So, I received a challenge recently. A challenge so enormous that it seemed insurmountable. I love these kinds of challenges (this is not an invitation to send me more challenges, I am totally challenged out for the month!)
The challenge was this: to make a list of 50 Essential Epic Fantasies, to be posted in two halves at the same time as other challengees.
• No more than one book or series from each author (for example, Tolkien can go in for The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion)
• No collections or anthologies
• You can only list books that you have read.
• Definition of “essential” and “epic fantasy” up to individual interpretation.
So, phew. Let’s start by looking at that question of ‘essential.’ I wanted to include (mostly)books that were personal to me, and that helped shape my vision of the genre of fantasy as a whole and epic fantasy in particular. To that end, though it didn’t start out that way, the list has gone vaguely chronological. For the most part, the books in this first 25 represent the books from my teen years, or the very early years of the genre, i.e. Before I discovered that Australians Could Write This Stuff Too.
This, then, is my list of Tansy’s Essential 50 Epic Fantasies, the ones I am most glad that I read and have contributed to my sense of the genre.
Please distribute, debate and discuss the list – and feel free to try the challenge yourself!
Still the trilogy that all other epic fantasy has to live up to, as far as I’m concerned. World politics, fighting, marriage and domestic drama, commerce, espionage, war, sex, cultural clashes and amazing fashion, with the fate of the world resting on the shoulders of one woman. Neither of these authors ever wrote a book that affected me anything like the story of Mara, Daughter of the Empire.
2. Legend, David Gemmell (1984)
Aww, Druss. This intense standalone novel (yes it became a series, never mind that, STANDALONE EPIC FANTASY HERE) revolves around a rather grim siege, with an unforgettable grizzled war hero at the centre of it all. The book practically drips with traditional masculinity, but even here in his debut novel, Gemmel was already poking away at the idea of how legends become legends, and what exactly is the point of having heroes anyway?
3. The Belgariad, David & Leigh Eddings (1982-1984)
You might have had one of those other quite famous series involving Hobbits, Magicians or Shannara as your First, but this was the epic fantasy series that taught me what epic fantasy looked like as a genre. With the Will and the Word, the Eddingses insisted their magic have immediate consequences. Also: Belgarath was my first cranky elderly sorcerer, Polgara was my first motherly but eternally beautiful sorceress, Garion was my first farm boy, Silk was my first nimble thief… you get the picture, right? Readable (though I suspect not overly re-readable), funny and undoubtedly epic. May contain wolves.
4. The Chronicles of the Cheysuli, Jennifer Roberson (1984-1992)
Dynastic politics, shapechangers, swords and prophecies. Oh and many, many angsty wolves. This fantasy family saga showed how a hated and reviled magical race could go from rags to riches, from exile in their own land to the shinest throne in the palace – and while the gender politics are very 1980’s, the characters have stayed with me over the last (gulp) 20 years. I came *this* close to naming one of my daughters Alix.
It doesn’t get much more epic than the Arthurian saga, and this version with its focus on the female characters gives Game of Thrones a run for its money: grisly deaths, emotional drama, politics, religion, magic, incest, chivalry, heraldry, betrayal, and of course the rise and fall of one of the most famous kingdoms in British history.
6. The Swords of Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber (1968)
Sword and sorcery, not epic fantasy, you say? Pfft, I say. I’ve never seen the point of separating those two variations of the fantasy genre, and given the grimdark direction that a great deal of epic fantasy has gone in recently, I think it’s ridiculous to suggest that the adventures of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (and the gritty, bleak and yet colourful society around them) aren’t direct ancestors and influences now (though of course, they always were). Of all the possible works, I picked “Swords” because I feel their adventures at sea have a particularly epic quality, plus intelligent rats with swords. Because intelligent rats with edged weapons! What’s not to love?
7. The Adventures of Alyx, Joanna Russ (1976)
The fascinating appeal of this book is not that it feels in any way like an epic fantasy, but in the way that the stories react against the traditions of fantasy heroes. Considering how active the conversation is these days about the portrayal of women in fantasy fiction, these stories (and “I Thought I was Afeared Till She Stroked My Beard,” “Bluestocking” and “The Barbarian” in particular, add so much to that conversation. I think these stories have as much to say about the fantasy fiction that came after they were published than they do about the fiction that came before which is quite an achievement!
(Yes I know the rules said no collections, but this is treated as a mosaic novel by many and also SHUT UP JOANNA RUSS IS JUDGING YOU)8. Dragonlance Chronicles, Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (1984-1985)
Oh yes, I went there. I loved Dragonlance like pie when I was in my first ‘reading without discrimination’ phase of fantasy discovery, and it introduced me to many of the tropes and traditions of the genre. Admittedly those traditions were also the ones I later railed against when I got sick of the whole genre around the time I hit 17 and started writing sarcastic comic fantasy instead… What Dragonlance did very effectively, though, was to humanise its villains (Oh Kitiara, I still love you) and present some pretty flawed heroes and anti-heroes into the mix. Oh and did I mention all the women with power in this story? The weird, screwed up relationship between brothers Caramon and Raistlin is something that wouldn’t be at all out of place in a modern ‘grimdark.’
9. The Odyssey, Homer
Of all the classical works, The Odyssey is the closest you’ll get to a clear epic fantasy. Our lone, grizzled anti-hero sails around in circles in the desperate hope of reaching his home and his wife, shagging magical women and killing magical monsters in a seemingly endless series of Golden Age anecdotes which resolve finally in him invading his own home, and rescuing his beleaguered wife. Honestly, it SOUNDS like it was written in 1982 and it deserves a Boris Vallejo cover.
10. The Aeneid, Virgil
A little more staid and less trashy than my beloved Odyssey, The Aeneid has a whole lot more war and family politics going on, plus one of the best and most vivid ‘going into the Underworld to gain wisdom’ subplots of Western literature. Essentially a reboot of the Iliad and the Odyssey told in reverse, with all the bits that didn’t appeal to Romans ironed out, The Aeneid reflects the same gender problems as much early epic fantasy but does make quite clever use of the dramatic flashback.
11. Song of Sorcery, Elizabeth Scarborough (1982)
The quest of a hapless minstrel, a cranky and pragmatic young witch, with nothing much more at stake (at first) than the reputation of her runaway sister. But while the scope of the novel makes this one perhaps a less obvious candidate for a list about EPIC fantasy of EPICness, it is a great example of how a small, domestic and personal quest can snowball into a much larger story involving castles, dragons and a kingdom on the brink of war.
Another example of the epic made personal through a single narrative is the first Black Company novel by Glen Cook. Narrated by the well-meaning and slightly-less-evil-than-everyone-else Croaker, this tells the story of a gritty mercenary unit, and what happens when they are employed by Lady, a ruthless and powerful ruler. It’s a weirdly dissociative book to read, not helped by the fact that nearly every character has either a proper noun or an adjective as their name, and that Croaker himself admits on occasion to be something of an unreliable historian of events. But the darkness, creepiness and epic nature of the war is balanced out by an oddly domestic look at the life of a soldier… and oh, there were far more epic adventures to come!
13. The Green Lion Trilogy, Teresa Edgerton (1989-1990)
Starting with Child of Saturn, this trilogy depicted kingdom politics in a Welsh-Celtic fictional world with a particular interest in linguistics (Tolkien wasn’t the only one to invent a language!) and alchemy as well as the more usual medieval fare: knights, queens, romance and evil schemes, in a setting that felt like it MUST have existed somewhere.
14. The Fionavar Tapestry, Guy Gavriel Kay (1984-1986)
My second (sort of) Arthurian entry for the list! To this day I haven’t read any other Kay novels, though I feel more and more that these are books I need to read. Beginning with The Summer Tree, five ordinary young college students are drawn into a magical world with some very familiar narrative threads woven through it – not just from the Arthurian cycle but Norse mythology and other legends too. But free will remains important, and just because you seem to be treading in the footsteps of a famous mythological character doesn’t mean things can’t go differently this time… which is really good news if it turns out your name means ‘Guinevere’!
15. The Riddle-Master Trilogy, Patricia McKillip (1976)
Another subversive take on epic fantasy (oh I do love those so much), this trilogy humanises princes and princesses (against the backdrop of a ruinous world) and presents far more ‘ordinary’ or domestic takes on epic situations, told with gorgeous, fluid language that evokes early epic poetry. Seriously, McKillip writes some of the prettiest prose in the business, and almost always uses it to distract you from clever, tight novel plots. It’s a crime that we don’t hear more about her in the history of the field. Swineherds, riddles and towers forever!
16. The Neverending Story, Michael Ende (1979/1983)
Just because it’s written for children doesn’t mean it’s not epic, of course. This German fantasy novel throws a small boy into the world of Fantastica via a beautiful and terrible book, and introduces us to some of the most vivid and terrifying set pieces in the history of the genre. Even kids who DIDN’T dress up as the Childlike Empress when they were 8 (guilty as charged) were terrified by the approaching Nothing – and for my generation, the 1984 film depiction of the death of a certain horse in a certain Swamp of Sadness was a defining moment of shared devastation.
17. Ozma of Oz, L. Frank Baum (1907)
The Oz books pretty much defined the narrative model of “a hero and his/her ensemble of unlikely and mis-matched comrades travel on a quest for talismanic items which will teach them about themselves and/or save society” and I could have picked almost any of them. But I have a soft spot for this particular book, the third in the series, which takes place largely outside the colour-coordinated magical land, widens the scope of the stories that could be told in the Oz universe, and features not only a slightly older and wiser (and less keen to go home) Dorothy, but also some of my favourite iconic characters/creatures of the series: Tik-Tok the gorgeous clockwork robot, and the terrifying Wheelers. Also, Billina the hen is the best comic sidekick ever.
18. The Silver Chair, CS Lewis (1953)
Choosing which Narnia book (I refused to cop out with the whole series) most represented the genre of epic fantasy took a lot of very serious thought. But ultimately, this one is the quest of all quests for me – the Lady of the Green Kirtle might not have quite the iconic staying power of Jadis the White Witch, but she has her own seductive charm, plus there are giants and serpents, lost princes, the Underworld, a gloriously glum marshwiggle, and jolly platonic school chums who call each other by their last names. My other main contenders for this slot were The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, though my actual favourite is The Magician’s Nephew. (I reserve the right to change any and all opinions next time I re-read them all) We shall not speak of The Last Battle.
19. The Immortals, Tamora Pierce (1992-1996)
Let me introduce you to Veralidaine Sarrasri! This plucky heroine can talk to animals and I SEE YOU TURNING AWAY ALREADY but wait, there’s more. Tamora Pierce’s books may be aimed at a teen audience, but they do so many things that I wish most adult fantasy would at least try to do (like hello, let’s have a talk about magical contraception). I love all the Tortall books, especially the two series of ‘lady knight’ adventures, but Daine’s story is especially epic, showing her development of ‘wild magic’ and how this affects the kingdom around her, distant lands to which she travels in service to her king, and the Divine Realms themselves. Definitely contains wolves.
20. The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land, Diana Wynne Jones (1996)
Diana Wynne Jones’ speciality was the domestic drama with creeping magic, as well as the magic drama with creeping domesticity, though she also wrote some quite definitive ‘magic student/school’ stories and one of the best ever fictional depictions of a science fiction convention. But she also wrote several books which count as epic fantasy – The Merlin Conspiracy, those slightly dull Dalemark books (sorry), and her two comic fantasies, The Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin. HOWEVER, the latter two were basically amusing extrapolations of her most substantial contribution to Epic Fantasy, and the book no writer of this genre should ever allow themselves to be parted from. The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land is the TV Tropes of Epic Fantasy, and whether she is lecturing you on treating horses like cars or the properties of ‘stew,’ it is clear how immersed Jones is in the genre and how stern her challenge is to ‘do better.’ It’s also one of the most entertaining and amusing reference books of all time.
21. Incarnations of Immortality, Piers Anthony (1983-1990, 2007)
I know, I should have chosen a Xanth book. I wanted to choose a Xanth book. It would be honest to my teenage reading history – but while Xanth contributed so greatly to my early understanding of what could be done with epic fantasy on a smaller scale, packed with fun female characters and glorious classical monsters and finally a world not based on medieval traditions… well, I’m not twelve any more, so I look back on them and all I see is panties.
The Incarnations, though, while being set in a version of ‘our’ world, is the closest Anthony ever came to a really dark and complex epic fantasy saga – and I think that’s a more useful label for those books than a retroactive ‘urban fantasy’ stamp. It’s not our world – the books that dip into the history and the future make that pretty clear as do the present ones – but the narrative of the Incarnations is gorgeously woven around its protagonists. My favourites are still Chronos, who travels backwards through the timelines of the other books and characters, and Niobe, who spun green threads as both the Maiden and the Mother. But Death and War are also pretty entertaining characters.
I don’t think any fantasy book series has ever been quite as clever as this one was about weaving separate narratives into a coherent arc that defies chronology, reveals new perspectives to characters from book to book, constantly changing your expectations as a reader about what the hell is going on. All with a mixture of traditional and modern mythology, jammed up together. No wolves, but plenty of magic and swords.
PS: I suspect largely that re-reading these books would not be a pleasant experience for me. Also, I read these long, long ago and while I’m aware that an eighth novel was added to the series in 2007, I haven’t read it.)
22. Medea, Kerry Greenwood (1997)
Speaking of our world – let’s go back to the classical times of gods, monsters and a really DIFFERENT definition of the word ‘hero.’ Kerry Greenwood’s historical magic epic about Medea, which gives us a villainous but sympathetic and non-monstrous take on the famous witch, has so much to say about epic fantasy as a genre, and how it intersects with the epic hero stories of our cultural past. Not only Jason but Heracles and other famous mythological characters get stripped back to their mythical origins and re-examined with a hard eye, as does the historical tradition of Medea herself. Lovely stuff.
23. Blood and Honour, Simon R Green (1993)
Simon R Green was one of my favourite authors in my teens, and a major influence on my work. I don’t really know why I stopped reading him. I don’t think any of his books were ever a disappointment to me, but the new titles sounded less interesting as he moved into urban fantasy instead of epic fantasy & space opera and so I stopped. His epic fantasy was always far more subversive and snarky than it looked, whether he was taking on fairy tale tropes or dark magic police procedurals – and in more recent years my head exploded one more time when I discovered retrospectively that yes, Prince Rupert and Princess Julia from Blue Moon Rising WERE HAWK AND FISHER. He’s also never hesitated when it comes to putting a sword in a woman’s hand and kitting her out with armour that covers all the relevant bits, which doesn’t hurt at all.
Blood and Honour, the Green epic fantasy that has most stuck with me over the decades, takes place entirely inside a murderous castle, and tells the grim story of warring heirs and bloodthirsty court politics through the eyes of an actor who is hired to take the place of an ailing prince, and soon finds himself up to his neck in, well. Shit, really. It’s like Game of Thrones meets The Prisoner of Zenda, only there’s a room that eats people. I love it. I need to re-read it. Simon R Green party everyone!
24. Sometimes The Magic Works, Terry Brooks (2003)
I never read Shannara, and while I did read a lot of the Magic Kingdom For Sale books, I’m not going to recommend them to anyone. Some of your teen reads you’re happy to own and defend, and others can just go quietly off to the big second hand bookshop in the sky. But by far the most interesting epic fantasy work I’ve ever read of Brooks is his collection of essays ABOUT writing epic fantasy. Wonderful, inspiring and historically important stuff, and it almost makes me wish I’d given Shannara a go when I was young enough to eat them up with a spoon.
Hooray! A surely-not-controversial entry! No one can deny that this one is an epic fantasy of note. I will add that I didn’t read LoTR until my 20’s, and I once got hissed at on a fantasy panel at a convention when I admitted I hadn’t read them. I WATCHED THE MOVIE FIRST, PEOPLE. On the other hand, I did get through Books 2 and 3 in a single day (while travelling through Nottingham, sorry, Nottingham) and my honey came home to find me bawling my eyes out over the appendices, because it listed when each character (eventually) died. “THEY ALL DIE!”
And now, before I run away to compose the second half of this list for Monday’s post, I want to note that the large majority of the books in this first list were discovered and consumed by me between 1991-1995. That is, my high school years.
Something really important happened to me in 1995. I was in Myer looking at the (few) bookshelves and I came across a title called The Madigal by Beverley MacDonald. I don’t remember anything about the contents of the novel itself (though I do know I bought it) which is why it isn’t included in my list, but it was the copyright page that blew me away. Because that was the moment I discovered that AUSTRALIAN WRITERS WROTE EPIC FANTASY. More to the point, they sometimes got it published BY AUSTRALIAN PUBLISHERS. Now, this was probably about five minutes before Harper Voyager published Sara Douglass, so it wasn’t going to be long before this was duh, old news, but to me it was a revelation.
Because yes, I had been writing an epic fantasy of my own since I was thirteen, but it had always seemed a bit pie-in-the-sky because it was obvious that all fantasy authors were English or American and what little I had seen of the internet so far had been quite small and limited.
And now, suddenly, the world looked very different.
So come back on Monday to see me talk about many, many Australian epic fantasy novels, and other authors/books that came to me in my adult years…