The most epic fantasy book cycle? (non-Tolkien)

Oh, I’d nearly forgotten, but you may be tempted by Sara Douglass’ Wayfarer Redemption series (it looked like it was going to be a trilogy, but no, series.) Don’t. I admit that I was sufficiently in need of conclusion to read the first three books (I have no idea where she goes with it from there, because they’d done in the main villain by then.), but the name schemes are awful, the plot cliched and kinda juvenile. Just really not a lot of substance there.

She’s written some other stuff, I have no idea if it’s any good but my guess is no. Pity, as the setting for at least one of the other series looks quite interesting.

Donaldson’s Gap series is his best work, IMO, but that’s not fantasy. I loved the first chronicles back in the day, but his writing isn’t for everyone. The second chronicles were worth it for the final book, but only if you’re a big fan!

The only other fantasy book I can remember anything about (apart from Tolkien’s stuff) involved some human heroine who got transported to a fantasy world, had a jar with an annoying sidekick creature in it, and ended up bonking a humanoid lizard at great and intimately detailed length. For me, that was the last straw with the fantasy genre and I haven’t touched it since.

This Salon review of Erikson is so praising on the point of pure blowjob.

If there’s truth into it I may as well become a fanboy without having even read one page of his works. It seems exactly what I was looking for.

Give me, instead, the evocation of a rich, complex and yet ultimately unknowable other world, with a compelling suggestion of intricate history and mythology and lore. Give me mystery amid the grand narrative. There’s no need to spell it all out; no prefaces, please, elucidating the history of Middle Earth as if to students in a lecture hall. Instead, give me a world in which every sea hides a crumbled Atlantis, every ruin has a tale to tell, every mattock blade is a silent legacy of struggles unknown.

Give me, in other words, the fantasy work of Steven Erikson.

The phrase “most epic” is meaningless to me, so let me just note some classic epic series instead. In alphabetical order:

  • James Branch Cabell: The Biography of Manuel. Large number of titles, let’s say starting with Figures of Earth, or Jurgen (though that was apparently written before he had the idea of the big Biography group). Might arguably not be epic since most of the books in the group don’t have the same main characters (though they are all related somehow). Still I list it anyway as I like his work a great deal, and as one of his characters is my forum namesake.

  • E. R. Eddison: Zimiamvia trilogy. Mistress of Mistresses, A Fish Dinner in Memison, The Mezentian Gate. Very well regarded by Tolkien, I think the literary quality of this trilogy is considerably higher than The Lord of the Rings (though less of a fully realized world), while still containing plenty of “cool stuff”. While I also enjoy his more widely printed “The Worm Ouroboros” I think that last work is a bit harder to read, and can seem superficially quaint due to the twee-sounding names of the nations in that book.

  • Fritz Leiber: Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series. Various story collections. Superb series of mostly independent stories that together with Conan essentially define “swords and sorcery” as a genre, but far better than Howard in all respects, IMO. One interesting point is that many authors, such as de Camp and others, have successfully imitated Howard, extending the Conan series, but all attempts to imitate Leiber have been disastrous.

  • Jack Vance: Demon Princes series. The Star King, The Killing Machine, The Palace of Love, The Face, The Book of Dreams. SF, but highly fantastic. Vance is a wonderful stylist. He has a number of other great series, too, but I think the Demon Princes series may be the best.

  • Roger Zelazny: Amber series. Nine Princes in Amber, The Guns of Avalon, The Sign of the Unicorn, The Hand of Oberon, The Courts of Chaos. I suffer from an apparently incurable (and now sadly insatiable) addiction to Zelazny’s style; so I enjoy even his lesser writing a great deal. However, even so I must recognize that the first Amber series is far superior to the second series.

Some other random comments on other relatively recent fantasy series. Just to stir the pot, since they have been discussed here. Jordan: Could condense first 5 books (all I read) into one inane volume of soap opera. Basically drivel. Donaldson: superb writer in terms of technique, who writes about wretched dreadful characters and who tortures and kills any character who shows the least bit of spirit or likeability. Martin: Good writer of non-epic novels, In it for the money. Should have deleted 2 out of every 3 plotlines from current series. Eddings: Boring. Kay: Childish. Modesitt: dull. Brust: very good indeed, I look forward to all his books, but not quite the same literary quality as the ones I cited above. Lewis: Great essayist, preachy annoying novelist. May: Not bad at all, quite enjoyable, but teeters on the edge of soap-operahood. Moorcock: Various individual novels are very good, but some series tend to get dull and repetitious.

I considered recommending Leiber, since his work is fantastic, but wasn’t too sure that that it really qualifies as “epic” fantasy. The Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stuff is all short stories, and largely unrelated (aside from being about the same characters), so it’s more like serial fantasy, so to speak. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; in fact, I’ve found that the best way to avoid some of the worst dreck in the fantasy genre is to largely avoid the epic stuff–especially epic trilogies. I’m not saying that they are all bad, but that seems to be the story form that consistently attracts the worst writers in the genre, probably because they all want to be the next Tolkien.

Yeah, it depends what you mean by epic, I suppose, and our use of the term obviously has only tangential relation to the verse form. For me I suppose it has to do with the the scope and sweep of time and space over a lengthy work or series of works. Since the overall set of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories covers their entire lives, touching on many themes of life and aging in the context of their fantastic and bizarre adventures, and wraps up their stories in retirement, I think it counts as epic in that respect.

You, sir, are a scholar and a gentleman.

30 years later, I am still disgusted when I recall the pure plagiaristic awfulness of the first few chapters of the first Shannara book. I think, too, that he’s almost personally responsible for encouraging some of the worst fantasy series of modern times, due to the unfortunate success of this unworthy series.

Nice guy, no doubt. I suppose if you offered me his income with the proviso that I had to also assume authorship of those books, I’d take it… but I’d use a pseudonym.

  • Wide scope
  • Depth
  • Length
  • Escalation
  • Sense of wonder

Similarly to games accessibility doesn’t need to be inversely proportional to the depth and scope. Tolkien is a great example as you can read it at multiple levels and what makes Middle Earth so good is what you can see on the horizon, the backdrop.

After all what makes good fantasy is the feeling that the world described is concrete.

Mistress of Mistresses

BDSM? ;)

As others have mentioned the Black Company trilogy rocks. The perspective of basically a tricky merc unit out of their league with major wizards is great. Easily the best work of noir fantasy I’ve read. Croaker et al are basically a bunch of amoral mercs with their only concern/loyalty to each other.

I could go on with more praise but suffice to say that it remains in my top ten list for all time, especially the original Black Company title.

The Books of the South are not nearly as good but a bit above average.

OK. I’m willing to grant the first four items, and those are consistent with the works I cited, but I really don’t see what “sense of wonder” has to do with being an epic, even an epic fantasy. For example, the classic epics like Beowulf are not entirely lacking in sense of wonder, but this is not IMO a core quality of the work.

Of course sense of wonder is often cited as one of the key characteristics of SF in general, but frankly, I think it’s over-rated and also not essential to what I would think of (without having provided any formal definition of my own) as epic.

In regard to your last point about concreteness, I agree entirely. Of course that is a key theme written about by Tolkien – he objected to Lewis’ Narnia books on the grounds that they were just sort of thrown together, without really having a proper background or history.

Coincidentally relevant to this point is an essay that appears in James Branch Cabell’s novel Smire, which I am just reading now for the first time. In chapter 24, he distinguishes “novels” which are about reality, and which therefore do not involve “creation” from “romances” in which the author invents the world as well as the characters. He has his alter ego Smire call himself a poet or maker on the grounds of writing romances and not novels. Of course, everything in this book is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s still an interesting distinction.

Totally different kind of fantasy, but Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” cycle is definitely epic. Wide scale, world-shaking events, the works. (Although I haven’t read the last book yet).

Cabell’s work has never felt “epic” to me, partly because it’s very tongue-in-cheek, where he purposefully undermines the epic qualities. (“Jurgen” especially). I recommend his work highly–it’s great stuff–but if you’re looking for Tolkienesque you’ll be seriously disappointed.

I would also put put in a vote for The Black Company from Cook. The series gets rather bogged down in the later books but the early books are a fantastic read.

Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, when looked at in its entirety would qualify as epic. you do get a good flavour of the world as they work through their adventures. And with short stories, you can get them in small bite-sized chunks.

I’ve only read Gardens of the Moon by Erikson. I found the book hard to get started as the narrative just sort launches right into it with no expository text. But if you can slog through it, the novel opens up as bits and pieces start to fall into place and you get a better understanding of what’s going on. It’s a series I think I need to get restarted in my reading.

I found Steven Brust’s stories uneven. But it certainly qualifies as epic fantasy, and there’s enough good stuff that it’s worth checking out.

L.E. Moddesitt’s order and chaos series is the same damn story retold every time. It’s worth reading the first couple of books. But after that, what’s the point? It’s the same story. The plot is basically the same as “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly”.

As for Robert Jordan and his Wheel of Time, it’s a writeoff for me. The first book was very derivative of Tolkein, but a decent enough read. But I gave up on the series (can’t quite remember which book now) when I was a full third of the way through the book and realized that the plot had not advanced one iota. As others of have said, the series is full of filler material, and the characters, especially the women, are cardboard cutouts.

Well, the amount of wryness and introspection varies, but I agree, much is intended to be droll rather than solemn. Most of the books have subtitles like “a comedy of <whatever>”, and some have highly anachronistic elements. So let’s subtract Cabell from the list of epic authors.

I suppose a certain lack of a sense of humor could be considered an epic quality too, though the writers I mentioned all had a sense of humor. To take a random misremembered quote from Zelazny that I paraphrase here:

I saw a horned red demonic creature being pursued by a wailing blue demon. It was just one damned thing after another.

That would be the braid-pulling and the skirt-smoothing. I read up to around book 8 and gave up. There were some good moments but there were also long, LONG stretches where nothing happened.

The PC game rocked though.

Le Morte de Arthur.

That’s about as epic as it gets, though technically it’s one book and not a cycle. T. H. White’s The Once and Future King is also a good modern (well, slightly more modern) retelling. And quite epic.

Kay is amazing - Tigana is based on Renaissance Italy. Arbonne is actually based on Provence in that 1200-1400 time period.

Maybe it’s me, but I didn’t think the third one was a different timeline - just set in a different part of the world. I also expect it to link to the others some how in the end. Each of the books so far has focused (mainly) on one of the gods. I therefore expect two more books for the two remaining gods.

I love those books - each in a different way - and I can’t wait for the next one.

Yeah, right, krayzkrok

I’m a bit of a glutton for punishment so I’ve read every last one of the Wheel of Time books so far. The cycle started out really well but has increasingly become one of diminishing returns for reasons that others have already stated but I don’t think it’s a totally lost cause and there is some great stuff in there, even in the later books (books 8 through 10 were pretty dull though). There’s some really really great stuff as well and that’s what makes it so frustrating.

Sure there was a lot of overly detailed descriptions of behavioural tics. But there’s also introduction of numerous subplots that seem to go nowhere, and much running around for now good purpose.