It's time for another what the crap post! All right! This time I'll be telling you about the bastard brother of epic fantasy--sword and sorcery. It is a sub-genre that is on the rise, my friends, and so it is a good idea to know what it is, read examples of it, and see if it's the type of stuff you're interested in writing. So here we go.
Some other differences between sword and sorcery and epic are magic systems and uses. Epic fantasy usually relies a lot on the use of magic. In Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series the point-of-view characters are powerful magic users. They use magic in their every-day lives. In sword and sorcery magic can be (but doesn't have to be) less prevalent. Magic in these types of stories is usually mysterious and unknown to most people. Your protagonist will likely not be a magic user in s&s, but that isn't always the case. An example of modern sword and sorcery is Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes. In this book there is a tiny, tiny glimpse of magic. The rest of the story is about a battle between two nations--neither of which are particularly noble. It is bloody, it is filthy, and it is honest about the horrors of war.
So why do writers want to tell sword and sorcery stories? Aren't they a bit insignificant? This all depends on what you as a reader are looking for, of course, but I actually find sword and sorcery to be the style I lean toward in my own writing and reading tastes. I think it is because low fantasy feels more real to me. I can understand smaller issues--relate to them somewhat better. Also, I think characters are usually developed better in s&s... usually because the author has to make readers like their bastard characters, and it takes digging deeper into a character's head to do this.
The grandfather of sword and sorcery is considered to be Robert E. Howard. (J.R.R. Tolkien is considered the grandfather of epic fantasy.) If you're wondering who Howard is, ever heard of a barbarian named Conan? Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, and David Gemmell are some of the genre's best-known writers. Sword and sorcery was huge in the 80's, and it has been back in vogue these past five years or so.
Today fantasy seems to be blending high and low. Writers like George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, and Scott Lynch--to name a few--are doing it brilliantly. I suggest starting with them to get a taste of sword and sorcery, and then work you way backward through some of the greats.
P.S. sword and sorcery is where we get chicks in chain mail bikinis. Gotta love it!