All fantasy writers must, at one point or another, face down the following conundrum:
1. An epic world is physically vast.
2. A vast world takes a long time to traverse.
3. Too much traversing gets really, really boring.
The author is left to attack one (or more) of the three premises, but each approach has its risks.
Some writers choose to make their worlds smaller. Scott Lynch confines the action of his first book to a single city. Patrick Rothfuss allows Kvothe more leeway in The Name of the Wind, but the vast majority of book one transpires in just two locations; the voyages between are elided pretty swiftly. This can be an elegant solution; all the more so in the realm of fantasy, where concision and focus are not commonplace virtues. Confining the action to one specific locale (or a few of them) allows the writer to fully explore the location and avoid all the tedious traipsing required to get from point A to point B. That said, one of the reasons that many of us read epic fantasy is to explore a truly vast and diverse new land. Tightening the focus undermines this opportunity.
Some writers choose to whittle away at the second premise. The world can be huge, as long as your characters (or some of them) have a way to jump around with a little more alacrity when we get bored of slogging down the dusty roads and stopping at the wayside inns. Robert Jordan has the ‘Ways’ and later, when even those are too tedious, the ability of just about every major character to open a gateway. Tolkien has Gwaihir the eagle tote Gandalf around in two instances (once in his escape from Orthanc, the other after his battle with the Balrog), as well as rescuing Frodo and Sam after the destruction of the Ring. There are plenty of ways to move characters around a fantasy world quickly, but here, too, we run into dangers, although a different set from those mentioned above.
Chief among these new problems is shrinkage. As characters move more quickly, the world seems smaller. It’s harder to have forgotten cities or unexplored primeval forests when people can jump from one end of the world in an eye-blink. It’s harder to adopt an ominous tone, saying, “No one knows what lies beyond the mountains,” when the characters could simply hop through a gateway or jump on an eagle and check. The solution here is to limit the method of travel to certain occasions (e.g. it only works once a year) or characters (e.g. only these two dudes can do it).
But it’s easy to run into unexpected plot consequences. People are forever asking why Gandalf didn’t just stick Frodo (with the Ring) atop Gwaihir – ship him off to Orodruin and have done with it. While it may be possible to respond to this objection, the overarching problem remains: much of fantasy depends on physical obstacles to human movement. The very notion of a quest is generally dependent on geographical distance. Shrink that distance and quests (and treks, and hunts, etc.) shrink correspondingly in their significance.
The dangers inherent in attacking the first two premises lead some writers to attack the third: they disagree with the very notion that a slog of, say, a thousand miles, must eventually get boring. In fact, many writers find opportunity in this challenge. Fantasy literature is replete with epic treks (one of my favorites being the Chain of Dogs in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen). There’s no question that a long journey in which the protagonists are exposed to strange places – the more frightening, unexpected, and exotic, the better – can be a joy to read. And yet, I would contend that most series can only pull off one or two of these. After that, the reader (and characters) are familiar with the world and we want to get on with the plot already.
There’s no perfect solution. I tend toward option B in my own writing: selective opportunities for fast travel. Having created these opporutnities, however, I’m constantly amazed at how frequently they threaten to screw up my plot. I’d be curious to hear how other readers and writers think about this “problem of distance,” and the solutions you find most compelling.