Epic Fantasy

A Tour of Eight Epic Fantasy Series

Books Entertainment

I’ve read fantasy and science fiction books almost exclusively since I was ten or twelve years old. I have early memories of The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wizard of Earthsea, and The Elfstones of Shannara, all of which I read before high school. There’s a specific flavor of fantasy novel called epic fantasy. It’s characterized by powerful protagonists, a setting in which magic exists, and a potentially world-ending threat that our heroes must overcome. I’ve read many novels and series in this subgenre, and I’d like to review some of my favorites herein. With any luck, you’ll find one or two you’ve never read and decide to pick them up. There really are a lot of fantastic books out there.

I’m going to be excluding from this list series that are too mainstream. Books such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and A Song of Ice and Fire have all had movie and television adaptations. I’m also excluding a number of others that might belong on this list simply because I’ve not read them. I’ve never read Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, or David Eddings’s Belgariad. Perhaps I someday will. I was never able to get into Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire, or Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga despite having read the first book of each. I’d also originally intended to include Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicles and Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, but it’s been so long since I’ve read them that I can’t recall enough to write about here.

Lastly, I’m leaving out Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels and the Dragonlance Trilogy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman because, as much as I loved them when I first read them, it’s been over three decades since then. And I won’t be including Lev Grossman’s The Magicians or my personal favorite series, The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, because they take place on Earth. Hey—my article, my rules.

The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

I’m beginning with this series because I recently finished reading it. The world of The Mistborn Trilogy is a feudal land, with the peasant Skaa serving their noble lords as slaves, and those lords serving the immortal Lord Ruler. Clouds of ash fall frequently from the sky, and nothing green grows. Each night, supernatural mists appear, and the Skaa are sure to lock themselves safe indoors.

The magic in the world of Mistborn is Allomancy; certain rare individuals can “burn” an ingested metal to create a magical effect. Soothers and Rioters can affect others’ emotions. Thugs can enhance their physical strength and speed. Tineyes can enhance their senses. The incredibly rare few can burn all ten allomantic metals. They are called Mistborn.

The brutal dictator known as the Lord Ruler has ruled over the Final Kingdom for a thousand years, and he employs a dozen abominations known as Steel Inquisitors, each more powerful than any Mistborn. And the Lord Ruler himself has power far greater than that of the Steel Inquisitors.

At the outset of the first book, a young Skaa girl named Vin is just coming to realize that she is something more than a thief, and an ambitious rogue Mistborn named Kelsier is determined to change the world.

One of the things that appeal to me about the Mistborn series is the mysteries that exist and are slowly revealed. Over the course of multiple books, we learn of new metals which hold new powers, we find that our understanding of magic and allomancy in the first book was massively incomplete, and we discover that the mists themselves may be more than what they seem.

Codex Alera by Jim Butcher

Although this series is, in my opinion, not nearly as good as Butcher’s The Dresden Files, it remains an excellent series of six fantasy novels which the author completed in 2009. The infamous tale of the idea that gave birth to Codex Alera came from a bet Butcher was challenged to as part of a writers’ workshop. From Wikipedia:

The challenger bet that Butcher could not write a good story based on a lame idea, and he countered that he could do it using two lame ideas of the challenger’s choosing. The “lame” ideas given were “Lost Roman Legion” and “Pokémon.”

Thus, Aleran society consists of the descendants of the lost Roman legion, who learned to bond with “furies”—spirits of earth, air, fire, water, wood, and metal. Furycrafters can either manifest their furies, which often take the shape of an animal, or can simply draw on its power to increase their own. For example, earthcrafters can draw strength from the earth and watercrafters can heal.

Throughout the series, we meet other races, and they’re much more interesting than elves and dwarves. They include the huge wolf-like warrior race of Canim, the Icemen who reside on the far side of the massive Shieldwall, and the silver-haired Marat who bond themselves to animals, gaining their abilities similar to how Alerans bond to furies.

We eventually also meet the enigmatic Vord, a terrifying insect race. They live on the croach, a carpet of slime covered in a thin crust of wax. Enough weight while walking on the croach will crack it and draw the attention of venomous spiderlike Vord known as Keepers. Should the Keepers catch anyone, they’ll paralyze them and trap their body in the croach, where the victim will slowly dissolve. The Vord have other castes as well, most far worse than Keepers.

Jim Butcher is my favorite author, and the Codex Alera series is very well written. If you’re looking for an epic fantasy series, you could do a lot worse.

The Shannara Chronicles by Terry Brooks

I remember well picking up a copy of The Elfstones of Shannara in eighth grade at a book fair. It was actually the second book written in the series, but I didn’t know that at the time. There are now something like 30 books in the setting, but I’ll focus here on the Sword of Shannara trilogy. My favorite in this series will always be The Elfstones of Shannara, which is to this day the only novel that’s ever made me shed a tear. That may be because I was fourteen and hormonal at the time.

The Elfstones of Shannara was recently adapted into a television series, and as much as it was relatively faithful to the book, I didn’t love the show. I recall thinking that the adaptation had felt like it was written for tweens, but then it occurred to me—that was my own age when I first read the book.

The Sword of Shannara trilogy is really a series of three standalone stories with largely different casts of characters, unlike the later Heritage of Shannara quadrilogy. The Sword of Shannara is a largely shameless knock-off of The Lord of the Rings, but it’s written well enough that I can forgive this. And in later books, Brooks’ creativity takes the story in vastly different and entertaining directions.

The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan

When planning this article, the first series that came to mind, and still the foremost in my mind when it comes to epic fantasy, is The Wheel of Time. It’s not only the fact that there are fourteen books in the series, each roughly 1000 pages long. It’s not just that the series took more than 20 years to write, and that Robert Jordan passed away before completing it, handing authorship over to Brandon Sanderson for the final three books. It’s that The Wheel of Time is the deepest, richest, and most fascinating fantasy world I’ve ever read. Even the first book in the series, The Eye of the World, contains far too much to summarize, but let me give a spoiler-free briefing of the world and how magic works.

The Aes Sedai is an organization of female channelers who use the female half of the One Power, called Saidar. They are sworn and magically compelled to never lie and to never use magic to kill. There is an exception, of course, for shadowspawn.

Shadowspawn are the Dark One’s minions, and they are many. Monstrous trollocs, with the heads of rams, hawks, wolves, or bears. The eyeless myrddraal, who lead the trollocs, paralyzingly fearful and lightning-quick with their black bladed swords. Darkhounds, massive things made of shadow, unkillable, faster than horses. Gray Men, assassins who are not invisible, but are nearly impossible to notice. Many of the Darkspawn were created in the Age of Legends, before the Dark One and his Forsaken were sealed away by Lews Therin and the Hundred Companions.

However, when the Dark One was sealed away, his final counterstroke tainted the male half of the One Power, called Saidin. This meant that men who channeled could only reach the Power through the Taint, which eventually would drive them insane. Thus, men who channel are considered to be dangerous boogeymen. Even if one hasn’t yet gone insane, he soon will.

There is such a vast depth of detail and lore in this series that I could go on about the setting forever. The first six books were each amazing. They’re the kind of books that are nearly impossible to put down once you get started. I found the seventh and eighth to be a bit dry, as that’s when the number of characters in the series went through the roof. Book nine, Winter’s Heart, is one of my favorites, as its conclusion is a major turning point in the series, but then the following two books were each a difficult trudge. Book twelve is when the series turned around, largely due to the fact that this is when Brandon Sanderson took over. And in the end, it’s absolutely worth it to read the series just to reach the conclusion of the final book, A Memory of Light, a large part of which Robert Jordan had written before he passed away.

Amazon just released the Wheel of Time television series. I really hope that it evolves into the new Game of Thrones. Time will tell.

If you pick a single series from this article to read, and if you can stand the idea of reading some twelve thousand pages, check out The Wheel of Time. Even if you read the first book and then stop, I think you’ll find it to be worth it.

The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini

The first book in this series, Eragon, was made into a movie back in 2006, and that movie was terrible. The books, on the other hand, were far better. The ancient history is that a Jedi-like group of dragon riders kept the peace until one of them broke away, killed them all, and became an evil tyrant. The dragon riders are now gone. But at the first book’s outset, a boy named Eragon finds a dragon egg and befriends a dragon. This eventually leads to (surprise!) a rebellion against the evil empire.

Paolini has done a good job in creating his system of magic, giving it both structure and mystery. It uses true names, reminiscent of The Earthsea Trilogy. In many ways, the books feel Shannara-like. It’s been over a decade since I read the series, but I did like it quite a lot.

The Renshai Series by Mickey Zucker Reichert

When I was in high school and read The Last of the Renshai, I thought it was just about the best book I’d ever read. I’m sure that my perspective as an adult would be different, but it’s difficult for me to not include the series here.

The Renshai series takes Norse mythology and gives it an interesting new twist. The gods—Odin, Thor, and Frigga—are real. Four wizards work to keep order in the beleaguered Northlands. And the Renshai—a feared martial race—has just suffered a genocide, leaving alive a sole warrior. He must struggle to keep the memory of his people alive, and should he survive, he may be doomed to be Ragnarok’s champion.

The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson does such an excellent job of setting up and delivering set-pieces in his fiction. The Stormlight Archive is a setting in which stormlight functions like electricity. Gems have value because when they’re set out in one of this world’s hurricane-like highstorms, they absorb stormlight and glow for a time until the light fades.

The world also contains spren, magical spirits of many kinds, each of which is attracted to a specific emotion or condition. Flamespren appear near sufficiently large fires, gloryspren appear around someone who has made a massive accomplishment, and fearspren appear around anyone who is terrified.

The setting is fascinating, the plot is equally so. There are currently four books in the series, which isn’t yet complete.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Back in 2007 when I first read The Golden Compass, I absolutely loved it. Since then, there’s been both a motion picture and an HBO television series made based on the books. In this setting, peoples’ souls lived outside their bodies rather than within, taking the form of an animal which they call their dæmon. There are also other pseudomagical, vaguely steampunk elements in the setting such as anbaric power, which is roughly analogous to electricity, and atomcrafting, which is a sort of primitive nuclear science.

After the first book in the trilogy, the books get increasingly weird, touching on religion in odd and arguably blasphemous ways. Both the 2007 film and the 2019 HBO series are worth checking out. I will say—I prefer Sam Elliott’s Lee Scoresby to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s, and I prefer Dafne Keen’s Lyra to Dakota Blue Richards.

Liked it? Take a second to support GeekDad and GeekMom on Patreon!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *