Top Ten Best Fantasy Series

Writers draw inspiration from one another. Our creativity is a spark all its own and the best need nothing but the kindling of their own thoughts for fuel, but it’s a fact: a writer, every bit as much as the average reader, is inspired by their peers.

The other day I was poked, prodded and more generally had my interest piqued by a friend demanding that I slap together a list of my favorite fantasies. “There’s fifteen billion such lists on the Internet already,” I cried, but he persisted. It would be interesting to see, he insisted, the reasoning behind a writer’s choice for choosing other writers. To see from where they themselves draw inspiration. I have decided to acquiesce. Thus, without further ado, I present to you a top 10 list of the best fantasy series currently out there, in my humble opinion. This does not include Stand Alones…a separate list might come about for that later. We shall see.

Note: none of these are ranked against one another. This is simply a general TOP TEN—within, they are for all intents and purposes of this list, as equals.

  1. A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE
The book fans have been waiting for...

The book fans have been waiting for…

Write like the wind, Martin. What the song doesn’t build enough on, of course, is the reason we want him to write like the wind (and the reason legions are incensed he hasn’t). Martin has left an indelible mark on the fantasy genre, forever engrained within it the notion of the dark or “realistic”—the idea that fantasy needn’t be romantic to be escapist.

A Song of Ice and Fire is a masterpiece of storylines which get more and more intricate with time, and what’s more, its character range the spectrum of class, color and creed to such a degree you cannot help but find someone, somewhere in which you’re going to become invested.

  1. THE PRINCE OF NOTHING
One of Bakker's gems.

One of Bakker’s gems.

Gives me shudders every time I read it. The Prince of Nothing series, by R. Scott Bakker is a perfect blending of philosophic nihilism and gritty, realistic fantasy. He takes what Martin began and twists the blade into still deeper, darker places, while provoking thought and reflection over the human condition and the horrible things people will do to one another. It’s not a series you’ll come out of feeling all roses and sunshine, but rather as though you’ve gone through the Slog of Slogs (relevancy points), conquered, and become all the more fascinated for it in how the world shall end.

The Prince of Nothing also handles magic in such a devastatingly destructive manner. It is unique, particularly in its intrinsic mix into the battlefield and the different forms the various schools adapt.

  1. TALES OF THE BLACK COMPANY

When all else fails, there will still be the Black Company.

The slogan holds true. The Black Company goes through some serious pitfalls. That’s because this series perhaps kickstarted the whole realistic fantasy genre, and while it has not had the widespread cultural phenomena impact of Martin’s books, it certainly inspired them. The series is predicated on one notion: war is messy, it’s terrible, and everything about it goes quickly to hell; beyond that, it’s all shades of grey.

It’s action-packed, and unique in that we are given legion for characters—we have main characters, to be sure, but the Black Company ITSELF nearly acts as its own, separate character, an interwoven, realistic mass of toiling personalities all pushing forward the greater whole in one way or another. The characters are soldiers. They don’t wish-wash so much as fling themselves from one hard decision to another, and their honor code often trumps morality, lending a curious dynamic and food for thought on the righteous of war—ANY war.

Plus, as with The Prince of Nothing, it shows how magic would actually, likely be used in the real world. The grandiose gesture, the nascent trickery, it’s all there, but the Company and its enemies use it in a manner conducive to war, to survival—not unlimited power, but an extra trick used in conjunction with traditional tactics to gain a leg-up on one’s enemy.

  1. CHRONICLES OF AMBER

Team Corwin. To hell with Merlin.

Sorry, I’m opinionated—isn’t that the whole point of this piece?

The Chronicles of Amber is quirky fantasy at its best. Scheming family, silly twists, endless plotting and planehopping; this tale is the tale of order versus chaos, complete with allusions to Shakespeare and quantum mechanics. It is also the tale of one man’s unfortunately insatiable need to keep spawning more children. Seriously, Oberon.

This series is, to put it simply, fun. There is scarcely a dull moment and the characters are so enjoyable it’s difficult to cast aside from them, even as they make some rather poor decisions.

  1. THE KINGKILLER CHRONICLES

Has the third day dawned yet, Patrick Rothfuss?

First off, let me get a few things out of the way. The Kingkiller Chronicles does nothing other fantasy novels haven’t done before it. It’s a coming of age tale, it’s a doom on the horizon tale, it’s a quest tale. What Patrick reveals, however, is it’s HOW a book is done, not what is it about that makes it what it is.

Patrick weaves prose together in a fashion that makes my heart beat like a first year English student at a poetry reading. It is musical, elegiac, a true bard’s tale with a narrator that is at once unreliable, fascinating and altogether human (despite his heroic tales) for the former. It also carries us into a character’s head in a fashion matched and surpassed, perhaps, only by the writings of Robin Hobb. I’m among the many that felt the second book didn’t live up to the first, but I suspect that second to simply be suffering from “middle child” syndrome, and have great faith the third will wrap up nicely what the first book began.

  1. LORD OF THE RINGS
An iconic image for us all, to be sure...

An iconic image for us all, to be sure…

It happened. It’s a classic. It’s the thing from which all other fantasy works can claim ancestry. Without it, neither I, nor any other modern fantasist would likely be scribbling in quite the same way. Moving right along…

  1. HARRY POTTER

How could I not include the boy wizard? If for no reason more than the fact that he and Rowling revitalized and inspired the imagination and fantasy for a new generation, this series deserves a permanent place in anyone’s top ten.

  1. EARTHSEA CYCLE

When I think of Ursula K. LeGuin, I tend to think of her bountiful contributions to the Sci-Fi realm, but she has also made a lasting impression on the world of Fantasy as well. With Earthsea, she takes the coming of age story, and the wizard saves the world story, and casts both into a nautical story that really set the foundations for the modern obsession with the wizard school staple.

What it lacks in the, say, complexity of modern fantasy, it makes up for in perspective, and offers us plenty of meaning to cradle at night. Each book in the Earthsea cycle prods at some of the great struggles of the human condition—writing wrongs we ourselves created, a fight for identity, the struggle to overcome death. The story may be familiar to many of us nowadays, who bask in the legion of copiers, but Ursula shows what traditional fantasy should look like.

  1. THE TAWNY MAN TRILOGY

Character. Character. Character.

It is the hallmark of Robin Hobb and oh, no one does it quite like her. It was a hard fight, it must be said, to choose between her series for this one. Yet in the end I had to give it to Tawny Man. A continuation from the Farseer Trilogy and a prelude to her current series, the Tawny Man brought us the character of Fitz in an older point of his life and engaged more heavily with the Fool, who should hold a special place in the hearts of any reader of Robin Hobb’s works.

Robin shows that story—which is still a strong component of her stories—needn’t always trump character. Through the person of Fitz, she has demonstrated that if you can pull us into the mind of a character, we will follow you wherever you lead us, treat his troubles as our troubles, long to see wherever else his journey will lead. Fitz has been with us since childhood, and carries us into old age, and is perhaps one of the best, most fleshed out characters in fantasy history.

Robin shows the art of personality in writing. I would stand up in front of any English class and point to her Fitz, her Fool, as case-and-points of how to craft a human.

  1. THE LONG PRICE QUARTET

The beginning of a unique tale…

Let me begin by saying this: The Long Price Quartet is not, in any sense, standard fantasy. Not the modern kind. Not the classic kind. It truly is its own concoction.

These books aren’t about the action. In the first book there isn’t even a soldier or battle sequence to be found. They aren’t about epic, good or evil, world-ending monstrosity versus legions of paladins.

It’s a story, plain and simple, without excess, moved along by fully realized characters breathing life into a strong plot. They are flawed, they are at points strong and weak in turn, and it is the convergence of their moralities, decisions and consequences which shape not only their own character, but the nature of two worlds: one clinging desperately to the past, one marching steadily toward a new foundation.

Purposeful Literary Cruelty

While it is true that writers are, essentially, lying liars who lie (an article of great fun, by the way), another fact of life is that writers can be really quite cruel. Truly, we have a way of putting our characters through hell.

I should know. My name’s Chris, and I am a cruel little man. Minus the little.

I remember the first story I read where there is some true, authentic suffering going on. As a child, I had read Lord of the Rings and any number of other little fantasies and classy hist fics. of the day, but as much agony as that ring lays on Frodo’s head, it still doesn’t quite fit the bill of character torture. Change pace to something like Flowers for Algernon, where you get to see the height of a man’s bliss, only to watch the tortured, tragic fall, as his own mind degrades around him, and even memories begin to fail—and then, you shall truly know the horrors of what a writer can unleash.

In The Hollow March, my own first addition to the literary world, I have been told that I don’t just pick on my characters—but that I have a penchant for it. But between a raging war, a vengeful son, and a daughter that had her father burned alive, there’s never really a question of whether it’s going to be a dark world. It is at the core of my setting, my plot. The distance between people, and the horrors we unleash upon ourselves—it’s one of the core human elements I seek to explore in my writing. In reality, almost everyone has some burden they bear, some torture they must struggle with and to overcome—and I seek to bring that reality into my fantasy world.

Oh, Eddard. (Care of Game of Thrones wiki)

Oh, Eddard. (Care of Game of Thrones wiki)

In another fantasy work, the popular Game of Thrones series, pain likewise doesn’t seem to be the exception, but the rule. The whole nation seems a nest of vipers, all looking to kill one another from anything from familial to religious and the ever-so-key political woes. Everyone is a tortured character. Everyone has their burdens. It also makes for some of the most gripping cliffhangers you ever did see in literature…painful as some of these can be for some readers to stomach.

One of the big questions in the writing community is simply: why? Why are these sorts of “dark” and “gritty” tales gaining such popularity? What happened to the good old fluffy days? We certainly don’t want to go out on the streets and do this stuff ourselves—let alone have it happen to us—so why do we find it so enthralling?

Contrary to some’s belief (I’m looking at you Shades of…bleck), it doesn’t stem from the old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me.” Nor is it that we are globally, psychologically fubar’d.

Rather, I feel it’s more of a matter of realism—of balance. In the past, you’ve had your irredeemably evil. You’ve had your glittering good. Never shall the twain meet, save in a battle for the world’s souls. A lot of this pain and agony we see nowadays is due to us getting more into the villains’ POVs, and stripping our heroes of that purely heroic trait. We’re making humans, and humans are, at their heart, flawed creatures. We’ve seen it enough in reality to know that—in things like fantasy, we’re just now getting around to asking: what happens when you take an all too human character, and simply add all those other magical/mystical/etc traits to the world around them? How would that impact an individual’s mentality—a world’s, even?

We dig into the dark side of the human psyche because, at heart, we want to learn. Why, why, why we ask, would they want to do this? What drove them to it? It’s not the action the captivates, but that great, almighty why. Getting into villains’ POVs improves a story. That is my opinion. I will always hold to it. I don’t want to just see evil for the sake of evil—to see why the villain did it, well, frankly, this interests me as much as the struggle against.

Oh, hey Sauron, how are y--OH, GOD! ((c) New Line Cinema and Wingnut Studios)

Oh, hey Sauron, how are y–OH, GOD! ((c) New Line Cinema and Wingnut Studios)

Will the bad guy still sometimes be as crazy as a cat on the nip? Well, yes. But getting in their heads—especially hearing them justify their actions (yikes)—can make for some truly atmospheric, emotional, and downright creepy scenes. Furthermore, showing us those villains that aren’t straight up crazy, or straight-up wretched, but forced into the role, or doing the wicked because of what they think is the good—these are always characters that strike a chord. That engage.

A dark lord is great every now and again, but if he exists for nothing but the nasty, at all possible times, and the hero nothing but the good, what do I gain from the experience? There is no learning. There is only the “oh no, he’s bad,” followed by the inevitable defeat. A certain sense of repetition and dullness seeps into the cracks between.

What’s more, struggles like these modern shadows bring us an opportunity to question and engage morality. Will motivations, justifications, and ethics themselves be flawed? Of course. But we get to see how they play out, how they interact, and why exactly they are the way they are. We don’t simply split the world down the middle and say: “Black and White,” if you please. We are forced to confront the shades of grey.

Inevitably, some people will do a drive by of such a work though and label it the downfall of western civilization. Or a sign of your own inherent wickedness. Don’t scowl. Don’t sulk. At that, I say: laugh. It should be expected, but you shouldn’t take it to heart. It’s not wicked to think, and to ponder different natures. Nor are you promoting them. You’re simply delving into the world and stripping away the colored coating so often applied.

As ever, if a scene doesn’t need to be there, it shouldn’t be—but you shouldn’t water down your work simply for a fear of potentially snarky reviews. Embrace your style, as it was meant to be embraced. All writers face critique. Don’t let it break you.

(And if you like what I’m preaching, I encourage you to indulge with my fantasy series, including The Hollow March and its sequel, At Faith’s End. Or if you’d like something a little more sci-fi for your afternoon sortie, have a look at short story “New Frontiers,” published in its entirety on this blog. Hopefully, you won’t be disappointed.)