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

Just to get a bit retro: in the wake of the death of Lloyd Alexander earlier this year, I re-read the Prydain novels for the first time in 20+ years; and was pleasantly surprised that they still held up rather well. In fact, some of it I think I liked more now than then; some of Alexander’s wry humor probably flew over my head when I was 12. Note that Prydain is one of if not the first fantasy series I ever read, so I do have some nostalgic fondness for it.

The Black Company series is my favorite series. The first 3 and the Silver Spike (stand-alone after the 3rd book) are the best.

Another mention in favor of Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince, etc series
Brust’s Vlad Taltos book and other books in that world are entertaining. Not really in the ‘epic’ style though.
The first Feist books are fun and neat worlds (Magician etc). I haven’t read any of his recent stuff though.
I like Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms stuff - but it’s for a Pulp/Trash read and not Tolkien-type ‘epic’ fantasy.
I grew out of Dragonlance (mostly), Brooks, Eddings and the like. I wouldn’t recommend them. I found Goodkind and Donaldson way to whiney/angsty.
I dropped the Wheel of Time a book or two back, when I got half way through a book, and the timeline hadn’t reached the end of the previous book yet.
If you want to lobotomize yourself, there’s John Norman’s Gor series. /shudder

I’m one of the few people that don’t like Martin. Why? I think a lot is it’s too character based for me - it’s talking about the characters and their motivations too much, and not enough of exciting stuff actually happening. It’s slow, reminds me of reading Dickens in High School.

Been mostly reading Space Opera lately, so don’t have a lot of recent fantasy to recommend. Malazan’s on my list to read though.

Oh, wow, I had no idea that there was an original book series that inspired the Black Cauldron!

Add me to the list of avid supporters of both Martin (Song of Ice and Fire) and Cook (The Black Company). I also still think Zelazny’s Amber series is a fantastic read, though not exactly fantasy in the traditional sense.

If you’re looking for Tolkienesque, you can try Dennis L. McKiernan’s Iron Tower novels from the 1980’s. They’re a pretty blatent ripoff of Middle Earth, but they differ just enough to be entertaining in their own right.

A pair of series you might enjoy that isn’t exactly fantasy are Bernard Cornwell’s “Grail Quest” and “Saxon’s Chronicles” books. Both series are historical fiction, but set in interesting time periods (100 Years War and Danish conquest of England respectively) with well written characters and lots of military action.

Greg Keyes has a series called the Kingdom of Thorn and Bone that qualifies as epic fantasy. It’s fairly well written, somewhat similar in feel to Martin’s books only with less characters and more fantasy elements. I think the fourth book was just released or is coming soon.

A salad of hype-inducing, cover-quote ready comments on Steven Erikson:

His first fantasy novel, Gardens of the Moon (1999), constitutes the first of ten projected volumes of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. His style of writing tends towards complex plots with multiple point-of-view characters.

It is an epic fantasy, wide in scope and encompassing the stories of a very large cast of characters. Each book tells a different chapter in the ongoing saga of the Malazan Empire and its wars. For the first five books, each volume is self-contained, in that the primary conflict of each novel is resolved within that novel.

However, many underlying characters and events are interwoven throughout the works of the series, binding it together.

HRose: Erikson’s series should be under ‘epic’ in the dictionary. With timelines spanning 100000 years and more, and tons and tons of characters, many of which who are ancient themselves.

My personal favorite. I love the expansive and interesting world Erikson has built. That being one of your criteria I don’t think you can go wrong.

The other bonus of Erikson is that he’s fantasy of his own devising, and isn’t Tolkienesque. His take on gods and magic is pretty awesome, and unique to boot. He turns the idea of undead on its head, there is no ultimate good or ultimate evil, and there’s startlingly few stereotypes. Even when he delves in to a plot involving a young kid being caught up in things above him, he manages to take it in places that you just wouldn’t expect.

I do like Erikson too, but the far-flung epic feel drags in parts. That could just be me in that I only have time to read sporadically. The Malazan books are certainly not ones you skip merrily through. You have to pay attention and invest yourself in them. You are definitely paid off, though, because the detailed world he creates is nothing short of amazing.

This is the seventh novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. It is everything you hoped for if you have been following this story from the beginning. The sheer scale and grandeur of this tale is breathtaking. Again you will question who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys”.

Martin and Erikson are absolutely the giants of the genre at this point.

One huge plus between Martin and Erikson though- Erikson is putting these out on an almost annual basis. There is a very real possibility that his entire ten book series will be released before Martin gets his sixth book out.

Erikson commonly gets compared to George RR Martin thought the two really aren’t that similar IMO other than the scale of the work and, in most opinions, relative quality. Both authors tell a fairly gritty tale but Erikson seems more concerned with history and magic while Martin seems focused mainly on characters.

Erikson’s strength is in his world detail. The world of the Malazan Empire has an incredibly detailed backstory and its the primary focus of the series. His books take the “in media res” concept very much to heart- there is no true beginning and most readers find themselves fairly confused with the first half of his first novel, Gardens of the Moon. He doesn’t slow for explanations or introductions- the world is already in the midst of a major continents-spanning war and most of the characters already have histories with one another that is only hinted at. You just have to accept that you’ll be confused and trust that you haven’t missed anything. By the second half of the book things start to click and you get a pretty good idea of the scope of what Erikson is trying to get across.

His best asset, IMO, is the sheer scale of the events. He also has some relatively interesting characters. One huge plus is that each book is relatively self-contained- there is a genuine finale and following books often take place in different times and places than previous ones with a few overlapping characters. Consequently each book is relatively satisfying without engaging in cheap cliffhangers.

Erikson other folks have described. Huge time scale, lots of gods and other major powers futzing with things. Enormous, dramatic conflicts. I’ve found every book so far to be rough getting into (he sometimes spends 5/6ths of a book building tension and weaving threads before the big shit goes down.) but increasingly compelling to the point of obsession the deeper into them I get. There’s nagging things that keep popping up and back down again before I can entirely identify them. But he’s telling much too good a story for me to really care.

Another big hell yeah for Malazan. There is just nothing else quite like it out there.

Tearing into ‘Memories of Ice’ by Erikson. Gotta love a book that has a 300 thousand person army of starving cannabalistic peasants laying seige to a city.

And another reason it deserves the “epic” title (which I didn’t see anyone else mentioning in this thread but they may have and I missed it) - the depth of character and location interaction is so broad it’s almost silly. You meet what look like minor throw-away characters in one book only to find they are the major player three books later.

Or you find a bizarre scene that is visited by many different groups of characters at different times, but the scenes don’t appear in order in the sequence of the books. You may find the gruesome mysterious aftermath of a battle in book 2, then read about the battle itself in book 5. I found myself constantly going “WAIT! Is that how that got there?” and shuffling through earlier books to remind myself of how things were connected.

And my last bit of fanboy praise - the characters are freaking GREAT. Ericson is not afraid to kill of major characters, and he creates new major characters in just about every book, and yet almost all of them are clearly drawn with distinct personalities and are quite memorable.

Erikson also does some really unique stuff with structure and narrative that I haven’t seen a lot in the genre. It’s not straightforward in any way. For example, the first book takes place on a certain continent with certain characters then Book 2 moves to a completely different continent with mainly new characters. Book 3 then acts as a sequel to Book 1, and Book 4 to Book 2.

Then there is an all new continent and characters in Book 5 and now Erikson is drawing all of those threads together in the latter half of the series.

The result is that the whole enterprise is basically a puzzle where the reader is making the connections between these seeming disparate storylines.

Especially since Erikson abhors any type of exposition describing the world and it’s history. It’s left to the reader to put together so readers of the first book often feel like they are missing something and starting a series in the middle. Another cool technique Erikson uses is that he hides some secrets and twists in plain sight which can makes re-reads quite enjoyable when you see how much he had laid out in advance.

Highly original. Very little of his world-building even reminds me of things I’ve read before.

I agree they’re an acquired taste, and not the easiest reads, but the chaotic insanity and excess of the whole concept is sort of exhilarating.

And the plotting is pretty extraordinary. By the time you get to book four and see how the throwaway random comment in book two was actually a reference to an event which was experienced in book three and had been foreshadowed in book one it can boggle the mind nicely.

Martin isn’t really high fantasy- it’s all very realistic with minimal magic. Erikson, on the other hand, really excels when it comes to epic, magic heavy battles.

Erikson’s world can probably be compared to the mythology of Ancient Greece but set in a medieval period- Gods and Ascendants (basically demi-gods) are main characters and frequently interact with mortals.

Erikson is a master of lost and forgotten epochs, a weaver of ancient epics on a scale that would approach absurdity if it wasn’t so much fun.

War is a constant – from continent to continent, century upon century. Erikson’s universe is a violent one, Gothic in intensity, without clear demarcation between good and evil. It’s perhaps more like the real world, then, than most fantasy, which so clearly differentiates between light and dark. Not the kind of story I would read to my son before bed – death and pain abound, along with magic and wonder.

Gods are always messing with mortals in Erikson’s work, but the mortals also, by their patterns of belief, create their own gods, their own greater powers.

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.

Not only is there one, but it’s far superior to the movie in almost every respect. No offense intended to folks that love the movie–it just is. The Chronicles of Prydain are also a great pick for “great epic book cycle.” Alexander’s Westmark trilogy is pretty damn good, too.

I read pretty much everything Lloyd Alexander wrote back when I was in grade 6 or 7 and loved them all. Could very well have been my introduction to fantasy.

I like Glen Cook plenty, but I actually don’t like the Black Company that much. It was good and I enjoyed them all, but I found the characters in the Dread Empire books much more engaging and memorable, and the Garrett books are my favourites of Cook’s.

Especially in the first Black Company book I felt like I didn’t know who anyone was or what their relationships were, and that didn’t really resolve itself until a majority of people in the company were killed off. But even after that point, I never got the feeling that the characters were fully realized, they always felt like paper cutouts.

It is not really fantasy, but I cannot recommend Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle strongly enough. The author calls it sci-fi (for which he has excellent reasons), but most people just call it historical fiction.

To dismiss it for not being a “fantasy” novel is doing yourself a disservice. There is no world stranger and more fully fleshed-out than History, and few periods stranger and more interesting than the latter half of the 17th century. It is the time of Newton, the birth of the Royal Society, Louis XIV, Cromwell, the waning of the Stuart line, endless English/Dutch/French wars, rebellions and revolutions, pirates, Puritans, vagabonds, and the birth of the modern global economy. The Baroque Cycle has all of this.

For a more staggering amount of detail, I refer you to my favorite review of Quicksilver, the first book in the Cycle. Do not worry about spoilers. As the review of the second book says, “This is a novel of a scope that laughs at mere spoilers…”

You may or may not want to read Cryptonomicon (Stephenson’s earlier WWII/present day novel) first, as it ties in with The Baroque Cycle, but this is not strictly necessary. The connections, while entertaining, and in at least one case quite shocking, are not necessary to understanding either story.

As an aside, I thought reading Cryptonomicon was a more enjoyable read and definitely helped in understanding what Stephenson was trying to do with the Baroque Cycle. It’s also a stand alone book that moves along at a fairly quick pace. The Baroque Cycle, by comparison, was wading through substantial history lesson, mixed with economic intrigue and political backstabbing, and a hugely complex plot. It was difficult, to say the least. And only rewarding if you have the time and inclination to really digest everything that he was writing.

Well, to be fair, Hrose did say he didn’t want historical stuff (which I broke by mentioning the Saxon and Arthur series from Cromwell, which I feel are very fantasy-like). I think the Baroque Cycle goes way beyond what he’s looking for.

— Alan

Yeah, The Baroque Cycle is awesome (reading it right now) but didn’t strike me as what HRose was looking for.

This thread has been perfect for me. I used to read lots of fantasy and have really been in the mood for another well written epic series. I’ve tried to start RR’s a few times but just couldnt get into it.

I started the first Erikson book last night and read about 100 pages and am enjoying it very much…I kind of wish all of the books were out as I’m sure I’ll read all 6 (7?) that have been finished and with all the characters It would be nice to not have to wait for the rest cause I do read a lot and will forget a lot.

I have this rule, which I call the “George RR Martin” rule, which is that I won’t start a series that hasn’t been completed, no matter how much I love it and how soon the next book is.

I LOVED Songs of Ice and Fire, but by the time Feast of Crows came out I’d totally forgot what the fuck was going on and who was what. And since Feast wasn’t the end, I was like “Wait, so I’ll relearn it all, then wait, what, another six years?” Screw that.

It didn’t really take until I read Ilium before Olympos came out (or was it the other way?) that I finally was like “Okay, no, it’s definitely a rule from now on”.

That said – Jack Vance’s Lyonesse stuff was amazing, easily his best work and I’m the biggest Jack Vance fan on earth. I’ve had many friends borrow that series and love it, then tried some of the other stuff (Dying Earth, etc.) and couldn’t finish it.

I also didn’t like Black Company because I couldn’t tell what was going on and the language felt like it was straight out of a Vietnam War movie. I was like half-way through the book before I realized it was even fantasy and not like some kind of Krull-esque sci-fi.

Yeah, I’m with you on this. I read Game of Thrones like 50 years ago (so it feels), and haven’t been able to even get to the second one yet because I know that I’ll basically just have to start over. But then I don’t want to start over because I know I’d have to start over AGAIN once the next one in the series comes out. So, now I’m just waiting.

Another huge vote for the Lloyd Alexander books, btw. Great story, wonderfully written, and holds up for adults even though it shows up in the kids section.

I’ve been afraid of the Baroque Cycle, but this thread kinda has me itching now. I’ve read Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash, and with both sorta had the same feeling: I love reading his sentences, his smorgasbord of humor and sci-fi and dorkiness–but I never quite grasp the totality of what he was trying to say. Still, he’s a fun read…

I just started reading this today. I got “The Big Book of Amber” or somesuch, which is all 10 novels in one omnibus. I’m only about 20 pages in so I’m reserving judgment, but so far I’m just confused and not very entertained. I’m hoping it picks up.

The Baroque Cycle is Cryptonomicon to the nth degree. It is essentially the same idea set 250-ish years earlier - even with characters from the same family trees. The same archetypes - the brainy Superego guy (Waterhouse) who is all science and the pure Id guy (Shaftoe!!!) who has wacky crazy zany adventures.

If you were bothered by the very cerebral, long-winded parts of Cryptonomicon be warned that these books are even worse for that. Personally, they didn’t bug me in Crypto, but they are even lengthier in TBC. BUT, when you get to the Shaftoe parts - pure gold. The exploits of Jack Shaftoe in TBC make Bobby Shaftoe from Crypto look like daddy day camp.

All in all, I really enjoyed it, but it isn’t for everyone…

I have to dissent on The Baroque Cycle. I loved Snow Crash & Cryptonomicon. Quicksilver is one of the few books I quit reading before I was even halfway in. After 150 pages, there were some funny bits and decent dialog… but there was absolutely no plot whatsoever. Maybe it gets better after that, but I haven’t had the strength to try.

Yeah, Vesper, it takes MUCH more than 150 pages to get to the good bits - that’s what I was talking about.

If you were bothered by the very cerebral, long-winded parts of Cryptonomicon be warned that these books are even worse for that.

The entire first section of Volume one is nothing but Waterhouse (if memory serves - it’s been awhile since I read it) That first section is kind of rough to claw through, but once you get to the Shaftoe bits it really takes off…until the next Waterhouse parts, that is.

That’s sort of either the brilliance or the flaw of both Cryptonomicon and TBC. He intentionally sets out to highlight these two characters - polar opposites: Id and Superego - that almost never actually ancounter each other but are caught up in the same struggles. The part that sort of doesn’t work is when you get bogged down in the uber-cerebral prose of the Waterhouse sections. They can be a really tough read.

I read this several years ago. It’s a decent read as I recall, with good paced action, but nothing aspiring to literature. The thing to remember about it is that I believe the original series at least was originally published in installments in a magazine or something, and that shows even when it’s collected together in a book.

Yeah, I loved the Waterhouse bits of Cryptonomicon (more so than Shaftoe, actually). But the first half of Quicksilver is a slog. Fortunately, in my opinion Waterhouse and his doings become a lot more interesting in the second and third books. Though the books as a whole still suffer from uneven pacing. Even in those there were parts that I had to force myself to continue reading.

I think it’s an excellent trilogy overall, but I vastly prefer Cryptonomicon.