TLDR: See the highlighted portion.
High fantasy is a problematic term. I was discussing Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series with someone who has read the series many times. I am not an expert; I haven't read ANY of the books, yet. [Edit: I have since read the first book and have thoughts at the end.]
The discussion began with whether it was okay to read on an e-ink Kindle, and specifically whether I would need to flip back and forth to the maps, genealogy trees, etc. in the book. In fact, it kind of started with whether one should just dive in and read without worrying about cataloguing the proper nouns or whether one should take notes. I kind of settled on note-taking. It seems that reading Erikson is the kind of activity where investment pays off, so I'm going to give it a go, despite the fact that I tend not to like high fantasy from the 80s forward. I find it too often riddled with non-essential proper nouns and history.
And that is all context for the following Discord discussion in which I said something that seems kind of important to me. (I often don't know what I really think until I hear myself say it.) The other conversationalist will be simply "JK" for anonymity.
JK: Yeah - it’s kinda nuts how developed the world is but as I mentioned in my message it’s deffo not ‘high fantasy’
It’s maybe ‘Epic Low Fantasy’ lol
Ray Otus: "High" is a problematic term for sure. I'd say there is fantasy that is concerned with world building from the top down (global, thorough, past and present, methodic) and there is fantasy concerned with world building from the bottom up (inside out, incidental, on-the-fly, always in context). For me that distinction accounts for a lot of high vs low -- moreso than grittiness of tone or how polarized the morality of the world is.
Any time you "need" a map to read the fiction, you are dealing with top-down fantasy. Most of the old sword-and-sorcery stuff ends up having maps (e.g. Newhon) but you never really need it to read the fiction and it wasn't there from the start. Just something that came later.
JK: Totally agree!
Ray Otus: I tend to gravitate toward characters and stories over world-building, so I like the bottom up approach better for my own reading. That doesn't make it a better approach. Many people like the top-down approach more.
But I like Tolkien too, so ... lol. I'm not exclusive.
JK: I really like the way you define that distinction & Erikson’s stuff is deffo bottom up - there is a very large cast of characters & he often focuses on how the ‘meta’-forces (the Gods, the Empire etc) effect the the ‘regular Joe’s’ & (arguably) the main focus is a low level military unit who were probably his main party in gaming terms. I’ve never read Glen Cook’s Black Company novels but many have drawn those out as an influence & he’s said as much himself
(I also love Tolkien despite being a ‘low’ guy in theory!)
Ray Otus: Cook is definitely bottom up. It's interesting you say Erikson is that way. I would have guessed top-down, but as someone who hasn't even read the first sentence I'll buy what you are selling. Hmm. This will be an interesting read for me I think.
I guess from one perspective you might call Tolkien bottom up as you don't need a map, not really, to read The Hobbit or even The Lord of the Rings. Many people talk like Tolkien had it all worked out before he published any of it, but the 1937 edition of The Hobbit would argue otherwise. I think it worked hand-in-hand: the world-building and the fiction.
JK: Cool - let me know how you go - one final caveat - a lot of people don’t like the first book (!) but push through & enjoy it from then on (!!) I personally don’t understand that as I really enjoyed the first one from pretty much the first page but I’d be remiss to not mention this common criticism!
He even talks in the intro to the copy I have about being told to rewrite it (but in characteristic fashion refusing lol).
Ray Otus: I sort of expect a hurdle. A lot of great fiction (TV series included) take a while to get attached to, but then they start yielding richness after richness.
People who bounce off of Erikson are probably not interested in being caught up in a project. And that's ok! I'm often that person.
[Edit. I enjoyed the first book. It has a sprawling scope and cast of characters that feels epic. However, it has a low tone and it really does build from the bottom up. There are bug people, for instance, but you don't know that until you encounter some. And even then, you don't know much about them until you meet them a few times. Similarly, the map, while cool, is not needed for the first book. The places are just places and the things between them are only real when they relate to the fictional time they take and the descriptions of journeying / the things that happen in between cities on the journey. Epic Low Fantasy is a pretty apt description of it. In fact, it's so reserved in the information it gives you about the world that it often feels like too little for understanding rather than too much. I think Erikson likes that mode. As a reader it can feel a little unfriendly.]