Epic Fantasy Novels and Long Beginnings

It’s been a while since I’ve read a typical epic fantasy novel. I’ve been caught up in the realm of fantasy romance and science fiction, and only recently found myself returning to a more old-school breed of fantasy when I picked up Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind.

I’m about halfway through it and am really enjoying it so far, but reading it reminds me of the love-hate relationship I have with epic fantasy. This relationship is largely caused by one thing: beginnings.

Starting at the Beginning

Many epic fantasies, particularly more traditional ones, take a while to warm up. They have long beginnings. More specifically, they often start at what feels like the VERY beginning.

Instead of starting when Jack the almighty wizard begins his quest to save the world and vanquish evil, these books often start when Jack is a young boy. We see Jack losing his parents, finding his place in the world, discovering his magical talent, training with mentors, learning the way of things, making friends, making enemies etc. etc.

While other grander narrative elements are often woven into this, the fact remains that a lot of time is spent simply getting to know Jack, and how he came to be who he is.

A Matter of Perspective

I could say that these kind of beginnings flat-out annoy me and that they should be done away with, but it’s not quite that simple.

I often find that when I am reading these long beginnings, I feel impatient. I wish we could get to the more interesting part of the story. I wonder why so many epic fantasies have to start like this. Occasionally, I’m a little bored, and sometimes I’m contemplating giving up on the book altogether.

However, as I make my way further into that long beginning I start to forget my annoyance and get drawn in. I’m actually interested in the various trials and tribulations of the character and their young life.

And by the end of the book (if it’s a good one) I look back and find myself appreciating that long beginning. I feel like I wouldn’t have understood the character as deeply or enjoyed the book as much without it. I’m sure that everything that came later wouldn’t have had as much meaning without it.

And I’ve had this experience with several books (for example: The Lies of Locke Lamora, The Ill-Made Mute, Assassin’s Apprentice, Daughter of the Forest, A Wizard of Earthsea), so it’s a repeating pattern.

Short Beginnings

On the other hand, there are epic fantasies that don’t have long beginnings (e.g. Sabriel, The Final Empire). They start as soon as the character is thrown into whatever major trial or challenge awaits them, and you get to know them as they tackle the problem. If you need to know anything about what happened before you met them, that backstory is littered throughout the narrative.

Yes, sometimes the character is young, and you see them growing up through the experience, but ultimately your introduction to them is through the main story rather than through a prelude to it.

These kinds of short-beginning epic fantasies can be just as enthralling as the long-beginning kind, and can leave me feeling just as attached to the character as those that spent hundreds of pages expounding their past.

Which is Better?

On the whole, I’d say I tend to prefer epic fantasies that have short beginnings. I’d rather do without the epic life-story introduction if the book doesn’t need it and jump straight into the meat of the narrative.

That said, I don’t want to dismiss the long-beginning breed of epic fantasy entirely, or claim it has gone out of fashion. The popularity of The Name of the Wind is evidence to the contrary, and I think this kind of fantasy still has it’s place. In fact, I am really enjoying The Name of the Wind so far. The slow beginning meant I took a long time to make progress, but once I was a certain portion of the way through (and quite a significant portion – at least 100 pages!) I sped up, and found myself less able to put the book down.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of taste. For every person that gets fed up with a long beginning and puts an epic fantasy down, there will be someone who relishes it. There will be readers who revel in the leisurely pace of the epic narrative, and will settle in with a feeling of comfort and ease as the great wizard Jack’s childhood begins to unfold. And I guess occasionally, even if a little grudgingly, I am one of those people.

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9 thoughts on “Epic Fantasy Novels and Long Beginnings

    • Yes that’s true, The Lies of Locke Lamora shifted back and forth in time much more, rather than being a linear introduction (though I seem to remember the childhood segments were more frequent in the first section?). I particularly liked the way the lessons from their mentor and some of the childhood experiences really came into play later in the book.

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  1. Long beginnings focused on story telling in a very linear way. Books with short beginnings tend to use structures that shifts back and forward in time (either in the characters head or in the narrative structure) in a very non linear way. As you say Nicola linear story telling can be plodding because you know its not the main game its building to something and you might not want to wait around to find out. Non linear is trickier to do and can be confusing and disjointed. In order to keep the momentum going you can’t afford to bounce back too often. I think the success of either structure it depends on how well you generate mystery. Non linear story telling has mystery inherently built into it because there is a lot that has gone before that you don’t know and you can feed to to the reader when they (hopefully) dying to know about it. Linear story telling structure needs to be imbued with mystery mainly through good story telling, characterisation etc, although there is always something that has gone before to draw upon its just not as imbedded in the structure as non linear story telling. Harry Potter was very linear but was curious enough about what Harry would find to keep on going. You could probably put the first three Harry Potter Books together and call it one fantasy brick with a long beginning.

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