If you’re looking for some good fantasy, well . . . Wait. How do you feel about George RR Martin? If you like his character-driven, low magic, gritty fantasy then you should definitely check out these recommendations. If you don’t, well scroll down the blog and check out some of my high fantasy romance.
First let’s talk about Joe Abercrombe’s First Law trilogy. It’s a rollicking fantasy adventure with barbarians and thieves and secret royalty and princes and scheming wizards. It’s set in a fairly expected fantasy world only Abercrombe sets out to subvert every fantasy trope while simultaneously telling a great story. He has several follow up novels following minor threads or side characters from the first trilogy, if you enjoy it. The half-ironic name for this genre is GRIMDARK. As in, “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” But now it refers to a flavor of fantasy novels peopled with characters who have faults, suffer, and generally act like real people. It’s psychological realism applied to the fantasy story. It’s deadly poisonous to some readers, but I eat it up like candy.
Daniel Abraham has two fantasy series that deserve reading. His LONG PRICE QUARTET follows two wizard-poets as they alternately save and destroy the world. The books are tinged with melancholy as these poets are very much the last of their kind. All the magic has been used up and the world teeters on the edge. And his COIN AND DAGGER series is a character-driven, diverse fantasy set in a world where magic is returning after having been slumbering for centuries. Ancient evil, stirred by the graspings of a petty and jealous academic, surges across the land. And who can stop it? A noble lord? An underage banking prodigy? A washed-up soldier? Or maybe an ex-priest of the rampaging evil, his veins throbbing with cursed blood? Abraham plays a great trick with this series, starting with the characters all in a morally neutral place and we get to watch as they become heroes or villains or something else. Or dead. It’s a joy, once it shows its true colors.
If you’re in the mood for fantasy without magic, you should try KJ Parker. Both SHARPS and THE COMPANY take place in a vaguely 15th-century Europe but are standalone novels. Parker is an extremely skilled writer, both at creating characters and at weaving plots that blindside you with their cleverness.
SHARPS is about a fencing tournament, on foreign soil, just after the end of a monstrously brutal civil war. The fencers could mend the rift caused by the war or plunge the countries again into strife.
THE COMPANY is about old soldiers, hidden treasure, new love, and secrets. A band of soldiers, years after they’ve disbanded, are brought back together by their commanding officer. He has hidden resources and wants to form a new colony, just for them. And for the women they all but kidnap. Nothing goes well for anyone.
But really, the best KJ Parker is his Engineer trilogy. It’s another character-driven series where you have no idea until the end which character is the hero and which is the villain. It’s a masterclass in motivation and plotting and just a really enjoyable read. The plot follows a talented engineer from a culture of master inventors. Exiled from his country after being framed for a crime, he brings his advanced scientific knowledge to a minor kingdom and essentially uplifts the nation’s science understanding by a century. Determined to get back to his wife and to prove his innocence, the engineer goes to war.
From a writer’s craft standpoint ALL of these books reward a closer look. Parker especially does nuanced character work that seems effortless at first read.