- Scope and scale. I've talked a lot about escalation - and mainly in a negative sense. Escalation turns a great character-based story into an (often poor) fate-of-the-world one, but sometimes we want high stakes: the destiny of species, the death of gods, and the rest of the drama which epic fantasy brings with it. Personal, character driven, or simply smaller scale stakes are great, too - but sometimes we want more to be at stake, and more to be changing: and that's where the epic comes in.
- Worldbuilding. Urban fantasy, steampunk, and historical fantasy have their great worldbuilders: and some upcoming debuts like Chris F Holm's Dead Harvest spring to life. But these are rarely secondary world fantasies, and as such they're somewhat constrained by the limits of history or reality: limits which - despite the traditional nature of much of the subgenre - don't have to apply to epic fantasy. As such, epic and other secondary world fantasies have the possibility to be far more radical in their settings: Brandon Sanderson's alien ecologies and storm-beaten world (even the plants have shells!) in The Stormlight Archive and the demons of Carol Berg's Rai-kirah trilogy could belong only to the epic. Although epic fantasy can be traditional at times, it has the potential to be the least so of the subgenres. And at times, it achieves that.
- Complexity. Though part of epic fantasy's 'scope and scale', I thought it deserved a point of its own - because for me, this is one of the big draws of the subgenre. Fantasy has a tendancy towards long novels and longer series (the Wheel of Time alone will reach its conclusion this year at fourteen books), and despite its flaws, there is an advantage to that: complexity! Many points of view often mean that variety's preserved within a single novel, but the main advantage is simply that connecting plotlines, complex intrigues, and subtle interconnecting hints are all possibilities. And they're very viable, as any George R R Martin fans will know...
- Variety. There's a lot which can be done with epic fantasy. Far from popular belief, it's not all 'wizards and dragons': there's low-magic and high-magic, high and low, and as many tones as you can name - from the melancholic if glorious of Guy Gavriel Kay's work to the grittiness of Martin's. Which means, of course, that it's great fun to read. And very, very changeable - so by not reading epic fantasy as a broad subgenre, you might be missing out on much that suits your tastes.
Well - that's my personal ode to the subgenre. Coming up tomorrow is my review of The Darkening Dream, a rather intriguing urban/historical fantasy of the Jewish faith, vampires, and Egyptian gods. One thing I can promise you: it won't be short!