Thursday, 12 April 2018

Gratuitous Lists: Twenty Great Complete Fantasy Series

When writing articles about “the best fantasy series ever”, it’s inevitable that 1) the list will feature a lot of incomplete series, and 2) the list will feature a lot of complaints about “how can you call this series great when it’s incomplete, the next book might be rubbish?” This is a fair criticism. In fact, given that some of the biggest and most-namechecked modern fantasy series are incomplete (including A Song of Ice and Fire, The Kingkiller Chronicle, The Stormlight Archive and more), removing them from such a list immediately adds a lot of lesser-known series, which makes the list more interesting.

So here is a list of twenty great completed fantasy series. The criteria I used was as follows: the series can have sequels, but the core series itself must be done. You can read more books set in the world, but the story told has to be a complete entity with a beginning, middle and end. Hence the presence of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn even though Tad Williams has written an incomplete sequel trilogy, two short stories and two short novels set in the same world. The same thing for Steven Erikson’s Malazan sequence (although this was a little more dubious, given the presence of sequel and prequel series and complementary books written by his co-creator Ian Esslemont).

More arguable was a series which is ostensibly complete but more blatantly stands as part of an inter-connected whole. This immediately invalidated Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse series, which comprises two complete sub-series but requires the upcoming third series to complete its narrative arc, and Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, where the story finishes but key thematic and character stories continue into three stand-alone novels and the incoming sequel trilogy. Brandon Sanderson was particularly difficult to juggle with this, although ultimately the original Mistborn trilogy was omitted from the list more for comparative quality purposes (it’s just bubbling under) rather than being an incomplete narrative itself.

This is list is also not presented in any kind of numerical order, as doing so would simply invite arguments about the order rather than discussion of the books themselves, and when you’re talking about this quality level the differences are going to be somewhat slight. This is also not a list of the twenty "best series ever" (which is too big a claim), but merely twenty really good completed series. There are many others.


The Middle-earth Series by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hobbit (1937) The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) • The Silmarillion (1977) • Unfinished Tales (1980)

Further reading: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962) • The Road Goes Ever On (1967) • The History of Middle-earth series (12 volumes, 1983-96) • The Children of Húrin (2007) • Beren and Lúthien (2017) • The Fall of Gondolin (2018)

J.R.R. Tolkien created – or at least defined – the entire modern field of epic fantasy with The Lord of the Rings, a vast tome chronicling the War of the Ring between the free peoples of Middle-earth and the Dark Lord Sauron, as seen through the eyes of four modest hobbits. The novel was written as a sequel to his much simpler earlier story, The Hobbit, but grew in the telling to a huge story about the meaning of simple heroism and the passing of an age. Together, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings form a complete story, but fans wanting more can read The Silmarillion, the vast history and mythology of the entire world that Tolkien spent most of his life writing (he started working on it in 1917 and it was published sixty years later, four years after his own death). The oft-overlooked Unfinished Tales collects his other extant canonical writings on the subject of Middle-earth, including short stories and worldbuilding essays, some of which (like Gandalf’s account of the Quest of Erebor and a more detailed history of Númenor) are essential reading.

Hardcore fans can also read every single surviving draft, memo and note Tolkien wrote on the subject of Middle-earth, collected in The History of Middle-earth, as well as curiosities such as a collection of sheet music and songs about Middle-earth (The Road Goes Ever On) and some poems about tertiary characters (The Adventures of Tom Bombadil). There’s also The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin, episodes from Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion which have been edited into stand-alone novellas.

Tolkien wrote with poetry and skill, creating an entirely new type of literature on the fly. More to the point, he wrote epic and personal stories which continue to resonate today.

MANY MORE AFTER THE JUMP



The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan (with Brandon Sanderson, Vols. 12-14)

The Eye of the World (1990) The Great Hunt (1990) • The Dragon Reborn (1991) • The Shadow Rising (1992) • The Fires of Heaven (1993) • Lord of Chaos (1994) • A Crown of Swords (1996) • The Path of Daggers (1998) • Winter’s Heart (2000) • Crossroads of Twilight (2002) • Knife of Dreams (2005) • The Gathering Storm (2009) • Towers of Midnight (2010) • A Memory of Light (2013)

Further reading: The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (1997, with Teresa Patterson) • “New Spring” (1998, in Legends, ed. Robert Silverberg) • New Spring: A Novel (2004) • “River of Souls” (2013, in Unfettered, ed. Shawn Speakman) • The Wheel of Time Companion (2015)

The Wheel of Time is a daunting undertaking, comprising fourteen huge tomes and spanning some four million words, or almost ten times the length of The Lord of the Rings. Fortunately, it’s also extremely approachable, with easy-to-read prose conveying some very impressive worldbuilding, an excellent magic system and a more morally murky story (rooted in believable conflicts between entrenched power groups) than it first appears. Long-defunct 1990s fantasy website Stonedog called Robert Jordan the Stephen King of epic fantasy for his accessibility, which is reasonable.

The series is famously problematic though. It’s too long with too much filler, particularly in the third quarter (from the start of Book 8 to the middle of Book 11 can be a bit of a slog), and the characters are never as fleshed-out as they really needed to be, mainly because there’s so many of them. Robert Jordan’s desire to create a feminist work of fantasy was arguably undercut by his female characters not always living up to that (a lot of them still end up with a man in order to feel self-actualised, even the one who spends half the series dead), but the ambition and premise of a world where only women can use sorcery safely is still kind of impressive (in a fairly low-hanging fruit kind of way). Robert Jordan also passed away in 2007 before finishing the series, but Brandon Sanderson did a fine job of completing the series in an appropriately epic style, despite a few stylistic clashes.

The Wheel of Time may be the very definition of a flawed series, but it’s also highly, compulsively readable and entertaining, with some of the most epic and impressive moments in epic fantasy.


Crown of Stars by Kate Elliott

King’s Dragon (1997) Prince of Dogs (1998) • The Burning Stone (1999) • Child of Flame (2000) • The Gathering Storm (2003) • In the Ruins (2005) • Crown of Stars (2006)

Further reading: “Riding the Shore of the River of Death” (2009, in A Fantasy Medley, ed. Yanni Kuznia)

Crown of Stars is a seven-volume epic fantasy series set in a lightly fantasised version of Europe, which at first glance bears comparisons to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. However, the differences are significant. Crown of Stars leans on Central and Eastern European mythology and history from the Dark Ages, so much smaller armies and more insidious cultural and religious differences and pogroms are the order of the day. Although the scale of the story is smaller in that sense, in terms of the emotional journey of the characters it is every bit as resonant, as we follow the religiously-minded Alain and Liath, a woman struggling to contain her own sorcerous power, on their journeys from nobodies to people who hold the fate of a continent in their hands.

The series is perhaps a tad overlong (it could have had a book shaved off) and the ultimate confrontation between humanity and the strange Ashioi never really lands as hard as it should, but it’s an impressive series with some of the best villains in recent fantasy history (Hugh will make you want to physically punch things) and a tremendously subtle exploration of religion (through a matriarchal but corrupt version of Christianity) and the responsibilities of power and governance.


The Acts of Caine by Matthew Woodring Stover
Heroes Die (1997) Blade of Tyshalle (2001) • Caine Black Knife (2008) • Caine’s Law (2012)

The Acts of Caine is the fantasy genre given three shots of premium vodka. It’s not quite like anything else ever written in the genre. The first book sets up an interesting premise: 23rd Century Earth has found a way of opening a portal to a sort-of standard epic fantasy world and sends “Actors” through to fight on this world, their violent adventures recorded and played back as entertainment. 

Actor Hari Michaelson, known as “Caine” on Overworld, is one of the most popular actors due to his adventures always escalating into blood and chaos. The line between Hari and Caine is a thin one and when his lover is captured by the new Dark Lord of Overworld, the result is absolute mayhem.
Blade of Tyshalle dramatically changes things up, becoming an epic meditation on existentialism, love, loss and pain. Caine Black Knife apparently is a reset, a simpler story about Caine fighting an enemy in the badlands, but the mind-blowing Caine’s Law recasts the narrative as part of a much larger, more complex tapestry.

Heroes Die is eminently approachable, but the rest of the series is incredibly complex thematically, with Stover taking delight in wrong-footing the audience and its expectations. The story is rich, daunting and utterly rewarding, one of the most accomplished works in the fantasy genre.
Stover has hinted that the series may continue with a sequel sequence, but these plans are on hold for the time being and the existing four books work very well as a complete narrative.


The Realm of the Elderlings by Robin Hobb

The Farseer Trilogy: Assassin’s Apprentice (1995) Royal Assassin (1996) • Assassin’s Quest (1997)
The Liveship Traders: Ship of Destiny (1998) The Mad Ship (1999) • Ship of Magic (2000)
The Tawny Man: Fool’s Errand (2001) The Golden Fool (2002) • Fool’s Fate (2003)
The Rain Wild Chronicles: Dragon Keeper (2009) Dragon Haven (2010) • City of Dragons (2011) • Blood of Dragons (2013)
The Fitz and the Fool: Fool’s Assassin (2014) Fool’s Quest (2015) • Assassin’s Fate (2017)

Further reading: “The Inheritance” (2000, in Voyager 5: Collector’s Edition) “Homecoming” (2002, in Legends II, ed. Robert Silverberg) • “Words Like Coins” (2009, in A Fantasy Medley, ed. Yanni Kuznia) • “Blue Boots” (2010, in Songs of Love and Death, ed. George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois) • “Cat’s Meat” (2011, in The Inheritance and Other Stories) • The Wilful Princess and the Piebald Prince (2013) • “Her Father’s Sword” (2017, in The Book of Swords, ed. Gardner Dozois)

Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings sequence is impressive from two angles: the first is that it is huge, comprising sixteen novels in five distinct series, published across twenty-two years. The second is that it is extremely well-written, Hobb having an eye for character and emotion rarely matched elsewhere in the fantasy genre. She is also skilled at exploring new facets of characters you’d assume would have been thoroughly exhausted, as well as introducing new memorable characters even late in her series.

Even better, her five series set in the same world can be read as both one mega-long saga but also as five distinct stories, each with their own beginning, middle and end (especially Liveship and Rain Wilds, which are only tangentially related to the core story of Fitz and the Fool).

There are negatives to the series. The individual books are often overlong and sometimes the main story takes a holiday in favour of filler material (some of it worthwhile and interesting, some not so much). Rain Wilds should have been more tightly edited down to a trilogy. Worldbuilding is not a strong focus of Hobb’s, and those who enjoy that aspect of fantasy may find the depth of the background lacking.

But most of that is immaterial: Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings is a series rooted in character and emotional truths, with a sustained undercurrent of tragedy and loss, punctuated by moments of hope and understanding. It is a core work of modern fantasy.


The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

The Dying Earth (1950) The Eyes of the Overworld (1964) • Cugel’s Saga (1983) • Rhialto the Marvellous (1984)

Further reading: A Quest for Simbilis (1974, by Michael Shea) • Songs of the Dying Earth (2009, short story tribute anthology, ed. George R.R. Martin & Gardener Dozois) • “Hew the Tintmaster” (2010, short story by Michael Shea in Swords & Dark Magic, ed. Jonathan Strahan & Lou Anders)

Omnibus editions: The Compleat Dying Earth (1999) Tales of the Dying Earth (2000)

Jack Vance was one of the most linguistically gifted science fiction and fantasy authors of all time, his prose erudite, witty and always an unvarnished joy to read. He was prolific but skilled, turning out novel after novel which revealed a fantastic imagination at work.

He had many great novels and series (one other appears elsewhere in this list), but his best-known and most influential is The Dying Earth. Comprising two short story collections book-ending a duology focused on the character of Cugel the Clever (an amoral rogue whom it is easy to dislike, but hard not to sympathise with completely), this work is set millions of years in the future when the Sun is old, bloated and about to go out. Mankind lives a twilight existence on the cusp of extinction, but warmth, wit and humour abound (as do greed, cynicism and hypocrisy). Vance’s stories are colourful and compelling.

The series was also incredibly influential, with Gary Gygax “borrowing” the Dying Earth magic system (down to its spell names) for his Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game, and the series directly inspiring Gene Wolfe to write his seminal Book of the New Sun. In 2009 George R.R. Martin (who cites Vance as his favourite author) released Songs of the Dying Earth, an authorised tribute anthology to Vance featuring authors such as Dan Simmons, Liz Williams and Neil Gaiman delivering their own takes on Vance’s world. Michael Shea has also published fiction set in the same world, with Vance’s blessing.


Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams

The Dragonbone Chair (1988) Stone of Farewell (1990) • To Green Angel Tower (1993)

Further reading: “The Burning Man” (1998, in Legends, ed. Robert Silverberg) The Heart of What Was Lost (2017)

The publication of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn was a transformative moment in the history of fantasy. Williams’ trilogy was the first work which engaged with Tolkien on an equal footing without ripping him off, delivering a similar story of the simplest of people rising to help save the world, on this occasion by finding the three titular swords of the saga. Williams evoked not only Tolkien (and challenged some of his stereotypes) but also Mervyn Peake, with the vast rambling castle of the Hayholt and its kitchen boy protagonist both recalling Gormenghast.

The result is a stunning accomplishment, well-written with the kind of worldbuilding that hadn’t been seen since Middle-earth. It’s Williams’ challenging of fantasy stereotypes (giving real character to the “villainous” Norns and a solid motivation to the “evil” Storm King) that is most successful, along with his memorable characters. It’s an overlong work that occasionally falters in pace (especially in the third novel, which by itself is the longest fantasy novel ever written), but the momentum and emotional weight of the story is impressive.

After many years refusing to countenance a sequel, Williams made the surprising decision in return to Osten Ard in force. The result was a direct sequel trilogy, The Last King of Osten Ard, comprising The Witchwood Crown, Empire of Grass and The Navigator’s Children, along with two stand-alone “interquel” books, The Heart of What Was Lost and The Shadow of Things to Come. So far these extensions to the original trilogy have been very successful, but the original trilogy stands alone as one of the most accomplished, complete works of epic fantasy published to date.

It’s also a very influential one: the first line of dialogue in the entire trilogy is “All men must die”, and three years after reading The Dragonbone Chair George R.R. Martin started writing his own fantasy “trilogy.”


The Empire Trilogy by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts

Daughter of the Empire (1987) Servant of the Empire (1990) • Mistress of the Empire (1992)
Further reading: Magician (1982, by Raymond E. Feist)

Both Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts are well-known fantasy authors in their own right, the former for his Riftwar Cycle of interconnected sub-series and the latter for her Wars of Light and Shadow mega-series (now in its final stretch). But arguably their writing skills have never been better than during this collaboration. Feist tends to use characters to drive plot whilst Wurts is much better at exploring the psychological motivations of characters as an end to themselves; Wurts’ character focus and Feist’s plot construction skills (which all too often take on a mechanical and predictable aspect in his solo work) result in a stunning work of fantasy.

This trilogy is set during events of Feist’s first novel, Magician (1982), but focuses on Kelewan, the world on the other side of the rift. It centres on the character of Mara of the Acoma. She is elevated to command her house after her brother and father are killed in the Riftwar but she eventually discovers they were really murdered by her rivals in the Minwanabi clan. Nearly destitute and threatened by enemies within and without, Mara has to play the Game of the Council with skill and cunning as she accumulates enemies including the Council, the Minwanabi and eventually the Assembly of Magicians themselves.

Although further resonance can be found from reading Magician first, the Empire Trilogy stands alone and is remarkable, Wurts taking Feist’s vague concept of Kelewan and the Game and turning it into a “murderous arena of human conflict.” There’s a terrific depth and exploration of character, most notably of Mara herself but also those she meets – and sometimes ruthlessly uses – along the way. This is epic fantasy realised through polite manners hiding savage words and polite deportment masking knives in the shadows. The trilogy is long, but utterly addictive. Feist, certainly, has never written anything remotely on this level since, and it remains fascinating.


The Bel Dame Apocrypha by Kameron Hurley

Gods War (2010) Infidel (2011) • Rapture (2012)

Further reading: “The Seams Between the Stars” (2011) • “Afterbirth” (2011) • The Body Project (2014)

It’s hard to categorise The Bel Dame Apocrypha as science fiction or fantasy: starships are mentioned and the action overtly takes place in the distant future on an alien planet, but there’s also magic (created by bug-like creatures) and spiritual elements to the story. The backdrop is a fierce war between two cultures, both apparently distant descendants of Islam but having gone in radically different directions (one conservative and pious, the other matriarchal). But the focus is on Nyx, a damaged bel dame or bounty-hunter-for-hire, who has to overcome her own (considerable) personal demons to save her friends and the world.

The Bel Dame trilogy is a rollicking good story with lots of great action wrapped around a personal story of self-exploration, all told in the prose equivalent of drinking whiskey neat. This is a story with both attitude and depth and feels like a jolt of fresh air in the field of fantastic fiction. Hurley continues in this vein in her (nominally) more traditional – but still incomplete – epic fantasy series, The Worldbreaker Saga.


The Black Company by Glen Cook

The Books of the North: The Black Company (1984) Shadows Linger (1984) • The White Rose (1985) • The Silver Spike (1989) • Port of Shadows (2018)
The Books of the South: Shadow Games (1989) • Dreams of Steel (1990)
The Books of Glittering Stone: Bleak Seasons (1996) • She is the Darkness (1997) • Water Sleeps (1999) • Soldiers Live (2000)
Omnibus Editions: The Chronicles of the Black Company (2007) • The Books of the South (2008) • The Return of the Black Company (2009) • The Many Deaths of the Black Company (2010)

Further reading: “Raker” (1982, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) • “Tides Elba” (2010, in Swords & Dark Magic, ed. Jonathan Strahan & Lou Anders) • “Smelling Danger” (2011, in Tales of Dark Fantasy, ed. William Schafer) • “Shaggy Dog Bridge” (2013, in Fearsome Journeys, ed. Jonathan Strahan) • “Bone Candy” (2014, in Shattered Shields, ed. Jennifer Brozek & Bryan Schmidt) • “Bone Eaters” (2015, in Operation Arcana, ed. John Joseph Adams)

Glen Cook’s Black Company sequence arrived at a moment when post-Tolkien fantasy was at its most twee and comfortable and proceeded to give it one almighty kick up the backside. This is fantasy turned into an outright opera of war and conflict between competing amoral forces, with a (somewhat) hapless mercenary band caught up in the maelstrom. Foreshadowing the rise of the grimdark movement, this series delights in its depiction of all sides in a war for survival as greedy and cynical as the others, but it would be wrong to say that this is a nihilistic and hopeless work. As oblivion threatens, competing forces learn to work together and even the most desperate foe may become an (eventually) trusted ally, if not friend.

It’s also an imaginative work, with the grunt’s eye view of the conflict contrasted with wonderful moments of surrealist fantasy, including air-whales and talking menhirs. It’s this contrast of the bleak and the hopeful, the vengeful and the compassionate and the mundane and the utterly fantastical that sticks with the reader long after the series is done. A key influence on A Song of Ice and Fire and The Malazan Book of the Fallen (among others), and an interesting comparison series to David Gemmell’s early work (Legend was published very close to The Black Company), The Black Company is an essential slice of fantasy fiction, one that is set to expand shortly with the release of a stand-alone “interquel”, Port of Shadows.


The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) The Tombs of Atuan (1971) • The Farthest Shore (1972) • Tehanu (1990) • The Other Wind (2001)

Further reading: “The Word of Unbinding” (1964, in Fantastic Stories of Imagination) • “The Rule of Names” (1964, in Fantastic Stories of Imagination) • Tales from Earthsea (2001) • “The Daughter of Odren” (2014)

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series may not be her finest work (an honour that resides with her adult SF novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed) but it may be her most influential. An early work of secondary world and young adult fantasy, following Lord of the Rings by a decade but having almost nothing in common with it, it is set in a vast archipelago where a young boy, Ged, joins a wizard’s school and learns the ways of magic. The series focuses on the idea of power and responsibility, and also the Taoist notion of balance.

The series is also notable for its cast of mostly non-white characters, its use of dragons as other sapient beings rather than fearsome monsters and for how it grows with the readers, becoming more reflective as the series continues.


Lyonesse by Jack Vance

Lyonesse: Suldrun’s Garden (1983) Lyonesse II: The Green Pearl (1985) • Lyonesse III: Madouc (1989)
Omnibus: The Complete Lyonesse (2010)

I had to think hard on whether to give any one author more than one series on this list, but in the end I had to take the view that Jack Vance’s World Fantasy Award-winning Lyonesse Trilogy, although less well-known than The Dying Earth, is every bit its equal and may in fact be its superior. Set in the Elder Islands, a fictional archipelago in the Bay of Biscay that we know are doomed to sink, the trilogy follows the adventures of Aillas the young King of Troicinet who comes into conflict with the cruel and ambitious King Casmir of Lyonesse. The two kings, whose antagonism is centred on Aillas’s love affair with Casmir’s daughter Suldrun, become bitter rivals as they attempt to win the political leaders of the Elder Isles (who are distracted by the invasion of a ruthless race known as the Ska) to their side.

This political jockeying for power and the depiction of knights in shining armour who turn out to be complete arseholes seems to have directly influenced A Song of Ice and Fire (Vance is Martin’s favourite author) and is contrasted against much funnier and more whimsical subplots, usually revolving around the interaction between magicians, servants of the various kings and the capricious fairies inhabiting the vast Forest of Tantravalles which covers the largest island of Hybras. Lyonesse is Vance’s most consistent work, with a significant narrative drive across the whole trilogy (in contrast to his earlier Dying Earth and SF Demon Princes series, which are much more episodic) which Vance maintains from start to finish.

It’s also a trilogy with much more human, deeper characters than in some of Vance’s other work, which delivers real moments of comedy, tragedy and pathos. This is a trilogy which will have you laughing out loud at one courtly, witty exchange between courtiers on one page and will have you reeling in horror on the next.

The Lyonesse Trilogy is an exceptional work of fantasy, much less well-known and less-read than it should be, and an essential part of Jack Vance’s considerable contribution to the field.


Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003) • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005) • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

Further reading: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2001) Quidditch Through the Ages (2001) • The Tales of Beedle the Bard (2007) • Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide (2016) • Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics and Pesky Poltergeists (2016) • Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies (2016) • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016)

You may have heard of this one. J.K. Rowling’s story of a young boy who becomes a wizard is the biggest-selling fantasy series of all time, with sales approaching 600 million, with ten films based on the series produced and several more on the way. There’s also been a successful stage play and short stories in the same setting.

On the surface Harry Potter does little that’s new, its story of a youngster attending a wizarding school done before and (arguably) better by authors like Ursula K. Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones. However, Rowling infused her series with depth and resonance, turning Harry into a slightly darker figure as the series progressed and raising the stakes with a surprisingly ruthless attitude to the secondary cast. The series is entertaining and somewhat twee in its depiction of British private school life but Rowling knows to infuse her fairy tale with darkness around the edges. The result is a compellingly readable series for adults and children alike.


The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

Gardens of the Moon (1999) Deadhouse Gates (2000) • Memories of Ice (2001) • House of Chains (2002) • Midnight Tides (2004) • The Bonehunters (2006) • Reaper’s Gale (2007) • Toll the Hounds (2008) • Dust of Dreams (2009) • The Crippled God (2010)

Further reading: “Blood Follows” (2002) “The Healthy Dead” (2004) Night of Knives (2004, by Ian C. Esslemont) • “The Lees of Laughter’s End” (2007) Return of the Crimson Guard (2007, by Ian C. Esslemont) • “Crack’d Pot Trail” (2009) • Stonewielder (2010, by Ian C. Esslemont) • Orb Sceptre Throne (2012, by Ian C. Esslemont) • “The Wurms of Blearmouth” (2012) • Blood and Bone (2012, by Ian C. Esslemont) • Assail (2014, by Ian C. Esslemont) • “The Fiends of Nightmaria” (2016)

The merest mention of the Malazan Book of the Fallen sends some fantasy readers running screaming for cover. Steven Erikson’s ten-volume magnum opus is not for the faint-hearted, with a reputation for complexity and being unapproachable which is quite unfair but seems to have stuck. Erikson’s series is vast and complex, spanning multiple kingdoms, continents, religions and empires, along with several differing forms of magic and lengthy thematic musings on everything from capitalism to family. This is a fantasy series which evolves from a pulp adventure at the start to a literary assault on the senses by the end, taking few prisoners along the way.

Malazan is many things: it’s a war story, most obviously inspired by Glen Cook’s The Black Company. It’s also a revisionist epic fantasy, having little truck with stableboys who become kings and instead showing people using their power to indulge their darker sides before facing redemption, sharing this trait with Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. It’s also frequently hilarious, Erikson developing a knack for the absurd and the whimsical that, at its best, matches Terry Pratchett.

It’s complex and dense, but also rewarding. Erikson and his co-creator Ian Esslemont have created one of the most imaginative and constantly inventive fantasy worlds ever created. From sentient dinosaurs who deploy gravity-based magic to dragons made of magic-deadening powder to giant hounds forged out of elements, the two authors never tire in their commitment to finding the fantasy in epic fantasy. Fans of low-magic, “realistic” settings will find no joy here.

It’s hard to deny that the series can be confusing (particularly on a first read) and it’s also hard to deny that Erikson doesn’t always carry his readers with him as his series moves from pulp adventure to literary musings, and the prequel Kharkanas Trilogy saw many readers jump ship altogether (to the point where Erikson has temporarily put that trilogy on hold to write a direct Malazan sequel, the Witness Trilogy). But there’s a constant feeling of reaching in Erikson’s work that is missing from most other epic fantasy. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is, quite simply put, the most ambitious work of fantasy ever written and, even if it falls short, it is frequently breathtaking in the attempt.

Fans of the ten-volume series can also find enjoyment in Erikson’s accompanying Tales of Bauchelain and Kobral Broach series of novellas, and Ian Cameron Esslemont’s six-volume Malazan Empire companion series, as well as Esslemont’s incomplete Path to Ascendancy series about the founding of the Empire.


The Eternal Sky Trilogy by Elizabeth Bear

Range of Ghosts (2012) Shattered Pillars (2013) • Steles of the Sky (2014)

A key criticism of epic fantasy has been its occasional tendency towards Orientalism, having shady hordes of evil enemies threatening from the East, a perceived throwback to European fears of the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Huns and other “barbarian hordes” threatening civilisation. Even stronger works of the genre occasionally fall into this trap and fail to challenge it: The Lord of the Rings identifies the Easterlings and Haradrim as barbarous hordes (although Tolkien seemed to change his mind on this in later edits, adding the line about Sam wondering if they were truly evil or had been threatened into service) and A Song of Ice and Fire’s Dothraki, a nod to the Huns and Mongols, seem to lack any kind of notion of such things as siege warfare, siege engines, diplomacy (albeit backed by the threat of overwhelming force) or the use of the carrot as well as the stick, all things that the Mongols in particular were very good at employing. Even when the eastern hordes are good guys, like the Aiel in The Wheel of Time, they seem to be lacking in anything approaching the real-life sophistication of the steppe nomads.

The Eternal Sky has no truck with this. Riffing off Middle-Eastern and Central Asian history and geography, Elizabeth Bear’s striking trilogy depicts these cultures as complex, motivated by competing economic, military, political and religious ideals. The Qersnyk are the Dothraki done with a bit more respect for the original historical inspiration, fearsome in battle, but somewhat merciful in victory (as long as you surrender honourably and show them respect) and extremely canny in the ways of the battlefield and the courts of foreign powers.

The Eternal Sky has more going for it than just challenging genre tropes. Bear’s prose is stripped back, elegant if you will, and her characters are powerfully-motivated individuals striving to achieve their goals against all the odds. The world is at once closely based on real history but also stunningly fantastical, with its sapient tiger people, lizardfolk, dragons and giant bears, not to mention the ever-shifting skies which change in accordance with the dominant belief of each region. Most importantly, it’s a great story as well, with Temur fighting to reclaim his birthright and Samarkar-la, a canny woman who trades political power as the emperor’s sister for the personal power of becoming a wizard.

Bear recently started work on a successor series, The Lotus Kingdoms, but The Eternal Sky stands alone and well.


The Monarchies of God by Paul Kearney

Hawkwood’s Voyage (1995) The Heretic Kings (1996) • The Iron Wars (1999) • The Second Empire (2000) • Ships From the West (2003)
Omnibus editions: Hawkwood and the Kings (2010) Century of the Soldier (2010)

Paul Kearney is one of the genre’s most perennially underread authors, a writer as adept at writing mythology-infused fiction about Ireland (A Different Kingdom) as he is writing a modern fairy tale (The Wolf in the Attic), a historically-inspired Greek fantasy (The Ten Thousand) and actual Warhammer 40,000 fiction (Calgar’s Siege).

The Monarchies of God is the closest he’s ever come to writing a big epic fantasy series. The gang’s all here: vast armies clash, sinister supernatural forces stir to take advantage of the petty warfare between human kingdoms and political intrigue is rife. Yet Kearney achieves all of this in a page count that is so low as to be positively indecent: the combined page-count of all five books in the series barely scrapes that of one of Steven Erikson’s longer books, let alone a George R.R. Martin or J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Monarchies of God therefore moves with a purpose and with energy. There’s no wasted prose, no filler, no chaff. Yet the series isn’t really rushed either (at least, not until you get to the last book, where it feels for the first time that an extra 100 pages or so may have been useful to flesh out the finale). The politics and religions of the nations are explained well, the characters are all extremely well-crafted and the action scenes crackle with power and vigour.

Kearney’s ace card is simple: he writes the best battle scenes ever seen in the epic fantasy genre, scenes which get across the chaos and fury of the battle but also how military tactics, planning and logistics are important. As this series takes place in a Renaissance time period, we also get battles with culverins, bombards and arquebuses rather than just swords and bows, which makes for a very different atmosphere. He also takes care to show the cost of warfare and how it is not something to be entered into lightly, and moral ambiguity abounds, but so does heroism and self-sacrifice.

The Monarchies of God is short, to the point and excellent, the punk rock of the epic fantasy genre.


The Gormenghast Trilogy

Titus Groan (1946) Gormenghast (1950) • Titus Alone (1959)

Further reading: Boy in Darkness (1956) Titus Awakes (2011)

Mervyn Peake’s seminal fantasy trilogy is baroque, gothic and dense, more imposing than the vast edifice at the centre of the story, a city-castle ossified in ritual and mired in the past. Into this kingdom of dust and rote comes Steerpike, a vicious kitchen boy who rises to a position of political power through his cunning and ruthlessness, a Littlefinger with the murderous impulses of Gregor Clegane (although of course preceding both by half a century).

Gormenghast is written in a challenging manner, Peake building a mountain of chapters out of metaphors and descriptions which seem to go on forever, a narrative Escher illustration. But once you penetrate the linguistic architecture of the novel there are great joys to be found: a cast of grotesques, vicious plot twists and the curious sympathetic heart of the novel, Titus Groan, who has to stop Steerpike despite the handicap of being a newborn baby for most of the first volume.

Peake only completed the first two novels to his satisfaction during his lifetime, with his writing and painting both being afflicted by the onset of Parkinson’s Disease. The third novel was also heavily edited against Peake’s wishes, with several entire chapters cut. The third novel, eventually published in a restored edition in 1970, is a very bizarre travelogue written by Titus as he leaves the castle behind and finds a strange, almost steampunk world beyond. Although he finds the world bizarre and frightening, when faced with the prospect of returning home he rejects it and sets out in search of a new home.

Peake wrote another novella, Boy in Darkness, about Titus although this is only tangentially related to the trilogy itself. He started work on a fourth book, Titus Awakes, but he only wrote a few pages before abandoning it due to his illness. His wife completed the book but hid the manuscript, it was found and published in 2011, but is generally regarded as a disappointment.

But taking the first two novels as a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, there is nothing else really like them in the fantasy oeuvre. Memorable, challenging and worthwhile.


The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny

Nine Princes in Amber (1970) The Guns of Avalon (1972) • Sign of the Unicorn (1975) • The Hand of Oberon (1976) • The Courts of Chaos (1978) • Trumps of Doom (1985) • Blood of Amber (1986) • Sign of Chaos (1987) • Knight of Shadows (1989) • Prince of Chaos (1991)

Omnibus editions: The Chronicles of Amber (1990) • The Second Chronicles of Amber (1992) • The Great Book of Amber (1999)

Further reading: “The Salesman’s Tale” (1994, in Amberzine #6) • “The Shroudling and the Guisel” (1994, in Realms of Fantasy) • “Blue Horse, Dancing Mountains” (1995, in Wheel of Fortune) • “Coming to a Cord” (1995, in Pirate Writings) • “Hall of Mirrors” (1996, in Castle Fantastic) • “A Secret of Amber” (2005, Amberzine #12-15)

Roger Zelazny was already a celebrated science fiction author for works like Lord of Light (1967) and Damnation Alley (1969) when he moved into fantasy with Nine Princes in Amber. Taking Zelazny’s free-wheeling prose and loose approach to scientific realism and applying it to fantasy made for a remarkable experience. The action starts in New York but moves to the fantastical realm of Amber, of which all other worlds (including our own) are but shadows. The protagonist discovers he is fated to rule Amber if he can survive. The result is a colourful cornucopia of ideas spanning entire worlds.

The Chronicles of Amber is much more overtly fantastical than many secondary world fantasies, nodding to the same sources as Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion multiverse but delving more deeply into one set of characters, the Amber royal family, a competitive group who vie for the crown of Amber with ambition. There are great battles and impressive political manoeuvrings (the fact that Zelazny and George R.R. Martin were great friends – they worked on Wild Cards together several times before Zelazyn’s untimely passing – is unsurprising), as well moments of poetry, grace and cynicism. Amber is where all of the rich trappings of fantasy can be found, told through two five-volume series, albeit series where each volume is short and laser-focused.


The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

The Shadow of the Torturer (1980) The Claw of the Conciliator (1981) • The Sword of the Lictor (1982) • The Citadel of the Autarch (1983)

Omnibus edition: The Book of the New Sun (1998)

Further reading: The Castle of the Otter (1982) The Urth of the New Sun (1987) The Book of the Long Sun (1993-96) • The Book of the Short Sun (1999-2001)

The Guardian once described The Book of the New Sun as “science fiction’s Ulysses,” which had the impressive features of being 1) kind of true and 2) made sure that most people who heard that would never read it, because Ulysses is, although a seminal work of literature, also difficult and time-consuming to parse.

The Book of the New Sun is actually far easier to read than Ulysses. Its claim – or the claims of its fans, as Gene Wolfe is far humbler about it – to be the most literate work of SF or fantasy of all time more emerging slowly from a deeper reading of the text. The surface story is reasonably straightforward: the torturer Severian, toiling in the city of Nessus, falls in love with one of his would-be “clients” and is exiled to a distant city. His journey there – across a strange landscape which gradually reveals itself to be a far future South America – is heavy with portent, meaning, occasional action interludes and lots of self-examination. It’s also full of slightly odd moments such as where Severian laments he cannot swim and a few pages later goes for a dip. Eventually it becomes clear that Severian is telling the story in flashback and is building up his own mythology, putting meaning on perhaps random coincidences and justifying horrific events along the way. Or sometimes just lying for the sheer hell of it. It also becomes clear that the fantasy world is actually a science fiction one, with the characters living in the detritus of a civilisation which is clearly descended from our own.

The novel – the series was published in four volumes for reasons of length but it was written and executed as one sustained narrative – fits neatly into the Dying Earth subgenre of fantastic fiction, as delineated by Jack Vance thirty years earlier. In fact, The Book of Gold that is frequently referred to in the text appears to be an omnibus edition of the actual Dying Earth series, although Wolfe makes the point (in the companion volume of essays about the series, The Castle of the Otter) that it can be any book the reader wishes it to be.

Is The Book of the New Sun one of the finest works of fantastic fiction ever? Yes, it’s a standard story about the Chosen One but told in a very interesting and highly original manner. The characters are fascinating, the story unfolds with verve (and, read as four slim volumes rather than one giant one, relatively concisely) and the deeper meanings of the book become clearer on rereads and more considered analysis, perhaps helped by various companion books and essays, but don’t interfere with simply enjoying the story on a surface level.

The story continues in the stand-alone Urth of the New Sun, which examines the ramifications of Severian’s quest in the main series, before moving into overt science fiction territory with the four-volume Book of the Long Sun (set on a generation starship) and three-volume Book of the Short Sun (set in an alien star system), which connect with the original Book of the New Sun only in a fairly tangential way, although the books share many common themes, motifs and recurring ideas.


And the 20th series is...

...up to you, as I found it impossible to keep this list to 20 series. So here's a few more to keep you going.

Mark Lawrence's The Broken Empire trilogy tells of the story of Jorg, the prince of thorns, who was supposed to die and didn't, and the world can't quite tell if that was a good thing or not. Jorg is a nasty, cynical, manipulative man who might also be the only help of saving the world. This is a dark, messy trilogy, fascinating and bloody-minded.

N.K. Jemisin's award-festooned Broken Earth trilogy is artful and though-provoking, well-defined characters moving through a distant future where the world itself is in upheaval. Magic comes from the earth, itself in turmoil, as desperately flawed but fascinating people struggle to survive.

Garry Kilworth's Navigator Kings trilogy is playful and original, swapping a typical European template for Polynesia instead and swapping out New Zealand for Britain. Capricious gods get involved in the affairs of island-hopping mortals as the people of the islands brace for war with a race of invading barbarians from the south.

J.V. Jones's Book of Words trilogy is not a match for her later and far more impressive (and still-incomplete) Sword of Shadows series, but it's still an assured and accomplished debut. The medieval European setting is standard, but the playful sense of humour and (somewhat) relatable villain is not, along with the amusing asides from interested observers. A reasonably good series by itself and a prequel for the far superior Sword of Shadows.

Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever now stands complete at ten large volumes published over almost forty years, with the first book, Lord Foul's Bane (1977) being arguably the book that kick-started the entire post-Tolkien boom in the first place. Dark and contemplative, this series rewrote the rules of what fantasy was seen as being capable of. The language is often obtuse, the narrative frustrating and Thomas Covenant himself deeply unlikable, but the world is fascinating and the story engrossing.

Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman's Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy brought Dungeons and Dragons to the mass public in the mid-1980s, turning a series of (highly) variable adventure modules into a cohesive and epic story of invading armies and warring dragons spanning three modestly-sized volumes. A sequel trilogy, The Dragonlance Legends, delves deep into the first trilogy's most fascinating duo, the Majere brothers Caramon and Raistlin, and finds out what just makes them tick. The later books and series can be avoided as unnecessary, but these first two trilogies make fine YA epic fantasies.

Brandon Sanderson is one of modern epic fantasy's most popular authors, with his incomplete Stormlight Archive series attracting the kind of sales and profile only exceeded by A Song of Ice and Fire (with a far more frequent release schedule). His complete Mistborn Trilogy is a fine work, showcasing Sanderson's fiendish plotting skills and his gift with worldbuilding and magic-building. In Kelsier and Vin, it also features two of his more appealing protagonists. 

Kate Elliott's Spiritwalker Trilogy may not be as quite as epic and familiar as her Crown of Stars series, but it's still an enjoyable trilogy set in a parallel universe where Europe is still caught in an ice age, there are sentient humanoid dinosaurs wandering around and everyone is very polite to one another, even when they hate each other and are plotting their murder. If you've ever fancied reading a Jane Austen epic fantasy novel set in an icepunk/dinopunk setting, here's the series for you.

Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy has a bit where a dude in a gyrocopter mows down hordes of angels with gatling guns. There's also brilliant characterisation, the bittersweet loss of childhood and a furious intellectual interrogation of organised religion, not to mention great worldbuilding, but we really do have to mention the gyrocopter thing. And also the armoured, intelligent polar bears.

Julian May's Saga of Pliocene Exile series melds SF and fantasy, with time-travellers establishing a new human civilisation at the dawn of time. A strong premise and excellent writing prop up an imaginative, genre-bending story.

Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet missed out on being on this list by the narrowest of margins. This series about poets and magical slaves known as andats is lyrical, thought-provoking and emotional. His later, mercantile-based fantasy The Dagger and the Coin is also worthwhile.

Chris Wooding's Tales of the Ketty Jay series is fantasy meets dieselpunk, with its airships and fighters doing battele against a background of warring kingdoms. A decidedly different kind of series, with one of the best cat characters in all of fantasy.

Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher series is an intelligent, iconic European series focusing on the character of Geralt, a monster-hunter, and later on his ward as a hostile empire invades the northern kingdoms. Working as a fine completed series in its own right, it also sets up a very solid video game trilogy.

Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series mixes human cultures infused with the traits of insects with steampunk and mass warfare in a fast-moving, long (ten volume!) series which is adventurous and highly readable.

And there's quite a few more series out there, which I suspect will be mentioned in the comments.

For a lot more books, video games and other examples of the fantasy genre, please also check out my History of Fantasy.

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20 comments:

dcafwriting said...

Gotta give some love to Donaldson's Gap Cycle here. IMO, the peak of space opera. Definitely grim, definitely violent, but the plotting is unbelievable and the characters follow the typical Donaldson "I hate this person and what they did, so why am I rooting for them?" arcs. Just brilliant stuff.

fanfarian said...

Thanks for this extensive list.
I try to complete my book list with some of the most interesting from your list :)

Stefan

Mike. said...

Thanks for this post. There is enough material here I haven't read (or heard of) to keep me going for quite awhile.

Mike. said...

Tad Williams Otherworld series was the first of his books I'd ever read, greatly enjoyed it.

Dan Simmons "Hyperion Cantos"...1st two books were awesome, 2nd two I read more or less just to finish the series, were still good but nowhere near the level of the 1st two.

Also Dan Simmons Ilium/Olympos pairing...1st was excellent, 2nd got a little convoluted trying to tie all the arcs together.

Anything else I am currently reading the series aren't complete yet (Stormlight Archive, Brent Weeks Black Prism series, Charlie Stross Laundry novels.)

Clayton Boucher said...

It has its ups and downs, but the Riftwar series by Feist is complete (it seems odd to mention the Wurts/Feist trilogy and not the larger series that it fits in).

Although at 30 books of varying quality, it can be a slog sometimes (but there are some great books in it).

Unknown said...

I'm glad to see some recognition for Lyonesse.

Adam Whitehead said...

Lots of suggestions here for science fiction (Hyperion, Gap, Otherland), which should be its own list.

Riftwar is complete but only the first ten to twelve books (including the Empire Trilogy) are really solid. The remaining seventeen range from the truly, truly awful to the mediocre.

Silent said...

I really liked the Mistborn trilogy, but don't think it belongs on a Top 20 list.

Silent said...

I really liked David Gemmell's Troy series that was finished by his wife Stella. Again, probably not good enough to warrant Top 20 ,but it seems like you mentioned all the finished series that I have read.

Unknown said...

On the young adult side there's also Lloyd Alexander's Prydain chronicles, I haven't read them since I was young but I've heard others say they still hold up well.

Anonymous said...

No love for Miles Cameron's Traitor Son Cycle, completed Shadows of the Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Robert Redick's Chartrand Voyage...well, I'm not Trump, but I can surely say:"SAD"!

Adam Whitehead said...

From what I read of Traitor Son's first book, it was okay but not Top 20 material. I actually quite enjoyed The Red Wolf Conspiracy but never got round to the sequels.

Shadows of the Apt should have been in the bubbling under category. I'll amend that.

Anonymous said...

OK, not going to argue about your definition of "top 20". Also Jacqueline Carey (Phedre trilogy), Steph Swainston's (ongoing according to the author) Castle series, Peter Newman (The Vagrant trilogy).
Is there a rule somewhere that good YA cannot be an Epic also -- Garth Nix's original Old Kingdom trilogy (never got to the sequels through), Codex Alera by Jim Butcher (personally I will never understand Dresden Files popularity) and Stroud's Bartimaeus.
P.S.: One of the books from Cornwell's trilogy about Derfel got World Fantasy Award nomination, if I am not mistaken.

Joël said...

Maybe the Kushiel Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey...

Alex Walsh said...

I don't think you can really do a list like this without including the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. They made a huge impact at the time, particularly the whole antihero thing they had going. Personally I think the second Chronicles stand out as better than the first (and the final Chronicles are completely unnecessary) but either way, they need to be on the list for the list to be credible.

bmusic said...

It would have been nice to see Katherine Kurtz's Deryni series mentioned. Also Guy Gavriel Kay's Finnovar Tapestry is excellent! Jacquel Carey's pair of Kushiel's Legacy series are great, it's nice to see a poster mention them.

BW said...

Thanks for the list, there are a couple here that I will have to consider, despite all the years I've been reading fantasy.

Not everyone's tastes will align (there are several here that I really did not like and did not finish, let alone make my top 20).

Anonymous said...

+1 Vote for the Deryni series.
-1 vote for Chronicles of Amber. That was just horrid....

Illifer said...

I’m not sure it counts as series but Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven/River of Stars form a spectacularly good duology. Also think you’re missing out on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy.

Adam Whitehead said...

I found The Magicians barely tolerable, tried to read the sequel and hated it. So that's one series that will not feature on one of my lists.