Recommended Reading: 5 (modern) Epic Fantasies
This is the "serious" type of fantasy, not the swords-and-sorcerers adventure-style fantasy. Both are awesome, and have their place, but epic fantasy is best defined as:
High fantasy or epic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that is set in invented or parallel worlds. High fantasy was brought to fruition through the work of authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, whose major fantasy works were published in the 1950s.
I personally adore both kinds of fantasy, and it pretty much just depends on what mood I'm in for what I'll grab. With no further ado, here are my recommendations for more recent epic fantasy series.
1. The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle #1) by Patrick Rothfuss
I have read some rave reviews on this, and they're all right. It's brilliant, really. The sort of thoughtful, rich, beautifully constructed fantasy book that is quite obviously destined to be a classic.
It's so wonderfully paced and perfectly constructed that I'm actually incredibly stunned this is his first book. I'm not saying first-book authors suck, because they don't -- not by any means -- but this is the sort of masterpiece of writing you expect to have been turned out after three or four published works minimum. Very occasionally, there were those odd turns of phrase or mistakes in editing that sometimes slip by an editor/ publishing house, issues that jerked me out of the world for the space of a breath -- but those might have been due to the format I read it in (e-pub), and even those small mistakes disappeared by the second book (The Wise Man's Fear). As a whole, the books are just incredibly brilliant.
I was originally hooked to read this book by the concept: Someone told me it tells the story of the hero after all is said and done, not while the adventure is happening. At first I thought it sounded boring, but the more I considered it, the more I saw how a talented writer could use the vehicle of the narrative storyteller to really do some interesting stuff. Finally, my curiosity got the best of me, and I picked up a copy. I was hooked within the first paragraph.
As I've stated, it's just amazing in every detail. The writing pulls you in so thoroughly that you can see the deep stained glow of the wooden bar as the bartender passes his rag over it; you can smell the bonfire in the crisp night air, you can hear the tenor and pitch of the character's voices. It's one of those incredibly descriptive yet concise books that is not just awesome because of the plot, but it's awesome because the writing itself is a genuine work of art. Rothfuss is a master at turn of the phrase, and his writing style is a delight in and of itself.
Where to buy:
2. Mistborn: The Final Empire (Mistborn #1) by Brandon Sanderson
This book was a pleasant surprise to me. I was looking for something along the lines of Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear or David Abraham's The Dragon's Path, and I found it! I highly recommend the Mistborn trilogy to any fan of epic fantasy. He's also started a series in the same 'verse called Alloy of Law, which is sort of like a steampunk/ western set several thousand years after the events of Mistborn.
I loved this series not only for the usual reasons -- tight, well-paced plot arcs, beautifully developed characters, descriptive writing that showed me the world instead of merely telling me about it -- but because of the uniqueness of his magic. I mean, most High Fantasy has magic, and most of them have rules to the magic. Sometimes wizards are more powerful, sometimes earth magic/ witches are. Sometimes you're born with magic, sometimes you can learn it. Sometimes it's passed down through supernatural beings, sometimes it's just part of the nature. What I absolutely loved about this series was how the magic was tied to metal, and not just in a general sense of "have metal, do magic," but in a very specific sense of, "this specific metal will give certain types of people the ability to perform this specific magic."
His tying of magic to metal raised all these questions for me -- I wondered if any of the metals were poisonous (over the long term), like lead is to humans. I wondered if non-practitioners ever died from swallowing metal in the hopes they would learn to "burn" it, but never could. While he never really addressed those specific questions, he did address so many more about the genetics and "rules" to this magic -- it's an incredibly intricate and fascinating system, and I was just blown away by how inventive and unique it is.
As a side note, this series also taught me a neat little lesson about preconceptions. See, I was not fond of the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. Initially, I enjoyed it, when I started it in high school. I gave up around book 7 because when I read it, I felt like the author hated the series and hated himself for starting it. I was about 3/4 of the way through Mistborn when I realized why the author's name sounded so familiar to me -- a friend of mine recommended him to me years ago, while we were talking about the Wheel of Time series. She had recommended I pick it back up, because her really talented friend Brandon Sanderson was ghost-writing the final two books. I kind of laughed her off at the time, because I didn't care how talented the author was, I did not (and do not) believe anyone can save that trainwreck. To be honest, I wouldn't have even started the Mistborn series had I made the connection beforehand, which sure teaches me a lesson. Don't judge an author by the fact they finished writing a series you hated when the original author wrote it! (Or something like that.)
Where to buy:
- Barnes and Noble (Nook-ready) edition
- Amazon.com (Kindle-ready)
- Google Play (Android books)
3. Green Rider (Green Rider #1) by Kristen Britain
I love this author. She's so imaginative and descriptive. When I started reading this series, I was under the impression it was a trilogy. Both happily and unhappily, I was wrong -- the most recent was Blackveil, book 5 of the Green Rider series. Given the twists and turns of plot, I suspect it will take at minimum two more books to wrap this up.
That said, if you like high fantasy, the Green Rider series is a must-read. Like the Song of Ice and Fire series, it takes place in a universe where magic was once considered run-of-the-mill and normal, but the use (and strength) of magic has died out over the centuries until it's become mostly myth. There are some rare situations/ locations where magic is known to still exist, but it's regarded with a mixture of denial and suspicion -- as in, most people choose to believe it doesn't exist, but everyone agrees that even if it did it would be a bad thing.
Unlike Song of Ice and Fire, magic started dying after a cataclysmic magical war that reshaped the country and landscape in devastating ways. Therefore, any practitioners of magic are regarded with deep superstition and distrust. It is accepted by the populace that certain types of magic are a necessary evil -- such as that which the Green Riders (messengers for the Kingdom) use -- but it does not allay the suspicion and distrust with which such magic users are regarded.
Karigan G'ladheon -- the protagonist -- is set on her path by an unexpected death in her path. She is essentially kidnapped by the magic and co-opted into joining the Green Rider corps, so initially she's a somewhat reluctant heroine. Karigan is a very strong and likeable character. She has flaws, and is often impetuous, but she's also practical and even-headed. I also enjoy Karigan because she is part of a growing but still somewhat rare breed -- the epic fantasy action heroine. I prefer my epic fantasy to have strong female protagonists, so the books I recommend do trend in that direction -- but I've found it's more difficult that you would imagine to find a nuanced and strong female protagonist in the worlds of high epic fantasy.
Karigan is somewhat of a tomboy, but because she's a merchants daughter she's also able to comport herself well in fine clothing and settings. I like the adaptability of the character -- it's unusual to find a female character who has not been written as either/or (tomboy or feminine). Later in the series, as she spends more time as a soldier-messenger, she becomes less and less comfortable in traditional feminine roles and dress, but this is natural evolution of the character and her predominant settings.
I particularly liked that in slowly shifting her character away from predominant gender expectations in society, the metamorphosis is not always presented as desirable to Karigan. There are moments when she mourns no longer wearing fine dresses, or being ignored as scenery. Then, within a few paragraphs, she is frustrated at not being listened to or taken seriously. In addition to flouting gender societal norms by becoming a soldier-messenger, she has also flouted societal roles by embracing the magic inherent in her previous role, and I love that all these changes are presented in a manner that acknowledges the nuances and grey areas instead of merely trumpeting that one or the other (tomboy or lady) is necessary.
Where to buy:
4. The Dragon's Path (The Dagger and the Coin #1) by Daniel Abraham
This was a bit of a surprise for me. I bought it on a whim because it was a Nook daily deal or something. I wasn't sure I'd like it -- oftentimes the type of epic fantasy that features ominous skies and big ole swords front-and-center is the type that feel uncomfortably like the thinly-veiled intimate fantasies of lonely, angry misogynists.
You know the type of fantasy: It features a noble and misunderstood protagonist (either Naive Good Guy or Misunderstood Playboy), a powerful wicked sorcerer antagonist, a multitude of seductive evil witch henchladies (often featuring torture, whips, and leather dresses). Sometimes there are fantastical beasts. Usually it's just sexy evil women and lonely regular Joe protagonists being ripped of their innocence.
So I saw the cover and thought, "Ehhh," but figured the price and the reviews made it worth attempting. I am so glad I read it. I thought the variety of races were fascinating, and I loved the whole epic war lost to history backstory. I was completely intrigued with the female banker escapee storyline, and just overall loved it.
This is one of those with multiple protagonists. I have no idea where the author is planning to go with the series, but at the moment, there are multiple voices spread across the continent. Daniel Abraham does not make the mistake of introducing too many voices, but there are enough that if you don't like one main protagonist, you can rest assured that within a few chapters you'll be with another that you prefer. He also has an interesting journey regarding religion and religious oppression going on here, which is a common theme in fantasy. His characterizations and descriptive voice is great, and the pacing was well-done. There were a few moments here and there that seemed to lag a bit, but they were minor and rare.
Overall, I was impressed: Epic fantasy, creative and unique races, intriguing historical backstory, and strong protagonists (both male and female). All that, plus serious ethical and moral questions and the rising menace of war! It's a great read.
Where to buy:
5. A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire #1) by George R.R. Martin
No list of current epic high fantasy would be complete without this series on it. George R.R. Martin has called this work his "magnum opus," and he's spot on. You know my favorite thing about R.R. Martin? He fleshes out a character, gives them a personality and a voice, gets you all attached and thinking this is the one you're going to follow throughout the series -- and then he kills them.
You want to throw the book in frustration, but the plot is so compelling and well-written that you can't help but to keep reading and get all attached to another character. In addition, he really writes incredible character arcs. An example would be Sansa, a nobleborn daughter who seems relatively unimportant in book one; in fact she seems childish, naive, and selfish. Over the course of the series, her character grows and changes in such subtle ways that I felt a bit blindsided by the patient, intelligent strength of her character in the fifth book, A Dance With Dragons. She's hardly the only one -- these books span several years, and the characters go through the type of individual growth, personality shifts, and belief changes one would expect over such a span of time.
In some cases, the alterations are abrupt and stunning; with other characters they are so delicately written that you can miss whole chapters of hints before it hits you that wow, this character became a cold-blooded killer at some point, and you were too busy paying attention to their repeated insistence that they would never want to hurt anyone to notice how many people seem to die because of their choices. It's frightening, it really is. But so cool.
The other great thing about this series is that if you have a non-reader in the house, you can still share it with them. George R.R. Martin is working closely with the HBO team producing the Game of Thrones series, and thus far the HBO series has proven to be very representative of the books, in my opinion. My husband and I watch the series together, which gives me an opportunity to discuss the plots and themes with him in a way that I can't discuss most of the stuff I read (since he doesn't like to read as much as I do). It's a really cool way of being able to connect our interests.
Where to buy:
- Barnes and Noble (Nook-ready) edition
- Amazon.com (Kindle-ready)
- Google Play (Android books)
Where to buy HBO series:
Note on the Links
The books are all available at the stores listed, but I could not always link through to the Amazon page, because it was overly promotional. Since the hub is cannot be tagged as overly promotional for B&N I just left those ones up, but took down a few of the Amazon links. I did have Google Play linked through, but I just learned that is also a hub violation.
That said, these books are all available at all these websites. I have no doubt these books are also each available through the Apple i-tunes store, as well, but I run a Linux OS and just don't want to deal with the incompatibility of Apple on my computer, so I can't 100% verify that one.
I just genuinely enjoyed these books. I don't know the authors and I haven't been asked to promote them -- they're just really great books, in my opinion.
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