Writing War in Fantasy: High Stakes vs. Logistics

In writing the sequel to Last Song Before Night, I’ve been contemplating the challenge of writing about lands at war, which is a theme in the next two books. Most epic fantasies are about sweeping and, well, epic battles. This is also true of many of the books I loved growing up. Now that I’m venturing into that territory myself, it’s occurred to me that there are two very different approaches to writing about war in fantasy, based on two essential elements: the high stakes of war, and the logistics.

I’ll give the most basic examples to make my case. Tolkien’s Return of the King is focused on the high stakes of war. Maybe he talks about supply lines and army locations, but I certainly don’t remember because it’s not a central interest for him. He certainly doesn’t talk about taxes, as George R. R. Martin has pointed out. There is talk of strategies, but this is in a manner similar to the Bible which also includes narratives of battle strategies–it’s done in a way that dovetails so seamlessly with the storytelling that you are not going to learn much technical information about battles from reading it. That information is beside the point.

If these logistics are not central to Tolkien’s interest, then what is? To me it seems clear that a religious perspective made the conflict between good and evil of central concern to Tolkien. In the end he is far more interested in the moral defection of Denethor and the internal rot of Saruman–and conversely, the blindingly white resurgence of Gandalf as Mithrandir–than he is in questions of food supply.

That’s one end of the spectrum. At the opposite end is K.J. Parker’s Fencer Trilogy, in which logistics is everything. The only evil is within the heart of the protagonist Bardas Loredan and his brother, Gorgas. Everything else can be coldly boiled down to the machine of war and how it interconnects with the equally impersonal machine of politics.

Most fantasy novels fall within this spectrum, being neither as consumed by conflicts of the soul as Tolkien, nor as preoccupied with logistics as Parker. And nowadays fantasy readers are savvy; they want their battles realistic or not at all.

For my forthcoming novel, I’ve been doing loads of research in order to be as realistic as possible–and to get ideas, too. There is often nothing so inspiring as a bizarre factoid from history, or even just an unexpected one. At the same time, I’m aware that my inclination is toward the Tolkien end of the spectrum–ultimately what I care most about is the larger contours of the conflict and how it shapes or destroys the hearts of people. The task, then, is to pull that off while simultaneously making sure technical-minded readers are happy.

It’s an unseemly amount of work. Good thing I’m excited about this story and where it’s going.

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