When it comes to entertainment, we’re all looking for the Next Great Thing. But sometimes while sorting through all the great new fantasy books, we forget that we just might have missed the Last Great Thing, either because it was published before we were born, or it somehow just slipped through the cracks.
The upside to looking backward for our next fantasy reading material isn’t just that we might discover some great new book series; since they’re all long published, we also don’t have to wait three years for the next installment to come out!
Here are some of my favorites:
The Fionavar Tapestry (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road) by Guy Gavriel Kay
Published between 1984 and 1987, I hadn’t read these books until one weekend in 2006. How did I ever miss them? It’s the first on this list, because it inspired the list.
If you’re a Narnia fan, The Fionavar Tapestry is the series you want to hunt down first. In it, five college students are transported to another realm, Fionavar, the place where myths and legends are born. Each character has his or her own “destiny,” and Kay’s ability to handle multiple viewpoints is impressive, especially at such an early point in his career.
The trials and tribulations they go through will more than hold your interest. And those who survive, will, by the end of the series, stand beside not just the heroes of Fionavar, but also the mythical archetypes of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot. It’s high fantasy at its best and if you’re a fan of Kay’s later work, it goes without saying you should check it out.
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (The Dragonbone Chair, The Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower) by Tad Williams
Before Tad Wiliams gave science fiction fans the Otherland series, he gave fantasy fans Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Published between 1988 and 1993, the series has all the things we crave: Young lad with a destiny greater than his humble beginnings? Check. Magic Swords? Check. Trolls? Williams calls them “Qunacs,” but check. Elves. They are called “Silva,” but check. A beautiful, headstrong and brave princess on the run, and an ancient evil that threatens the land? Check and check — although none of this is exactly what you expect it to be.
This is a trilogy that will remind you why you fell in love with fantasy in the first place — with one of the best, most involving climaxes I’ve ever read.
The Hammer and the Cross (The Hammer and the Cross, One King’s Way, and King and Emperor) by Harry Harrison
With this alternate history fantasy trilogy, science fiction legend Harry Harrison and co-author and Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey (who writes under the pen name John Holm) ask some thought-provoking questions:
What if gods drew their power from humanity’s faith in them? What if the brutal Vikings had established a culture of learning under a just king? What if their priests established a less bloody church that encouraged debate and reason? What if they mastered the high tech weapons of their day, like ballistas and catapults, and formed an alliance with the southern half of Britain and ruled the northern half as brothers? What if the Roman Catholic Church established an elite order of knights and tried to crush them all?
I have a question of my own: What if you go your entire life and never read this terrific series?
The Farseer Trilogy (Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin’s Quest) by Robin Hobb
If you’ve read her recent Soldier’s Son trilogy, you know Robin Hobb is an author who deliberately defies fantasy conventions. Published between 1995 and 1997, The Farseer Trilogy is the first-hand account of Fitz-Chivalry Farseer, the bastard son of a disgraced, once-crown prince. Snatched from his mother’s arms as a child and given to his father’s stable master, he never knows his mother.
His childhood is rough, but eventually he’s noticed by both his grandfather, who teaches him the workings of the court during the day, and Chade the royal assassin, who teaches him his darker arts at night. Meanwhile, a war with an old enemy looms, and it goes without saying that Fitz factors into it prominently.
I’ll not spoil anymore of it, but I promise you there are no predictable plot lines or stock archetypes here. (Note: There are two other series set in this world, The Liveship Traders and The Tawny Man. All are interconnected yet also stand alone.)
The Great Book of Amber: The Complete Amber Chronicles by Roger Zelazny
Once sold as single titles in bookstores, these ten books were repackaged into collections — first as two five-volume narratives published in the 1970s and 80s, but now published as one. These ten books together are shorter than some trilogies, but say twice as much.
At one end of reality lies The Courts of Chaos, an ever-shifting realm where primal forces are unbound and malleable; at the other lies Amber, the first city, the shining light of order that spawned all other cities. Our world and all of the possible others in between are just shadows cast by the ever-changing disposition of these two most primal forces of creation.
Confusing? It is at first even to our narrator, who awakes with no memory, held in a private hospital in upstate New York. Once he’s escaped, he soon regains his memory, taking his place among his family, the immortal royal family of Amber, who for centuries thought him dead. Demigods have begun angling for the throne in their sire’s absence, but soon find themselves under a threat that could destroy all of creation and return it to the rule of chaos.
If you’re not familiar with the late Roger Zelazny’s work, you should be, and this is as good a place to start as any.
So there you are. Go pick up one of these great fantasy series and have yourself an all-weekend marathon read!
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