Inspired by a post by Luke on Start your Meeples and GW launching their new range of graphic novels for younger readers, I thought I’d add capture some of the fantasy series that held my hand and introduced me to the genre when I was younger, perhaps moving onto more recent books if I think they are worth a look.
I love books and reading so really this post is just a thinly disguised reason to waffle on about my favourite past time (yes it rates even above my plastic crack addiction). I’ve just picked the genre that links in nicely with the blog.
You’ll notice that many of the first/second books shown below don’t match the style of the later books. This is because I’ve had to replace many of them over the years where they’ve fallen apart due to the numerous re-reads!
1. Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy
I’m not sure if it was possible for any boy of a certain age in the 80’s to not have owned or read at least one choose your own adventure book. The concept was recognised to have started by R.A Montgomery and came to prominence after Bantam got behind it in 1979. In the next decade it seemed like everyone got in on the act from the Famous Five to Starwars.
My personal exposure to the genre was through Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston’s (yes them of GW fame) Fighting Fantasy series. I won’t claim to have read Warlock when it was released in 1981 but I definitely got Deathtrap Dungeon in ’84 and that book together with the sequel, Trial of the Champions, was likely the reason I was so interested in the MB/GW collaboration board game Heroquest when it was released in 1989 and we all know where that led!
This was the first game world that I really got into. It was helped along by the release in 1986 of Titan: The Fighting Fantasy World. This was the first time I had come across a source book and I lapped up the artwork, maps and descriptions of the various peoples and cities. It was fair to say it blew my young mind and started my love affair with these types of books. Following on, it was then only natural that I would buy and love the Trolltooth Wars (the first actual novel based in the setting) when it was released in ’89.
It was a shame that the world wasn’t further developed outside of the CYOA books, as it really caught my imagination as a child but it definitely paved the way to all things GW.
2. Lloyd Alexander – Chronicles of Pyrdain
This set of five books was written in the late 60’s and to quote David Robert of Vox.com (who has done a great article on the books), “it was one of the first true high fantasy series written by an American, and the first to rival the British greats like Tolkien”. I won’t go into this too much as he has done it far more eloquently than I could.
In essence, the plot is nothing out of the ordinary, it follows the exploits of a young, orphan, assistant pig keeper who undertakes various adventures, confronts evil, discovers himself and earns the trust of the people becoming a leader. Although you might think, “oh the same old story we’ve heard many times before”, this was one of the earliest examples of it and it is an endearing, easy to read story, that even now i’ll re-read.
It will likely be the stories that I use to introduce my children to fantasy (even above the Hobbit).
Lloyd died in 2007 but a kickstarter raised enough funds to create a documentary about him and this is now available for to watch for free on you tube
P.S. The 1985 Disney Black Cauldron film was slated but as an under 10 year old watching it (being deliberately vague on my exact age but you get the ballpark), I really enjoyed it. Now I couldn’t tell you how well it has stood the test of time but I suspect not.
3. Joe Dever – Legends of Lone Wolf
As a child I had no exposure to the actual Lone Wolf gamebooks. I’m aware that Joe and Gary Chalk were early writers at GW (Bloodbath at Orc’s Drift being one of their works) and then they moved on to write/illustrate Lone Wolf. My only contact with their world was in the form of the novels released in ’89 (noticing a trend here?), after fans were eager for more, after the initial run of game books finished. They started with with Eclipse of the Kai and followed the story of Lone (Silent) Wolf, last of the Kai (basically an order of warrior monks), together with his allies (such as Banedon the wizard) and a further 11 books were released in the series, each apparently based on and fleshing out characters and plots from the original game books. How closely, I can’t comment on, as stated before, I never read them. I will say that I loved the first 6 or so of the books and they were also re-read to death. I was less of a fan of the later releases.
Sadly he passed away in Nov 2016 but not before showing his generosity in giving away all his online content and books for free on Project Aon. What a total legend and he deserves a mention just for that!
4. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance
It may not have been the first fantasy series I read but it was one of the first and without a doubt my favourite as an impressionable adolescent. Above all other series, I had a fascination with the world of Krynn and the adventures of our favourite gang led by Tanis Half Elven. Part of the appeal of the series was the interactions and differing motivations of the group and even the friendships between members of the group.
The most endearing (damn, I’ve now used this word twice in a blog post) is probably that of Flint the gruff hill dwarf and the light fingered Kender Tasslehoff.
It is worth noting that the sheer number of Dragon Lance books can be overwhelming and they weren’t (in the main) released in any kind of chronological order (the books cover 9000 years of the world of Krynn!). As such a number of lists have been produced of what books to read and in what order. The folks at The Dragonlance Nexis probably have the best advice but everyone agrees that you should start with the Chronicles trilogy, starting with the Dragons of Autumn Twilight (and that book, together with Dragons of Winter Night and Dragons of Spring Dawn, are definitely worth a read).
As with all big sprawling series written by multiple authors (Starwars/Warhammer etc.), the quality of stories can vary but in the main they are good, if easy to read, books. If you, like me, tend to get invested in characters (especially if you re-read books so they end up as old friends), then I recommend reading Flint the King. All i’ll say about it is he ends up captured by Gully Dwarves and it fills in the plot of some of the years he refuses to talk about in other books.
5. Forgotten Realms (Various Authors but R.A. Salvatore is probably the standout)
Forgotten Realms was a setting created for AD&D way back before my time (though perhaps not for some of my readers). The first novel wasn’t released until 1987, a few years after the first Dragonlance release. My journey with them started in ’89 with the trilogy below but I soon found Drizzt Do’Urden and grew to love the writing of R.A Salvatore. Although the setting broadened my fantasy horizons, it never quite reached the same prominence as the Dragonlance setting (at least in my younger mind).
6. J.R. Tolkein – The Hobbit and LotR
I couldn’t write a list without at least a mention of these two. I have great memories of the hobbit. Not just the story but it’s the only thing I can ever remember my Dad ever reading to me when I was younger and we also listened to the story when it was read over a number of episodes on BBC Radio 4 a few years later. I also remember a few English lessons at school where we looked at the dwarf runes and had to decode them. I’m not sure that was necessarily on the school syllabus but I didn’t complain! Suffice to say I have a real soft spot for these.
7. Terry Brooks – Shannara
The Shannara range was my next evolution in fantasy. Although I don’t remember the exact year of purchase I do know it was from an airport shop and was around 1986 and it started with the Elfstones. It was the artwork that caught my eye (the original rather than the version below as, yes, once again my original copy fell apart). This book, the Wishsong and the Scions series set the benchmark for me at that point. I think part of it, was the fact it had been set in a post apocalyptic world (again my first exposure to this premise).
Later series expanded the world but didn’t add anything very different to it until he released the Word and the Void series. This was set in our world and had the story of events leading up to the apocalypse. I will add that this is considered a separate range from the Shannara books and maybe my memory is failing and I’ve incorrectly linked them together.
This lead onto the Genesis of Shannara which is set during the events of the apocalypse and ties a number of things into the books that follow. I have to say this was also a very enjoyable read and well worth the time if you like back stories.
All in all this is a very enjoyable fantasy settings and one of my staples through secondary school.
8. David & Leigh Eddings – Belgariad and Malloreon Series
This is hands down one of my all time favourite fantasy series. I’ve probably read one or both once a year, for the last 25 years. I love both the character interplay (one of the strengths in their writing) and the story immensely and both series intertwine well. I actually prefer the Malloreon series of five books but I’ve included the Belgariad as they are so intrinsically linked you can’t list one without the other. They also released two prequels, Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress that cover these characters back stories
If you enjoy these (and I really do recommend them) then the two trilogies: Elenium and Tamuli, following the adventures of Sparhawk (though in a different fantasy setting from the above books) are also worth looking at.
I really can’t recommend their final set of books (The Dreamers). Compared to the earlier books they are seriously lacking in both depth and character interaction.
9. Katherine Kerr – Deverry Cycle
Split into 4 sets of 4 books, this was one of the longest running series I have read. Being released over the course of years, meant you inevitably had to re-read them each time to catch up on where the story had gotten too. Not that i’m complaining as I often re-read all my books. The first 2 sets of books are fairly self contained but the final 8 books are more of a continuous story so if you get that far you will want to finish them. Thankfully the series is now finished so you won’t have the large wait that earlier readers encountered!
The story is heavily influenced by celtic themes, with each book having multiple parallel story lines containing the same characters but in different reincarnations, (to quote someone else) weaving a rich tapestry of stories reminiscent of the celtic knot.
They are an excellent read and anyone who enjoys fantasy should give them a go.
As an aside, you’ll note that the covers below are very similar to other covers of the period (David Eddings books come to mind) and don’t necessarily have any relation to the stories within. Still I do like the artwork, which takes me back to my youth almost as much as the stories
10. Terry Pratchett – Discworld
For a bit of easy reading, light hearted, fantasy humour I don’t think you can beat Pratchett’s discworld series (disclaimer, I’ve not read any of his other books).
The series is mainly based round the city of Ankh Morpork and the whole thing is a parody of our world, sometimes depressingly so.
Although Colours of Magic and Light Fantastic are nominally the first two books in the series, if you haven’t read any of them before, I would very much suggest skipping them as apart from introducing one of the staple characters, they are unlike any of the following books and could almost be excluded from the reading list.
If you had to read just one book, I would probably recommend Small Gods. It is almost a stand alone book in the series (featuring only Death as one of reoccurring Discworld characters).
The death of Pratchett in 2015 was a real loss as his books had been going from strength to strength in recent years, especially with the introduction of Moist Von Lipwig, though perhaps his last few books were slightly weaker than others but this could be down to his Alzheimer’s.
11. Stephen Donaldson – Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
These books definitely have an unusual twist on the normal fantasy hero and is probably the first time I encountered the idea of an anti-hero.
The main character, Thomas, is a reclusive outcast in our world due to his leprosy and when he is thrust into the new world as the reincarnation of their most famous hero, he struggles to both believe it is anything bar a series of hallucinations or overcome the natural self preservation that has been drilled into him as part of the defence against his disease. He is definitely not a likeable character something reinforced by his actions throughout the books. Never-the-less the story is immersive and not your run of the mill fantasy offering.
The second series is also very good and adds further twists to the ongoing story. The only negative of this series is the second book. I feel it could have almost have been left out.
I can’t comment on the recent third series as I’ve yet to read it (I was waiting for all the books to be released in paperback and then got distracted!).
12. Robert Jordan – Wheel of Time
This is by far the biggest single continuous fantasy story I’ve ever read, weighing in at 14 books in the main series plus a prequel (they also released some source books and a few short stories as well).
It is also currently, by far, my favourite fantasy epic. I love the story, the characters and the setting. There is some criticism that the story dragged on and I can see that, though I’d also argue that it could have been expanded further to give more depth (though perhaps that is proof that I fall into the ‘fan boy ‘ category…).
When he died in 2007 after book 11, Knife of Dreams, I was devastated. Thankfully he knew he was ill and had the foresight to write copious notes and outlines for how he wanted the story to end. His wife (an editor) picked out a younger fantasy write, Brandon Sanderson, to finish off the series, a job he preformed admirably.
It’s here that i’ll end the early years books and move on to a few newer series and authors. Not all the books are necessarily well written masterpieces but I’ve picked them as they are all great reads, have different world building premises and are generally gripping stories.
13. Brandon Sanderson – Mistborn Trilogy
As stated above, Brandon finished off Robert Jordan’s epic series. I’m glad about this as it introduced me to him and his many books. Brandon’s great strength is the number and depth of his ability to create unique worlds and how the character’s powers work. It helps that the stories are also very good.
If you had to start with any of his books, then the Mistborn trilogy is the one I recommend. It is set in a world where the dark lord ostensibly won. The trilogy is a very enjoyable read but what makes this world setting unusual, is the next set of books follows the evolving world and it set hundreds of years in the future where is moves more to a Victorian steam punk setting and even the powers have evolved. It’s very unusual to get this in a series where follow up series don’t normally jump so much.
His other series are also good and i’ll give a special mention to the reckoners, a story set in a world where nearly every super hero is ‘evil’.
14. Joe Abercrombie – First Law Trilogy
When two of the main heroes are basically a schizophrenic blood thirsty berserker and a crippled torturer, you know you are in for something different. These books draw you in, pull the wool over your eyes in one and then shatter all your pre-conceived thoughts in the next.
I have yet to meet one person who has read them who hasn’t liked this series which I think is rather telling and I can’t recommend them enough.
He then expands on the world in a series of stand alone books and these are good but not in the same league as the original trilogy. It is definitely crying out for a prequel series
15. Trudi Canavan – Black Magician Trilogy
I suppose the best way to describe the start of this book is what happens if you took a street urchin and put them into Eaton as the first scholarship program. This is not entirely accurate but much of it is based around a school for magicians (it’s no bloody Hogwarts though).
One of the strengths of this series is the description of magic battles (though as with the rest, the characters and plot are also good).
She has done several further series, one based in the same setting, which is also good if not quite on a par with the black magician. I did very much enjoy her Age of the Five trilogy too.
16. Antony Ryan – Raven’s Shadow Trilogy
This series is a bit of a wildcard to throw in here. The reason being that it is by far the newest of the books in the post (they were released between 2011 and 2015) and also I’ve only read them twice.
That said they were complete page turners and I couldn’t put them down till I finished each of them.
Plot wise, the story had undertones of the Lone wolf series with the main protagonist being a survivor of a school of warrior monks. However it is there the similarities end and it deviates into a fast paced well written series. I will caveat that I found the 3rd book to be the weakest of the three but that is because it probably didn’t quite go the way I thought it should.
17. Warhammer Fantasy – Various authors and series.
I couldn’t include a list of fantasy books without including a selection from the Warhammer Fantasy setting. As with all settings that include such an extensive list of books, by so many authors, released over such a length of time, there are a number that aren’t great but in the main I’ve enjoyed most that I’ve read. This is probably helped by being immersed in the setting for decades and many of the stories linking to the various army books used to shape the lead pile and plastic crack addition.
Still many of them stand on their own two feet as great pieces of fantasy writing and being set within the Warhammer world might have actually been detrimental to gaining the recognition that they should of.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, just some of my stand outs.
I’ve missed out things such as CS Lewis’s Narnia (though it was a favourite as a child) and Game of Thrones was deliberately not put in as the series isn’t finished yet and frankly I’m fed up waiting for him to write the next instalment. I’ve not included either Melvin Peake’s Gormenghast of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series as both I just didn’t enjoy.
Other notables I’ve not included (but feel I should mention) are Tad Williams: The Dragonbone Chair series. I really enjoyed this but always find the first book a bit of a slog to get through. David Gemmell, Raymond E Feist, Anne McCaffrey are also worth a mention. Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London and further books are also easy reads but are slightly different to the above style (think of a far less annoying version of Harry Potter getting a job in an offshoot of the London Met Police). I’ve also often had the Dresden files recommended a number of times but I’ve yet to read one.
I’ve also never tried an audio book. Some of my US friends love them but I tend to think it partially comes down to how you commute to work. They tend to do so in cars (where reading books would be somewhat challenging) whereas I do so in a train which is ideal for books.
I hope this gives you some ideas for you next holiday reading. Are there any fantasy series/books that you’ve read that I’ve missed and you would recommend?