I love the sheer idea of long high fantasy (I refuse to use the word "epic" unless I can see the series making a sea-change in its world's society). The patterns all coming together like a tapestry, or the notes of a song, until you can't tell where the writer wrote effortlessly and where he labored, is a wonderful one. I adore characters appearing and disappearing, ideas seemingly left to lie and then picked up again, surprises spun naturally out of a clash of personalities and goals until it seems inevitable without succumbing to the heavy-handed idea of "fate." Though a good stand-alone novel or short story can still make me smile, no other genre makes me so exultant.
And that's why it hurts so, so much to see the dragons dying in mid-flight. Of all the long high fantasy series I've read that are in progress right now, I think only Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire really works. The latest book in it, A Storm of Swords, is more than twice as long as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, yet things keep happening in it. Kay, Brust, and Berg write much shorter books or series, Pratchett and Rowling I don't consider high fantasy (though Rowling moved closer to it with OoTP), and you know my problems with Brooks, Goodkind, Jordan, Lackey- not that she's written ten books about the same characters, but there are over twenty novels set in Valdemar- and McCaffrey.
So what does make a good long high fantasy then? I don't think anyone can just copy Martin, but there are some things the bad series have in common.
1) NEWSFLASH: You are not Tolkien. Drop the adjectives and step away from the descriptive prose. I'm bewildered by many fantasy authors' insistence on describing and describing the cities and countryside their characters pass through when they just don't have Tolkien's ability to do it properly. Part of the reason Tolkien could do it so well is that he knew the English countryside- not from studying it in books, but from walking through it and seeing it before industrialization ate it up. Most writers don't have that advantage, and studying trees from books quite often doesn't have the same impact. Also, while Tolkien could include details because he wanted the reader to really know what kinds of flowers grew on the grass of Lórien, or what the towers of Gondor looked like from a distance, a lot of more modern writers seem to be doing it just because it's the thing to do. They spew details about the cities that they never return to. They include a lot more than any single character could notice without Tolkien's grace in the omniscient voice. I have the feeling that most authors writing today care about their characters more than the worlds, which is perfectly legitimate, but that means they shouldn't vomit up details of something that doesn't matter as much. Spend more time on your characters' personalities, instead! A lot of high fantasies are crowded with cardboard cutouts; this is one of Jordan's overriding sins, and Goodkind isn't far behind him.
Tolkien's description was something characteristic of him as a writer, just as his tendency to develop languages was. I don't think it needs to be imported into other fantasies unless the author can develop her own descriptive style and really make me see that she cares about these trees and these flowers and these birds. Oh, and it wouldn't hurt to know some basic ecology, too.
2) Things Need To Happen. And aren't we obvious tonight?
But I mean it.
Fantasy is heir to the epic, a lot of people claim. Well, epics have stuff happening in them. Beowulf does not sit around angsting about killing Grendel, or about his girlfriend, and the poem doesn't spend half its lines on what he had for supper that night. He bloody well goes out and kills Grendel.
Combine a slow pace with more of the monotonous descriptive prose I mentioned in the first point, and you have something that's not heir to the epic. I don't know what's in its ancestry, but I think there are a lot of misconceptions, a little James Joyce, and some extremely bad ideas about making fantasy more "realistic" by showing only tiny, slice-of-life events.
Make things happen, damn it. Make people die (another of Jordan's sins is that he cannot sacrifice a major character; ones who die get resurrected). Make wars start. If a character starts marching towards a destination in Book 2, make him bloody well reach it in Book 3, and knock the walls down in Book 4. Or, even better, make this all happen in one book. Stretching the action for the sake of angst or description or in the name of false "realism" is stupid.
Here's where Martin kicks everybody's ass. The tally for the first 202 pages of A Game of Thrones, the first book in the series (at least in my paperback copy of it), goes:
-Numerous nasty deaths, at least one of which is rumored to be a murder.
-Rising of ancient enemies who make the dead do their bidding.
-Finding of six direwolf pups.
-Suspicion of the murder starting.
-Lots of character introspection, especially on the part of Lord Stark's bastard son.
-Offering of a powerful political office.
-Five complete journeys (one of the court coming north and one of it returning south, one of two other characters traveling to the king's city, one of some characters coming south from further north and then returning home).
-One arranged wedding, and its consummation and celebration at which another dozen people die.
-At least one horrible secret discovered.
-Numerous prophetic dreams.
-A hideous fall that leaves one of the characters paralyzed from the waist down.
-Rumors of even more events taking place off-stage.
And that's the first 200 pages of a book that's just over 800.
Beat that, Jordan, with his characters taking three books to walk a few hundred miles.
3) High fantasy has numerous unnecessary viewpoint characters and backstory. The point at which I gave up in disgust on Jordan was in the eighth book, The Path of Daggers. He had so many stories that he spent the first hundred pages or so tying up one of them, and then never returned to it- despite the book being almost a thousand pages long. And he didn't even include one of the major characters who was in a dire situation at the end of the seventh book at all. Meanwhile, though, minor characters who do nothing but witness a sudden arrival of a group of people are given page-space.
Goodkind does the same thing with sheer story. Wizard's First Rule could be half the length if he just cut out the boring bits of backstory or hinted at them instead, got rid of several long scenes that consist solely of sexual tension, reduced some of the gratuitous torture, and stopped repeating details over and over for fear that someone, perhaps on Alpha Centauri, doesn't understand.
Even authors who write series that are simply long, rather than long books linked together, are guilty of the same thing. How many Impressions do we need to see in the Pern books? How many scenes of Choosing in the Valdemar ones, or explanations of what Heralds do? If the authors just sliced some of the fluff-
Well, there wouldn't be much story left.
That's the problem with a lot of these books. They're long high fantasy, yes, but they don't need to be. If the authors knew how to plot, or actually shook themselves loose from their stale formula, some of these books could be turned into three-hundred-page novels or even novellas. I think that several of Mercedes Lackey's books could have been condensed into one, or the basic plot idea could have formed a charming short story. There's no reason to go on churning out this smoke and steam, endless rehashing of ideas that series readers are already familiar with, and formulaic solutions that everyone can see coming two hundred pages back.
Make these stories dragons. Dragons can't fly with unnecessary scales crusting them down, or with a hundred yards of tail dragging behind them. Make them strong instead, sleek, fast, aggressive, and filled with enough fire to toast the reader's ass. If you do that and they're still big, then great. There's a powerful long high fantasy series. If you do that and they're only twenty-five feet long instead of a hundred, they can still be great to read, and they'll be better stories for it.
Part of the reason Martin's stories are dragons is that he limits the number of his viewpoint characters. If it happens out of range of the viewpoint characters, then too bad, it gets reported second-hand instead of seen. And if the viewpoint characters spend long periods of time sitting in cells or journeying across bleak countryside or doing something else that's not as interesting, then he summarizes and limits the number and length of their chapters.
Fantasy isn't slice-of-life. Get used to it.
4) At some point, you have to build on what's gone before. Another reason I gave up on Jordan was his sudden introduction of new plot elements that I'd never seen before in the eighth book. He has all these ideas he's struggling to maintain in the air as it is, and he adds more?
No. Long high fantasy can only resemble a tapestry or a song or a dance when it picks up on those threads or notes or steps that seem to have been left to lie. Tossing new prophecies, new major characters, new important conflicts at the reader in, say, the third book of a trilogy, or the fourth book of a quintet, or the eighth book of the ten-book series the Waste of Time was originally projected as, is stupid. It suggests that you're running out of momentum and/or don't know how to deal with the mess on your hands. (With Jordan, it's "and." It's definitely "and.")
Martin deals with it by keeping some things mysterious from the beginning. Who is Jon Snow's mother? His father, Ned Stark, doesn't say, but clues are offered in Books 2 and 3 that keep the reader guessing, including some alternative stories that make sense but compete with what the reader already knows and raise doubt and dissonance. When characters attack each other, it's mostly because of what happened in the rebellion thirteen years ago, or because of what happened in the previous books. There's no sense that people who were never mentioned before are showing up out of nowhere just to keep the plot going.
And, yes, it might suck to have to end the story, and bring the plot threads to some kind of conclusion at some point. But that's what revision and taking time to write the story are for.
Damn it, I want A Feast For Crows (Martin's long-delayed fourth book) now. /whine