Epic fantasy books offer an escape into a world completely unlike our own, worlds full of danger and intrigue, trolls and dragons, magic and often a heroic journey or battle for power. Here we take a look at some of the best epic fantasy book series through time, from the most famous, to exciting new debuts.
When you think of ‘epic fantasy’, perhaps a few tropes spring to mind: complex magic systems, ancient prophecies and maybe a rising and/or falling empire. It’s comfort food, codified nostalgia and epic escapism.
Also, one of the beauties of such a well-defined genre is in interrogating and upending its conventions. And right now it feels like we’re in a golden age of modern epic fantasy that has lots of fun doing just that.
So instead of trying to produce an exhaustive list of the best epic fantasy of all time (and let’s face it – it’d take a while…), let’s take a look at the genre’s evolution over the ages.
2010s: A Chorus of Dragons series by Jenn Lyons
It’s clear from the first few pages of Jenn Lyon’s debut, The Ruin of Kings, that the series has epic aspirations – prophecies, multiple narrators, dense worldbuilding – but also that it’s not content to blindly follow the signposts. Even the format itself is a mischievous twist on the norm – as the book exists diegetically in the fantasy world itself. In other words, the novel we read is also a story within the book, presented as a true account of events. We realize it’s been compiled by a shadowy third party, from various sources. And it also includes this figure’s annotations to the ‘story’s’ text - which are often amusingly pedantic or argumentative.
Jenn is a bold new voice in fantasy fiction, and not just because of her ambitious storytelling or the shamelessly tough way she treats her poor protagonists! It’s because she skillfully subverts the very tropes that so inspired her. Book two in the series, The Name of All Things, sees Kihrin continue to search for those named in the prophecy and come face to face with his old enemy Relos Var.
Discover the A Chorus of Dragons series here
2000s: First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
Abercrombie burst onto the fantasy scene with his First Law trilogy. And in so doing, he proclaimed his mission to drag epic fantasy kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The series feels epic. But perhaps the biggest twist is how self-absorbed the characters are, compared to the usual heroic mindset. It’s not the fate of the world that is front-of-mind here, but each hero and anti-hero’s own personal destiny.
The series is executed with whiplash pacing, a droll sense of cynicism, and wonderfully flawed and moral grey-area characters. It also gives off an air of gritty realism, especially during its brutally efficient set pieces. And did we mention how funny it can be? All in all, this series gave us a refreshing and inimitably noughties take on high fantasy.
Buy the First Law Trilogy
1990s: A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin / The Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb
It took a while to fully hit the mainstream, but A Song of Ice and Fire has proven itself to be epic, in both scope and influence. It now contains multiple volumes and has also got the whole ‘dragons’, ‘huge repository of legends’ and other good stuff going for it. But on the other hand, it’s not that magical. As a result, it often feels more like a grimdark (a.k.a. morally grey rather than heroic fantasy . . . ) version of a political drama such as The West Wing.
Joint billing in this category is reserved for Robin Hobb’s more traditional, but no less influential, Farseer trilogy. This beautifully written bildungsroman and court-set drama makes for such an intimate and compelling character study. Its strength is shown by the fact that it launched an origin story series for this series’ protagonist, years later.
Interestingly, the bogeyman of Farseer have much in common with A Song of Ice and Fire’s White Walkers, and are just as terrifying.
Buy the A Song of Ice and Fire series
Buy The Farseer trilogy
1980s: Earthsea quartet by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea quartet is both epic and intimate. The fantastical archipelago in the series is a far cry from the usual sprawling city-states, continents or entire worlds of other fantasies. Yet ancient races, bildungsroman elements and a journey beyond the mortal veil lend the life of Sparrowhawk a certifiable epic rating.
However, perhaps the most influential aspect of Earthsea is an early form of the ‘wizard school’ trope. Le Guin was prolific in so many ways, but it was with the Earthsea quartet that she left her mark on epic fantasy.
Buy The Earthsea Quartet
1970s: Eternal Champion series by Michael Moorcock
The Eternal Champion is the first in a sprawling series of epic fantasy adventures. These crossed time and space, as well as veering between past, present and future.
Moorcock’s protagonists Elric of Melnibone and Von Bek are perhaps the highlights, appearing in a number of these volumes. These books move at a breakneck pace, with dashes of that inimitably glam ‘70s flavour. They rarely bother with the detailed politics and worldbuilding of the pastoral epics that went before or came after. Instead, they prefer to cover as much ground (including space, time and dimensions) as possible. The Eternal Champion series is maximalist epic fantasy that broke new ground.
Buy the first book in the Eternal Champion series
1950s: Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien
I mean, what can you add when it comes to Tolkien’s seminal trilogy? Perhaps we take it for granted these days, but Lord of the Rings introduced the idea of a huge pastoral setting, incredibly dense world-building, a chosen one prophecy, hierarchical and well-structured magic systems, linguistically sound fantasy languages, chunky appendixes and much, much, more.
Perhaps most importantly though, and something that Le Guin certainly took to heart, was a tone that could be appreciated by both young and older readers alike. Tolkien embraced a straightforward and accessible yet literary writing style. This blew open the gates to the genre and his writing continues to inspire those that come to it anew.
Buy the Lord of the Rings trilogy
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