Crowdsourcing The Essentials: Epic Fantasy

Last go around: POC Non-US SFF.

This time:

We’re dropping the 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).


107 responses to “Crowdsourcing The Essentials: Epic Fantasy”

  1. 1. The Lord of the Rings *and* the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (I consider all four to be essential)
    2. The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson
    3. The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon

    I would put down the Pern Cycle instead, but it’s technically “Science Fantasy” rather than straight Epic Fantasy.

  2. Tough cookie-question!

    1) LOTR – because how could you not? Grandaddy of epic fantasy.
    2) A Song of Ice and Fire – nobody is writing twisty-turny what-the-shit-just-happened fantasy like GRRM, and you can’t deny it’s epicness.
    3) Robin Hobb’s Farseer series – It’s beautiful and tragic, and I personally think that it’s hugely influential too, possibly in a slightly quieter fashion than the two examples above.

  3. As cliche as it is, you have to start with Tolkien. I didn’t, and when I read LotR for the first time, I realized with a kind of chagrin how many of the other authors I’d read before were straight-up derivative, particularly Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara series and David Eddings’ Belgariad/Malloreon. Those are both reasonably good imitations, but they’re still imitations.

    For number two, I’d pick Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Even though it’s only one book, it’s distinctly original in a way that a lot of other epic fantasies aren’t. And I love her style, which reads like Harry Potter written by Jane Austen.

    And here’s one I haven’t seen mentioned: Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Sequence. Again, it’s an epic fantasy with an original twist: an alternate history set in a Victorian-era world that’s ruled by magicians who use a system of magic based on summoning and commanding djinni. It’s got a wry humor and two memorable antihero protagonists.

  4. As someone said earlier, Dune on the whole is out because it leans more on science fiction tropes. As for my list (and why I’m not putting Tolkien’s Middle-Earth mythology on it) …

    Tolkien’s work is often boiled down to LotR and other aspects thrown to the side as extra reading. The problem here is that you have to take the entire world into account from it’s creation and onwards. It is a must for anyone who wishes to write in the genre not to copy but to see what works, the attention to detail you yourself have to build. We have to remember that Tolkien was a lover of history, of languages, and a professor of more historical works of epic fantasy; beowulf anyone?

    My list is as follows:

    The Way Of Kings (Brandon Sanderson); the first volume in The Stormlight Archive. You want a world that is centered around highly violent storms; not just in the political sense but in nature — this is the one you go to. With nine more books planned, it is amazing how rich and layered this setting already is. It is slow in places but I think all great works have their plodding moments; gives you as the reader time to catch your breath.

    His Dark Materials (Phillip Pulman); I struggled putting this in because of where the books end up. But I do like that this series makes you think, takes you to not just one but multiple worlds and because it should be said, armored bears — things are sometimes better with armored bears. Also has one of the better layered characters who’s motivations you don’t fully understand until the trilogy is through.

    The DemonWars Saga (R.A. Salvatore); two trilogies with a novel to bridge the gap in between. Haven’t seen this on the list so perhaps my taste is way off here. Still, the overall story arc is an interesting one that I personally like because it has the “Everything you do affects somebody” result.

    Honorable mention here is one I wish Sanderson would go back to with more books: Warbreaker. More of a tropical setting here than the usual. However, the fact that “breath” is the source of income and magic makes this one a world I’d want to revisit more often. It doesn’t quite fall into this list only because the scope is not as grand; it’s almost like he was testing the waters with this one to see what he could get out of it.

  5. 1. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
    2. The Blue Sword ibid.
    3. Do the Patricia Wrede novels count? If not, since I can’t currently remember any others, I’ll cop out with LOTR

  6. Without resorting to Wikipedia, I’ll take a stab at a definition and say that epic fantasy needs to have two things:

    First, a purely fictional setting and cast. Though the premises might also be purely fictional (i.e. evil wizard makes a magic ring which has the power to destroy the world . . .), the themes and conflicts are clearly relevant to quotidian reality ( . . . and which touches off a war between good and evil, tyrants and heroes). Then again, is it even possible to write a fantasy story without a purpose, something that is not, on some level, grounded in the real world, non-fictional concerns of its readers? Pure entertainment minus the chewy center of a moral?

    Second, if it’s epic, it needs to have stamina. I can think of individual works that might qualify as epic fantasy (Le Morte d’Arthur or Dhalgren), but it seems like much of epic fantasy spans large tracts of physical territory, includes a large cast of characters, and takes place over a long period of time. And while some particularly gifted writers have been able to fulfill these requirements within the limited space of a 250-300-page novel—the best example I can think of off the top of my head is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller—said stories often end up a small tomes or multi-volume series. The current trend toward the multi-book series seems to be cementing this notion of epic = epochal.

    Quick question to Chuck: Would you call The Heartland Trilogy “epic fantasy”?

    Okay, the list:

    1. LOTR
    2. Song of Fire and Ice
    3. Xanth books by Piers Anthony

    • Now that I’m looking at my post again and thinking a bit more about what constitutes “epic fantasy,” I realize how hard it is to draw that line between fantasy and fiction or determine when something becomes “epic.”

      Maybe its worth asking why we so badly need to label and categorize the things we read. Why is it so important to distinguish works far beyond their generic characteristics? In other words, why do we need to sub-genres and sub-sub-genres?

      Okay, time to shut my pie hole and go back to earning a paycheck. . .

  7. Ok…gotta get on board with this one (but excluding Tolkien as being so far out ahead of the pack its almost redundant) :

    1) Janny Wurts – The wars of light and shadow (actually pretty much anything by Janny….)
    2) Katherine Kerr – Deverry cycle
    3) Raymond Feist – Riftwar books (Magician, Silverthorn, A Darkness at Sethanon)

    Honourable mentions to:

    Eddings – Belgariad and Elenium series (NOT the mallorean and tamuli books which could almost be interchanged with each other)
    Pat Rothfuss – the only reason he doesn’t make the list is that the 3rd book hasn’t yet arrived
    David Gemmell – Drenai saga and Parmenion book
    Micheal Scott Rohan – Winter of the world series

  8. Lord of the Rings – including The Hobbit

    The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King (I’m halfway through it and love it!)

    The Riftwar Cycle by Raymond E Feist (I’ve read the first 5 books and other books around this series, but the series is actually about 10 books long and I haven’t read the other books as yet).

  9. Surprised no one (in particular the ladies!) has mentioned Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy! I only read the first in the trilogy and loved it, then got lost in that mess called life and never went back to it…

  10. As a kid, I would have said:

    The Hero and the Crown – Robin McKinley
    The Sword of Shanarra – Terry Brooks
    The Riftwar Saga – Raymond E Fiest

    As a teen, I would have said:

    The Dark Elf Trilogy – R. A. Salvatore
    Dragonlance – Wies and Hickman
    Hawkwind – Micheal Moorcock


    Memory, Sorrow and Thorn – Tad Williams
    Either/or of Chronicles of the Dread Empire and the Black Company – Glen Cook
    His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

    And from my kid:

    The Song of the Lioness Quartet – Tamora Pierce
    Harry Potter – JK Rowling
    Narnia – CS Lewis

  11. Late to the party, but for all of you who love Erikson’s Malazan series, you should read the Prince of Nothing series by R. Scott Bakker. As per Erikson’s blurb on The Darkness That Comes Before (Book 1 of the series), “Take note, one and all. Something remarkable has begin.”

    • The Prince of Nothing is spectacular. Some very deep thinking went into that one (check out Bakker’s blog after for more in depth discussion, if you dare.) The world is so deep and the characters very flawed and well developed.

      The second trilogy is still waiting for the finale, and is good, but different, and I don’t like it quite as much.

      And I have to second Goodkind as another of my favorite series.

      And Dragonlance Chronicles and the Twins trilogy are another all time favorite.

      Thanks all for some ideas on new reads.

  12. CJ Cherry’s Morgaine Cycle, starting with “Gate of Ivrel”.

    Love, love, LOVE. Yes, it’s technically sword-and-planet, but dammit it’s EPIC, and it’s really, really good fantasy.

  13. OK so I’ve also read most of the ‘big names’ but I’m only nominating one as it’s fucking brilliant:

    Scott Lynch’s ‘The Gentlemen Bastard series’

    – of which books 1 (The Lies of Locke Lamora) and 2 (Red Seas under Red Skies) are available with no 3 (The Republic of Thieves) due soon PLUS a prequel and at least 4 more titles!

  14. I’m just going with what I’ve loved most:

    1. The Tortall series by Tamora Pierce, really a trio of quartets that together form a complicated world.
    2. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
    3. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

  15. Since Tolkien and Rothfuss have been covered already (several times), I’ll pull up a couple new ones, and even a couple female authors, too!

    1. Dragon Jousters series by Mercedes Lackey. If you love dragons and epic fantasy, and you haven’t read this series, you don’t know what you’re missing. Seriously. Read it ASAP.

    2. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. First in a series, the second book is NOT out yet, sadly. But the world building in this is FANTASTIC.

    3. Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind. There are a couple of slow books in the lot, but most of them are soooooo good it’s worth it.

  16. Lord of The Rings goes without saying- should be required reading in school at this point:)
    1) Patricia McKillip- Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy- great characters, lots of story, world I wish I could live in
    2) Ursula Le Guin – Wizard of Earthsea trilogy- set a standard on how to handle magic
    3) L.E. Modesett Ghosts of Columbia – interesting alternate world, lovely writing, good fight and espionage touches

  17. What makes epic fantasy for me- a truly unique world with a solid history and wonder/delight in its mythology, lots of action in a well developed story with heroic difficult decisions, and finally -the most important – stands up to the whole thing being read again. With an epic world with people and places I love, I want to be able to visit it all again and find something new to think about each time. So the story can’t end in a way that breaks my heart ( His Dark Material- although I do revisit the first book because I agree about everything being better with armoured bears:) or have a long essential section in it that is too ugly to revisit (yes I’m talking about that scene in Deed of Paksenarrion) or be mind candy that is all action and romance with nothing deeper to ponder (several recent Mercedes Lackey Valdemar books unfortunately).
    I just wanted to give my thanks to the host of this blog and everyone that is commenting. Your insights are really helping to define what this genre is at its core, and I can’t wait to read some of the books you loved and described. Write on!

  18. More votes for
    Song of Ice and Fire – Cuz crazy stuff happens and yeah! Come out with book 6 already, jeez.

    Wheel of Time – Cuz if while attempting to finish the series, you lose your wife, job and home, you can build a small domicile from the books! Good looking out R.J.

    Lord of the Rings – Cuz why not? And stop asking about the giant hawks, of course they couldn’t use them from the beginning, they were too busy doing cool giant hawk stuff to drop everything and be a plot device.

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