Monday, 18 January 2016

Top Ten Epic Fantasy Series

A Beginner's Guide to Epic Fantasy

Epic Fantasy is my favourite type of fantasy novel, and I’m always on the lookout for the next big series I can sink my teeth into. But breaking into epic fantasy can be intimidating for some, whether it is from the required commitment, the length of the novels, or just the immensity of the story being told. On the bright side, epic fantasy novels have some of the greatest rewards that a book can offer: the joy of watching characters struggle and succeed, the satisfaction of learning the rules and features of a new world, and the comfort of returning to something that is both familiar and new.  

In order to assist every fantasy reader out there, here is a beginner’s guide to epic fantasy, the top ten fantasy series that I think are worthy of your time. To be clear, the epic fantasy we are talking about must fit into the following criteria:  
  • Series must be about the same time-period/characters/over-arching plot. (This excludes shared worlds like the Dragonlance series); 
  • Series must be more than a trilogy, (as including trilogies would expand the list far too much)  
  • Series must be in the fantasy genre, so sci-fi series will not be discussed here. 

Vlad Taltos  
Steven Brust
Novels in Series: 14        Series Status: Incomplete 
Average Novel Length: 250 pages 

Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels are the shortest you will find on this list, making them perhaps one of the easiest series to break into. The cast of characters is relatively small, and the stories are light, easy to follow, and full of adventure.  

Our protagonist in the series is Vlad Taltos, a former assassin trying to make his way in the world, bringing along with him his faithful (and hilarious) familiar, Loiosh. While each novel can be considered stand-alone, they all continue to develop Vlad and Loiosh as characters. Vlad is often hired (or forced) by his friends and enemies into performing clandestine missions, using all of the skills he formerly employed as an assassin.  There is plenty of intrigue, battles, and magic to be had in the Vlad Taltos series, so get to it!  

The Legend of Drizzt 
R. A. Salvatore
Novels in Series: 28        Series Status: Incomplete 
Average Novel Length: 300 pages 

Do not be alarmed by the number of books in the Legend of Drizzt series. The novels are short and sweet, full of swashbuckling adventure and tons of magic. To make it even easier to read, R. A. Salvatore splits up each of his over-arching plots into a trilogy of sorts. This organization tactic means that you can pick up any trilogy in the massive series, at pretty much any point, and start reading. I started reading at the Hunter’s Blades trilogy, then went back to read the previous 13 books. 
Drizzt is the archetypal knight; he is brave, selfless and humble. The Legend of Drizzt is set in the Forgotten Realms world (essentially, Dungeons and Dragons), so be prepared for a massive array of beasties, magic, races, and gods. The world is so huge and Salvatore has so much to draw on when he writes that he is able to make every novel fresh and interesting. Best of all, Drizzt is immensely likeable. He is the classic hero, unstained by modern media’s desire to make every good guy dark and twisted.  

The Gentleman Bastards 
Scott Lynch
Novels in Series: 3        Series Status: Incomplete 
Average Novel Length: 500 pages 

The Gentleman Bastards series was first described to me as “Ocean’s Eleven in a fantasy world.” All three novels so far have centered around a plan so huge and dangerous that it is constantly threatening to topple over, making them all extremely enjoyable reads. The dialogue is quick and witty, the action is great, and the schemes are some of the best I have ever read.  

The main character, Locke Lamora, is intriguing, smart, funny, and ruthless with his schemes. The fantasy world has a few differences from the usual fare you read, mostly around the technology and the dinginess. Discovering the unique items Scott Lynch has employed is really enjoyable, such as using pistols and explosives along with the ever-present swords. You will spend all 500 or so pages trying to unravel Locke’s scheme, until Lynch does it for you in some of the most satisfying finales of this list.   

The Black Company 
Glen Cook
Novels in Series: 10        Series Status: Incomplete 
Average Novel Length: 350 pages 

We have now entered the realm of the more complex series, starting with Glen Cook’s Black Company. Featuring a larger cast of characters and more complicated plots, the Black Company is a slab of gritty fantasy. It follows the Black Company, a band of mercenary soldiers, as they are battered by the winds of fortune, trying to hold together what makes them the last true mercenary group.  

Glen Cook keeps the details sparse and his stories clip along at a fast pace. There are many characters to like, and then to feel dreadful about as they are killed in terrible battles. The Black Company essentially defined the fantasy soldier genre, setting a dark and gritty tone, with a complex world full of warring factions and powers. If you ever wanted to be a soldier in a fantasy setting, this is your gateway. Just be prepared for the pain; Cook does not hold your hand for the ride.  

The Second Apocalypse
R. Scott Bakker
Novels in Series: 5        Series Status: Incomplete 
Average Novel Length: 600 pages 

This series is not traditionally known as the “Warrior Prophet series”, as it is only 5 novels long so far, comprised of the first trilogy, The Prince of Nothing, and the second trilogy, The Aspect Emperor. There are more novels planned in the series, so this definitely fits the bill of our epic fantasy criteria. R. Scott Bakker writes complex characters in a cruel world, making this perhaps the darkest series in this list (so far). 

Utilizing dark philosophical concepts and an even darker premise, we have a series that can be at times harrowing.  
However, it is a very intriguing series, full of characters that are complex and a world that is unique. The cast of characters is not huge, and the plot is relatively simple to follow, but the concepts and ideas that Bakker turns on their heads are definitely what gives this series its power. At the surface, it is another tale about a man trying to save the world from the next cataclysm. The change we see in this man as the story unfolds makes this series unpredictable and often times, frightening.  

The Sword of Truth 
Terry Goodkind
Novels in Series: 17        Series Status: Complete 
Average Novel Length: 800 pages 

And finally, we have entered the realm of the mega-series. From here on, the titles discussed are all massive, the novels being very long, filled with huge casts of characters and a plot that can occasionally get so big that it falls off the rails. Do not be daunted! These are some of best reads you will ever have. 

The Sword of Truth series follows Richard, a man destined to become a ruler. Along with the love of his life, Kahlan, Richard must face the difficulties of a world far more complex than he could ever realize.  Not only must he inherit a throne he never wanted, he must also defend his newfound kingdom against invaders from the Old World. This would be considered beginner level for the mega-series, as the stories are not complex, but the length allows you to become fully engrossed in the world and characters. 

The Wheel of Time 
Robert Jordan
Novels in Series: 14        Series Status: Complete 
Average Novel Length: 800 pages 

One of the most well-known and beloved epic fantasy series out there, the Wheel of Time cannot be underestimated for its influence. Posthumously finished by the amazing Brandon Sanderson, the Wheel of Time is the classic tale of good versus evil. Featuring a huge cast of characters and a seemingly endless plot, this is the kind of novel that wraps you up in its warm glow, infecting your mind with its language and characters. 

The Wheel of Time can be considered a story of becoming, in that most of the characters introduced in the early novels grow to become much greater than they were, and their struggles to live up to their destiny are gripping and real. In the story, a dark power has been sealed away until the prophesied Final Battle, where the Dragon Reborn must fight and die in order to stop the Dark One. The novels follow a large cast of characters as they struggle to align the world against its one true threat. What makes The Wheel of Time brilliant is that it is less about defeating The Dark One than about watching Rand, Perrin, Matt, Egwene, Nynaeve, and all the others struggle to prepare themselves for the responsibilities of adulthood, when the survival of the world rests on their shoulders. Robert Jordan was a true writer and should be greatly respected for his contribution to the world.  

The Stormlight Archive 
Brandon Sanderson
Novels in Series: 2        Series Status: Incomplete 
Average Novel Length: 1000 pages 

At over 1000 pages each, the first two novels of The Stormlight Archive are some of the most enthralling I’ve read in a long time. This is a new series, so if you are unwilling to get on at the ground floor and spend your years patiently waiting, give this one a pass. But if you do pass on this, you will be missing out, I assure you of that. 

Featuring great, realistic, likeable characters, Sanderson’s world is so full of history and mystery that you simply have to read more. The pace is excellent, never feeling too ponderous for its length, and the adventure is real. Reading about the characters coming into their powers and learning how to control them is just as exciting as reading the young adventures of Harry Potter. The story follows several characters enmeshed in a war between two kingdoms, jumping from the highest perspective of the general leading the battle to the lowest perspective of a slave warrior struggling to stay alive. As the plot slowly unfolds, we’ll see hints that the war might not be the biggest threat in that world. This series is set to be one of the most epic, and I personally cannot wait for the next book.  

A Song of Ice and Fire 
George R.R. Martin
Novels in Series: 5        Series Status: Incomplete 
Average Novel Length: 1000 pages 

You knew this was coming. Yes, one of the most popular epic fantasy series out there, known to the same degree that perhaps the Lord of the Rings novels are, A Song of Ice and Fire has left a huge mark on our culture. If you have not watched the television series, do so. It is great. If you have not read the books, even more, do so. They are amazing. The differences between the TV series and the novels are large enough that reading these books is not redundant. The way Martin writes is fantastic. The layers of intrigue and backstabbing are extremely fun to try and pick apart. Each chapter is narrated by one of the main characters, and their perspective is limited, making rumor a powerful force in the novel. 
The story surrounds the many parties who lay claim to the Iron Throne and their efforts to seize it from the current rulerWhoever sits on the Iron Throne rules over Westeros, a land consisting of the Seven Kingdoms. A mixture of military and political strategies, magic and dragons are employed in the pursuit of becoming king  

With a massive cast of characters and different plots occurring at entirely different places (and times) of the world, Martin’s story is complex, compelling, and very well told. This would also be my pick for the epic fantasy series with the least magic, so if you aren’t a fan of the whole finger-waggling super power, this would be a good place to start.  

However, as amazing as A Song of Ice and Fire is, it is not my pick for the best epic fantasy series ever. That title goes to the last series in this list… 

The Malazan Book of the Fallen 
Steven Erikson
Novels in Series: 10        Series Status: Complete 
Average Novel Length: 900 pages 

Here it is; my pick for the greatest epic fantasy series ever. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is quite unlike all of those that have come before. It is far more complex, bigger and older than any other tale. This series features a cast of literally hundreds of characters, each with their own complex history, personality, and storyline. This is by far the most daunting epic fantasy series, much more so than A Song of Ice and Fire, which is widely considered to be a vastly complex read. What sets The Malazan Book of the Fallen apart is the fact that Erikson does not help you, at all. The first novel, Gardens of the Moon, drops you into the middle of a huge battle, jumping from character to character, moving around the world, and sometimes backwards and forwards in time, until you have gone cross-eyed. At this point, many readers simply give up. No other series I know of has turned away so many readers due to its complexity.  

But if you stay, if you can wrap your head around the hundreds of different characters, learn to allow Erikson the time to build up his convergence, squirrel away seemingly throw-away details, you will find a world far more vast and complex than you could imagine. The history of The Malazan Book of the Fallen stretches back 300,000 years, and Erikson takes the time to take you back there and show you what happened and why it is important to what is currently taking place. Some of the characters in the novel, like Anomander Rake and Caladan Brood, are tens of thousands of years old, still fighting the same battles they have always fought. Other characters, like the soldiers of the Malazan army, are just normal people. The characters of The Malazan Book of the Fallen are trying desperately to survive in a world where mighty warriors can turn into dragons and crack the world; where demi-gods and gods vie for control in an endless battle; where at any moment, normal humans may become ascended, turned by those gods into avatars, bestowed with powers they did not ask for and laden with responsibilities they did not want. It is by far the most complex, the most daunting, and the most rewarding epic fantasy series I have ever read and you owe it to yourself to try it. 

If you can't get enough of the world of Malazan, you are in luck! Erikson has several novellas about smaller characters, as well as a prequel trilogy currently being written. Finally, there are other novels written in the same world by Ian C. Esslemont. I did not include these in the main section because they are not part of The Malazan Book of the Fallen, which is the original series of ten novels.