Have you ever looked for a book on Amazon.com and before purchasing it you read through all of the reader reviews only to discover that some readers absolutely panned the book while others praised it as the next best thing since sliced bread?
You probably have done this and it left you a little confused. So is the book good or is it bad? You don't want to be shelling out your hard earned money on a book that is going to sit on the nightstand collecting dust. There is probably nothing worse than anticipating a new world to explore and discovering you just don't believe it or the characters just don't interest you.
So the question of good comes down to what you consider to be good. You can read all the reviews and you can read through all the listings in the chatrooms but when it comes down to it your shoes are going to be the ones getting muddy in this new world so only you can decide whether or not it is "good".
How do you do that?
You have to ask yourself some questions about what you like about Epic Fantasy and what things really get you excited.
The first thing to consider is the writing
There are two important components to the writing. Is it good writing and is it in a style that you like? The question about good writing is almost a non factor because for any book to make it into the mainstream of our culture it has to be reasonably well written. Now not every novel has the elegant brevity of A Wizard of Earthsea (183 pages) or the sheer detail of exposition of The Wheel of Time series (800+ pages per book and there are currently 11 books). Nor is every writer as capable a wordsmith as Stephen King. But ninety-nine percent of the time you are going to get a book that has been written and edited to an acceptable quality.
You're not an expert in Composition and Rhetoric so how do you know if the writing is good? This is easy. If you have to stop and think about the sentence structure or you have to re-read a passage because you didn't understand something, or things don't seem to flow right it is probably because the writing quality isn't up to your personal standard. If you have to think about the writing then it has failed. Writing should be invisible. All of your thoughts should go into what's happening inside the world and not the sentences that explain it.
But good writing doesn't mean it is good epic fantasy -at least not for you. So what are the things that make it good epic fantasy from your perspective. Assuming that the writing is of good quality we have to consider the writing style.
Every writer has a different style; some you will like and some you will hate.
How do you know which is which?
You have to read some of it. If you have read a book by a particular author and you liked it then you are safe to move on to other works by the same author. But if you want to discover new authors you have to experiment a bit before you dish out thirty bucks for the latest hardcover release. Pick up an older book by that author or read some excerpts and If you can, read the first couple of pages online or in the bookstore. The goal isn't whether you are going to like the story but whether the writing is comfortable for you. Remember, if you have to stop and think about the writing then it probably isn't a good choice for you.
Okay we have gotten past the writing part and now we want to figure out what makes good Epic Fantasy based on the story.
First of all, it is Epic Fantasy that you are looking for so there are some elements that just have to be there. It has to be Epic in scope. No stories about the challenge of a single person overcoming the greedy land baron and reclaiming the Town Well. You want something where the whole world is at stake. That world has to be big, and it has to be imaginitive and different -otherwise it isn't fantasy. Gone With The Wind is Epic but it sure as heck isn't Epic Fantasy.
So all of that stuff was pretty easy to understand. The writing has to be good, in a style that you like and it has to be imaginitive and epic. But what makes GOOD epic fantasy?
There are three things that are critical to good epic fantasy:
1. The main character or characters have to grow in the book or series
2. The world has to be powerful and imaginitive
3. The story has to be thought-provoking.
Growth of the main character is critical in good epic fantasy. It parallels what we are experiencing in our ordinary lives. And epic fantasy touches on a chord somewhere deep inside us as human beings. There is a harkening back to our tribal selves. Why else has the epic of Gilgamesh survived for such a long time? This growth of a character comes in stages and Joseph Campbell has described these steps in his book The Hero's Journey. Here are a few of the steps he describes:
The Call to Adventure -Something bad is brewing and our hero has to move toward action
Refusal of the Call- Our hero doesn't want to be a hero, he like life the way it is
Supernatural Aid- Our mentor appears (usually a wizard)
The Crossing of the First Threshold - The adventure begins
The Belly of the Whale- things look really bad but our hero learns to persevere
The world has to be powerful and imaginitive. Again this harkens back to the tribal self within us. Who doesn't long to explore a strange new world? We are creatures of curiosity. We have an endless desire to learn new things. Yet when we explore an Epic Fantasy world there is complete safety. Does it get much better than this?
Finally and most importantly, the story has to be thought provoking on an epic level. It has to bring up the big questions. I mean the really big questions about life. Questions about philosophy, religion, truth, beauty, society, good, evil, and power. And it has to bring them up in a big way. To be good epic fantasy a novel or series has to swing at these questions of our existence with a big sword or a two fisted axe; or even rain down upon them the fury of a lightning storm. It has to hack at them with a relentless fury then sort through the rubble and show us what it has discovered. This is the best indicator of good epic fantasy. It sets you out on a big journey to tackle big questions and overcome big obstacles. Along the way it forces you to see the big questions in new way. And hopefully, much like real life you have a jolly good time doing it!