It’s nearly impossible to talk about current epic fantasy without mentioning George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which began in 1996 with A Game of Thrones and entered the mainstream consciousness with the 2011 launch of the HBO adaptation.
This year alone, the five main novels (and counting) in the series have sold about 660,000 print units, according to Nielsen BookScan, and Martin’s violent, intrigue-laden story has cast a shadow over epic fantasy as a whole.
Described as grimdark, an anti-Tolkien style that dwells more on realism, murky morality, and unpleasant consequences, it’s made a serious impact on the market: the past years have seen the rise of authors including Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, and Richard K. Morgan, sometimes referred to as “the children of George.”
But signs point to a widening embrace of the classics, if not a total shift in perspective. “Dark is still pretty big, but we’re finding a bit more of a balance,” says David Pomerico, editorial director for Harper Voyager. “The thing we’re seeing a lot is a return to, or resurgence of, traditional fantasy like David Eddings and Terry Brooks.”
One forthcoming example, Pomerico says, is The Bound Gods by Rachel Dunne (Harper Voyager, June 2016), first in a trilogy in which a mismatched group of unlikely heroes comes together to prevent long-imprisoned gods from destroying the world.
Similarly, Jason Denzel’s Mystic (Tor, Nov.) launches a trilogy about a young commoner woman who competes against noble-born opponents to become the apprentice to one of the most powerful magic wielders in the world.
Forgetting Moon by Brian Lee Durfee (S&S/Saga, July 2016) features people from all social strata, from king to slave, struggling to lay claim to long-lost magical weapons.
Santa Fe Writers Project, an IPG-distributed publisher of literary fiction and nonfiction, is releasing its first epic fantasy, Ordination (June 2016), which launches the trilogy of debut author Daniel M. Ford, about a disgraced knight in a war-torn land.
Spinning the Globe
While traditional epic fantasy is generally perceived as faux-medieval and patterned after a mythologized England, authors are drawing inspiration from other cultures in the search for fresh stories.
“Medieval-style heroic fantasy obviously still has a huge readership,” says Anne Clarke, v-p and deputy publisher at Orbit. “But it now sits very comfortably alongside epic fantasy that explores broader horizons.”
Son of the Black Sword by Larry Correia (Baen, Oct.) begins a secondary-world fantasy series inspired by Indian themes and tropes, while Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen (St. Martin’s Griffin, May 2016) is a YA fantasy inspired by both Indian and Greek mythology.
Rick Riordan, who popularized Greek mythology among modern middle-grade readers, is launching a series rooted in Norse mythology, with Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 1: The Sword of Summer (Disney-Hyperion, Oct.).
A.J. Hartley’s Steeplejack (Tor, June 2016) is a YA fantasy–murder mystery inspired by 19th-century South Africa. And Kate Elliott, in her series opener Black Wolves (Orbit, Nov.), draws from diverse Pacific and Asian influences including, but not limited to, feudal Japan.
Other authors have turned to Russia for source material, including Leigh Bardugo, whose YA Grisha trilogy (Holt), which concluded in 2014 with Ruin and Rising, has sold more than 117,000 units in hardcover and paperback, according to Nielsen BookScan. Her just-released Six of Crows launches an action-adventure series that expands on Grisha’s world.
In The Bear and the Nightingale (Del Rey, Aug. 2016), Katherine Arden’s debut, a young woman’s home and family are threatened by magical forces in a story inspired by Russian fairy tales and history.
“The appetite for epic fantasy is absolutely voracious,” says Tricia Narwani, an editor with Del Rey. “But there are so many competitors in the category that it has to be a little special and different to stand out.”
Michael M. Jones is a writer and reviewer. He is also the editor of Scheherazade’s Facade (Circlet, 2012).
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Rick Riordan's new series. It is Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard.