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Epic Fantasy without a War Plot?

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I love epic fantasy and magic, but I'm not excited to write about killing. This is really a question for agents on marketability: can publishers sell middle-grade epic fantasy that does not center around impending war and gloom? I'm planning lots of deadly stakes for my story, but I grow tiresome of reading fight scenes. I prefer a more subtle, Harry Potter type world with lots of humor.


Can anyone recommend other such examples?


And do you think the market is still open to this idea, or has Hunger Games shifted the tide?
#1 - July 21, 2014, 07:59 AM

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Hmmm... I'm not sure if Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief is quite epic fantasy (it's not on the scale of Lord of the Rings at least), but there's not a lot of death; most of the story (and its sequels) is adventure and political intrigue. It's highly entertaining. 

I'm with you, though. One of my goals with my current WIP (fantasy YA) is for it NOT to end in a huge battle. It's... hard :p my brain is warped by recent blockbuster movies. As for the market, I think, if the story's good, then there's certainly a place for it.
#2 - July 21, 2014, 08:54 AM

Mike Jung

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Personally I think there's room for stories that don't involve the potential end of the world, but that's generally how a story gains that "epic" scope. Narrative is driven by disruptive change; I'm not sure disruptive change can be depicted on a society/kingdom/worldwide scale without involving that kind of peril. As an example, HARRY POTTER is definitely humorous and fun, but it also involves a LOT of people being killed, starting with Harry's parents, and it culminates in the Battle of Hogwarts, with the fate of the world essentially at stake. So it's possible to do both. :)
#3 - July 21, 2014, 09:52 AM

Thanks, you two. Judging by the limited responses, this idea doesn't seem to grab a lot of people. And while I agree the seventh book of HP ends with a giant war, most of the books do not. Philosopher's Stone is not about preparing for war, it's about going to a new school. She eventually takes us into war, but there is a long twisty climb toward it. I'll keep playing with ideas to see what amuses me and still holds attention for others. Thanks again, I'll be interested to read your projects as well.
#4 - August 26, 2014, 06:58 AM

 I think Mike is right that the war theme is part of the definition of epic. But certainly there's a market for non-war centered fantasy. Sounds great to me! "A Wizard of Earthsea" came to mind. Of course that doesn't reflect the current market, but it's a wonderful book. "Graceling" and "Sabriel" came to mind. If the lack of war makes your story unique, that's probably a positive thing.
#5 - August 30, 2014, 08:14 PM

Mike Jung

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Sure, you could look at it that way by restricting your view to HP1, but it IS part of a seven-part series. Harry's parents are dead right off the bat - it's pretty much how the story begins - and the prospect of Voldemortesque impending doom is woven throughout. I don't think you can view HP1 as a stand-alone, but if you hypothetically rewrite the story to be such - alter all the threads that lead into the next six books so they're either resolved, not of enough consequence to demand a series, or nonexistent - is it actually an epic fantasy anymore? Maybe, but personally I think not. I suspect it'd still be an extraordinarily good book, just with a more limited scope.
#6 - August 30, 2014, 08:37 PM

I'm currently reworking a book that generally got feedback from crit partners and my agent that it wasn't "big" enough. In the rewrite I'm trying to think of it as a magical YA "The Godfather"...trying to aim for a more epic feel but not in the "end of the world" battlefield sense but it's more about intrigue between families and people manipulating each other for power. Theoretically I think it's possible to do epic without outright war, although there needs to at least be a sense of scope and stakes and probably some death somewhere in there...
#7 - August 31, 2014, 10:30 AM
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Dark Metropolis, 6/14
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I love that book, Jackie. And I know I'm not the only one! I think that while there are war aspects in the distance in some of your books, the core stakes tend to be personal. Which makes them a very different kind of book. So, Jay--maybe read some of Jackie's books as examples? :)
#8 - August 31, 2014, 11:23 AM

I appreciate the examples, Christine. I really love Ursula K. LeGuin.

Mike, yes there is death, but not war. And I don't have a seven book series to put on shelves immediately, so I want the first book to feel like a stand alone. That's what I'm aiming for anyway.

Jaclyn, hello! I'm very familiar with your books and have already started "Between the Sea and Sky."  Your current WIP sounds like my style with political intrigue. Enough stakes can pull readers through many stories without war, so I'll keep developing those.

Thanks for your input, everyone!
#9 - October 01, 2014, 07:32 AM

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I don't think a standalone has to necessarily tie up every thread. The ending has to satisfy the reader. Life never ties up into a neat bow. A few open threads at the end of a book can be realistic. You need hope, and you need to have resolved the main issue/conflict in the book in a way that leaves the reader feeling like it is resolved and the story is over for the book to stand alone.
#10 - October 06, 2014, 10:34 AM

I agree, Debbie. Thanks again. :)
#11 - October 07, 2014, 08:54 AM

In reading over the comments, it just occurred to me -- there is epic fantasy, and there is high fantasy. While epic may typically suggest a war theme, I don't think that' necessarily true of high fantasy.
#12 - October 08, 2014, 01:00 PM

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I'm not coming up with any specific examples, but what about quests? Quests are a staple of fantasy, and they can be truly epic...
#13 - October 08, 2014, 06:11 PM
Harold Underdown

The Purple Crayon, a children's book editor's site: http://www.underdown.org/
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Yes, totally agree with what Harold said!
#14 - October 10, 2014, 03:53 PM

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Epic is about size and scope, not war. Most of the epics I can think of are older. Some contain wars, but war isn't always the reason for them or the main theme. The Narnia books are an example of this. There are much broader themes than war at work in those books. The Wizard of Oz is a good example of an epic quest without a war theme. I'm afraid I'm not coming up with anything more recent. Perhaps we just don't think of more recent books as epic.
#15 - October 12, 2014, 08:50 PM

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Very good point, Debbie! I was definitely thinking of Chronicles of Narnia when Harold mentioned quests but wasn't sure if it counted as epic.

I got curious and googled "epic fantasy." This article on Fantasy Faction came up and I liked this bit...
http://fantasy-faction.com/2013/what-makes-epic-fantasy-epic

Epic Fantasy takes its name from the tradition of epic poetry that reaches back to antiquity and beyond. Epics, in this meaning of the word, were stories that stood as central pillars to the cultures that created them. Preserved orally, they were capable of being repeated thousands of times, so that listeners would grow up knowing the tales, not even able to remember a time before they had heard them. They were massively long and complex, and although they did have heroes, and often battles and dramatic adventure, their role was more complex than merely to entertain. They described a world not different from the one their authors lived in, but one in which the mysterious, the mythic, and the divine were made to speak openly and to make their actions clear. They helped explain the nature of the world.

Further, they showed how it changed. In all of the traditional epics, the narrative of events takes place on what historians call “a world historical scale.” This means that deeds of the main actors, the struggles and journeys that the epics recount, have an effect on the very nature of the world. They permanently change history. For better or worse, something is different at the end. When Odysseus returns home, Troy has been destroyed and the mythic age of heroes is over. At the end of the Aneaid, a city is established that will grow to become the largest empire the world had ever known. In vanquishing Ravenna, Rama establishes himself as the God-King on earth, fulfilling the destiny of the seventh avatar of the God Vishnu (I count the Ramayana as an epic in the traditional sense, although it is at the same time a living religious text). When Dante completes his journey through [Satan's home], Purgatory, and Heaven, he has explained the fall and redemption of man according to the medieval Christian understanding.


From this definition, change is also a fundamental component to epic fantasy. War is a useful vehicle in driving historic change, but there are certainly other ways to go about it.
#16 - October 12, 2014, 10:29 PM
« Last Edit: October 12, 2014, 10:33 PM by nilaffle »

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In Narnia, the impact isn't on the real world, but the changes in Narnia are Epic. The real world is at war when it starts, and perhaps the changes are epic to the characters if not all of Earth. There are religious themes in many of the epics too. 
#17 - October 20, 2014, 09:21 AM

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So, Wizard of Oz is not epic. But Wicked is. It is the epic story of Oz.
#18 - October 21, 2014, 03:04 PM
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The entire original Oz series might be considered Epic. Does the real world change? I haven't read enough to know.
#19 - October 27, 2014, 10:32 AM

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