It’s An Heroic Quest

Okay, to review and so no one is confused since I’ve had some truly strange comments in the past, including people who thought I was trying to dictate to you which points to hit: this review of genres and subgenres is not to teach you how to write them, so much as to help you classify what you’ve written, so you can publish it in the genre/subgenre that gets you most readers who won’t leave you nasty reviews saying “do you even read this sub-genre?”.

Now, here we are on slippery ground as with say “fantasy that’s not technically set in a bit city but is set in the present day.  Is that urban fantasy or not?”  Since Amazon doesn’t have a category for “modern day not urban fantasy” it’s tricky, because putting it in urban fantasy means a good part of the crowd who downloads it will be upset at you, because there’s no dangerous romance element etc.  (And heaven help you if the paranormal romance crowd downloads it.  They like their sex explicit.)

Everyone who reads fantasy knows what I mean when I say “heroic or quest” fantasy, but you know, Amazon doesn’t have a category for “like Tolkien.”  Someone at Amazon doesn’t have a huge grasp on things, so they decided to just have historical fantasy, which frankly doesn’t even fit alternate history fantasy like Witchfinder, because their history is not parallel to ours.  In fact, I’m fairly sure I put it under general fantasy which is stupid, because the “feel” is historical, so I need to go look and change it, but I don’t have access to the publishing computer today.

What you do for this is compensate by going into the key words and putting in things like Wizards, elves, dwarves.

Don’t btw take my word for the words to use, because I don’t have access to the publishing computer right now.   No, wait, I found it.  The closest they have is Sword and Sorcery, which if I remember was the 70s term for this.

Note there’s really no sub-category or keywords for even things like Game of Thrones.

So, it’s hard to figure out how to make it so your book discoverable, but I’ll be honest, in these circumstances one often puts the name of the most distinguished/best known practitioner in the field as a key word.  So you could put it in Sword and Sorcery and put in the key words as Tolkien.  Or G R R Martin, if that’s what you actually sound like.

Anyway, quest fantasy: your group of heroes is looking for the McGuffin.

It has always amused me that quest fantasy is intrinsically similar to a subset of science fiction novels we don’t see much of today, but which were a favorite of mine growing up: colonization science fiction novels.

It has a lot of the same touchstones: it’s a group novel, with a set of personalities.  There is often at least one romance (and for the love of heaven don’t list your novel as romance under fantasy, just because there’s a love interest and some romantic subplot.  Remember romance means a genre, not romantic love.) Sometimes more than one.  There is usually a traitor and a couple of red shirts.  And there is a hidden prince, or in science fiction “the guy who survives against all odds.”

Now it’s been years since I read colonization novels, but I felt at the time that I could tell who would die and live within the first few chapters, and I often feel the same way with fantasy novels of this type.  I don’t have the time to cover every cliche of the field, though if you’re an RPG player you probably know most of them.

The world these are set in is usually “vaguely tolkienesque.”  Yeah, each one has variations, and some people are very creative, but there’s still some of the traditional races and struggles we met in Tolkien or in Norse Myth/Celtic Myth in general.

To compensate for what I don’t have time to cover, I highly recommend you buy and read Diana Wynne Jones “the tough guide to fantasy land”.  It not only will give you the “if you have this, you should class it as” but also some of the things to avoid, such as bicycle horses or stew.

Anyway, it’s a quest and along the way your characters are tested, and some die or are judged unworthy, etc.

I’d distinguish heroic fantasy, which might have SOME elements of the Tolkien world, or might not.  It might be an historical “feel” world with magic, but its creatures can come from completely different mythologies.  It’s where I’d class G RR because it often involves clashes of civilizations in the face of an impending supernatural doom, etc.

Both of subgenres are very much “not of our world” and both hard to place in Amazon categories.  (I have to ask Amanda S. Green how she classified Dagger of Elana.)

One recourse is to look at books that are like yours, see how they’re classified, then figure out how to achieve it.  And no, I’m not that bright, either.  It just now occurred to me I should do this with DWJ’s Chrestomancy and classify Witchfinder accordingly.  Well, it’s a project for this weekend, hopefully.

Again, neither of these subgenres are my own preferred poison, either written or to read, but mention had to be made of them because they’re such a big part of the field.

Completely open if someone chooses to explain how they back engineered the sub-classification.



62 thoughts on “It’s An Heroic Quest

  1. Added Diana Wynne Jones to the wish list. For when I delve into that genre.Eventually. Thanks.

      1. Yes! I suggest starting with the Chrestomancis and Howl’s Moving Castle. I’ll add a personal favorite, Deep Secret, which is my fave “magic at a sf&f convention” story.

  2. I would have thought that “heroic quest” fantasy would pretty much all fall within Sword and Sorcery. A vaguely Medieval word, fighting done primarily with swords or bows, the possibility of magic (though not necessarily having wizards be a dime a dozen). Certain I would put Tolkien, Martin, Jordan, Eddings, Brooks, the Mercedes Lackey Valdemar series, and most of the rest of what I’d consider “heroic fantasy” in there.

    What do you see as the difference between “Sword and Sorcery” and “Heroic of Quest Fantasy”? Why do you think someone searching for one would either not find or be disappointed with the other?

    1. For me, Swords and Sorcery and Heroic Fantasy is more of a “low fantasy”. You can still have quests (like Robert E Howard’s Hour of the Dragon aka Conan the Conqueror) but with less of the straightforward Good vs Evil stuff. Conan wouldn’t be caught dead traveling with a bunch of hobbits. In fact, if hobbits existed in the Hyborian Age, they’d probably be the degenerate remnants of some long-vanished race who live underground and worship Lovecraftian deities.

    2. I always thought “Sword and Sorcery” referred to things like Conan the Barbarian more than to anything like traditional heroic fantasy, where I would likewise slot most of your list. Shorter heroic fantasy that comes to mind are things like Prydain (Lloyd Alexander), or Narnia, or maybe even the Dark is Rising books (Susan Cooper)…. which makes me wonder if it wouldn’t slot well into YA fantasy. At any rate, another guideline I’ve heard is that it’s fantasy that sticks very close to the Hero’s Journey. Just my rambling thoughts.

      1. Yeah, when I think heroic fantasy, what comes to mind is Prydain, or Eddings, with Tolkien being in the High Fantasy slot… Sword and Sorcery were more the Dragonlance books and Drizzt books, before I started actually playing any RPGs…

    3. Sword and Sorcery is not necessarily a quest? I don’t know, I view sword and sorcery more as Connan the Barbarian, but again, not my favored genres and I could be wrong.

      1. In Conan’s case, most of his “quests” are to steal riches. In The Hour of the Dragon, it’s to take back his kingdom.

  3. Diane Wynn Jones is why I made a point to include socks in the first four Colplatschki books. And horses that you can’t just park-n-go. Having actually ridden (groomed, dressed, fallen off of, been stepped on by, cleaned up after) horses helped.

    1. The problem with the horses things is that if your horse throws a shoe and it’s not crucial, it drags the plot to a halt, and if it’s crucial, it shows the hand of the author blatantly and overtly.

  4. Lately, I just use “Fantasy Adventure” if it involves a team of people working on their own behalf and “Epic Fantasy” if they’re trying to save the kingdom or the world. For secondary-world adventures (aka “High Fantasy”) this works quite well for me, since all I’m doing is classifying the short fiction I review.

    I usually use “Modern Fantasy” instead of “Urban Fantasy” because I got complaints about using the latter for a story that took place on a farm. I never use “Low Fantasy” at all, although to me it means “Fantasy in the real world.”

    A potentially useful division I see that I don’t have a great set of terms for involves stories that are set in alternate versions of our world. E.g. World War I being fought with dragons. If they’re actually in the past, I’ll call them “Alternate History Fantasy” but I don’t have a good way to distinguish a story set in the present where, e.g., President Trump is promising to deport goblins to Faerie vs. one where someone finds a real goblin in the sewers but no one will believe him/her. “Modern Alternate History Fantasy” sounds weird, but “Alternate Present Fantasy” and “Alternate Reality Fantasy” sound weird too.

    I do think there’s a value in having a consistent system of names, even if not everyone uses them, simply because it makes it easier to think about things. For example, a publisher might say they publish “Urban Fantasy” but it turns out they really don’t like “Alternate Reality Fantasy.”

    1. “Low fantasy” is a useless term. Too many people have used to mean “opposite of high fantasy” for so many different traits of high fantasy that you can’t count on anyone knowing what you mean when you say it.

  5. No stew? I think the infinte pot of potboil in Sanctuary (was that the one?) is about all I remember from that shared world. Oh and Janet Morris, wish I never heard of her, but I digress …

    1. I think that’s my one complaint. First they tell you your horse can’t go all day, then they say there’s not enough time to make a good stew.

      1. GRRM obsesses about stew like Robert Jordon obsessed about girl’s clothing.

        That’s one thing in his series I don’t believe anyone has complained about. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with stew in a fantasy novel, even if it is common. The Tough Guide highlights many tropes that are abused, but there is always the opportunity to play them straight. Or subvert them with tongue firmly placed in cheek.

        1. And some were silly The economics system didn’t work? How many mundane works depict enough of our economy to pronounce that it would work? We leave the dull stuff out.

          1. Depends. Sometimes “wasted motion” is another way to say “change in pacing.” Or “tossing out an odd fact to the audience.” Or “a convenient way to stop the character near that hilltop you want him to check out.”

            Louis L’Amour once tossed off the fact that one reason cowboys carried pistols was that, if you were thrown from your horse, it gave you an option other than being dragged to death. Later in the book, the matter comes up twice more. Once a character can’t get to his gun and *is* dragged to death. Later, another man does shoot his horse in time–but they’re in Indian country, and the noise has increased the chance of their bring noticed. Neither was a major plot point, but neither was wasted motion.

            It’s all in what you do with it.

            1. What happened? This was supposed to go under the remount comment.

              It was also supposed to include the clause “and goat your foot caught in the stirrup.” That part is my fault.

  6. When I hear Swords and Sorcery, I expect both the protagonist’s motivations and plot stakes to be personal. You shouldn’t see the impending death of civilization, destruction of the world, or the end of everything good in S&S stories. Instead, you see stories about revenge, greed, ambition, protecting a friend/lover, etc.

    Other characteristics of Swords and Sorcery: a world with many competing political entities that lend background flavor but don’t drive the plot too much; lower technology — typically medieval or the equivalent; an emphasis on the more dangerous parts of the world — from back-alleys and bars to monster-infested forests and deadly weather; little trust of others; any magic or advanced technology that exists but tends to be rare and expensive.

    1. Or if the world *is* in danger, the protagonist finds out several chapters in and says “Aw, hell…”

      1. As a general rule, epic fantasy or sword and sorcery, never tell us the world is in danger until halfway through the first book, even if it also is the last.

        You need that long to build the world, so that the threat of destruction doesn’t make it cardboard.

        1. But in S&S, the hero’s reaction to the revelation is likely to be irritation–he had better things to do than save the flipping world.

  7. “Buttercup’s mother hesitated, then put her stew spoon down. (This was after stew, but so is everything. When the first man clambered from the slime and made his first home on land, what he had for supper the first night was stew.)”

    –William Goldman, The Princess Bride.

    Thus do I refute D W Jones.

    1. The good thing about stew is that it involves cooking meat and veggies long enough to kill germs.

      The bad part is that it requires keeping a fire going for a fairly long time, which is probably not an advantage for most travelers — but works fine in an inn.

      The other factor is that some people don’t think of a stew as soup-like but rather as something cooked in a skillet, so you end up with something like curry meat without the spices. But that does mean you can cook it quicker.

      1. Heating isn’t the problem if you reasonable access to the engine. /insaneresponse

        So yeah, screwing around with genres, if you can deal with the fuel and road issues, your cross time filibuster’s ancient pickup has some use as a mobile stove. But at that point you probably aren’t chasing the same audience.

        Personally, I dislike much liquid in soups or stews. I prefer such ingredients cooked down to mostly solids.

        You could design completely alien grains as part of the world building, whose chemistries permit different cooking methods and times. But if you use a real dish with real ingredients, it’ll be more plausible based on real information about weight, utensils, process, lead time, and shelf life. On the other hand, sometimes you’ll get in trouble if you have your elves eating gluten-free vegan MREs. Choices, so many choices.

      2. One of the wilderness survival techniques I remember being demonstrated during a visit to Olangapo was that they would cook rice and stew in bamboo, skewer fish onto sticks for campfire cooking. They tended to do the start of cooking first (fire, water obtaining, then someone is assigned to do food) and that would cook while the rest of the camp got set up. The other thing I found out was that even the wandering tribes of Aetas tended to stop at a certain point in the afternoon so they could set up a camp that would ensure they’d survive the night in relative comfort.

        I also remember reading about how the pioneers would have stew, which I don’t think would be much like the stews we envision from our modern day perspective; and wasn’t the cookie (the camp cook) a feature for wandering cowboys? From what I’d read they’re quite capable of soups and stews. The meat wouldn’t be super soft, I reckon, it would be pretty thick, and yeah, curry like, for camp biscuits. There’d probably be parts of it burned unless someone was specifically assigned to mind the food.

        I reckon if you were traveling with horses or a wagon and several people, it wouldn’t be very different. The food would cook while other work happened. But I’m pretty sure that stews are not impossible for a traveling band of adventurers.

        1. A modern day example is Brunswick Stew. Regardless of the origin arguments, the original meat was game, like squirrel. Then you threw into it whatever vegetables you had on hand that would withstand boiling. What you end up with is something chunkier than porridge, but not quite as solid as something modern made with stew beef.

          There was something called Buffalo Throw, with “throw” pronounced “trow.” This worked it’s way East courtesy of the railroads. What they did was dig a trench, got coals going in it, and threw the meat directly on top of the coals. Supposedly it was a way some railroads fed construction crews out West, hence it’s name.

          While it’s true that stews take time, I have a character in a WIP in a 14th Century world make a fish stew because everyone is tired of baked fish every day. Fish doesn’t usually take as long to cook.

          FWIW, I had them use a sourdough bread. They’d make it the evening before, let it rise overnight, and cook it in the morning. In one scene, rain moves in, and a character is worried about not being able to cook the dough.

          1. I think the general complaint about stew is the image people have of it: Thick, big chunky pieces of meat, cooked to falling apart softness in it’s own gravy. Smaller pieces = faster cooking time.

            As for the sourdough, I also remember reading that cookies would treat their jars of sourdough starter like their favorite/firstborn child, keeping it warm with their own body heat if needed (usually, a box of warm ashes was where the starter was stored in, I read in one article.) They used it to make skillet biscuits, and yes, dutch oven loaves of bread.

            I was researching quite a bit into this kind of thing because of a character I had in mind.

            For fun, I refer everyone to the manga Dungeon Meshi, or Delicious in the Dungeon, for a fun take on the adventurer feeding.

        2. The camp cook was indeed a part of every trail drive. The chuck wagon bouncing along behind the herd was not. Cookie would hurry ahead, set up where they planned to bed down for the night, and have supper ready when they got there. You can do stew that way…

        3. My grandmother was a chuck wagon cook. You have that pretty much right.
          Although the food was generically called “beans” instead of “stew”, which I’ll freely grant is a distinction without much of a difference.

          Dutch ovens are very useful, but they take a fair amount of iron to make, and come with some logistical problems. (To those who have never seen or used one, it’s a cast iron pot with short legs and a concave lid. You dig a hole just big enough to fit the oven, put red hot coals from the fire at the bottom of the hole, put the oven in the hole, pile more coals on top of the lid, and then fill in the hole. There are some obvious problems with this if you’re breaking camp and moving every day. Generally solved with a large box of dirt and a lot of paranoia.)

          1. Cooking in holes with rocks is one of the oldest forms of cooking. There’s also the thing where you just heat hot rocks. You either cook your meat on top of the now-hot rocks, or you use the radiant heat a little further from the rocks, or you boil water with the hot rocks, or….

            In Ireland, they are always finding prehistoric “Fenian cooking pits,” some of which got reused and some of which didn’t. Very good for fish (like salmon, of which Ireland had lots).

            But the classical Fenian hunting story is that you hunt in the morning and afternoon. At noon, you or your attendants make a big fire on a hill next to a moor. You heat a lot of round sandstones in your fire. While that is going, you dig pits in the moor clay. Then you take all your game and wrap them up in bundles of sedge, tied up with ropes made of straw or rushes. Then you put the game bundles in the pits, surround them with hot stones, pile more hot stones on top, and wait while it cooks. You clean yourself up for dinner, do your Fianna stretches to alleviate fatigue, and then eat. Then you set up your tent or booth, and go to sleep.

        1. Or a well-established camp. That’s the real problem–stew takes time.

          Unless you open a can. And for too many people, that’s where stew comes from. So they have a pot ready before you’ve finished unsaddling the horses.

          1. Or you realize that medieval times didn’t have our picky definitions of “breakfast foods”, and stick a pot of meat and veggies / grain over the banked fire for all night cooking for breakfast while supper might be roasting other parts of what you shot / picked up while traveling all day.

            Porridge / gruel / oatmeal became part of breakfast because the cook could do exactly that.

            1. Yup. But the usual suspects feed it to our heroes for supper. It might be fun bringing that bit of reality into a story sometime.

              1. Misty Lackey did it in several of her Valdemar books, specifically Oathblood. I seem to remember seeing it in Weber’s Bahzell books.

    2. Given The Princess Bride was written and published as a satire of fantasy in 1973, I’d say he was riffing on the same prevalence of stew as Dianna Wynn Jones satirized in 1996.

      1. Primitive societies didn’t normally have access to metal pots. Or even much in the way of clay.

        If a method of cooking involves heating rocks in a fire and using improvised tongs to carefully drop them into a hide pouch holding liquid, it’s not going to be the quick or easy way to make supper.

        Iron pots were worth many pelts to the Indian tribes. It wasn’t their traditional way of cooking, but they certainly saw the advantages!

        1. Even medieval societies. Heck, my kids say I grew up between Elizabethan and Victorian England, tech wise. Keep in mind these were far richer than just 200 years before.
          WE MENDED CLAY POTS. Yep, you know, those el cheapo red clay pots? They cost like a week’s salary. It was more like losing your dishwasher.

    1. Eh. There’s a certain degree of cherry-picking in his logic when you know the originals he’s picking from.

      1. No question — but if you’re going to make a pattern, you kind of have to cut off the outliers? It’s still a widely known and used approach…

  8. This whole series has been quite helpful.
    However, I wrote a mystery/suspense novel, and would love it if anyone reading this, who has done that before, would contact me about their experience. I’m going to be putting my first book up soon, and I am nervous about doing it right.
    Here’s my contact point:

  9. Actually, plenty of primitive societies had access to clay, depending on where you lived. Sometimes it wasn’t very good clay, but you could bodge together a clay pot, or do other things with it.

    The problem was that until you invented kiln-firing (even in a campfire), it was like an adobe pot, or a shell and dried clay pot, or a sediment and dried clay pot, instead of like pottery.

    But yeah, tons of clay in tons of places.

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