Sunday, September 2, 2012

Epic fantasy series list: What is out there - part 1

I have been thinking about this post for some time now, but somehow I would always fail to find time to finish it. But since I am on vacation now and have some spare time, I decided to give it a go: a list of epic fantasy series I know something about.

First I want to make a clarification. Wikipedia defines epic or high fantasy like this. Also, there is a list of high fantasy novels here. I agree with these definitions and lists in most points, but disagree in some. For example, I would never characterize Discworld series or R. A. Salvatore's Drizzt Do'Urden (which is now missing from the list, but I was there before) or any other Forgotten Realms books as such. I really love some of these books, but they are not epic. They miss that sense of drama and end-of-the-word feeling. I would make distinction between epic and high fantasy - high fantasy is just fantasy that is complex, held strictly to magical systems, depicts setting and characters in realistic and believable manner.

Anyway, even though this post it titled "Epic fantasy series", I don't intend to hold strictly to any conditions and definitions. This is just a list of books and series I would recommend to someone who would ask for some good epic fantasy series. Some of them I have read whole, some just few books, and some I just heard of or read about. But I hope this list will help some fan deciding what to read next.

First mention must be dedicated to "The Lord of the Rings" by J. R. R. Tolkien. Maybe people will disagree with me, but I think that you can't be an epic fantasy fan if you haven't read and don't at least respect LotR. I can understand claims that there are better new series, that you like some other writers more, that it has flaws, but it this defining work of epic fantasy doesn't tickle you enjoyment glands, that you are not a fan! Tolkien wasn't the first; he didn't invent elves, orcs and dwarves; but he did what Microsoft did to PCs during 90s - made them popular and available to the common people. I don't think I need to describe what "The Lord of the Rings" is about - if you already don't know, than you have lived in a cave for past 10 years and you will not read this blog in any case. But it is sufficient to say that if you like any number of books from this list, and haven't already read LotR, then do it - you will not regret. You will find here the epic struggle between noble heroes against ugly and dark adversaries; noble elves, sturdy dwarves and feral orcs; magical rings, wise wizards and buried monsters; tragedy, love and epic battles... When I think about it, I haven't read it for almost ten years - maybe it's a time for a new reread.

Now we can continue with the "big three" - my three personal favorites.

"A Song of Ice and Fire" by George R. R. Martin is mentioned first simply because I have read it first of the three. And I read it first simply because it was one of few modern fantasy series translated to the Croatian. This can be your first clue, a simple economic law - only the most popular work get translated to such a number of languages that it include Croatian. aSoIaF is in a way the new tLotR - not in contents, but in its popularity, first between hard-core fans, and now with even non-readers - by mega-popular HBO TV show "Game of Thrones". In contents, aSoIaF and tLotR could not be more different. "A Song of Ice and Fire" features more politics than magic; characters and society real enough that they sound like they are from some history book; intrigue, political machinations and sex. But there is a more profound difference: the grey morality. As you continue toward third and further books, you will realize that there are no characters that are good or evil: they are just people, some weak, some strong, some sick, they try to their best in a world not really benevolent to them. Other differences include grittiness, recognizing the fact that people have bodily functions (like going to toilet or having sexual urges), equal importance of men and women (but acknowledging their different roles in medieval-like society). On the other hand, Martin is not always easy to his characters or reader. Main characters will die never to return; characters that you like and cheer for will be put to unexpected levels of hardship; characters you believed weak and evil will later be portrayed with sympathy and recognition. The last book so far, "A Dance with Dragons", really surprised me with amount of explicit violence and unexpected turns of the plot. But if you like big books (big by volume, complexity and content), this is one of the books for you. There are five books published, and two more announced, although it is possible (in my opinion) that there will be a few more.

"The Wheel of Time" by Robert Jordan is a series that for the long time I would pinpoint as the one that I liked the most. Not the best one, but most likable. It is a first series that I have read when I started buying book from Amazon and reading on English, so I presume I will always have some special connection to it. WoT is a shift from aSoIaF to LotR again: a somewhat classical epic story about clash between Light and Dark, in a fantasy world with kingdoms, Princes and Princesses, magic and sorceresses, whose main cast is young people unaware of their great destiny (shepherd becoming the King and the Savior); lots of romance and romantic notions. I liked it because it has tons of characters and millions of little details that almost in no way contradict each other and make a very complex setting and history. There is a lot of magic which plays a large role in the setting (contrary to the aSoIaF where magic is almost nonexistent, especially in first few books), and the magic system is also very complex. Characters are very likable, especially the main few dozen (jokingly), and funny. Much of this humor is based on male-female differences and "differences" and Jordan was fond of making strange social relationship between them. Readers objected this series' tectonic pace and a large number of plots and subplots - I on the other hand, like this series specifically for these reasons. These objections are now partly nullified since most of the book are now out (last book is coming out this winter), so a new reader doesn't have to wait several year for next book only to find out that his favorite characters is not even in it. Another important this is that unfortunately Robert Jordan passed away from illness before writing what was supposed to be that last, twelfth book. But he left a mountain of notes, so his widows selected another writer, Brandon Sanderson, to finish the series. He split this last book in three, and successfully finished two of them, while the last one ("A Memory of Light") will be coming out next year. I would recommend this series to everybody who likes their epic fantasy Tolkienesque and romantic, especially to teenager fans.

"Malazan Book of the Fallen" by Steven Erikson is a series that I would probably pick as my current favorite, if I was forced to. This is probably the most ambitious and audacious fantasy series I have read so far (SF has galaxy-spanning series that I would say sound more ambitious, but that is SF). This series was finished this year and has in total 10 books. But there are additions in form of books by Ian C. Esslemont who writes side-stories in this setting (they created this setting together; by the way, don't read Esslemont until you become a fan of MBotF, he's not as good as Erikson), some smaller humorous side-stories written by Erikson, and a new prequel trilogy call "Kharkanas Trilogy" by Erikson himself (which is easily as good as original MBotF). This series is great in all points: setting, story, characters and writing. The setting spans hundreds of thousands of years in past of the series' present, it has several large continents and numerous magical "warrens" (I am in lack of single-word description for warren). Erikson is a professional archaeologist and anthropologist, and this is strongly felt in his books: while other writers have races and nations, he has cultures! But the most impressive thing about this setting is that, in 10 and more books Erikson painted and implied only the borders of its portions, and filled marvelously only some of them. If he was willing, I believe that he could write at least two dozens more of books in this setting, revealing only what he suggested in his first books (something like Esslemont has been doing). Story is brilliant and complex; so complex that even though I have read most of the books several times, I can't explain what and why really happened in full extent - you just have to read it for yourself. There is action, war, epic battles, personal duels, mystery, intrigue, history, politics - you just name it and there it is. And characters... Well, there are a lot of them: I think there are certainly at least a hundred with POV and several hundred named characters. Erikons is fond of giving to even unimportant and unnamed characters unique and believable personality; he is also fond of random villagers revealing the truths of life. And his main characters (all hundred or so) are simply brilliant: some are artist and philosophers; others are lowly and gritty soldiers, while some are wild and "stupid" barbarians. But they are complex and life-like - Erikson is at same level with Martin when it comes to "grey characters" (hello Kallor) and I don't think I can name a single evil characters in this series. Be careful, for Erikson will make you fill pity for even the scariest and brutal sociopath. While I consider his writing one of his best points, it will put off a lots of readers, especially if the endure till later books. Erikons is a great philosopher and his characters will spend several pages thinking about themselves and world, asking fundamental questions of both, but not moving plot a single pace. He will make you wonder about life and death, why some people suffer and what is the nature of death, loyalty, passion... This series is quite gritty and violent - one of the recurring themes is that "children die". This is especially true for later books, when Erikson will make some of his characters go through unimaginable stresses and tortures. On the other hand, his books are extremely humorous and he has written some of the funniest characters I ever met (yes, Pust, I am talking about you). Although I spent last 3000 characters praising Erikson, his books are not for all. If you expect some light fantasy to relax you for couple of hours, these are not for you. Erikson asks for your attention, you will probably be forced to read the series at least twice, and it will often make you question yourself and your philosophy. But if you like this stuff, think yourself a power-fan of epic fantasy, or think that R. Scott Bakker is OK, please try "Malazan Book of the Fallen".

I first planned for this to be a single post, but now I see that it has grown even though I just started. So, a change of plans: I will be splitting it in several posts.

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