Epic fantasy is usually big, loud fun: kingdoms in peril, good about to be obliterated by dark evil, and scrappy adventurers defying death in nearly every chapter.
While there’s plenty of fun to be had in the Quest for the Magic Thingy, the trend toward focusing on character and realism is welcome, and some of the books on this list flip on its head whole idea of what “epic” means.
Phèdre is trained equally in the courtly arts and the talents of the bedchamber, but, above all, the ability to observe, remember, and analyze. Almost as talented a spy as she is a courtesan, Phèdre stumbles upon a plot that threatens the very foundations of her homeland. Treachery sets her on her path; love and honor goad her further. And in the doing, it will take her to the edge of despair and beyond. Hateful friend, loving enemy, beloved assassin; they can all wear the same glittering mask in this world, and Phèdre will get but one chance to save all that she holds dear.
“[B]rilliant and daring… assured and magnificent.”
— Publishers Weekly
Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and she is thrust into a vicious power struggle with cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother’s death and her family’s bloody history.
With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, Yeine will learn how perilous it can be when love and hate—and gods and mortals—are bound inseparably together.
“Multifaceted characters struggle with their individual burdens and desires, creating a complex, edge-of-your-seat story with plenty of funny, scary, and bittersweet twists.”
— Publishers Weekly
The emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, and destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.
Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, spends eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it’s too late.
An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test.
At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor’s final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing to see that justice is meted out.
“Filled to the brim with history, lore and potential…a modern epic fantasy mixed in with a nice dose of Lovecraftian weirdness.”
Sheepfarmer’s Daughter focuses more on character than action, and it’s a nice change to have a female hero in the military as a simple soldier.
Paksenarrion—Paks, for short—refuses her father’s orders to marry the pig farmer down the road and is off to join the army. And so her adventure begins, an adventure that transforms her into a hero chosen by the gods to restore a lost ruler to his throne.
Carrying a cargo of ancient artifacts, a group of young traders journey along the River Wynnd. After meeting a mysterious rogue, they become embroiled in politics and their paths are altered by supernatural forces, plunging them into a world both strange and terrifying.
“[D]istinguished by intelligent characters and believable politics… a perfectly plotted, beautifully written fantasy.”
— Publishers Weekly
On holiday in Cornwall, the three Drew children discover an ancient map in the attic of the house they are staying in. They know immediately that it is special. It is even more than that—the key to finding a grail, a source of power to fight the forces of evil known as the Dark. And in searching for it themselves, the Drews put their very lives in peril.
“Beautifully told…superbly written.”
— New York Times on The Dark Is Rising
For hundreds of years, the demons have terrorized the night, slowly culling the human herd that shelters behind magical wards—symbols of power whose origins are lost in myth and whose protection is terrifyingly fragile. It was not always this way. Once, men and women battled the demons on equal terms, but those days are gone. Night by night the demons grow stronger, while human numbers dwindle under their relentless assault. Now, with hope for the future fading, three young survivors of vicious demon attacks will dare the impossible, stepping beyond the crumbling safety of the wards to risk everything in a desperate quest to regain the secrets of the past. Together, they will stand against the night.
“Brett’s gritty tale will appeal to those who tire of sympathetic villains and long for old-school orc massacres.”
— Publishers Weekly
Since childhood, Sabriel has lived outside the walls of the Old Kingdom, away from the power of Free Magic, and away from the Dead who refuse to stay dead. But now her father, the Abhorson, is missing, and Sabriel must cross into that world to find him. With Mogget, whose feline form hides a powerful, perhaps malevolent spirit, and Touchstone, a young Charter Mage, Sabriel travels deep into the Old Kingdom. There she confronts an evil that threatens much more than her life and comes face-to-face with her own hidden destiny. . . .
“Rich, complex, involving, hard to put down…excellent high fantasy.”
— Publishers Weekly
Over a millennium ago, Erna, a seismically active yet beautiful world, was settled by colonists from far-distant Earth. But the seemingly habitable planet was fraught with perils no one could have foretold. The colonists found themselves caught in a desperate battle for survival against the fae, a terrifying natural force with the power to prey upon the human mind itself, drawing forth a person’s worst nightmare images or most treasured dreams and indiscriminately giving them life.
Twelve centuries after fate first stranded the colonists on Erna, mankind has achieved an uneasy stalemate, and human sorcerers manipulate the fae for their own profit, little realizing that demonic forces, which feed upon such efforts, are rapidly gaining in strength.
Now, as the hordes of the dark fae multiply, four people—Priest, Adept, Apprentice, and Sorcerer—are about to be drawn inexorably together for a mission that will force them to confront an evil beyond their imagining, in a conflict which will put their own lives—and the very fate of humankind—in jeopardy.
“Stunning… A feast for those who like their fantasies dark, and as emotionally heady as a rich, red wine.”
A wizard takes five university students from Earth to the heart of the first of all worlds—Fionavar. And in this land of men and dwarves, of wizards and gods, the young people discover who they are truly meant to be. For they are a long-awaited part of the pattern known as the Fionavar Tapestry, and only if they accept their destiny will the armies of the Light stand any chance of surviving the wrath the Unraveller and his minions of darkness intend to unleash upon the world.
“Kay’s bestselling—and stunning—fantasy trilogy finds its power not in its feats of imagination or world-building (though there are dazzling heapings of both) but from its rootedness in the reality of human emotions and relationships.”
— The Globe and Mail on the Fionavar Tapestry Series
While the Amber series is a little formulaic, they’re filled with humor, action, and a complex background of alternate worlds, Olympic gods, and magic.
Awakening in an Earth hospital unable to remember who he is or where he came from, Corwin is amazed to learn that he is one of the sons of Oberon, King of Amber, and is the rightful successor to the crown in a parallel world.
Guile is the Prism, the most powerful man in the world. He is high priest and emperor, a man whose power, wit, and charm are all that preserves a tenuous peace. Yet Prisms never last, and Guile knows exactly how long he has left to live.
When Guile discovers he has a son, born in a far kingdom after the war that put him in power, he must decide how much he’s willing to pay to protect a secret that could tear his world apart.
“Weeks manages to ring new tunes on…old bells, letting a deep background slowly reveal its secrets and presenting his characters in a realistically flawed and human way.”
— Publishers Weekly
Two thousand years have passed since Mog-Pharau, the No-God, last walked among Men. Two thousand years have passed since the Apocalypse.
In a world wrenched by holy war and devastation, a sorcerer, a concubine, and a warrior find themselves captivated by a mysterious traveler from lands long thought dead, a man who makes weapons of insight and revelation. Unable to distinguish the passion that elevates from the passion that enslaves, they fall ever deeper under his thrall, while what begins as a war of Men against Men threatens to become the first battle of the Second Apocalypse.
Bakker’s utterly foreign world, Eärwa, is as complex as that of Tolkien, to whom he is, arguably, a worthier successor than such established names as David Eddings and Stephen Donaldson… [The book’s] willingness to take chances and avoid the usual genre clichés should win many discriminating readers.”
— Publishers Weekly
In the Elder Isles, a baroque land of pre-Arthurian myth now lost beneath the Atlantic, powerful sorcerers, aloof faeries, stalwart champions, and nobles eccentric, magnanimous, and cruel pursue intrigue among their separate worlds. Prince Aillas of Troicinet is betrayed on his first diplomatic voyage and cast into the sea. Before he redeems his birthright, he must pass the breadth of Hybras Isle as prisoner, vagabond, and slave, an acquaintance of faeries, wizards, and errant knights, and lover to a sad and beautiful girl whose fate sets his bitter rivalry with the tyrant Casmir, King of Lyonesse.
Long ago, the wizards vanished from the world, and all knowledge was left hidden in riddles. Morgon, prince of the simple farmers of Hed, proved himself a master of such riddles when he staked his life to win a crown from the dead Lord of Aum.
But now ancient, evil forces threaten him. Shape changers replace friends until no man can be trusted. Morgon is forced to flee to hostile kingdoms, seeking the High One who rules from mysterious Erlenstar Mountain.
Ahead lies strange encounters and terrifying adventures. And with him always was the greatest of unsolved riddles—the nature of the three stars on his forehead that seem to drive him toward his ultimate destiny.
Pawn of Prophecy does not cover any new ground in epic fantasy. It’s your basic chosen-one-from-humble-beginnings-must-quest-for-magical-thingamajig-accompanied-by-colorful-companions tale. However, it’s still a ton of fun. For me, the best part of all Eddings’s books are simply the characters arguing with each other. The combination of humor and realism (they argue about whose turn it is to cook) makes this series one of my early favorites.
Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated as an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill—and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family.
As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.
“A gleaming debut in the crowded field of epic fantasies and Arthurian romances.”
— Publishers Weekly
Roshar is a world of stone and storms. Uncanny tempests of incredible power sweep across the rocky terrain so frequently that they have shaped ecology and civilization alike. Animals hide in shells, trees pull in branches, and grass retracts into the soilless ground. Cities are built only where the topography offers shelter.
It has been centuries since the fall of the ten consecrated orders known as the Knights Radiant, but their Shardblades and Shardplate remain: mystical swords and suits of armor that transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. Men trade kingdoms for Shardblades. Wars were fought for them, and won by them.
One such war rages on a ruined landscape called the Shattered Plains. There, Kaladin, who traded his medical apprenticeship for a spear to protect his little brother, has been reduced to slavery. In a war that makes no sense, where ten armies fight separately against a single foe, he struggles to save his men and to fathom the leaders who consider them expendable.
“Sanderson’s fondness for misleading the reader and his talent for feeding out revelations and action scenes at just the right pace will keep epic fantasy fans intrigued.”
— Publishers Weekly
When he was nine, he watched as his mother and brother were killed before him. By the time he was thirteen, he was the leader of a band of bloodthirsty thugs. By fifteen, he intends to be king…
It’s time for Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath to return to the castle he turned his back on, to take what’s rightfully his. Since the day he hung—pinned on the thorns of a briar patch—and watched Count Renar’s men slaughter his mother and young brother, Jorg has been driven to vent his rage. Life and death are no more than a game to him—and he has nothing left to lose.
But treachery awaits him in his father’s castle. Treachery and dark magic. No matter how fierce his will, can one young man conquer enemies with power beyond his imagining?
“[A] morbidly gripping, gritty fantasy tale.”
— Publishers Weekly
Kvothe, the hero and villain of a thousand tales, disappears for years and is presumed dead. Then he is tracked down by a biographer who discovers he’s living under an assumed name while running an inn. The biographer gets Kvothe’s story, which focuses around two imperatives—his desire to learn the higher magic of naming, and his need to discover as much as possible about the Chandrian, the demons of legend who murdered his family.
“The originality of Rothfuss’s outstanding debut fantasy, the first of a trilogy, lies less in its unnamed imaginary world than in its precise execution.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
I’m a huge Terry Pratchett and Discworld fan, and this book is one of the best in terms of clever plot, fascinating characters, interesting use of magic, and Pratchett’s clear-eyed but sympathetic take on human nature. It also has a clever and funny take on epic fantasy in general.
Long believed extinct, a superb specimen of draco nobilis (“noble dragon” for those who don’t understand italics) has appeared in Discworld’s greatest city. Not only does this unwelcome visitor have a nasty habit of charbroiling everything in its path, it soon manages to get itself crowned King (it is a noble dragon, after all…). How did it get there? How is the Unique and Supreme Lodge of the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night involved? Can the Ankh-Morpork City Watch restore order to the city—and return the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork to power?
“This is one of Pratchett’s best books. Hilarious and highly recommended.”
— The Times
To the forest on the shore of the Kingdom of the Isles, the orphan Pug came to study with the master magician Kulgan. But though his courage won him a place at court and the heart of a lovely Princess, he was ill at ease with the normal ways of wizardry. Yet Pug’s strange sort of magic would one day change forever the fates of two worlds. For dark beings from another world had opened a rift in the fabric of spacetime to begin again the age-old battle between the forces of Order and Chaos.
“Totally gripping… A fantasy of epic scope, fast-moving action and vivid imagination.”
— The Washington Post Book World
I am one of the few people on the planet who didn’t like The Eye of the World, but it has so many happy followers that if you haven’t read it, it’s worth it to ignore me and get it at library.
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth to returns again. In the Third Age, an Age of Prophecy, the World and Time themselves hang in the balance. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow.
When The Two Rivers is attacked by Trollocs—a savage tribe of half-men, half-beasts—five villagers flee into a world they barely imagined, with new dangers waiting in the shadows and in the light.
This wildly popular novel became even more popular after being adapted for television (and the adaption kept all of the sex and gore). It’s brutal, fascinating, and shot through with a realism hard to find in most fantasy books.
Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.
“[T]he book stands out from similar work by Eddings, Brooks and others by virtue of its superbly developed characters, accomplished prose and sheer bloody-mindedness.”
— Publishers Weekly
I love this book, but it’s easy to see why some people hate it: the protagonist can be a real d-bag. He refuses to believe in the magic around him and is wracked by guilt and self-doubt (some of it deserved).
A leper is thrown into a strange alternate world filled with magic and wonder, and he doesn’t buy it for a second. Yet he is tempted to believe, to fight for the Land, and to be the reincarnation of its greatest hero.
Ged was the greatest sorcerer in Earthsea, but in his youth he was the reckless Sparrowhawk. In his hunger for power and knowledge, he tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tumultuous tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.
“The magic of Earthsea is primal; the lessons of Earthsea remain as potent, as wise, and as necessary as anyone could dream.”
— Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman
Of course this is number one. Even if other books on this list are a more entertaining read, Tolkien’s tale set the standard by which all other epic fantasies are judged (even if I did want to smack Tom Bombadil upside his singing head).