Believe it or not, most people like long(er) stories—and there are psychological explanations for why.
One central finding in the literature is that by simply spending more time with the characters and events of a story, you get more emotionally invested in said characters and events. So, despite the investment of time, audiences like going along for a lengthy journey. Maybe our attention spans are short nowadays, but The Wheel of Time, Dragon Ball Z, Grey’s Anatomy, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have all clued into the consumer preference for extended stories.
Given the general partiality toward lengthy tales, it’s all the more impressive to me when a writer stitches together a beginning, a middle, and an end without needing 10,000 pages to do it. Enter Sean Russell.
The Initiate Brother Duology
Sean Russell is most well known for his Swan’s War trilogy, an underrated gem of epic fantasy if ever there was one. He debuted in 1991 with book one of his Initiate Brother duology. It’s epic fantasy in nearly every conventional sense: A large cast of characters; a strong martial theme; a monumental scope, with one vast empire endangered by another; some truly epic journeys and setpieces, featuring a gorge marked with Argonath-sized statues and a deep-desert dig site with the bones of a giant dragon; and a well-drawn world filled with art, commerce, cultural values, and interesting people.
Despite checking these boxes for epic fantasy norms, the Initiate Brother duology is pretty unique as well (as if being a duology doesn’t make it unique enough already). For one thing, it completely eschews the euro-centric settings so standard in epic fantasy of the time. For another, it’s as artistic as it is epic; for instance, every few chapters you’ll find poetry contests replacing traditional banter and artists or philosophers filling the story roles typically populated by wizards or knights.
What’s most unique about this duology, among works of epic fantasy, is the brevity of the two books. All told, the duology is about as long as a single volume in The Wheel of Time.
How Sean Russell Makes it Happen
Short or not, this is a complete story with a rich setting and a big cast. Russell has a few main tactics for keeping things packed with goodness throughout.
1. A free-flowing use of point of view (POV). The majority of epic fantasy is written with a zoomed-in third-person POV, focusing on one character at a time. Furthermore, it’s very common for epic fantasy to alternate somewhat slowly between these characters, either giving equal numbers of chapters to each or otherwise working through a pattern (one chapter on, two chapters off). Russell keeps a tight third person POV but avoids any strict pattern or set length, moving from one character’s head to another rapidly. As a result, readers a) get to know many characters very quickly, and b) get a lot of backstory and plot information in the moment that things unfold, rather than waiting for the right character to feel like telling their story out loud.
2. A healthy respect for both scene and summary. Russell skips plenty of scenes that would have been cool to read, giving a paragraph or two of summary instead. Make no mistake—the Initiate Brother duology also has plenty of amazing scenes with clever dialog, stunning feats of martial arts, character interactions, etc. He just makes good use of white space as well, which keeps the story moving rapidly at every turn.
3. Smart characters who cause the plot to happen. Some writers devise a plot first and then fit their characters into it. Russell has described a process for giving his characters more freedom to shape the plot as well, so that the overall story isn’t just the writer’s creation but the creation of the characters the writer has created. And, since he populates his books with characters who are smart, they figure out ways to make things happen and keep the plot moving fast—a striking difference from some major works of epic fantasy, where things slow down simply because the characters aren’t using their heads.
“Once you’ve developed a character sufficiently the story starts to be impacted by who that character is and what they might do in any given situation. You find yourself going back and forth adjusting characters so that the requirements of the plot can be met and vice versa. It’s an endlessly fascinating process, I find.”
What’s to love about shorter epic fantasy?
As mentioned at the start, readers and watchers and listeners like long stories. So why should you take a look at Sean Russell? Well, I for one will gladly state the case that Russell fits more into his two volumes than most series fit into four, and that you’ll get as attached to his world and plot and characters as you’re likely to for most series of double the length.