he carves a bloody path across the Young Kingdoms, on his way to his own inevitable doom. And it all began in the June 1961 issue of Science Fantasy, in the novella “The Dreaming City,” written when Moorcock was just twenty-one years old.

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The Citadel of Forgotten Myths

The Citadel of Forgotten Myths

Todd: Damn. That’s extraordinary. Wasn’t the newest Elric novel, The Citadel of Forgotten Myths, just published in December?

Howard: Yup. A few days before Moorcock turned 83.

Todd: That’s serious literary longevity. Also, plain old regular longevity. I’m a little in awe here.

Howard: It all started as a sequence of connected short stories. In three short years after “The Dreaming City” dropped, Moorcock produced nearly a dozen more tales of Elric, all for Science Fantasy. The first novel, Stormbringer, was released in 1965. Many more followed, and you know the rest. Elric became hugely popular, and one of the defining heroes of modern epic fantasy. Short epic fantasy, as I guess you were talking about.

Todd: Told you it would make sense eventually.

Howard: I’m still not entirely sure the epic classification makes sense, but I’m just going to roll with it. Moorcock’s Elric is not just an innovative fantasy character brought to life with often stunningly lyrical prose, he’s also a completely new angle on sword-and-sorcery tropes and is almost a complete inversion of Conan—

Todd: Whoa, whoa. Let’s steer clear of a lengthy tangent on sword-and-sorcery.

Howard: Okay, sure. But staying with the theme of short story cycles, modern fantasy is thick with them, from Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales to C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, John Brunner’s The Traveler in Black, and Charles Saunders’ Imaro. But I want to briefly come back to Stormbringer. Moorcock wanted to tell an ambitious, cohesive story, but he had only one outlet at the time.

Todd: John Carnell’s Science Fantasy magazine.

Howard: Exactly, and Carnell wasn’t buying novels. So Moorcock did what he knew how to do—he sold four separate novellas to Carnell. And in 1965, he stitched them together into a fix-up novel called Stormbringer, and that’s how the first Elric novel came to be.

Todd: Well, fix-up novels were how things were done in those days. Magazines were the primary outlet for almost all SF & fantasy. Asimov’s Foundation was a fix-up novel, built out of stories published in Astounding. So were Clifford D. Simak’s City, Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

Howard: Sure, and we could talk about the historical fix-ups of Harold Lamb and Arthur D. Howden Smith that were actually hugely influential on fantasy. But I know you don’t want any of that icky historical stuff on your spaceships.

Todd: I’ll make an exception if we talk about Space Vikings. Space Vikings are cool.

Howard: If you want to talk cool—while he was in the US Merchant Marine during WW II, the legendary Jack Vance did something very cool. He produced one of the greatest fix-up novels of all time, The Dying Earth. Composed of six loosely-connected stories, it was immediately recognized as a major work of fantasy, and it vaulted Vance into the front rank of American fantasy.

Todd: That IS pretty cool.

Howard: I’m not even at the cool part yet.

Todd: Jesus, tell me already.

Howard: The problem with most fix-up novels was that for many readers, they were old news. They’d already read all the stories in major magazines. In The Dying Earth, Jack Vance gave readers precisely what they were expecting—a compelling episodic tale broken into easily-digestible chapters, sharing a setting and characters yet each complete and standalone. It was a comfortable format readers were used to. His innovation was simple: every story was brand new. Vance wrote a fix-up novel using stories that had never been published, and it became one of the most enduring works of fantasy of the 20th century. When Locus asked their readers to select the All Time Best Fantasy Novels in 1987, they ranked The Dying Earth #16.

Todd: Only Jack Vance. Let’s talk about a more modern series, one that began with the most successful example of a modern fix-up novel, and evolved into one of the top-selling epic fantasy series of the last few decades.

Howard: Give me a clue.

Todd: It’s also a western.

Howard: You’re making this up.

Todd: Nope. I’m talking about Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, which began as a series of short stories featuring the gunslinger Roland, all published by Ed Ferman in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Howard: Here’s where I must shame-facedly admit I’ve never read much King, much less all seven volumes of The Dark Tower.

Todd: Hah! Weren’t you just lecturing me for not knowing the great historicals?

Howard: You and I view history very differently.

Todd: The first volume of The Dark Tower, The Gunslinger, is a fix-up novel composed of five short stories featuring Roland. It opens with the famous line, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,” and as you can probably guess, it’s a weird western. Emphasis on weird. King gives only the slightest hints of the vast backstory of The Dark Tower in these tight little stories, but they caused a minor sensation when they appeared, especially as it gradually became clear that the villainous Man in Black in these tales was Randall Flagg, one of King’s greatest villains and the primary antagonist of The Stand.

Howard: Let me guess. You have all these issues of F&SF in little plastic baggies.

Todd: They’re collector’s items!

Howard: Because you’re hoarding them all.

Todd: The Gunslinger is probably the most successful modern example of a short story sequence that gave birth to a popular epic fantasy series. Almost certainly it’s the one that folks today are most familiar with.

Howard: I feel like we need to make a demarcation between epic fantasy and short form. Because—and I’m sorry—that’s the maddest thing about your whole hypothesis. Epic fantasy is the polar opposite of these sorts of taut, short tales with crackerjack pacing. I’m not saying that epic fantasy isn’t good, just that it’s much more on the… glacial end of the pacing scale. It feels like a different beast.

Todd: You’re quibbling. Let’s spend our time talking about Leigh Brackett’s Stark stories instead.

Howard: Fair enough. I can’t believe such a talented writer is so little talked about today. She wrote fantastic science fiction adventure stories. Space opera? Sword-and-planet? Hardboiled science fantasy? Whatever you want to call what she did, she was aces, and writing about the kind of characters who would have been rubbing shoulders with the likes of Han Solo and Mal Reynolds long decades before those characters were ever conceived.

Todd: One of the last things she wrote was the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back—probably the thing she’s best remembered for today.

Howard: It makes me very sad that’s about the only thing people know about Brackett. I think she has two strikes against her, in terms of being better remembered. The first is that she wrote a lot of stories set in a solar system that everyone knows doesn’t exist.

Todd: The old pulp neighborhood—a habitable Venus, habitable Mars, even a Mercury with a twilight region where there’s a breathable atmosphere.

Howard: People can become invested in secondary worlds and distant planets with funny names where people live side by side with alien species, but it’s too old-fashioned to believe in a jungle-covered Venus these days. The second reason I think that she’s not better read today is that almost all of her work is standalone.

Todd: I never really thought of that. It’s probably true. One thing I find interesting about Brackett is that while her characters change, many of them share the same setting—a slowly dying Mars with dry seas and dead cities.

Howard: This all comes back to Brackett’s sole series character, Eric John Stark. She only wrote three short tales featuring Stark, and they’re all among her very best. I’m particularly fond of “Enchantress of Venus.” Stark is simply a great character, and later on she teamed him up with her husband Edmond Hamilton’s characters in another short adventure—but she eventually gave Stark an entire trilogy of novels, starting with The Hounds of Skaith. Apparently she had plans for at least one more, but she passed away from cancer. Which, incidentally, is the reason she only worked on the first draft of Empire.

Todd: Okay, serious question: Is the short epic fantasy series dead? It’s certainly nowhere near as prevalent as it used to be.

Howard: That’s true, whatever you want to call it.

Todd: I’m a huge fan of the format, but for years I was convinced that its day was done. Publishers simply had no appetite for it any more. But then you sold one to Baen. I’d love to know how you did it—this was once one of the most popular forms of fantasy, and I’ve been listening to writers lament its demise for twenty years. On behalf of an entire generation of frustrated fantasy writers, let me ask: How did you interest a modern publisher in something as old-school as a fix-up novel of short fantasy stories?

Howard: Hah! Well, I’m not sure it’s a standard fix-up, in that I planned from the start for the stories in each book to interlock and build off of each other toward a season climax. I think that’s part of what piqued Baen’s interest. The series is called The Chronicles of Hanuvar, and each book is like a season of a modern TV show in that each chapter DOES stand alone, but arcs build and conclude over several chapters, villains and sidekicks return, and each book closes with a season finale that wraps up all of the major arcs but leaves a few problems for the next one.

Todd: We talked about how important the setting and focus on worldbuilding was for Elric and the Dying Earth. Are you adhering to the same formula?

Howard: It’s limiting to think of it as a formula. But yes—setting is hugely important. This is a retelling of one of the great tales of antiquity, the fall of Carthage and its legendary general Hannibal. Volanus has fallen, and its people have been enslaved. The city’s treasuries were looted, its temples were defiled, and then, to sate their emperor’s thirst for vengeance, the empire’s mages cursed Volanus and sowed its fields with salt. They overlooked only one detail: Hanuvar, the greatest Volani general, escaped alive. Against the might of a vast empire, Hanuvar has only an aging sword arm, a lifetime of wisdom… and the greatest military mind in the world, set upon a single goal. No matter where they’ve been sent, from the festering capital to the furthest outpost of the Dervan Empire, Hanuvar will find his people. Every last one of them. And he will set them free.

Todd: I know you’ve said that you’re writing sword-and-sorcery or heroic fiction, but I want to say for the record that this sounds like epic fantasy to me. How long is the series?

Howard: Baen has signed me to a five book contract. The first novel, Lord of a Shattered Land was published on August 1st. The second book, The City of Marble and Blood, arrives October 3rd.

Todd: Okay, let me finish with this: what advice do you have for aspiring writers who have an old-school fix-up series they want to unleash on the world? Are the stars right at last? Or is there a secret to approaching publishers you can share?

Howard: Maybe it’s naive, but I don’t think the fix-up novel ever went out of style with readers. I think perhaps writers stopped modeling their work after Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard and Leigh Brackett, and instead suddenly everyone wanted to be J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. The market has featured long books starring grimdark protagonists for decades. But I don’t think heroes ever went out of style, and I think people will always respond to a rousing episodic series that gives them a satisfying ending every chapter—and frequently a new setting, a fresh set of villains, and a new challenge. Heroic fiction doesn’t mean you have to wait a generation to get a decent ending. It’s a simple concept, really.

Todd: Thank you Howard. Good luck with the books.

Howard: Thanks!


And now we’d like to hear from you—what are your favorite examples of epic stories that evolved or were woven together out of shorter tales, and which authors have done it best? Let us know in the comments!

Todd McAulty’s first novel The Robots of Gotham was published by John Joseph Adams Books in 2019. Under the name John O’Neill, he runs the World Fantasy Award-winning website Black Gate.

Howard Andrew Jones’s new sword-and-sorcery series debuted this August from Baen, starting with Lord of a Shattered Land and continues this October with The City of Marble and Blood. His Ring-Sworn trilogy, beginning with For the Killing of Kings, was critically acclaimed by Publisher’s Weekly. His debut historical fantasy novel, The Desert of Souls, was praised by influential publications like Library JournalKirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly. Its sequel, The Bones of the Old Ones, made the Barnes and Noble Best Fantasy Release of 2013 and received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. He is the author of four Pathfinder novels, numerous short stories, and edits the magazine Tales From the Magician’s Skull.

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Howard Andrew Jones


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About the Author

Todd McAulty


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