A long time ago, there was a time when fantasy was cool. Then it became uncool. Now, properties like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones are making it cool again. The problem is that there’s no more Harry Potter to read, and George R.R. Martin needs time to finish the rest of his books. Instead of sitting around complaining on message boards that waiting is awful and life is unfair, take a look at some of the other work done by fantasy authors that came before.
Here’s a list of some series that are over, or at least mostly over. That means that you won’t find excellent books like The Kingkiller Chronicles on the list, but the books that are there have fully resolved stories that can be enjoyed all the way through. Mostly.
The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny
Long before Rick Grimes woke up in a hospital to battle the undead, Prince Corwin of Amber woke up in a hospital with amnesia. As he remembers who he is and starts to unravel the mystery of how he ended up where he was, Zelazny introduces the reader to the idea of the ever expanding multi-verse – different planes of existence where magic works and the laws of reality are changed in subtle or not-so-subtle ways.
Portions of the story take place on Earth, making it a good start for people just broaching the fantasy genre, and Zelazny’s background in science fiction (he’d won several Hugo Awards before publishing the Amber series) helps him craft an elegant explanation of how magic works in the world he created. The first five books of the series (there are 10 total, plus various short stories and appendices) were released in the 70s, and directly influenced Dungeons and Dragons, along with some other great series, like…
Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber
A must read for Game of Thrones fans, the stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser began in the 30s when author Fritz Leiber decided to write something more realistic than the more popular fantasy heroes of the time. Fafhrd is an enormous barbarian that hits things, Gray Mouser is a tiny thief that steals things, and together they create a buddy story filled with magic, dark humor, brawling, and wenching that didn’t just inspire Dungeons and Dragons and Game of Thrones, it inspired all of sword-and-sorcery fantasy as a whole.
The stories take place in an fantasy world of high-magic and low-tech, and the city of Lankhmar acts as the main hub of the events that happen. Unlike many modern fantasy series, the Lankhmar stories aren’t written as a series of voluminous tomes. Instead, they’re short stories and novellas, originally released in magazines and anthologies. They’re fun reads, with strong characters full of moral ambiguity and gritty, street-level life. The world of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser helped diversify the fantasy genre, but its influence wasn’t as widely popular as that of…
Conan the Barbarian/King/Whatever by Robert E. Howard
Arguably the most popular barbarian to ever hit things with a sword, Conan was a low-fantasy swords and sorcery epic that doesn’t need much explaining, but seems to need constant reminding to the public of its existence. Because Conan originated in the pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s before moving into the comics medium at a time when comics were still fringe, people tend to forget everything about the character that doesn’t involve Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Robert E. Howard originally published 17 stories about Conan the Barbarian and an essay about the world Conan existed in (Earth, a long-ass time ago), and some other stories published posthumously. Those stories on their own make for great reading, but Conan is the shining example of what can happen when creators share the efforts of their world-building with the world.
Conan is set in the same world as Howard’s Krull series, only in a different time period. Both of those settings share a mythology with H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Because of these shared connections, many other writers have explored the Conan character, and even spun-off other franchises (Red Sonja, for example) to expand the cast. Comics are often though of as being a medium dominated by superheroes, but the Conan stories that filled many a comic box in the 70s and 80s had some strong fantasy writing that’s often overlooked.
The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin
The first book in the Earthsea Cycle, A Wizard of Earthsea, tells the story of Ged, a poor, lonely, ignored young boy that discovers he holds a powerful ability and is shipped off to wizard school to do something great. It isn’t a unique story, but it predates the most-popular version by 30 years and won its own rewards, gaining its own recognition, in its day.
The Earthsea Cycle is made up of five books and seven short stories, so it doesn’t demand enormous dedication. They’re all set in the same fantasy world, a collection of islands with no known continents, with plenty of pirating and high-seas a’ sailing to go along with the requisite magic and questing. In addition to the books, there’s a charming anime adaptation out there, as well as an elongated television movie (or mini-mini-series) that gives some life to the award-winning world.
Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance
In 1950, Jack Vance published a science-fiction novel that would create a whole new genre of fantasy – science fiction that’s so far in the future it crosses out of the science fiction genre and back into fantasy. Civilization has lasted so long that magic is back in full effect, with the down side that the sun is dying and the Earth is going with it.
The four books that make up Vance’s Dying Earth collection are filled with short stories rather than one overarching narrative, but they’re interconnected, and some share characters. There are wizards and grand quests for great artifacts, and the magic system that Vance built for the world has been especially influential, helping inspire the spellcasting rules in early Dungeons and Dragons. Later authors would write work based in Vance’s Dying Earth, and many authors since have used the basic idea of a far-future fantasy setting to create their own worlds.
The Belgariad and The Malloreon by David Eddings
Some love the series and others loathe it, but the books of The Belgariad and the Malloreon were a dominant force in fantasy in the 80s and early 90s. The story is that of a young boy who learns of his role in a powerful prophesy from his companions who also happen to be some of the most powerful and important people to ever live. From one end to the other, it’s a series of tropes built upon tropes, but it works because that’s exactly what the author was going for.
Eddings intentionally wrote to the trope, using the somewhat cookie cutter plot to allow his own attention to be turned on the more subtle aspects of storytelling – world building and character depth. This means that the standard story of a boy learning to be a hero and fulfill his place in the world isn’t dull – it’s filled with comedy and character interaction, so much so that even if someone only appears once, in one small scene, they’re memorable.
The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip
The Riddlemaster Trilogy, which The Riddle-Master of Hed is the first book of, is one of the most criminally overlooked books in high-fantasy history. It’s the story of the Prince of Hed, a young boy that doesn’t really want to be a hero, but due to a birthmark on his forehead is destined for it anyway. He lives in a world where magic has been banished, but it can be accessed if a series of ancient riddles are answered.
Some have critiqued the riddles presented in the book as not being of the same sort used in The Hobbit, but they’re overlooking the bigger picture. The riddles in The Riddle-Master of Hed are presented as deeper, moral riddles that explore the history and culture of the world McKillip created. In fact, many of the riddles presented are only explained in part, because the focus isn’t meant to be on the riddles so much as the people trying to solve them. It’s a great series, and since it’s only three books long it should be easy to finish by the time the next book in the Song of Fire and Ice gets released.