Crowdsourcing The Essentials: Epic Fantasy

Last go around: POC Non-US SFF.

This time:

We’re dropping the hammer.

THE BIG HAMMER.

The hammer called “epic fantasy.”

I suspect this’ll be a big one. I’m guessing you guys have lots of passionate opinions about what counts as essential epic fantasy, yeah? Time to get into it, then. Your job: drop into the comments, give us your top three epic fantasy reads that you consider critical in terms of the subgenre.

Later on, we’ll compile and put up a top ten list here.

Feel free to discuss what epic fantasy even means or is to you, as well.

Top three epic fantasy reads (series or individual books, your call).

Go.

107 comments

  • For the 1980s: Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
    For the 90s: A Game of Thrones, George Martin
    For the 2000s: The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie

  • Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, which ought to be just assumed honestly; AND the Silmarillion, which takes the world from epic to mythological.
    Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, though The Stormlight Archive looks to go much more epic once it’s got a head of steam going.
    Third cut due to infant.

    • Right, infant managed, three hours of sleep had. My third is The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, which is epic in scope if not in length and probably a lot of people’s first experience with epic fantasy.

  • The Chronicles of Amber, Roger Zelazny
    The First Law Trilogy, Joe Abercrombie
    The Elric of Melnibone series, Michael Moorcock.

    I didn’t include LotR or ASoIAF, because really they kind of exist in their own continuum and pretty much always get the top two spots in lists like this.

  • There’s so many to choose from, but some of the essentials for me would be:
    Tolkien, LOTR, natch
    Stephen R Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – required reading for how to double your word count by constantly writing how much your protagonist hates himself; and
    Raymond E Feist’s Riftwar series, although I think his Empire series (with Janny Wurts) is far superior.

  • How very crafty and evil of you Mr. Wendig, limiting us to top three only.
    I’m going to go then with my “top three that I think should be read, but probably have little chance of being considered the consensus top three.”

    1. The Belgariad +The Mallorean by David Eddings. Yeah, it’s two five book series, but it’s really one ten book series in two parts. Other than their length I’d say the first five were young adult before such a designation existed and are, I think, great books to get people, especially young people, into Epic Fantasy. Really, I’d say they are much better options for that than a lot of other “best” Epic Fantasy.

    2. Gardens of the Moon, the 1st book of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, by Steve Erikson. I haven’t read the others in this series yet, so I can only rate the first book. This is something of the opposite from my first recommendation. It’s not beginner friendly at all, but I think it’s a great read for fans of the genre who might be a little jaded. So much unique world-building and a refusal to slow down and hand out pamphlets to explain it all makes it a bit of a hard read, but I was so glad I had read it once I’d finished it. Great for how the story scales up to the machinations of gods and down to a few friends plotting to save their friend’s social status, and many steps in between.

    3. Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny. Here’s where people might want to start arguing what’s epic fantasy and what’s not. After all, the first book starts in the modern world. However, it has magic, political battles for the throne, clashes of armies and navies, great mystical enemies, fantastical locations. It’s truly unique and well worth being read.

    • I, for one, won’t argue about Zelazny. I loved the Amber novels! And with their magic systems trumping (ha-ha) the science, I totally consider them fantasy.

    • YES to Eddings! I swear, people forget about him and I hate when that happens! I agree with what you said about the series, so much so that I’m going to have to check out the others you mentioned 🙂

    • Eddings is how I got people who didn’t read SF or Fantasy into the genre. I remember the scoffing by “twue” SF fans when I recommended them to unsuspecting people. But I thought then…and still think now… that Eddings is the perfect hook for fantasy newbies and kids. Those books are the perfect hook. To the genre. And to reading.

  • I know all of these are fairly new. Things have been really good for fantasy recently.

    1. Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books. Not just the original trilogy. All of these have consistently knocked me on my ass.

    2. Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards. I know this series is only two books in, with the third coming VERY soon, but I don’t care. These are something special. Scott can take as much time as he needs with each book because these are worth it.

    3. Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle. This one was a bit harder for me to pick. It was a standoff between three different series. I wont cheat and say the other two. This series wins because I get nervous picking up each new book. I know that I’m going to get super invested, to the detriment of everything around me. Meals become iffy if there’s a new one of these to read.

  • David Eddings’ “Belgariad”/”Malloreon”

    Brent Weeks’ “Lightbringer” series

    Peter V Brett’s “Demon Cycle”

    Certainly not exhaustive, but these are all series that have impressed and affected me.

  • 1. Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’
    Suitably epic, despite some of the books just dragging on.

    2. Tolkien’s ‘LotR’ Trilogy
    Pretty much kick-started the whole thing.

    3. Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series
    Not high fantasy, but I consider it epic in many ways.

  • Because I’m sure Tolkien, Eddings, Brooks, and Jordan will make your list, I’m going for some variety here:

    Sean Russel’s “One Kingdom” series
    Andre Norton’s “Scent of Magic”
    Anne McCaffrey’s “Pern” books

    Epic fantasy to me means: magic, storylines that generally take more than one book to finish, but not always, with worlds that I feel like I am living in while my nose is in the pages. Epic = big, grand, awesome. I wish I could put more books up there, but I guess that would be cheating. If I’m recommending my favorite-FAVORITE books, those would be the ones. Soooo many other authors I’d love to put on that list, though.

    • I love Pern, love and adore it, and while the first book definitely feels more like fantasy, they’re actually science fiction – genetically engineered teleporting dragons

    • Ok, if Pern is counted as Sci-Fi instead of Fantasy, then I wish to change that selection to Jim Butcher’s “Codex Alera” books.

      And yes, Mona, I agree about the Witchworld novels. They were awesome. Most everything by Norton is made of awesome

  • Steven Erikson’s “Malazan Book of The Fallen” – Vastly intelligent, messy, poetic… one of a handful who treats his readers with respect, and relies on a fundamental understanding of cultural interplay and psychological motivations, rather than yet more hackneyed rehashing of Joseph Campbell and “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”.

    Raymond Feist’s “Magician” – One of the great examples of how to use Campbell and The Hero’s Journey, without seeming like you’ve been writing screenplays for hollywood for the last twenty years.

    DEFINITELY NOT Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” – in my top three fantasy things to avoid at all costs – Cliched and insipid. Licking the armpits of a horde of flea-bitten garbage pickers would be a more worthwhile use of your time.

  • -Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy
    And another vote for – Jordan’s WOT
    and Another vote for – Raymond’s ‘Riftwar’ books (the Serpentwar Saga just over the first trilogy)

  • Okay, everyone else is putting LoTR, so I’ll toss some variety out here.

    Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series
    Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogies
    Stephen Donaldson’s Covenant books (the first two trilogies anyway)

  • For top three epics, I’m trying to think of literary adventures that are vast in scope (not just length), serious in overall tone (which doesn’t mean there can’t be humor in it), have at the core the heroic journey, and should be able to hold their own outside of the genre.

    Steven Erikson’s “Malazan Book of the Fallen”–ditto for everything Gethin Lynes said. Plus Erikson wrote some of the funniest scenes and characters I’ve ever read in the midst of the existential angst that pervades the series.
    Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series (but not Brian Herbert’s additions–he may have caught the plot points, but he and co-author Kevin J. Anderson just don’t have the literary chops)
    T.H. White’s Arthurian cycle, four of which were revised for “The Once and Future King,” and co-opted part of “The Book of Merlyn.”

    LoTR is, as someone said, the kickstarter, and Tolkien had the specific intent to write an epic myth for Britain (I guess the Arthurian cycle was too Norman French for him (?)), but it’s such a given it almost shouldn’t be counted as a vote, so I’m not sure it should count as one of the three.

    WoT was close to greatness, but the uncounted but seemingly unending uses of “wooly headed sheep-herder” and other pet phrases disqualify it (although Homer was guilty of the same repetitive usages, he did have the excuse of oral tradition). Not that I didn’t persist to the end, and with increased enjoyment once Brandon Sanderson got involved. I enjoy both the Raymond Feist’s Riftwar series (with the decided exception of the pirate installment and definite preference for the trilogy co-written with Janny Wurts) and Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Chronicles, and they’d tie for fifth.

    As for Mr. Urban Spaceman’s mention of Discworld, I love the series, but I wouldn’t use “epic” as a descriptor. Satirical, definitely.

  • I can’t even pretend to define epic fantasy, but the three standout series for me are:

    Earthsea
    Lord of the Rings
    A Song of Ice and Fire

    Hardly ground-breaking, but when talking essentials the only other true contender is Jordan, and his books are too padded and poorly-written to join the conversation. IMO, of course.

  • I’m going to start with “Imajica” by Clive Barker. It’s not sword and sorcery, but it’s crammed to bursting with magic and fantastic creatures. It also gets sneered at for fitting into a single volume when it was first published, but it takes place over many years and across the cities and wilds of four different worlds. It really does carry the scale. And he managed to do it without any knights, elves, trolls, fairies or dragons. Did I mention it wasn’t the first time he pulled off such a book?

    I loved the “His Dark Materials” series by Philip Pullman. It certainly appealed to my more youthful side; full of all sorts of childlike wonder. But also full of anti-authoritarian anger and cynicism. It seemed to creatively display what it felt like for me when I was growing up and was surprised at every turn that the world seemed so much darker and more sinister than all my toys, dreams and cartoons had led me to believe.

    And since two others already mentioned Le Guin’s Earthsea series, I’m not sure what to leave fore my third entry. Ok, fine, I have to go with Earthsea.

    To me, epic fantasy has a wide scope and virtually everything is made up. There aren’t any recognizeable municipalities from our earth and almost nothing in its nature exists in our nature. Most times it starts out in a world I wish I lived in instead, but later reminds me that I wouldn’t last a week there. Beyond those first two things, it can be absolutely anything the writer wants, which is why I’m so baffled that so many choose the strict sword and sorcery route. Don’t you know what the word ‘fantasy’ means?

    • Lots of dudes in the epic fantasy annals.

      Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy
      Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy
      JK Rowling’s Harry Potter

  • Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Turned me on to fantasy when I was in seventh grade and haven’t lost my love of it since)

    Gabaldon’s Outlander Series (yes, i’m a woman and yes I like teh romance qualities of it but ti’s a damn fine series.

    Stoover’s Acts of Caine (this one my not fit everyone’s definition of the genre, perse, but it is still hig up on my list. There’s just something about an assasin without any moreal compass that does it for me)

  • George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series is a given.

    For my definitely preferred, personal favourites, though – Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastard series, Philip Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy, and Assassin’s Apprentice/the Farseer books by Robin Hobb.

  • Mark Lawrence – The Broken Empire – This guy is AMAZING. If you haven’t yet checked it out then I weep silently for you.
    Joe Abercrombie – The First Law (although frankly Red Country my personal fav)
    The Black Prism – Brent Weeks – if you’re looking for somebody who breaks the typical sword and sorcery tropes then it’s worth checking out Brent Weeks.

  • Epic Fantasy, in my mind, is secondary world fantasy with a large canvas and high stakes.

    Lord of the Rings is epic fantasy
    Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are NOT–its the story of two thieves, nothing more.

    There are stories and novels that work the space between “fate of nations and the world” and “fate of a couple of guys” but generally epic fantasy deals with anything larger than the smallbore fantasy.

    Epic Fantasy I love:

    THE SPIRITWALKER series by Kate Elliott (COLD MAGIC, COLD FIRE, COLD STEEL). Set on an alternate earth a little more glaciated than our own. Cold Mages, dragons, the Wild Hunt and revolution!

    The VINEART WAR series by Laura Anne Gilman ( FLESH AND FIRE, WEIGHT OF STONE, THE SHATTERED VINE): A beautiful secondary world where magic flows from wine. Incredible detail and writing.

    THE ETERNAL SKY series by Elizabeth Bear (RANGE OF GHOSTS, SHATTERED PILLARS, STELES OF THE SKY(forthcoming). Epic Fantasy inspired by The Silk Road. Full of wonder, adventure, miracles.

  • Since all the biggies have been mentioned I’d offer:

    The Fionavar Tapestry – Guy Gavriel Kay for rich language, great characters, challenging plot (also his standalones like Tigana are wonderful)
    Guardians of the Flame – Joel Rosenberg for gamers transported into another world (very 80s)
    Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke, don’t know if this classifies as epic fantasy – or if any of my recs do – but it’s a wonderful, wonderful book. That’s two wonderfuls.

  • I think the BEST epic fantasy I’ve ever read, bar none, is the Riyria Revelations by Michael J. Sullivan. Six books (now eight, with two prequals!) of pure and unadulterated AWESOME. The characters are amazing, the adventure is outstanding and the ending… my god. I’ve never seen a series end so tightly and wonderfully. If you haven’t read it, you need to. It was just… so excellent… I don’t have enough adjectives to explain how awesome that series was.

    The second series would definitely be Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series. I am, no lie, thinking of calling in sick the day the third book comes out and reading it all day. I have never been taken in so deeply by a story before. The characters, my god! I love Locke and Jean. I’m still mulling those books over in my mind. I don’t have enough adjectives in my vocabulary to describe my excitement for the next volume!

    The third series is the Eli Monpress series by Rachel Aaron. Charming thieves, incredibly original magic system. Just a pitch perfect fantasy series. I’m still sad it’s over.

    I’m not a big fan of “grimdark” fantasy stories and I like thieves and assassins, so these books have a big helping of humor as well as a ton of buckled swashes!

  • Probably should’ve made LotR a given 😛

    Plenty here I’d 2nd – David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Zelazny, Robert Jordan.

    I’d add Michael Scott Rohan’s Winter of the World series for a bit of an old-school Norse-legend-themed epic fantasy.

    Was Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series mentioned somewhere? Prolly should be.

  • A lot of the books mentioned here are on my to be read list so of what I’ve read here’s what I loved:
    1- A song of ice and fire
    2- Broken Empire by mark Lawrence
    3- Mists of Avalon – not sure if this is technically epic fantasy but it’s one of the great books.
    3- tied with Mists is Mistborn, at least the first book cause I haven’t gotten to the rest of the trilogy yet.

  • 1. Deadhouse Gates (Malazan Book of the Fallen) Steven Erikson and Ian Esselmont
    2. Wolf Age (Morlock Ambrosius series) James Enge
    3 Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake

    Epic fantasy like Steampunk is a very contentious category and I think if you got people together and discussed what is Epic fantasy you’d have a potential dust up on your hands…..

  • First, has to be The Lord of the Rings Series by Tolkien. It was my gateway series into epic fantasy.
    Second, would definitely be the Shannara series by Terry Brooks, just because they’re awesomeness embodied.
    Third is a tie between Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle. One because of Locke and Jean. Two, because dragons!

  • Obviously LotR and ASoIaF are two big series that are very important to the genre, but I read both of them a bit farther into my fantasy reading career, so I’m not sure they have the same punch as others that I read when I was younger and more of a literary blank canvass. So, my three are going to be:

    1. Tortall books by Tamora Pierce (If I had to pick only one of the series, I’d go with the Immortals, as it was my gateway series, but they’re all excellent and interconnected. These books meant so much to me when I was young, and I still reread all of them every few years, and find a new favourite character that resonates with me.)
    2. Dark Materials trilogy, by Phillip Pullman (I’ve loved the concept of daemons every since, and I think Lyra is one of the most complex characters her age in existence. The world building in this series is just so beautiful and the fantastical elements are so strangely compelling when placed right next to the more mundane aspects of the world.)
    3. Temeraire series, by Naomi Novak (I hesitated to put this one on my list, because it’s fantasy, but it’s not set in a world that is overwhelmingly different than our own. Still, I love the re-imagining of our own history with fantastical elements. Also, it explores some really interesting issues around human rights and discrimination and doesn’t shy away from the problematic elements of the time period.)

  • Rothfuss, Kingkiller series, starts with Name of the Wind. Want a brilliant example of how to write a first chapter? Right here. He’s not done yet, so he better bring it home as beautifully as he started, or he’s off the list, too.
    Game of Thrones. Altho he better finish it before he dies, or I won’t forgive him.
    Zelazny. Amber. starts with Nine Princes in Amber. Ends as a brilliant treatise on mind-bending gamesmanship and throne-seeking.

    After 50 years of reading this stuff, I’m amazed by how many nominations there are here that I think are awful. Yes, Lord of the Rings. Worthy contender for first: Robin Hobbs. Both her assassin (farseer) series and her liveship traders. Could take either Martin or Rothfuss if they screw up.

  • I strongly and wholeheartedly second the Tortall books. I also re-read them every year or two and they still hold up incredibly well. I’m pretty sure they’re what made me into the fantasy reader I am today.

  • I love this post! Mostly because I love epic fantasy but haven’t really read that much of it, so I appreciate all the ideas on what to check out next.

    Also love it because a few people mentioned Eddings’s Belgariad/Mallorean series, which is my all-time favorite.

    Mine are predictable:

    Eddings Belgariad/Mallorean
    Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (just finished the first four/LOVE)
    Tolkien’s LotR

  • Wow, this was an awesome resource for adding books to my “to read” list on Goodreads! Thanks everybody. I’ll have to list books I’ve read of course, but I’ve heard from many that Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicles is one of the best. It’s on my shortlist of books to read and I’m guessing if I would have read it already then Sanderson’s first book in his Stormlight Archive series titled “The Way of Kings” would be on this list instead of Mistborn. I also highly recommend Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan though I’ve only read the first book. Here’s my list:

    1. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
    2. Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle
    3. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy

  • Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
    Steven Erikson’s Malazan chronicle. Points for finishing, and also no other book has just dropped me so hard into a world so big & just expected me to keep up.
    Jordan’s Wheel of Time. Because I think this is the representative form of the genre.

  • I think there has been some confusion above. Being an epic fantasy-writer does not make you an epic-fantasy writer, if you catch my drift. Scott Lynch and Terry Pratchett are great, but they don’t write epic fantasy, and Dune and the Pern books are SF, not fantasy.

    For my money it’s got to be these:

    1) JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings. Because, you know, duh!
    2) Steven Erikson, Malazan Book of the Fallen. Got a bit messy towards the end, but frankly awesome and I can’t think of anything more deserving of the title “epic”.
    3) Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials. Underrated because it’s aimed at children, but spectacularly written and containing some of the most wonderful worldbuilding ever.

    • I agree with everyone who’s mentioned His Dark Materials. I think it probably wasn’t written “for” children so much as it was written by an author already writing in the young adult genre, so that’s what it was marketed as. The series gets amazingly complicated morally and thematically with the second and third books, but I worry people don’t look past the first book which does feel/read a bit more like it’s for a younger audience.

  • My favorites, so far, include two series which I’m not even done with yet:

    The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss – I know it’s popular to list these books, but Rothfuss has built one of the most richly detailed worlds around one of the most likeable and interesting characters to have come along in fantasy in a long time, using prose that is simultaneously efficient and elegant. He’d really have to bone up the third book to knock this series out of my list of favorites.

    The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie – I’m not entirely sure these qualify as “epic” fantasy in the same vein as The Lord of the Rings or Song of Ice and Fire, mostly because of their intimate character focus and sarcastic tone. It is those aspects, however, that make this series one of my favorites. Abercrombie’s deft hand shows the growth and change of each of his characters in the least ham-handed way possible, which is saying a lot for epic fantasy.

    The Belgariad by David Eddings – These are the fantasy books that launched my love of fantasy. I’ve read the Belgariad at least 4 times through. It’s probably the most approachable story in the genre, and is just as enjoyable reading it now as it was when I was twelve. I’d have to give honorable mention to my other favorite Eddings series’, the Elenium and the Tamuli, as (effectively) a slightly more “adult” version of the Belgariad. I’d list The Mallorean, too (which I love, honestly), but even Eddings admitted that it was nothing more than a re-write of the Belgariad.

    My list is limited, also, because there are many series that I have not yet read. Earthsea, Pern, Feist’s Magician series, Thomas Covenant… All of these are still in my “to read” pile.

  • Tolkien- Fellowship. Although, I’m not counting it in my 3. Umm, cause well, it is THE foundation for all other epic fantasy books, ya know?

    In no particular order:

    1. Melanie Rawn- Dragon Prince/Dragon Star. Geez, talk about eye opening. All the good stuff, i.e., fantasy, and some crossover before melding genres was even a thing.

    2. Tad Williams- Memory, Sorrow, & Thorn. Well, I couldn’t leave this out. Tad ROCKS. And I love his other works almost as much. But this one? A must read.

    3. Robert Jordan- Wheel of Time. If the number of his books doesn’t equal epic, then I just don’t understand the word. Fantasy in 14+ books is THE definition of epic. Seriously.

    There are some runners-up. But that’s not what this post called for.

  • I’m somewhat flabbergasted that I got to this thread at lunch-time and no one has mentioned Glen Cook’s Annals of the Black Company yet! World-spanning wars in the service of evil, god-like beings? Doesn’t get more epic than that! (A friend once described them as books where the only moral choices were evil or more evil.)

    Dragons and wizards, old powers and mysteries, saving the world from itself and saving one’s self while saving the world. That’s what I remember from Le Guin’s Earthsea series. (I need to re-read them again, it’s been a few years.)

    For a third pick, I’m truly torn. Because, again, no one else has mentioned it, I’ll go with C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

    • Second for The Black Company! Another second for Feist’s “Magician”. And, while not suuuuuper epic, but in an attempt to not be another Me Too post, Brian Daley’s “Doomfarer’s of Coramonde”.

  • I see a lot of repeats so I will throw some love to a few of my favorites that either aren’t mentioned or overlooked.

    1. Harry Potter Series – Rowling
    2. The Eyes of the Dragon – King
    3. The Hero and the Crown – McKinley

    2 & 3 got me when I was an early teenager to start reading things like the Dark Tower and LOTR a little later on down the line.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds