Over at SFFWorld we have had regular discussions over what constitutes Epic Fantasy – generally its ‘big’, but in what aspect? Well, there’s no single answer (which is why we’re still debating it), but the gist of the points seem to be based on size. Epic Fantasy usually involves a largeness of scale - lots of people, or a variety of places, or events over a long period of time. Being Fantasy, it must also include an element of fantasy central to the story – magic, dragons, unusual events or such like. It may also be a tale where the consequences of what could happen will have world-scale changing events, the significance of which creating the Epic-ness.
Some may quibble over the fine details – “When does Sword and Sorcery become Epic”, or “High or Low Fantasy – Which do you prefer?” or even “Does Harry Potter count as Epic Fantasy?” What I’ve tried to do here is make a list of the entry level examples: ones with similar styles, motifs and themes that you’d like to read primarily for entertainment.
This is one for those readers who, by reading them, realise they’re in for the long haul, the lover of those books produced by the pound in weight as well as the pound in pocket. If you like multi-multi-multi volume series, these may be worth your while.
Part B: Others that you may know.
Having mentioned the ones that you will probably have noticed in the shops, online or in the bestsellers lists, here in Part B are some that, for various reasons, are perhaps not as well known, but still meet my idea of Epic Fantasy.
The John Carter series by Edgar Rice Burroughs
ERB is perhaps better known for his Tarzan novels, though the recent Disney movie of John Carter may have made these particular books sound familiar. The books are dated, and perhaps a little repetitive, but like some of the other books you’ll see later down on the list, highly influential. There are eleven fairly short novels in the series, published from A Princess of Mars (1912) to John Carter of Mars in 1941. The series is often regarded as science-fiction, and although set on Mars, they bear no similarity to the Mars we know today. As there are swordfights and strange aliens as well as a background history, I’m going to stretch the definition a little here to include them here.
Trying to summarise the books, they are sword and sorcery tales - unashamedly romantic, both in the sense of planetary romance (this is a Mars we’d like to see) as well as in the traditional sense. Earthman John Carter is mysteriously transported to the world of Barsoom and falls in love with Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium (and Mars). Originally published in serial form, personally I find them best read with a bit of space between each book, as their similarity can become more noticeable when read close together. Not for everyone, but good fun if you can allow for their age.
Fafrd and The Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber
Another classic – one of my personal favourites and considered by many as the embodiment of the term ‘sword and sorcery’. Regarded as a major inspiration by many authors, including George RR Martin, the world building, subtly intertwined with two characters you get to care about, is superb, and this is why this series makes it into my list. Fafhrd is the large and empathic mercenary to the Grey Mouser’s brighter, sneakier thief. Start with Swords and Deviltry (1970), although there are two major doorstop omnibuses in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series.
Elric and the multiverse by Michael Moorcock
The ultimate anti-hero, created as a character diametrically opposed to Tolkien and Conan and influenced by the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword (see below). The stories are most popular in Europe, although their influence on Fantasy books and authors is global. Though the books are written in a straight-forward tone, the complex nature of Moorcock’s overlapping multiverse means that Elric – the albino, drug addicted King of Melnibone and his possessed sword Stormbringer – can be as few as three books or as many as sixteen by my counting. There are books where many of Moorcock’s lead characters – Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, Jerry Cornelius, John Daker and others – meet, in various guises for in Moorcock’s legendary multiverse all things are seemingly possible. The styling is imaginative and vivid. Start with Elric (1960).
Roger Zelazny’s Amber series
This series of ten novels has been an influence on Stephen Donaldson (see below) George RR Martin and many other authors since their publication in the 1970’s. The tales deal with the complex relationships between members of a family in the fictional realm of Amber. According to Wikipedia, “The Amber stories take place in two "true" worlds: Amber, and the Courts of Chaos, as well as the shadows that lie between them. These shadows, including our Earth, are parallel worlds that exist in the tension between the two true worlds of Amber and the Courts. The Courts of Chaos is situated in Shadow at the very edge of the pit of Chaos itself, a seething cauldron from which all that is or ever will be comes. Royals of Amber who have negotiated the Pattern can travel freely through the shadows. By shifting between shadows, one can alter or create a new reality by choosing which elements of which shadows to keep, and which to subtract. Members of the Courts of Chaos who have traversed the Logrus are also able to travel through shadow.” Many consider the first five books to be the better ones of the series. There was a gap of seven years (1978- 1985) between the fifth book and the sixth, and some fans feel that the later novels lack the magic and charm of the initial five. Start with Nine Princes in Amber (1970).
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson
Another bestseller from the late 1970’s. Although it was published in the same year as Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shanarra, (mentioned above), the Thomas Covenant series is a decidedly more ‘grown-up’. This is a dense tale, told in florid language, of leper Thomas Covenant ‘the Unbeliever’ who is transported to another place (The Wounded Land) where he is miraculously free of all illness and is seen as a saviour by the many races there. Covenant takes on the role most reluctantly, refusing to believe in this alternate Earth, but struggles against the tyrannical Lord Foul, who intends to break the physical universe in order to escape his bondage and wreak revenge upon his arch enemy, The Creator. The rape scene at the beginning of Lord Foul’s Bane (1977) is not for everyone, and the language used throughout can be intimidating, but beyond that it is an imaginative tale that has many fans.
The Black Company by Glen Cook
Often quoted as an inspiration for Steve Erikson’s Malazan series (see above), these, like the Malazan series, are dark, morally ambiguous and grim-darkly humoured. They are about an elite mercenary band of soldiers, The Black Company, last of the Free Companies of Khatovar, and their dealings in various battles and with various groups over a span of about forty years. Unusually at the time of publication the books are often written from the grunts perspective rather than the traditional officers perspective. This often involves not knowing fully what’s going on and grumbling about their lot, but mainly emphasises the relationships between the main characters. The first book, The Black Company, was published in 1984, and until 2000 (with Soldiers Live) there were another nine books in the series published, which is why I’ve chosen this series for here. Amazingly, most of these books were written on a part-time basis whilst Glen worked for General Motors in St. Louis.
See also his Dread Empire series (1979-2008), which I would recommend – another dark series but intelligent and complex.
David Eddings’ Belgariad/Malloreon series
Very popular in the 1980’s, like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series (mentioned above) these books may be an entry point for those readers less concerned with epic grimness and more concerned with an entertaining tale. Start with Pawn of Prophecy (1982), which, as the title rather suggests, are basically quest novels where our heroes and heroines (nephew Garion, his uncle Belgarath and aunt Polgara) have to meet a destiny (to destroy the Dark God Torak), collect objects of power (the Orb of Aldur) and so destroy evil, avoid war and restore goodness to their lands. There are ten books in the Belgariad/Malloreon series, in two series of five, with the Malloreon series (1987-91) rather being Belgariad: the Next Generation. The books do not always bear repeated reading but like the Shannara novels the stories are accessible, the journey is varied and the characterisations are fun, even if the bickering, usually between wizard Belgarath and his daughter Polgara, can get a tad wearisome at times.
The Deed of Paksenarrion series by Elizabeth Moon
Another personal favourite. Though the reader may recognise tropes within this story, this deceptively easy to read Epic has characters that readers will both love and hate. Paksenarrion is a sheepherder’s daughter whose future leads her to be a trained soldier and follow a greater destiny. Start with The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter (1988) – I think you’ll quickly read the rest. Other series followed after Oath of Gold (1989).
Robin Hobb’s Farseer Series
A personal favourite. At one point in the late 1990’s-early 2000’s Robin’s books were as popular as the Game of Thrones series, and with good reason. Robin’s series has heart and characters that you will get to know and love. According to Wikipedia, “The Farseer Trilogy follows the life of FitzChivalry Farseer (Fitz), a trained assassin, in a kingdom called The Six Duchies while his uncle, Prince Verity, attempts to wage war on the Red-Ship Raiders from The OutIslands who are attacking the shores of the kingdom by turning the people of the Six Duchies into Forged ones; still alive, but without any emotion or soul. Meanwhile Prince Regal's jealousy and the indulgence of his own selfish whims threatens to destroy The Six Duchies.” In places it is quite grim, although not quite as brutal as some of those given in this list, but the dragons encountered later in the series are very well done. There has been a bit of debate as to whether this series counts as Epic Fantasy, as it is focused on relatively few characters, but in the end I included it. Start with Assassin’s Apprentice (1995), with fourteen others (and counting) to follow, usually in trilogies.
First Law series by Joe Abercrombie
Joe’s debut series, that gave rise to the term ‘Grimdark’. As to be expected from that definition, this is about as far from Tolkien as you can get in terms of tone and idealism. The books are laced with a range of nasty characters and failed idealists beaten down by the harsh realities of life. The character of Glokta is a fan-favourite. The books also possess a dark wit and the key characters suffer a variety of horrible indignities and grim tortures. Though it uses a lot of traditional tropes, it is a series that is deliberately different to the majority of older Fantasy novels. The use of magic is generally absent. Try The Blade Itself (2006) for starters, to see if you’re interested.
Shadows of the Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Another recently finished series, with ten heftily-sized volumes. Adrian’s books tell of the rise and fall of an Empire in the world where exists a variety of human races, called Kinden, with broadly insect characteristics – beetles, ants, dragonflies, wasps, mantises and so on. Kinden are typically divided into two categories: ‘Apt’ and ‘Inapt’. The Apt do not have magical abilities, but are able to understand, use and design mechanical devices. The Inapt have varying amounts of magical abilities, but cannot use mechanical devices. The series develops in depth and complexity as it goes along, but focuses on the attempted conquest of the Lowlands by the Wasp-kinden Empire. Start with Empire in Black and Gold (2008).