Epic fantasy as we know it today is the product of tried storytelling traditions from across the globe.
While there’s not much consensus on when epic fantasy really emerged as its own subgenre, fantasy-dedicated imprints have consistently published series in this vein since Terry Brooks’s 1977 debut, The Sword of Shannara. And of course there are numerous notable earlier works, such as The Lord of the Rings or even The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, who coined the term “high fantasy.”
With 45+ years of clear history behind it, epic fantasy offers lots of choices for readers today. The sheer volume of epic fantasy works now in circulation has led to many interesting works being buried or forgotten. This post will take a close look at just a few of these, including:
- The Swan’s War trilogy by Sean Russell
- Riddle-Master by Patricia McKillip
- A Sword of Shadows by J. V. Jones
- The Cathrand Voyage Quartet by Robert V. S. Redick
Before digging in, it’s worth confronting two overarching questions.
First: What is epic fantasy?
Longer articles than this one have tried to answer this question.
I’m not really going to equivocate about the nature of epic fantasy versus high fantasy, heroic fantasy, grimdark, or even military fantasy. Every work below contains the following characteristics: A big cast of characters (typically with multiple points of view in the same book), a secondary world setting, and storylines concerned with a grand, even earth-shaking scale of events.
Second: What does underrated mean?
This is even more subjective than the question of what epic means. I’m largely basing my assessment on works being less well-known. Most of the series I’ll address have devoted fans and have received high praise from their readers; they just aren’t as widely recognized as series like The Wheel of Time, Malazan, Riyria Revelations, The Broken Earth Trilogy, etc.
So, if epic is your jam and you want to find something a little different, here are nine underrated works of epic fantasy you might consider.
1. The Swan’s War trilogy by Sean Russell (2001 – 2004)
Sean Russell often flies under the fantasy reader’s radar. Most of his books are unique blends of genre elements. (For instance, he’s one of the only authors I know who has written books about what it might have been like to have Francis Bacon discover magic while envisioning the modern scientific method.) The Swan’s War is a similarly fresh amalgamation of very different ideas, but it brings a strong does of familiarity for epic fantasy readers as well.
Russell himself describes this trilogy as a sort of fantasy take on both Romeo and Juliet–with two warring families and a not entirely happy love story–and a high fantasy version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It might sound hard to synthesize these very different premises, but Russell’s intriguing worldbuilding and clever plotting make it work well.
Here are a few elements epic fantasy readers might especially appreciate:
- A heavily martial theme as two aristocratic houses duke it out
- Epic landscapes that can be traversed quickly thanks to terrestrial navigation magic
- A mysterious river that might not cut the same path for any two voyagers
- Freakishly strong bull monsters attacking castles in the middle of the night
- Some very cunning wizards
Critics sometimes discount The Swan’s War because of similarities to The Wheel of Time–specifically in how three young men, who happen to be a lot like Rand al’Thor, Matt Cauthon, and Perrin Aybara, set out from their home and encounter a group of nomadic, peaceful people who are connected to an ancient cultural reversal and some big plot stuff. So yes, these are clear similarities at surface level.
That said, Russell’s work is not very much like The Wheel of Time in setting, tone, world-building or actual character development journeys. If Russell meant to copy Robert Jordan’s epic, he must have given up reading after book one or two.
With a fascinatingly vague magic system, exceptional examples of fantasy characters with disabilities, and some truly epic moments in each volume of the trilogy, The Swan’s War is a hidden gem of the genre.
Good fit for readers of: Robin Hobb, Tad Williams, or Terry Brooks.
- Three books
- The One Kingdom (2001)
- The Isle of Battle (2002)
- The Shadow Roads (2004)
2. Riddle-Master by Patricia McKillip (1976 – 1979)
The Riddle-Master trilogy stands apart in so many ways that I’m constantly surprised it isn’t more widely known. It’s worth noting upfront that Riddle-Master is less epic than any others on the list, given that it’s a shorter tale set in a smaller world with a slimmer cast and fewer big confrontations. It’s also the earliest inclusion on this list chronologically, having hit stores a year before even Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara arrived with its tidal pull toward what we now know as epic fantasy.
Riddle-Master is an astonishingly fresh combination of familiar and distinctive storytelling. The main character, Morgon of Hed, is one part farmer and swineherd, one part unlikely scholar, one part prophecy fulfillment, and one part prince with a magical connection to the very land he rules. So if you’re looking for rags to riches, coming of age journeys, unexpected royalty, or other tropes so common in epic fantasy across the following few decades, Morgon fits the bill in a totally unconventional way.
Throughout this trilogy, McKillip shows her ability to breathe magical quality into everything about her world. The setting and political structures are vibrant and can’t be disconnected from the plot and characters. The various types of magic shown or simply hinted at make the setting a treasure to explore, from the ghost-cursed forests in the south to the lonely tundras populated by wizard deer in the far north.
McKillip has often acknowledged the huge influence Tolkien had on her work. I think her Riddle-Master trilogy might be the most Tolkien-like work I’ve read by any other author. And yet it’s wholly, unforgettably unique at the same time.
Good fit for readers of: J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, Patrick Rothfuss, or Katherine Addison.
- Three books
- The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976)
- Heir of Sea and Fire (1977)
- Harpist in the Wind (1979)
- The final book was nominated for both the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award; it also won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel
3. A Sword of Shadows by J. V. Jones (1999 – )
I first encountered J. V. Jones by seeing the outstanding cover for A Sword from Red Ice (below). I was probably too young to read it then, but I recognized the cover when I stumbled across Jones’s name four or five years later. This time I also heard Jones compared to George R. R. Martin and Steven Erickson, as a contender in the very top tier of epic fantasy writers of the day. That caught my attention even more than the cover art had.
Regardless of any assessment of who writes best in epic fantasy, A Sword of Shadows has some extraordinarily strong writing that most epic fantasy readers will enjoy.
Jones’s characters–especially the less obviously central ones–are incredibly compelling, nuanced, memorable, and interesting all around. Her setting is rich with lore, history, and mystery, while teeming with just the right details to bring her cold world to life in every chapter. The story’s stakes get higher and higher, with truly immense conflicts speeding forward even as Jones spends time and care on the very small, personal battles that make her world so believable.
The long incompletion of the series might be one reason readers steer away from Jones’s work. This is one of only two incomplete series listed here, and it might stay incomplete for years to come. Jones has released samples of the manuscript for Endlords, book five in A Sword of Shadows, but we’re still waiting for a release date–and it has been twelve years since book four came out. Also, it’s hard to find any real confirmation that the yet untitled book six will actually end the series.
Incomplete or not, however, A Sword of Shadows is an amazingly vivid story so far, and I for one have high hopes for the final two volumes.
Good fit for readers of: Tad Williams, Peter V. Brett, or George R. R. Martin.
- Planned as six books:
- A Cavern of Black Ice (1999)
- A Fortress of Grey Ice (2003)
- A Sword from Red Ice (2007)
- Watcher of the Dead (2010)
- Endlords (TBD)
- TBD (TBD)
4. The Cathrand Voyage Quartet by Robert V. S. Redick (2008 – 2013)
Of all the works listed here, The Cathrand Voyage Quartet might offer the most unconventional style and setting.
It’s epic in scope and character, no doubt. I’d contend that pretty much any books about emperors starting civil wars to weaken their enemies while secret sorcerers works to magically bring a banished king to power to take over the world have to fit some epic molds. But whereas just about every other book on this list features pseudo-European landscapes, long road trips, horseback chases, magical forests, and other familiar fantasy fare, Robert V. S. Redick’s four books bring a different flavor.
Many of the series’ events take place on or around the IMS Cathrand, a monstrously big unité d’habitation type of ship that can house a small city’s worth of people…perhaps forever. And what lives on this ship? Alien wizards, intelligent rats, and a captain who is sort of a 30% version of Ahab.
Oh, and there’s underwater treasure hunting.
In short, there’s lots to love about Redick’s books. The Cathrand Voyage Quartet delivers a more user friendly read than most others on the list as well, since it tends to speak to a younger audience overall without actually being dumbed down or written just for teens.
Good fit for readers of: Michael J. Sullivan, David Eddings, or Brian Jacques.
- Four books
- The Red Wolf Conspiracy (2008)
- The Ruling Sea (2009)
- The River of Shadows (2011)
- The Night of the Swarm (2013)
More Epic Fantasy Worth Mentioning
With additional time, I plan to share my thoughts on a few more series well worth noting on this list! Until then, here’s a slim breakdown broken down chronologically by the start of each series:
- Deverry by Katherine Kerr (1986 – ). At sixteen books and counting, Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series is the longest on this list. She does break it up, however, into smaller sub-series that make it more digestible (think three or four books each). Kerr takes a more distinctly high magic approach to her books than most epic fantasy included in this list, while also combining a firmly Celtic feel with numerous nods to Buddhism and a distinctive set of intelligent races.
- Monarchies of God by Paul Kearney (1995 – 2002). Think early flintlock with a noticeable shift toward grimdark before the arrival of names like Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, Kameron Hurley, or Mark Lawrence. Also worth noting: Steven Erickson loves this series despite it being, in full, about the length of just one Erickson novel. Kearney was a big name in epic fantasy at the turn of the century but seems to have been somewhat buried as a new generation of authors rose.
- Crown of Stars by Kate Elliott (1997 – 2006). Crown of Stars almost walks a line between historical and epic fantasy, since its expensive setting is so strongly reminiscent of real cultures and peoples in Medieval Europe. Also worth noting: Kate Elliott is one of the early American pioneers in the world of getting a really big book split into two. Book four in this series was split first; the sixth volume in Crown of Stars wound up being 430,000 words long, necessitating an extension into seven volumes total. Maybe more publishers are cool with that size of tome now, but Elliot helped pave the way for many epic series becoming even more epic with multiple volume splits.
- The Kingdoms of Bone and Thorn by Greg Keyes (2003 – 2008). This series was quite popular around the time of its release but seems to have fallen from recognition since then. Monumental struggles between aristocrats, kingdoms, powerful churches, the undead, alternate dimensions (including possibly our own…), assassins, monks, sorcerer princesses, and musicians trying to discover forgotten arts are just a few of the things to epic fantasy readers might love about The Kingdoms of Bone and Thorn.
- The Godless World by Brian Ruckley (2006 – 2009). Brian Ruckley himself described his trilogy as “a fairly dark, uncompromising kind of fantasy.” Ruckley’s debut arrived in the U.S. right about the time Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, and Patrick Rothfuss entranced fantasy readers with their own debuts, and his work didn’t get the attention these authors’ did. That said, despite some sometimes tropey plot devices, Ruckley’s trilogy brings a uniquely close look at both sides of an epic story, and he wraps the whole thing together in just three books.
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