While the fantasy genre is alive and well in film and television—thanks in part to recent hits such as Lucifer, the upcoming Dune remake, and classics like Game of Thrones—great fantasy books have have been harder to come by the past few years. Even with Jordan’s Wheel of Time moving the genre forward, we’re a long way from Grandaddy Tolkien, Frodo.
What some may not know, however, is that there is a veritable cornucopia of contemporary authors who are pushing the boundaries of what constitutes fantasy in our modern era. Below are five books (and series) to launch into this new era.
MISTBORN: THE FINAL EMPIRE
by Brandon Sanderson
Tom Doherty Associates
What would happen if the stereotypical Dark Lord actually won? What would the world look like? How would the inhabitants of said world live in it?
Mistborn answers all of those questions and weaves an uncannily intriguing tale as we follow a young girl and a band of thieves in their attempts at taking out the Lord Ruler, in what feels like a dark fusion of Ocean’s Eleven and My Fair Lady.
Brandon Sanderson is unmistakable as the figurehead of the modern fantasy genre. Prolific and consistent in all aspects of his craft, his tales never fail to engage the reader. If you’re one who worries about the overly descriptive prose and poetic flair of old school fantasy, worry no more. Sanderson can craft stories equal to any old master, with a simpler approach to his prose, without sacrificing impact and emotion.
Another bonus element of any of Sanderson’s books is the incredibly deep and compelling magic systems, and Mistborn delivers it here too. By ingesting flakes of particular metals, certain individuals can use ferromagnetism to launch or deflect metallic projectiles, by pushing and pulling on them. Others can boost their strength and stamina, while others can affect emotions or shield people from other users’ perception. And then there are the Mistborn, very rare beings who can use all of the metals to become incredible killing machines. Mistborn is the perfect gateway into Sanderson’s cosmere, multiple different series set in the same cosmogony, with what we think may be an Avengers’ style endgame down the line.
THE NAME OF THE WIND
by Patrick Rothfuss
Rothfuss has been hailed as master of his craft by one and all, and it is for good reason. Look no further than his first book in the Kingkiller Chronicles: The Name of the Wind.
Most of the acclaim comes from just how stunningly beautiful Rothfuss’ writing is. Without it falling into the common pitfalls of the genre (ie. walls of non-essential descriptive texts, flowery language, wankery and regurgitation of the author’s Thesaurus) this book manages to make fantasy what it once was with its focus on language and myth, while focusing on newer, important elements of the modern era—such as mental health and complex emotions portrayed in deeply flawed characters.
In this book, we follow a mysterious innkeeper who, after being pressed for it, agrees to recant the tale of his life to a well known bibliographer. Over the span of three days (The Name of The Wind being the first of these narrative sessions), he tells the story of a young man who suffered tragic loss and rises from rags to, not quite, riches. He learns about magic and medicine, and alchemy and engineering, all while searching for seemingly mythical beings responsible for his tragic misfortune in his childhood.
Nothing is what it may seem—and all is connected where language, history and story converge—and great mysteries draw the reader in for one of the best reading experiences in modern fantasy.
PROMISE OF BLOOD – (THE POWDER MAGE TRILOGY)
by Brian McClellan
We tend to imagine fantasy as a high or low medieval affair, with elves and dwarves prancing about in a mystical ancient world. Brian McClellan broke that stereotype by setting his story in a world more akin to a Napoleonic setting in our world.
After deposing a king in a revolution meant to better the realm, we follow four characters in the ensuing chaos and conflict. A field marshal trying to keep the nation in order; his war hero of an estranged son dealing with a potentially world ending threat; a private investigator trying to figure out who is betraying whom and why; and a laundry girl who saved the life of the heir to the throne and goes into hiding.
With an interesting and innovative magic system—where Powder Mages snort gunpowder to combat other types of mages and threats—a quick paced story that sucks the reader in, and many a twist and turn for all of our characters, this series really brings forward the idea that not all fantasy needs to be what it used to, but paying enough homage to the genre to keep it from being a mere historical set piece.
THE POPPY WAR
by R.F. Kuang
This book is another one to break one of the longstanding pillars of what we consider fantasy —western centric cultures and characters—by placing us in a more fantastical Asian inspired setting.
Kuang delivers the compelling coming-of-age story of a young girl who stuns all by acing her tests, joining the most prestigious military academy, freeing herself from servitude, but now being targeted for a low born status and darker skin. Through learning of the existence of Gods once thought dead and gone, she awakens mysterious shamanic powers as she must deal with the horrors and consequences of the Third Poppy War.
With a deep exploration of the main character’s psyche and the ravaging effects of war on the common folk of any nation, this book took many by surprise. With the increasing need for representation of other cultures in media, Kuang brought a masterfully crafted tale to the table, showing that newer settings and new ideas can still push the boundaries of a genre once thought stale by many non-avid readers.
KINGS OF THE WYLD
by Nicholas Eames
“Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best—the meanest, dirtiest, most feared crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld”—so goes the title’s breakdown. Their glory days long past, the Mercs have grown apart when an ex-bandmate turns up with a plea for help. His daughter Rose is trapped in a city besieged by an enemy hungry for blood. “Rescuing Rose is the kind of mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for. It’s time to get the band back together for one last tour across the Wyld.” (We just couldn’t have put it better ourselves.)
Eames delivers on this premise in the best way possible. With a self-admitted use of specific decades of rock and metal music as inspiration for the tone of each entry in this series—for instance, this book takes from ’80s glam rock/metal bands—as well as the use of good comedy and great action, this book reads like a breeze. It almost feels like what happens to any Dungeons & Dragons party when the players just want to troll the Dungeon Master.
More of this mixture of serious badassery and lighthearted fun is needed in modern fantasy, and Eames is leading the charge with this series.