As I draw close to the end of Shogun with 430 pages of the 1210 to go I’ve been pondering the joy of the epic length novel. While books of every length have found a place on my list of favorites, from the brief but entertaining The Little Prince and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, to Diana Gabaldon’s multi volume Outlander Saga, the journey with an epic length novel ranks as one of my favorite reading experiences.
It takes a talented author to be able to hold a reader’s attention though 1000 pages of narrative; to create characters and scenarios that keep a reader flipping yet another page and coming back sometimes for weeks to find out what is going to happen next.
My attraction to the epic novel started when I surreptitiously read one of my mother’s “bodice rippers.” It was The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss. I won’t deny that at fifteen I was intrigued by the unbridled and very descriptive sex. However, what captured my imagination even more was the adventure. I read a large handful of those novels at that age and their plots now merge one with the other but I remember being swept along on sea journeys and cross country treks, into battles and out of kidnappings. I breathlessly flipped the pages to find out where the next chapter would take the heroine and her dashing, sometimes villainous hero. As I grew into my twenties the taste for the epic morphed into more serious works; the works of Michener and Uris and Pearson.
While shorter novels give the reader a few moments in the life of a protagonist usually revolving around a single major event the epic journey gives you a large chunk of a character’s life. The characters almost become an extended family and the chapters of the novel are like letters sent through the years keeping you updated on what happened next in the lives of distanced loved ones.
In some instances the author of an epic novel will make the main character, instead of a person, a place or an ideology as in the works of James A. Michener where Israel and Judaism are the protagonists of The Source, and Apartheid is the main character of The Covenant. I’ve said more than once that some of the best history lessons I’ve received have come from well researched and executed novels.
It does take a commitment to dive into an epic length journey. Often they take a little longer to sink the hook and the development of the plot is a little slower. You know if you stay with it you are committing to a serious length of time with this one set of characters especially if, like me, you find your reading time limited. But a good writer will reward the commitment with a richness of story that can’t be captured or conveyed in shorter tomes. You sign on for the extended tour, place your reading life in the hands of the author, and return home weeks later saying, “Wow, what a trip.”
The one bittersweet aspect of this type of reading happens when you form an attachment to the characters and the book draws to its end. Saying goodbye to these people and places is like saying goodbye after spending a several weeks long holiday with long lost friends. I know when I get to the end of Shogun I will spend a day or two missing Blackthorn, Lady Mariko, Toranaga, Fujiko and Kiku. For the past several weeks their lives, at least at bedtime, have become woven into mine. They’ve helped me dream of living in an exotic place at an exotic time. I shared their loves and losses, their laughter and their battles. With Blackthorn I’ve experienced a change of worldview and learned about personal change. With Mariko I’ve experienced the sorrow of being an outcast. Kiku has sung to me and served me saki and cha, and with Fujiko I’ve faced the fear of undertaking a duty fraught with the strange and unknown. With Toranaga I’ve weighed the knowledge that friends are now foes and strangers are sometimes our best allies. Writers like Clavell and with him Michener, Uris, Gabaldon, Diane Pearson, Larry McMurtry and scores of others have an admirable talent and I look forward to losing myself in more epic sagas and taking more epic journeys with them and their characters.
Some of my favorite epic journeys so far:
Shogun , Tia-Pan and Noble House by James Clavell
The Source, Texas, Chesapeake and Alaska by James A. Michener
Csardas, and Summer of Barshinskis by Diane Pearson
Trinity, and Armageddon by Leon Uris
Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, especially The Drums of Autumn.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Cashelmara, and Penmarric by Susan Howatch
Once An Eagle by Anton Myrer
The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
© 2014 M. Romeo LaFlamme