For fans of blood-soaked fantasy stories waiting for George R. R. Martin to finish his next book . . .
We know you’re out there, looking for fantasy stories that don’t involve unicorns but deliver monsters, gore and revenge. We’ve got you covered.
The Black Company series by Glen Cook
They’re not interested in fighting for the good guy. They just want to get paid. As told by Croaker, the Black Company’s sawbones and annalist, the reader is taken on a supremely dark journey as the band of mercenaries accept a contract from a cruel sorceress and inadvertently make their realm a lot worse off than if they’d sided with the rebels trying to save it. Cook’s writing style is punchy and declarative. Don’t expect any florid, purple descriptions of rolling hills or frolicking unicorns here. From a first-person point of view — a rare thing for fantasy stories — we follow along as Croaker, documenting the Black Company’s exploits, tells us how things went, who died, who survived, who got screwed, who didn’t and how much they made in the process — and that’s it. Cited by Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files, as one series that inspired him to write his own fantasy stories, The Black Company books make up a hard-hitting series no fan of the genre should miss.
If you like The Black Company, Cook has another series that is equally gritty and told in his inimitable blunt style: The Instrumentalities of the Night.
The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
From one of the most accomplished authors in speculative fiction, Gene Wolfe’s four-volume series all began with The Shadow of the Torturer. Originally published in 1980 and immediately met with high praise and numerous awards, Gene Wolfe’s science fantasy series is a challenging but rewarding read. (Seriously, the series has two analyses/guides. One by Michael Andre-Driussi, Lexicon Urthus, and another by Robert Borski titled Solar Labyrinth.) We follow Severian, an apprentice torturer, through a world of swordplay, magic, laser guns, and spacecrafts. Though technically science fiction, the way Wolfe eases us into realizing that Severian’s world isn’t all that alien to us is simply amazing. The giant crumbling glass structures around Severian’s home, he learns, were once filled with people who worked there, back when there were far more people around and the world was much warmer. And later, he discovers a framed picture of what Severian, at first glance, believes is a painting depicting a lonely white knight standing on a pale barren landscape, looking up at a faraway blue moon — leaving it to the reader to infer he’s actually looking at a photo of an astronaut. The old world is all but forgotten, replaced by a second dark age. The sun is dying and summer is something that just doesn’t happen anymore. There is a very strict order by which everyone is governed and Severian, having briefly met a group of rebels early in the story, begins to question his world suffocating under hard, unfeeling rule. When he falls in love with one of the prisoners he was assigned to torture, furthering his dissent against his kingdom, he is threatened to be ejected from his guild and is sent on a quest outside of the city. There, he begins to finally think for himself and, naturally, winds up in a whole new kind of trouble. Full of masterful prose, a mythos that’s as intriguing as it is dense, and intense fight scenes, The Shadow of the Torturer is a fantasy novel unlike any other — it could easily be shelved among postapocalyptic stories and science fiction. Unique doesn’t begin to describe Severian’s adventures — collected as The Book of the New Sun — and it definitely belongs on the shelf of every fan of fantasy stories looking for something wholly different from the genre.
If you liked The Shadow of the Torturer and enjoy Wolfe’s style, you’ll likely enjoy his two-part Wizard Knight series. It’s more in line with traditional fantasy stories but still shows that Wolfe is an unmatched talent of speculative fiction.
Egil & Nix series by Paul S. Kemp
Before the first appearance of Egil and Nix in The Hammer & the Blade, Paul S. Kemp wrote fantasy stories set in the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms universe as well as numerous Star Wars novels. This time creating his own world from the ground up, Kemp introduces us to Egil and Nix, two freelance adventurers. With The Hammer & The Blade, we follow them as the best friends unearth a deadly plot involving a wealthy family who has begun dabbling in black magic. In A Discourse in Steel, Egil and Nix come out of retirement — and leave behind the pub they just bought together — to aid two sisters on the run from the Thieves’ Guild. Kemp’s Egil and Nix series is a ton of fun. Full of great world-building, much derring-do and lovable characters, Kemp’s Egil and Nix will, from page one, become your new favorite pair of trouble-magnet sellswords.
The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
As violent as Tarantino and with a world as sprawling and vividly imagined as George R. R. Martin’s Westeros, Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series — The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings — defines modern gritty fantasy. It is peopled by a barbarian out for revenge, a selfish military captain and a cruel-hearted inquisitor. Readers of the First Law trilogy will marvel at how Abercrombie can take three such disparate lead characters and have their pasts (and futures) overlap with his deft storytelling. Not for the faint of heart, Abercrombie’s stuff can get grisly at times. These aren’t good people we’re following. Most of them could stand as defining examples of sociopaths. Readers who enjoy Abercrombie’s popular trilogy would likely find his other works, like Best Served Cold and Red County, worth their time and attention.
The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski
Known in the West more for the video games based on Sapkowski’s novels, The Witcher books hold the record in Poland for outselling fantasy powerhouse J.K. Rowling. Adapted into a TV series, a movie, graphic novels and the aforementioned video game series from CD Projekt Red, it all began with Sapkowski’s short fantasy stories. And over the course of eight installments, we follow Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, friendly neighborhood witcher — a superhuman cat-eyed immortal, given preternatural abilities via potions and mutations known as the Trial of Grasses. Using his wits, mutation-made powers, and double swords, Geralt hunts monsters — and engages in Archie-esque dual ongoing romances with sorceresses Triss and Yennefer. The short fantasy story collection and subsequent novels were originally published in Polish but have since been translated to English — and very well, at that — with the final installments due to come out this year. Highly imaginative, a strong mix of high fantasy with gritty realism (racism, pogroms and slavery are commonplace in the world of the Witcher stories), Sapkowski’s world is one of a kind. Even if you’ve never played the video games, the books stand on their own as a fantastic fantasy series.
The Solomon Kane stories by Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard may be remembered more for his other creation, Conan the Barbarian, but his gun-slinging Puritan Solomon Kane comes as a close second. Since his debut in the short story “Red Shadows” published by Weird Tales in 1928, Solomon Kane has had a successful comic book series and even a film adaptation in 2009 starring James Purefoy as the buckle-hatted evil-slayer. But the short stories about his fight against the forces of evil — with many large collections available online — is where Solomon Kane began. Though the stories can sometimes be pretty purple and peppered liberally with adverbs, nothing quite reads like a Kane story. They’re often very fun, melodramatic, and feature many exciting fight scenes in which Kane lops off a werewolf’s head or pursues an evil wizard through a balmy African jungle. Each story is unique and full of spooky goings-on and carries surprising grit and gore for something from the 1920s and ’30s. Absolutely worth checking out.
The Elric series by Michael Moorcock
Prolific author Michael Moorcock has written steampunk, science fiction, fantasy, and even a trilogy set during World War II. He is probably best known for his character Elric of Melniboné — or Elric VIII, 428th Emperor of Melniboné. Normally very sickly, Elric relies on a steady diet of special herbs to stay in good health and enhance his abilities as a sorcerer. With his island empire swiftly crumbling around him, he ventures out and soon encounters the Stormbringer sword. Most of Moorcock’s Elric stories center around the cursed, sentient weapon — Stormbringer feeds on the souls of those that are slain by it and has quite an appetite. Sometimes bleak, often harrowing, the Elric stories have remained in print since his first appearance in the late 1960s for a reason. Though the character has had many imitators — including Geralt of Rivia — no other writer has ever managed to quite capture the uniqueness of Elric.
Which books would you add to this list?