Friday, September 1, 2017

"In Appreciation: Building on the Past and Helen Lowe’s The Wall of Night Series" — A Guest Post By Paul Weimer

"Helen Lowe’s The Wall of Night series stands as a formidable entry in the realm of epic fantasy

At three volumes in (The Heir of Night, The Gathering of the Lost, and Daughter of Blood with the fourth and final novel currently in progress) the series epitomizes what I think of as part of a Fourth Era of Epic Fantasy. 

Like geologic layers, the eras of Epic Fantasy build and layer on each other: sometimes new works in the older traditions coming to the surface; other times, the weight and pressure of newer iterations of fantasy pressing down on those layers and letting them be seen in new contexts. There are many ways to order something as unclear as the history of an entire literary subgenre. However, if you will indulge me, I will use a geologic template to break the history of epic fantasy into five periods.

The First Era of Epic Fantasy

The pre-geologic era, our first era, is the period before there was a defined class of literature called epic fantasy. That is to say that there was no defined subgenre of fantasy and science fiction that one could point to, or ask for, that was called epic fantasy. A time traveler to that era, going to the bookstore or a library or even a SF convention would just confuse people by asking for "epic fantasy. 

This is not to say that there weren’t the progenitors of epic fantasy being written. Yes, this is the era of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Those works would help set the stage for the later ages of Epic Fantasy and provide models for The First Era. 

Besides Tolkien, however, there were plenty of other novels reaching toward Epic Fantasy. Fletcher Pratt’s The Well of the Unicorn and Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, among others, were singular voices reaching toward a subgenre we might consider epic. The stories of C.L. Moore, and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser, although more properly classified as Sword and Sorcery, still had an enormous influence on later writers and books. By the 1970’s the stage was set for a subgenre to emerge, once writers could take this critical mass of pre-geologic work and use it as a foundation. 

The First Era of Epic Fantasy, then, starts in the 1970’s with Terry Brook’s Shannara novels, Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant, and the other novels of that first wave of works inspired by Tolkien. This era was an era of codification of the protocols, as they saw them, and established many of the things taken for granted in later eras as absolutely fundamental to Epic Fantasy. Worlds of various nonhuman races.  The idea of a company of companions fighting a dark evil. Various archetypes of those companions the elderly wizard, the young protege, the farmboy who finds out that he has secret power. (You may notice that Star Wars took this template, too, and ran with it in an Outer Space direction). The idea of having a map in the front of the book. The trilogy format, since Lord of the Rings was a trilogy.  

In some cases, these novels were direct pastiches of Tolkiens’ plot and ideas, or first-order reactions to it. However, the idea of a subgenre of novels that filled an epic fantasy space was established. 

The Second Era
The Second Era came in the later 1980’s. The first layers of Epic Fantasy had been laid down, and now two forces came to play for the first time. The first is the influence of the role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons. In this era, it was Dungeons and Dragons itself that produced the fiction, in tie-in works such as The Dragonlance Chronicles that used the fantasy worlds of the game to tell epic fantasy stories. 
It would be Dungeons and Dragons, too, that would nurture Sword and Sorcery as Epic Fantasy continued its ascent only to unleash it back onto the world in the next era as players, such as Scott Lynch and Jen Williams, became authors themselves.
The other major development in the Second Era was a sociological one. Women authors started to become prominent in writing Epic Fantasy. There had been forebears for women writing in the space all the way back to C.L. Moore with Jirel of Joiry, but now, authors like Judith Tarr, Robin Hobb, Jennifer Roberson, Mercedes Lackey and Margaret Weis, among many others, really had their voices enter the community. The Six Duchies, the Cheysuli, Valdemar, and many more took their place in the Epic Fantasy canon.

In a very real way, too, this explosion of Epic Fantasy began shifting the longtime balance of speculative fiction away from Science Fiction and toward Fantasy for the first time.

The Third Era 

The Third Era, the Grimdark era, begins in the later 1990’s with A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, and King’s Dragon, by Kate Elliott. The mood in fantasy had changed from the bright colors of the epic fantasy of Good and Evil that was a strong note in the first three eras. Now, more complicated characters, situations, and morally ambiguous situations were the rule of the day. 

Worlds where there were fewer heroes gave the palette of Epic Fantasy a grimmer feel. While Thomas Covenant had been a singleton of the unlikeable protagonist back in the '70’s, now, novels with anti-heroes or at best, grey people forced into fighting greater evils were the dominant narratives on bookstore shelves. 

At the same time, Grimdark caused a questioning of some of the narratives of epic fantasy, and also provided space and opportunity for stories of ordinary people caught up in epic events people as messy and complicated as the ones who walk around the world today. 

The Fourth Era and Helen Lowe's The Wall Of Night

The Fourth Era, the Cenozoic of my epic fantasy geologic timeline
the era we are currently in is the era in which The Wall of Night series is a leading light.

The relentless grimness of the Grimdark movement has receded, although many books continue to be written in that tradition. The Wall of Night series embodies what is to be found in this new era, as well as what has been brought forward from previous periods.

The basic epic fantasy chassis developed over the previous eras is here: A young protagonist, a woman, the heir to power, but with real doubts and real growing up to do. A quest to stop a previously thought-to-be-contained evil from overwhelming the world – and the "thin red line" of the people known as the Derai. A complicated, complex and richly drawn fantasy world that rewards a deep dive. A strong inner life for the characters. 

And with all that, Lowe brings forward the concerns and richness of this new era. Even stronger roles and positions for female characters, reflecting both the real history of our world, and providing role models and characters for readers of all types to admire. A reaching out beyond The Great Wall of Europe for ideas and models for cultures, characters and worlds. Diversity, not for the sake of diversity, but for the richness of escaping the monoculture too frequently found in earlier eras of Epic Fantasy. 

The Wall of Night series by Helen Lowe does all of this, carrying the banner and helping lead the way into this new era of Epic Fantasy. It never forgets where it came from, but it also strides forward. 

As a representation of the current trends of Epic Fantasy alone, then, The Wall of Night series by Helen Lowe is well worth your time. Anyone vaguely interested in the history and trends of Epic Fantasy should read it. 

As an experience of reading however, it is far more than just an intellectual exercise. Instead, The Wall Of Night comprises a deep and rich vein of fantasy fiction that rewards its readers with the egalitarian characterization, in particular, that brings the Epic Fantasy template to modern sensibilities, without sacrificing the underlying strengths of previous eras."

by Paul Weimer


Paul Weimer is a writer, gamer, blogger, podcaster, photographer, and ubiquitous genre enthusiast. Paul was a regular contributor to the former (and much missed) SF Signal and is currently part of the Skiffy and Fanty Show team. Recently, his articles have also appeared on and the B&N SciFi & Fantasy Blog.

To find out more, check out Paul's Blog, Jvstin Style or follow him on Twitter: @princejvstin

Get it While It's Smokin' Hot:

The Heir Of Night (WALL#1) is a Kindle Monthly Deal all September!

Yes, that's right, if you haven't read this fabulous series yet, here's your chance to jump in with the first book, The Heir of Night, which will be just 0.99c on Kindle for the whole of September. (USA only.)

Here at Supernatural Underground HQ we're pretty proud of the awards The Heir of Night has garnered, too:
  • The Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012 for Best Fantasy Debut
  •  The Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel, 2011
  • A Catanetwork Single Titles Reviewers' Choice Award, 2010
So if you haven't read it already, get it while the price is smokin' hot! If you have then maybe this could be the perfect moment to gift it to a Fantasy reader in your life.

And if you want to help spread the good word, don't forget to use #TheWallOfNight. :-)


Kim Falconer said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks so much for this post. I agree that #TheWallofNight series is a 'contemporary' Epic Fantasy in that the whole nature of 'good' vs. 'evil' has evolved into complexities that ring true. The portrayal of women is more post-feminist than the women seen in LOTR. (Not a criticism of Tolkien but as you say, a reflection of the time.)

There were few roles for women in early and middle era fantasy where characters were both strong and creative and heroic. Power was for the evil chikas, as was sexy! Do you think the evolution of Urban Fantasy with the kickass female protagonists helped pave the way for all Spec Fic women, or did it evolve on a parallel course?

I am wondering also where in the eras you put Anne McCaffrey's Dragons of Pern. The first 'Dragon' story came out in 1968, first era, but the roles for women (and McCaffrey being a female SFF writer) were breakout.

Although, is the series epic fantasy? There are elements of SF, with the futuristic artefacts, time-travel on dragon back, and the later books where the true source of the dragons, the genetic engineering, are revealed. Is it a genre crosser then? A vein of feldspar in the strata? Gold?

Again, great article. I love this topic!

Paul Weimer said...

Hi Kim,

I consider Pern to be SF in the trappings of epic fantasy, just as I consider the Morgaine cycle of Cherryh to be sword and sorcery trappings of an SF story.

Urban Fantasy is something I am nowhere near as well schooled in, so tracing its history is more difficult for me. I think the founder effect of having women, with woman protagonists at the start of the subgenre (e.g. Emma Bull, Laurell K Hamilton) set the stage for what the sub genre would become.

Helen Lowe said...

Hey Kim,

I agree with Paul's take on the PERN novels: the basic premise is SciFi but the trappings are Fantasy. But because the reversion to an in many ways medieval-style world is explained in terms of the SF premise of the story, then I feel it still fits in SF quadrant of the reading 'verse.

One thing I noticed about McCaffrey when rereading Restoree and Dragonflight a while back is that these books are still only what I would consider fledgling in terms of the roles women occupy in the story. There is a central heroine, but she is "only one" -- all the the surrounding, important characters are men. While still groundbreaking at the time, I feel storytelling has evolved since that time. As it should: we are talking an almost fifty year period since those first McCaffrey books came out.

You ask whether the evolution of Urban Fantasy's "kickass" heroines was trailbreaking or evolved on a parallel course and I would probably opt for the latter. The reason for that is because the 80s Second Era fantasy that Paul discusses authors such as Mercedes Lackey (Talia), Robin McKinley (Aerin, Angharad), Patricia McKillip (Sybel, Raederle), Janny Wurts (Mara), Barbara Hambly (Jenny Waynest, Starhawk), CJ Cherryh (Morgaine) and Katherine Kerr (Jill), all of whom introduced an impressive cast of heroines and in some cases "bands of sisters" as well.

I feel it was these stories and heroines that paved the ground for a greater diversity of heroines in Fantasy, paralleling the evolution in Urban Fantasy that also drew on film and TV characters such as Buffy and Sarah Connors.

Kim Falconer said...

Paul, Helen, I see your point with the idea of SF in the trappings of Fantasy. Of course now we have the subgenre SF Fantasy. So many offshoots under the (now) umbrella of Speculative Fiction!

It is interesting how McCaffrey's female characters grew more prominent, right along with the times, mirroring women's struggles for equality, exploring gender roles etc. Art-life-art cycles.

I found a wonderful Master of Arts theses by Julie Saffel on world-building in Urban Fantasy that explores the evolution of this subgenre. She has it evolving in the 80s with Emma Bull‘s cult classic War for the Oaks but I've also seen Charles de Lint's Moonheart (1984) given that title. Like anything else I imagine it was a zeitgeist energy that swept up many an author in the 80's and 90's.

Thanks for your thoughts, and again, Paul, for the post!