After decades of defeat, and hundreds of planets turned into wreckages of folklore eaten from the inside out, it was stumbled upon that the only way to defeat the wolves was to tell more stories, not less. Never less.
[--Alan DeNiro, 'Have You Any Wool']
What makes an epic? Vast scope, a cast of thousands, elevated language, a mighty-thewed larger-than-life hero? World-spanning wars? Gods dabbling in the affairs of men? Elaborate epithets and invocations of the Muse? Eleven volumes and counting?
What about none, necessarily, of the above? What if a large part of the 'epic' quality of a tale lies in the emotion that it conjures in the audience? Such, at least, is the case suggested by Twenty Epics, a collection of self-described 'epic' short stories edited by Susan Marie Groppi (of Strange Horizons) and David Moles. As the back cover blurb puts it:
Epics have lost their charm. There was a time when you finished an epic [... it] left you feeling not discontent and exhausted, but joyous, melancholy, rejuvenated, satisfied -- left you feeling that you were a better person for the experience. TWENTY EPICS will bring that feeling back. In ten thousand words or less.
Passion and grandeur, say the editors in their introduction; these, above any trapping of setting or language or plot trope, are the attributes we look for in an epic, the attributes that make reading them such a rewarding, absorbing experience.
Scope and scale, after all, are all a matter of perspective. One of the best (and cheekiest) demonstrations of this is Jon Hansen's 'The Book of Ant'. Told in the sonorous style of a holy book (and structured accordingly into chapters and verses), it's the story of a prophet/nutcase ant - a classic epic character if ever there was one, 'ant' part aside - whose visions lead her people to a distant land (the house at the other end of the lawn), and thus to a holy war with the ants that already live there. Our Ant is a charismatic, expeditionary leader who quests off alone and carries a talismanic weapon. Okay, so the weapon is a bee sting; but, as I said, it's all about perspective, and this feels vast. As, to Ant, does a curious dog(?):
3 The Angel walked upon four legs, each step shaking the earth. It stood as tall as the towers, covered with a thousand thousand antennae so it might sense all.
Others play with the restrictions of the format by turning their conventionally epic elements into backdrops or contrasts for much smaller-scale events. 'The End of the Road for Hybeth and Grinar', by Rachel McGonagill, is not unlike a 'bottle' episode of your favourite TV show; we join the titular characters after they have shared many adventures, and much of their lives, together. The tenor of their long relationship is neatly and economically drawn, helped by its familiarity. Their past adventures are referred to throughout, in snippets all the more tantalising for the brevity:
She and Grinar had found, at last, the source of the sun's light, the truth of bedroom eyes, and the rush of waterfalls, all in one. Two thousand days, it had taken them, through deserts and caverns and over lost plains, but the journey was well worth the price.
This particular adventure, however, happens entirely in a pitch-black cavern of undetermined size, an apparently inescapable trap that has ensnared a number of other adventuring types. McGonagill thus manages - just about - to have her cake and eat it, producing a character-driven interval in what feels like an epic ongoing story.
Meghan McCarron's disturbing 'The Rider', meanwhile, is entirely set in our own world, and in the most banal locations it has to offer. A diner, a car, a casino; conversation muttered over milkshakes and sandwiches or shouted through closed bathroom doors: these are the deliberately low-key situations in which Nell reluctantly unfolds her epic past (as a changeling child kidnapped, exploited, and caught up in an otherworldly war) to her very mundane-world partner. Stephen Eley opts for a similar tactic, though with less success, in 'The Dinner Game', in which epic storytelling functions as foreplay.
Other stories do in fact meet many of the criteria listed in my opening paragraph. Mary Robinette Kowal's 'Bound Man' - one of the longer pieces in the anthology - goes for an epic scale in both space and time, having her warrior heroine Li Reiko summoned across the ages, by means of a magical Sword, to aid a beleaguered village community in a harsh northern land. Both Li Reiko's sophisticated Japan-esque homeland and the Viking-era Iceland analogue to which she travels are nicely evoked - and the heightened, the-fate-of-all-depends-on-this register of epic is captured well:
As he scrambled to his feet, Lárus thundered up. Without wasting a beat, Lárus flung himself from the saddle and tossed Halldór the reins. "Get the Sword to Parliament!"
Halldór grabbed the reins, swinging into the saddle. If they died returning to Parliament, did it matter that they had found the Sword? "We must invoke the Sword!"
Lárus' right arm hung, blood-drenched, by his side, but he faced the bandits with his left. "Go!"
Kowal's characters are largely stock epic figures, although Li Reiko works well as both fish-out-of-water and angry mother, and it is a refreshing change for the larger-than-life hero to be a competent, commanding woman (the mighty-thewed chaps being the people in need of saving). A satisfying story with fantastical action and epic passion aplenty.
In 'The Rose War', K.D. Wentworth also goes for the epic warfare route: a ruler of overweening ambition develops new weapons that enables him to build a cruel empire. But Wentworth also flavours the story with fairytale in a striking and wonderful way; the weapons in question are super-powered, ambulatory roses that feed on human blood and really like a good scrap:
A knot of Burgundys broke through and Siattla was hard-put to whip them back. He heard terrible cries as thorns lacerated flesh and his troops died in agony. His stallion screamed as a rose darted up its foreleg and the beast reared to shake the creeper off. Everywhere was blood and the silken shower of petals and leaves, the sickening attar of roses.
Fantastical elements are also to the fore in Benjamin Rosenbaum's 'A Siege of Cranes', which takes a simple premise - a lonely woman falsely stigmatised as a witch gets her own back on her village by turning to evil magic in earnest - and makes something melancholy, gripping and gruesome out of it. A genuinely unusual landscape, peopled with interesting characters - including a jackal-headed humanoid from a (guess!) death-obsessed culture, who has a gently comic relationship with bereaved protagonist Marish - marks this one out. As does Rosenbaum's willingness to play his fantasy monsters to the hilt:
[...] the White Witch leapt into the sky. She was three times as tall as any woman; her skin was bone white; one eye was blood red and the other emerald green; her mouth was full of black fangs, and her hair of snakes and lizards. Her hands were full of lightning.
Ian McHugh's 'The Last Day of Rea' has another rapacious tyrant on the march and another empire teetering on the brink of collapse. His viewpoint character, however, is a deeply cynical court historian whose outward obsequiousness is matched by his spiteful inner eye-rolling. This one ultimately lacks the bite that its early pages promise, but it's enjoyably self-aware, contains the splendid line "Stoned as a menhir, the Historian thought", and ends with rocketships, which are pretty much always a Good Thing.
Playing with less-conventional narrative voices within an epic setting is another recurring feature of the anthology. On this side of things, I particularly enjoyed Alan DeNiro's 'Have You Any Wool', which intercuts a second-person science-fantasy tale focused on a young ship's-hand of unusual gifts ("You killed your first wolf when you were fifteen") with an exaggeratedly-omniscient overview of a war among the stars - one fought by means of stories:
The wolves dropped from the sky, released their tenebrae, forced settlers into the structures of their own myths and tragedies (in this instance, a combination of Bluebeard and Great Flood motifs), and started devouring whatever transpired. Wolves bent reality to shapes of storybooks, what transpired beneath the covers of half-buried iconographies.
It certainly has scale - it is conducted "over the course of ninety years and more than fifty worlds", we're told - though coherence and accessibility can sometimes be an issue ("The War With Wolves revolved around a series of metonymous parallaxes and chiads", anyone?). But the immediacy of the second-person narrative mostly balances the dry diction of the rest, and there are some lovely, understated images:
The captain stopped and pointed, drew a flintlock with her other arm. A dirty, orange smudge of campfire. A sunset's ashes.
There's further experimentation from Tim Pratt (in 'Cup and Table', an enjoyably silly Grail quest/X-Men/time travel adventure, with jumbled chronology that produces scene transitions like "But first: // Or, arguably, later"), Jack Mierzwa ('A Short History of the Miraculous Flight to Punt', a nutty poem that certainly leaps about epically enough, though also doesn't make massive amounts of sense), and Yoon Ha Lee. The latter, in 'Hopscotch', structures a sweet, mournful coming-of-age/first love/coming-out story as a series of vignettes spread around a hopscotch pattern, which is filled with lovely, wide-eyed sense-of-wonder passages like this:
Your father's eyes of ice have given you nowhere to go; your mother's pale disappointment has given you nowhere to grow. Instead, you have galaxies, the nights of a thousand thousand worlds for the plucking, peonies breathing their scent across your hands. Cast your stone and begin your journey again; there's no other way to find out where's
Marcus Ewert provides arguably the most unconventionally-structured piece in the book - and yet one which, as its title 'Choose Your Own Epic Adventure' suggests, is quintessentially of the genre. It's gleeful fun that plays with nearly every permutation of bite-size epic imaginable (and, from a review on amazon.com, I gather it works well performed live, with audience participation...); Ewert takes great delight in those improbably sadistic endings that were a hallmark of the type:
The smell of a hundred bruised oranges.
And more horrors await.
Your chortling daughter blows plume after plume of smoke at you. You feel a sudden tightness in your chest as your left breast detaches and drops to the floor, accompanied by a strong smell of coffee. Teeth rain from your gums with the scent of vanilla. Bread, chocolate, burning paper: these are your eyes, fingers, tongue.
The last thing you're aware of is two servants running around frantically, trying to bottle up in little vials the fragrances you've become.
("Your body is losing mass, drastically. You are becoming sleet, but sleet that flies upward." is another genius moment of daftness; bonus points for the Donaldson-esque use of "gelid"...)
Then there are the stories that might not look epic, but - in keeping with the terms discussed above - perhaps feel it. Zoe Selengut's 'Smitten' is a quiet epistolary narrative about a stone goddess and her worshipper's plan to conquer nineteenth-century Brussels, with beautifully-restrained currents of both deadpan hilarity and deep regret. Epic meets polite embarrassment, and loses:
"I am the death of her enemies," said Laurens.
"She seems pleasant," I offered.
"I am the spear of her fury," said Laurens.
Fritz hid behind his newspaper.
Christopher Barzak's 'The Creation of Birds' views a dysfunctional relationship through a lyrical fantasy lens. The Bird Woman paints birds into life (although she "has no time for" realism, and "believes that sparrows should have fans for tail feathers") with the aid of starlight:
These names are poetry: kookaburra, cardinal, cormorant, kestrel, nuthatch, warbler, flamingo, thrush. The Bird Woman keeps each name tucked under her tongue. [...] When the Bird Woman is happy, she'll make Phoenixes and Thunderbirds, which exist only in poetry and dreams. When she is merely content, she makes birds that are real and not imagined. When the Bird Woman is sad, she doesn't make birds at all.
The Star Catcher is her OCD ex-boyfriend, who drives her further away with every attempt to impress her, like caging the stars that animate her birds. Throw in a psychoanalyst (well, his disembodied head, Orpheus-in-Xena style) offering relationship counselling, and the result is a deceptively expansive piece. (Barzak has another lovely story, 'The Language of Moths', available online for free).
Finally, Sandra McDonald's 'Life Sentence' combines some vicious karma with the Groundhog Day effect, as a Korean War veteran named Frank is forced to relive, over and over again, the post-war life that he once squandered in hatred and pointless, violent rage. It is overlong, and sections of it - like Frank's coldly abusive treatment of his long-suffering, faithless wife, or his repeated stints in prison - are difficult to stomach. Nonetheless, the unsettling, cumulative effect of Frank's experiences and mistakes make the (hardly revelatory, in itself) lesson that he must learn - to forgive, and help others to do the same - into something urgent, earned, and moving.
(This seems an appropriate place to say: RIP Robert Jordan. *sniff* The title of this post is a tribute, as - in a more snarky way - is the mention of eleven volumes in the first paragraph. The Wheel of Time saga may have choked under its own weight in later instalments (and then some) - but, over the years, it has given me a vast store of epic grandeur and passion to cherish, even so.)
(And *sniff* is meant both sincerely, and as an in-joke for anyone who knows their WoT. ;-))