Thanks everyone who came by Part I of the Epic List of Epicness, across four different blogs. If you missed it, check out the first 25 ‘Essential Epic Fantasies’ from Liz Bourke, Jared Shurin, Justin Landon and Tansy Rayner Roberts.
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.
26. Sabriel, Garth Nix (1995)
I fell in love with the darkness and weird, sneaky world building as the schoolgirl heroine crossed over a mysterious Wall into a frosty kingdom that would reveal the truth about her family and her destiny. Also, necromancy!
27. Mage Heart, Jane Routley (1996)
A Renaissance setting, and a young female protagonist who is lured into a world of courtesans, royal politics, necromancy (apparently necromancy was a thing in the mid-90’s!) and demons. Quite a lot of demons…
28. The Witches of Eileanan, Kate Forsyth (1997-2002)
This epic 6 book saga starting with Dragonclaw followed the red-haired twins Iseult and Isabeau as they tread different paths towards a single destiny: to restore the relationship between the land of Eileanan and the practitioners of magic. I’m a sucker for stories where the dominant form of magic is WITCHES rather than wizards or enchanters, and the rich use of Scottish mythology gives these books a strong sense of cultural identity.
29. A Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin (1996-2011-?)
I don’t know if any of you are aware of this, but 1996 was quite a long time ago, and yet I only recently read the entire ASoIaF series over a couple of months. I was reading a truckload of books in 1996 (though that was the year I officially got bored with the genre for a while, and particularly started resisting epic series by male authors after breaking up with Robert Jordan around the third book of the Wheel of Time only to be told by a friend I hadn’t yet reached the point where it got good… TOO LATE!). Ahem. So when I started hearing that GRRM was the fantasy author who ‘got it right’ and ‘did things differently’ and that A Game of Thrones was the book most recommended to people who didn’t otherwise like epic fantasy… well, I ignored it, didn’t I, and kept on reading my female authors and Terry Pratchett.
Looking back, that was a pretty good life choice. I’m glad I started reading these books at 34 instead of 18, and not just because of the massive wait between every volume. Reading them now, in the context of the TV series and the upswell of popularity, has been pretty cool, but I hate to think how I would have coped back then. Anyway, I’ve said a lot about these books already recently. Yes, they’re essential in an understanding of modern epic fantasy as a genre. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to tell you that you should read them…30. Xena (1995-2001)
On the other hand, if you don’t love Xena, I wash my hands of you.
I’m kidding. Really. I have close friends who don’t get Xena, and I still love them. But I will defend this show to the death for its subversiveness, its humour, its characters, its fight scenes and its amazing New Zealand cast and crew who produced something extraordinary. Not only that, but looking at the 6 year run of Xena as a whole, I see a substantial epic fantasy arc that broke more traditions and skirted as many boundaries as any old Game of Thrones books. Our heroine follows a dark and messy redemptive arc despite the fact that she herself (and many people around her) don’t believe it is possible for her to be redeemed for her dark deeds of the past. Despite this, she makes friends, finds a soulmate, kicks butt and goes fishing. Sometimes there’s singing.
The ‘everything (mostly) BC is good’ policy led to a complex a surprisingly coherent mythical world which was largely based around Ancient Greek and Roman traditions, but made room for Chinese, Japanese, Mesopotamian, British Celtic, Indian, Christian, Arthurian, Norse and Egyptian mythology too. Xena made a few cultural sensitivity gaffes along the way, but they were trying hard to be inclusive, and the visual diversity of this show – with prominent use of Maori, Samoan and African-American actors in key guest and background roles – is something that would be lovely to see reflected in far more epic fantasy fiction.
31. Ash: a Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)
I’ve seen arguments accepted that this book is science fiction, and I have no problem with that (though it stretches thin) and it is absolutely alternate history as well (or indeed, as included within the definition of science fiction) BUT I’m claiming it for epic fantasy too, and not just because it’s awesome. Gorgeous writing, and a powerful, historically-realistic look at what it actually takes to fight medieval-style wars. Anyone who thinks a woman could not lead men in battle has not read this book.
32. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
My last ‘media’ entry, this movie blew me away when I first saw it, with its gorgeous scenery, angsty heroes, spectacular fight scenes and elegant, understated magic. I knew little about Chinese history and mythology beyond what I learned from the Monkey! TV series (which was a major show in Australia in the 1980’s! All us ABC kids watched it along with The Goodies and Doctor Who) and I found this movie massively effective and inspiring. My first response was to run, not walk, to find the novels that the movie was based on, and I was beyond excited to discover this was adapted from the third of a five part fantasy epic by Wang Dulu (published between the 1930’s and the 1950’s. And then I found out that this five part fantasy epic was not translated into English. And then I was sad.
It was probably the first time I ever became aware of how important translation is to works being recognised outside their own countries. Which may say more about me than the publishing industry, but it was a pretty essential revelation.
33. The Last Hero, Terry Pratchett (2001)
In December 2001, I was travelling through Europe. I saw the first Harry Potter movie and the first Lord of the Rings movie at cinemas (in Paris and London respectively), and I read The Three Musketeers for the first time. It was a pretty good month. In the new year, I would finally read and enjoy the Lord of the Rings books. But first… After a month in Rome, parcelling out English books like we were on rations and resisting the urge to make our suitcases too heavy, my honey and I fell off the wagon with a vengeance. We bought ourselves piles of books for Christmas Day, which we spent in a little hotel in Bayswater, eating convenience store soup and READING. The bliss.
One of the books we picked up was a new Terry Pratchett, an illustrated story (“short novel”) which I think is one of the best arguments that he often wrote epic fantasy. The Last Hero is all about heroes and quests and terrible magic and oppressive scenery. While Rincewind, Captain Carrot and Leonard of Quirm feature, it’s the depiction of Cohen the Barbarian and his elderly ‘Silver Horde’ that make this book special – along with Evil Harry Dread (the last Evil Overlord) and Vena, a former chainmail lingerie warrior who now prefers actual knitting.
Their quest? To return fire to the gods. That is, to blow the gods up.
The art is important to mention here – I feel personally that putting the artistic visualisation of the Discworld into Paul Kidby’s hands was a pretty major development in Pratchett’s legacy as a writer, and that it marks the point at which he started being taken a lot more seriously as a writer. The Last Hero is a showcase of Kidby’s interpretation of the characters and the world (so that they actually match the careful descriptions of their author), with gorgeous, intricate illustrations on every page that demonstrate that the grand epic scope of the Discworld.
34. The Stone Mage and the Sea, Sean Williams (2001)
This and the other Books of the Change were important to me because of the strong and very Australian landscape that formed part of the worldbuilding. It wasn’t the first time I had come across that particular technique used, but it’s particularly strong in this trilogy. I’ve never been to South Australia, but there’s still a familiar culture for me about these books, from the red sand and Australian fauna to the vocabulary and characterisation. It doesn’t always have to be a medieval anglo fantasyland where North means cold and South means hot…
35. The Kushiel Trilogy, Jacqueline Carey (2001-2003)
Sometimes epic fantasy is about sex instead of swords. Well, okay. There are also swords. I like it when the problems of the world need to be addressed with espionage and politics rather than a small team of special snowflakes with one giant weapon, and I liked the character material in these books very much, as well as the nods to Greek and Roman history along with a comfortable mish-mash of other historical and mythological cultures.
36. The Tir Alainn Trilogy, Anne Bishop (2001-2003)
I’ll admit to loving Bishop’s glamorous Black Jewels books as much as the next person, but this more sombre trilogy beginning with Pillars of the World presses many of my personal favourite epic fantasy buttons: a lone witch dealing with the Fae to help fight the persecution of her kind, and a story which spirals from the small and domestic to have much wider and dare I say EPIC consequences. Yes, I really like stories which address the fact that burning witches is a bad idea.
37. Second Sons Trilogy, Jennifer Fallon (2002-2003)
You don’t need sufficiently developed technology to fake magic in an otherwise primitive society – but a little knowledge can go a VERY long way, particularly if you are in the business of setting up an all-powerful religion to control everybody through human sacrifice. One of the great strengths of this trilogy is the characterisation, particularly the exploration of an intelligent hero who goes undercover with the Evil Overlords, and finds himself far too good at ‘faking’ being evil. Lion of Senet is the first book in this trilogy.
38. Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold (2003)
I enjoyed The Curse of Chalion very much (the standalone fantasy novel to which this is a standalone sequel) but Paladin gets my recommendation because of how rare it is to have a middle-aged mother as the central character of an epic fantasy, as well as a woman who has been marked out as ‘mad’ by most of society for a long time. Having a sympathetic protagonist who is also quite religious is rare too, because of the tendency towards most organised religions in fantasy novels being Evil. Also, I love siege stories. SIEGE!
39. The Anvil of the World, Kage Baker (2003)
Another trope I really love is the hard-bitten former devil-may-care type who is trying to retire gracefully, and can’t. Which is weird because I imagine it would be extremely annoying if it happened to me personally. Kage Baker was a writer with a particular knack for likeable, engaging characters who exchanged awesome banter. This was her first fantasy, about Smith the retired assassin, and the grand (occasionally wacky) journey he is dragged on against his will. Demons, disasters and best of all, an epic fantasy that begins and ends within the pages of a single volume.
40. Inkheart, Cornelia Funke (2003)
Translated from German, this gorgeous children’s fantasy uses books as the talismanic objects and sources of magic we always knew they were. The travels in and out of Inkworld continue in grand fashion for a whole trilogy, but it is the first book which really made an impact on me.
41. The Doctrine of Labyrinths, Sarah Monette (2005-2009)
Just when I thought I handle on epic fantasy (and I really wasn’t interested any more), along came Sarah Monette and Melusine. Dark, sensual and unabashedly literary, the journey of the tortured, aristocratic magician Felix and the grumpy, common-as-muck Mildmay captured me for the whole run. I loved all of these books, particularly for the sinister artistry of the cities that Monette built for her readers, and the just plain beautiful writing, but I have a particular attachment to The Mirador because of the addition of the actress Mehitabel as a foil for the two men.
42. Kingmaker, Kingbreaker, Karen Miller (2005)
This debut fantasy series consisting of The Innocent Mage and Innocence Lost (The Awakened Mage in the US & UK) is one of the best arguments you’ll ever see for the fantasy duology to replace the trilogy (and I’m a major trilogy apologist). Miller spends the first book building up an entertaining cast of characters, with a positive tone and a fun, adventurous spirit. She then proceeds to rip her reader’s heart out through their ribcage, from a literal cliffhanger ending to Book 1, and a devastating demolition of so much of what she had built in Book 2. It’s like all possible facets of epic fantasy wrapped up in a cheeky, soul-destroying bow!
43. The Privilege of the Sword, Ellen Kushner (2006)
Another fantasy without magic, and one I am desperate to reread now I’ve finally got around to reading Swordspoint. The best epic fantasy is that which conveys a strong sense of imagined history – it doesn’t matter how detailed your society is if it feels like it just got here. The Privilege of the Sword might be a sequel, but I read it as a standalone and I loved the powerful sense of what had gone Before in this city, as well as the complex relationship between the characters and their swords. Call it mannerpunk all you like, but if you’ve got sword training, the politics of a pretend city, a Mad Duke and this much swashbuckle, I’m going to call it Epic.
44. Temeraire/His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik (2006)
Hello Napoleonic War, have I introduced you to DRAGONS? Sometimes stories set in our world are just plain epic enough to count, and once you add people riding in dragon harnesses to your alternate history, I think it becomes another thing. The relationship between Laurence and Temeraire in this first volume is particularly heartfelt and interesting, and I have to say these books have some of the most gorgeous fantasy covers of the last decade.
45. The Watergivers/The Stormlord Trilogy, Glenda Larke (2009-2011)
Over the last couple of years, I have returned to reading epic fantasy with new enthusiasm. This amazing trilogy beginning with The Last Stormlord did a lot to lure me back to the genre. Inspired at least party by the author’s travels through Tunisia, the trilogy also feels very Australian with its hot temperatures and dire drought. This is a land where the only way to bring rain is to use magic, and unfortunately the old Stormlord’s heirs have suffered a spate of suspicious deaths over the years, which puts the whole kingdom in a very precarious position. I love the female characters and gender issues explored in these books, particularly the pregnancy of one of the point of view characters, but honestly there’s so much good old fashioned war, politics, magic, backstabbing and end-of-the-world drama in this story that it should have very wide appeal. There’s also a charming ‘magical art’ subplot that becomes more and more significant as the story goes on. So, so good.
46.The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, NK Jemisin (2010)
This first volume of the Inheritance trilogy (each of which serves as a standalone with a new protagonist) set up a strange and disturbing world in which the gods live like kings in a floating city, and a young heir is rudely introduced to her bizarre, dangerous family and the nasty, murderous political game they play against each other. It’s basically epic fantasy by way of the gothic novel, and not just because the hero is a girl. Everything outside the palace (AKA the mysterious and seductive house) feels faintly unreal, but that only goes to make Yeine’s peril in the palace feel more intense. Apparently some critics were a bit distressed the amount of saucy bedroom time in this book which only goes to show they hadn’t been reading the same epic fantasy that I had for the previous decade and a half…
47. Cold Magic, Kate Elliott (2010)
Kate Elliott has put together some spectacular worldbuilding (with the rise of the Phoenicians as a culture as far as Britain, and a mashup of Celtic and African traditions, to mention just a couple of details from her complex web) and a substantial history behind our heroine as she embarks on her adventure. There’s a steampunk sensibility about this book, largely coming from the time period being a bit later than Earth-ish epics tend to be (18th-19th century dominant rather than medieval, Renaissance or Tudor) but the storytelling aspect is good old fashioned epic fantasy in many positive ways (lots of travel, arranged marriages, ice and snow, scary magic and potential-end-of-the-world politics, a central protagonist with a lot to learn and a heavy weight on her shoulders) – and also mould-breaking in even more positive ways (a world that allows for actual racial diversity as a matter of course, some lesser-used historical influences, female friendships, and some interesting male-female dynamics.
48. Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor (2010)
This novel is many things. It has shades of science fiction, for a start, in its remnants of computers and other technology worn down to the wires. It has the weight of history, particularly the history and culture of the Sudan. But mostly it is fantasy, the kind of fantasy that makes you feel bad for the rest of the genre because it can’t possibly compete. The protagonist, Onyesonwu, is born of war and rape, and as she comes into adulthood she goes on a quest to understand the magic she has inherited, rallying support around her as she builds her strength before facing down her villainous sorcerer of a father. If this is not epic then honestly, nothing else is.
49. The Outcast Chronicles, Rowena Cory Daniells (2012)
Matriarchal societies are surprisingly rare in epic fantasy, which tends towards the medieval mode as a default for everything – but especially social models. In this series, Daniells builds a clever society of magic-users and artisans (with discreet but ‘necessary’ underpinnings of slavery and sacrifice) which she then demolishes, one nuanced stroke at a time, by taking away everything they care about and forcing them to examine and re-examine every privilege from first principles. On boats.
50. Princeless, Vol. 1, Jeremy Whitely (writer) & M. Goodwin (art) (2011-2012)
Finally, a comic! There aren’t many epic fantasy comics out there, and even fewer that I’ve actually read (though I am hoping Gail Simone’s Red Sonja proves as promising as the covers suggest) but my discussion of essential epic fantasy wouldn’t be complete without mentioning this four-issue limited series, which was released October 2011 – February 2012. It was later put together in a book which sadly (like the issues themselves) is almost impossible to buy in print if you live outside the US. Lucky for me, ComiXOlogy came to the party. The second volume has started being published, so it’s an ongoing narrative, but the first four issues tell you all you need to know about whether Princeless is for you, or the kid in your life, or both.
Princeless is one of many, many stories which subvert the trope of ‘girl meets dragon’ by having the girl and the dragon join forces, often against the knights sent to kill the beast. The subversion is almost as old as the story itself – or maybe it just seems that way. But Princeless is the book I wanted to represent that particular trope because of its clever writing and gorgeous art, its visual as well as narrative explosion of gender and race expectations in fantasy, and because – well. It’s recent, it’s awesome, and it’s for kids. The kids who read this comic may well be the same kids picking up epic fantasy for the first time when they hit thirteen or fourteen (if not before), and this book will show them right from the start that they don’t have to settle for books where the slightly dumb young hero is always a farm BOY, or worlds that are full of dragons but have no characters who aren’t white, or book covers featuring young ladies dressed in ‘the Sonja’.
It’s a book about sensible armour, about how blacksmiths sometimes have to deal with as much gender shit as princesses, and that really important question about who the hell puts up with a king who thinks locking his daughters in towers is a reasonable lifestyle choice? It’s about how dragons are people too, and young men often suffer as badly from patriarchal expectations and traditions as the young women around them – though, not quite as badly, even when it’s pretty miserable for them. Because, the lack of towers and dragons.
Princeless is a story about a young person who HATES her chosen destiny, and decides not only to fly in the face of it, but to start upon her life of rebellion by rescuing all her sisters from their chosen destinies too.
PHEW, so that’s my list. As you can tell, I’m not good at keeping things brief. Thanks for reading this far.
If I didn’t include your favourite epic fantasy, it’s probably because I haven’t read it, or I haven’t read enough of it to feel I can count it in this particular list. Or, you know, maybe you liked it more than I did! Happy to discuss my (and your) choices in the comments.
Books I wish I had found room for in the list include Lavinia by Ursula K LeGuin (if only because I feel bad for leaving LeGuin out, but I never got the hang of Earthsea and it feels silly to put Lavinia in when The Aeneid is already there – though I recommend you read both books together!), Tooth & Claw and/or Lifelode by Jo Walton (both excellent, and I would not argue with anyone who wanted to justify them as epic fantasy), and that first one by Terry Goodkind (which I seem to remember was pretty good. Movies that I almost included were Willow and The Princess Bride, but they both got bumped to find space for more books.
I feel especially guilty for not having read enough Sara Douglass or Trudi Canavan to give them pride of place in the list considering their massive success and popularity internationally, and that both of them have led the way in shaping the epic fantasy genre in Australia. I also would have liked a spot for Sean McMullen, who was writing weird, Aussie epic desert-ish fantasy with librarians long before the big Australian publishers had figured out that thick books with magic and swords were a good thing to print – and has written some pretty epic stuff in recent years, too.
But, hey. It wouldn’t be a really awesome list if you hadn’t left a bunch of awesome stuff on the cutting room floor, right? Chances are I will kick myself for forgetting something EVEN MORE IMPORTANT at some point in the next week.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some re-reading to do…