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The state of modern epic / secondary world fantasy


In the last couple of years the term 'the new fantasy' has been flung around a fair bit. It was inspired by 'the new space opera', a term developed in the previous decade to describe the explosion of fresh, exciting new space opera SF by a number of authors combining the tropes of traditional space opera with more advanced SF ideas like quantum states, exotic wormhole physics and so on.

The 'new fantasy' is much harder to pin down. Broadly it refers to fantasy which is either grittier and more realistic than previous 'safe' authors, or to traditional epic fantasy which has taken on some of the ideas and tropes of steampunk and the New Weird (a fantasy movement sparked off in 2000 with China Mieville's PERDIDO STREET STATION but which has now more or less merged with fantasy in general). Or indeed, both. Confusingly, a number of more 'old-school' authors who reject some of these new ideas in favour of a solid story, well-told, are also incorporated into the movement, leading to the conclusion that 'the new fantasy' is nothing more than fantasy works simply published in the last few years. It is also distinct from 'Urban Fantasy' (like Jim Butcher's DRESDEN FILES) or 'Dark Fantasy' (romance-oriented horror-fantasy such as TWILIGHT).

The following is a list of authors who may be said to work in this movement:

Joe Abercrombie
Joe Abercrombie has carved a name for himself as the author of brutal, bloody fantasy novels featuring redoubtable antiheroes and dark, black humour. His FIRST LAW TRILOGY is superb, with a very traditional first novel suddenly turning into a subversive and increasingly refreshing story with an unexpectedly dark ending. A stand-alone set in the same world, BEST SERVED COLD, is, if anything, even darker. His next book, THE HEROES, follows next year. Abercrombie describes himself as "David Eddings, except with characters who swear and occasionally s**t themselves," which is uncharacteristically underselling himself.

Dan Abnett
Best-known as the finest author of WARHAMMER 40,000 fiction, Abnett has recently moved into fantasy with his original series TRIUMFF, a swasbuckling series where it is revealed that Elizabeth I married the King of Spain to forge a huge, powerful empire which has gone on to rediscover magic. Triumff himself is a spendidly roguish, sword-wielding hero and the first book, HER MAJESTY'S HERO, mixes together elements of historical fiction and 'magepunk' to great effect. The second book is due in 2011.

Daniel Abraham
Occasionally called George R.R. Martin's protege, Daniel Abraham's writing style is perhaps closer to Guy Gavriel Kay. His short fiction is excellent, but Abraham's LONG PRICE QUARTET series of novels (starting with A SHADOW IN SUMMER) is set in a world loosely based on Asia rather than Medieval Europe, with a novel magic system based around capturing and giving form and violition as spirits to ideas and concepts. These spirits, the Andat, have made the Khaiem city-states invulnerable to attack from their rivals, the Galts (a steampunk-esque power armed with steam-tanks), at least until a Galtic general hatches a scheme to use the Andats' own power against them... An emotionally intense and powerful series, but a bit of a slow-burner, with the main plot arguably not really kicking off until the third book, but the stunning ending makes up for it. Abraham's new series, THE DAGGER AND THE COIN, is promised to be what a collaboration between GRRM, Joss Whedon and the Medicis would look like, and kicks off in June 2011.

R. Scott Bakker
Scott Bakker's SECOND APOCAYPSE mega-series will, when complete, comprise three distinct works: THE PRINCE OF NOTHING trilogy, THE ASPECT-EMPEROR trilogy and a third series whose very title would be a spoiler. The series starts with a Holy War against the heathens, but an engimatic man emerges to take control of the crusade and twists it to his own ends. Bakker's work is grown-up, dark fantasy which comes across as a darkly twisted melding of J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert, complete with the reams of worldbuilding and fictional languages of the former and the metaphysical musings of the latter, and is batting on the same level as both. Definitely not for those looking for a light read, but those who want fantasy with depth and intelligence should look no further. The first book is THE DARKNESS THAT COMES BEFORE.

James Barclay
Barclay is the polar opposite to Bakker, being fairly light and unadventurous. His books chronicling the adventures of the mercenary company known as the Raven (now seven books in length, with more RAVEN novels and others set in the same word on their way) are somewhat disposable, but his duology comprising CRY OF THE NEWBORN and SHOUT FOR THE DEAD is more interesting. This transplants the Roman Empire to a fictional fantasy world where the Empire is threatened with destruction until it is saved by four magic-wielding children. However, the Empire's religion demands the death of all sorcerers as abominations, setting up a clash of religion and state that is well-handled.

Peter V. Brett
Peter Brett's debut work is a fantasy which borrows a lot of ideas from post-apocalyptic fiction and horror. Essentially, the world is haunted by demons which rise from the core every night at sunset and have free reign until dawn, when sunlight banishes them again. Homes and towns are protected by wards which keep the people safe, but nothing is being done to wipe the demons out. This changes when a prophetic figure called the Painted Man emerges with wards tattooed into his skin, and begins the fight back against the enemy. The first book is THE PAINTED MAN (THE WARDED MAN in the USA), whilst the second, THE DESERT SPEAR, was recenty released.

Col Buchanan
Irish author Col Buchanan is a newcomer, having just published his first novel, FARLANDER. This combines elements of the traditional epic fantasy (a secret guild of assassins thrust into conflict with a powerful empire) with steampunk elements such as airships and Renaissance levels of technology included. However, more impressive is the cliche-inverting conclusion, which means that the sequels will unfold rather differently to what readers are probably expecting.

Alan Campbell
Campbell rose to fame as a co-writer and developer on the GRAND THEFT AUTO games before switching to writing fantasy. His completed trilogy, THE DEEPGATE CODEX, is a dizzying tale of the New Weird, with a city suspended on chains over a vast abyss with ghosts descending into the darkness and an inert god lying far below. The first book, SCAR NIGHT, is dizzyingly inventive and intelligent, but the later books are less accomplished, with the trilogy petering out rather lamely rather than finishing with a bang. Still, the author has a tremendous imagination and it'll be interesting to see if he can harness it to a stronger storyline in a future book.

Stephen Deas
Stephen Deas' debut series is A MEMORY OF FLAMES, starting with THE ADAMANTINE PALACE and continuing with THE KING OF THE CRAGS. A vast fantasy land is riven by internal war, with the factions equipped with hundreds of fire-breathing dragons, drugged into subservience. A more brutal, less twee and better-written take on material also mined by Naomi Novik's TEMERAIRE books.

Kate Elliott
Elliott is best-known as the author of the immense CROWN OF STARS fantasy series, which is a solid traditional fantasy epic. Her more recent work has been more interesting, however, with the Asian-influenced CROSSROADS trilogy (which starts with SPIRIT GATE) soon to be followed by an 'icepunk' trilogy starting with COLD MAGIC.

Steven Erikson & Ian Cameron Esslemont
Erikson and Esslemont's vast MALAZAN series remains one of the most influential modern epic fantasy works, and is covered by another thread elsewhere ;)

Celia Friedman
Celia Friedman is one of the defining authors of 1990s epic fantasy with her notable COLDFIRE TRILOGY, and continues to write original, interesting fantasy tinged with an SF flavour.

Peadar O Guilin
Irish author Peadar O Guilin's debut work, THE INFERIOR, was a somewhat disturbing but entertaining YA SF-fantasy hybrid in which a tribe of cannibals battles for supremacy in a jungle teaming with savage animal life. The sequel, THE DESERTER, is expected next year.

Ian Irvine
Ian Irvine's massive THREE WORLDS fantasy series currently comprises eleven novels with more planned. This is a Darwinian fantasy series in which different races compete and battle for control of the world of Santhenar. Irvine is noted for his grey characters and murky morality amidst toweringly impressive worldbuilding, but his writing tends towards the bland.

J.V. Jones
J.V. Jones made a splash in the 1990s with her BOOK OF WORDS trilogy, an entertaining but unoriginal work about a nasty wizard scheming to conquer a medieval kingdom. THE SWORD OF SHADOWS, starting with A CAVERN OF BLACK ICE, is the much darker, far better-written quasi-sequel, set in the arctic lands far to the north. This is a snowswept land of feuding clans, enigmatic wanderers, power-hungry city-states to the south and something stirring in the northern icefields. A triumph, albeit one where the books are taking a significantly long period to come out.

Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay is an established figure in the fantasy field and arguably not really part of the 'new fantasy' field, but his recent UNDER HEAVEN is one of his strongest-ever novels and his lyrical writing and fusing of real history with fantasy remains compelling.

Paul Kearney
Kearney's been around for a long time, publishing gritty, no-nonsense fantasy in the spirit of the late David Gemmell since the early 1990s. His MONARCHIES OF GOD series, about cultures and religions clashing in a vast, multi-front war, is being reprinted this year in omnibus for a new audience. His current books follow the adventures of the Macht, a ruthlessly efficient race of mercenaries and soldiers adrift in a world not their own. The first book in this series is THE TEN THOUSAND. The sequel, CORVUS, is published later this year. Kearney is one of the most underread and underrated authors in the genre.

Greg Keyes
Keyes is well-known for his tie-in work, publishing STAR WARS, BABYLON 5 and most recently ELDER SCROLLS novels amongst others, but made a recent stab at his own epic fantasy series with THE KINGDOMS OF THORN AND BONE (starting with THE BRIAR KING). Keyes' approach is impressive, fusing GRRM-eseque epic fantasy with rural, forest-mysticism more familiar from the likes of Robert Holdstock. Unfortunately, after three books of solid entertainment, Keyes lost the plot with the concluding volume to the series, which was rushed and nonsensical.

M.D. Lachlan
Lachlan is another brand new author, whose first novel WOLFSANGEL was just published. Lachlan's series sees three people from Viking times whose destinies become entwined and then cursed, resulting in them being born and reborn again across the years as part of the war between Odin and Loki. Interesting, mythologically-heavy stuff.

Scott Lynch
Scott Lynch's THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA was 'the' big fantasy debut of 2006 and one of the first novels whose word-of-mouth success was primarily generated by the Internet and blogosphere. A richy-imagined world provides the perfect backdrop for a tale of thieves, blood and vengeance. The sequel, RED SEAS UNDER RED SKIES, was less accomplished and Lynch has spent a long time fine-tuning the third volume, THE REPUBLIC OF THIEVES, which is now due for publication in early 2011, four years after the previous book, with a lot riding on it.

George R.R. Martin
Martin's A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE remains the dominant work of epic fantasy in the genre, enjoying both constant critical acclaim and growing sales success, despite the extremely protracted writing time of the fourth and fifth books in the series. Martin has maintained his profile by continuing to edit further books in the 25-years-running WILD CARDS superhero series. With the fifth ASoIaF novel due at the end of this year or start of next (touch wood) and a HBO TV adaptation of the books due to begin in April 2011, the series' profile and influence can only increase, whilst the number of writers emerging citing Martin as a major influence continues to increase.

China Mieville
Mieville's recent work - UN LUN DUN, THE CITY AND THE CITY and KRAKEN - has been 'slipstream' fantasy merging elements of the real world and the fantastical, so he's perhaps not as automatic an entry on this list as you may think. However, he has promised a return to his signature world of Bas-Lag at some point, and his trinity of PERDIDO STREET STATION, THE SCAR and IRON COUNCIL remains hugely influential on the modern fantasy field.

Richard K. Morgan
Morgan is better-known for his SF works featuring Takeshi Kovacs (beginning with ALTERED CARBON), but recently dabbled with fantasy with THE STEEL REMAINS, the first book in his LAND FIT FOR HEROES trilogy. The second, THE COLD COMMANDS, follows next year. This is fantasy drenched in blood, sweat and sex where the author pulls no punches. The first book was a bit too interested in shocking at the expense of character and plot, and hopefully the second book picks up on these elements.

Mark Charan Newton
Newton, a long-standing SF&F editor and blogger, is perhaps the one most self-conciously melding traditional fantasy and the 'New Weird' in his LEGENDS OF THE RED SUN series, which began with last year's NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR and continues this year with the excellent CITY OF RUIN. This is a world descending into a devastating ice age, where the island-spanning Jamur Empire must face an interdimensional invasion. A grotesque menagerie of monsters and creatures combines with robust military action to make for a compelling fantasy series. Also check out Newton's stand-alone in the same world, THE REEF, about scientists studying a remote island culture and getting more than they bargained for.

Naomi Novik
Naomi Novik's TEMERAIRE sequence (commencing with HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON) has a great conceit, namely that the Napoleonic Wars are being fought with both sides equipped with an air force made up of dragons and their crews. Unfortunately, the series doesn't quite live up to the billing, mainly due to the overly-twee nature of the dragons, but it's still fun.

K.J. Parker
The enigmatic Parker - an alias for an author whose true identity must remain secret for reasons unknown - is one of the most hardcore and grittiest fantasy authors out there. She has penned three brutal trilogies - FENCER, SCAVENGER and ENGINEER - and is now working on a series of more concise stand-alone books. Vengeance, blood and war feature heavily in her books.

Pierre Pevel
French author Pierre Pevel's debut, THE CARDINAL'S BLADES, is a terrific novel set in Cardinal Richelieu's Paris, where Spain is ruled by shapeshifting dragons intent on France's destruction. Richelieu assembles a 'dirty dozen' of swashbuckling swordsmen to handle the dirty work that needs to be done to safeguard France against her many enemies. Well-written and enormous fun. The sequel, THE ALCHEMIST IN THE SHADOWS, is published in English this year.

Terry Pratchett
Pratchett continues to publish his DISCWORLD books, with the final Tiffany Aching book, I SHALL WEAR MIDNIGHT, due this year, and the final Moist von Lipwig book, RAISING TAXES to follow next. The DISCWORLD series, particularly Ankh-Morpork's development into more of a steampunk Victorian city over the past ten years or so, has been enormously influential on the state of modern fantasy, with other works following where Pratchett has been leading for some considerable time.

Robert V.S. Redick
Robert Redick's CHANTHRAND VOYAGE trilogy (which starts with THE RED WOLF CONSPIRACY) is another fun series, set on board a ship so insanely huge that it's basically the ocean-going equivalent of Gormenghast. The crew - comprising humans, nonhumans and sentient rats - become embroiled in political tension between two neighbouring superpowers and must avert a war that could destroy the world.

Alastair Reynolds
Reynolds is primarily an SF author, but his most recent work, TERMINAL WORLD, also mixes together elements of steampunk and planetary romance to great effect, complete with massive airship battles.

Justina Robson
Hard SF author Justina Robson has made a recent switch to fantasy with her successful QUANTUM GRAVITY series (starting with KEEPING IT REAL), in which reality has been warped by a quantum bomb, resulting in elves and monsters being called into existence. The central character is a cyborg who falls in love with an elven prince whose primary career is a rock star. It's all a bit lightweight, but not without some fun elements.

Patrick Rothfuss
Rothfuss' debut novel, THE NAME OF THE WIND, has had an impact like no other individual fantasy novel published since PERDIDO STREET STATION. WIND is a traditional epic fantasy, albeit an unusually well-written one. The sequel, THE WISE MAN'S FEAR is due in March after a lengthy delay.

Brian Ruckley
Ruckley is another author working in the gritty epic fantasy field, and is known for his GODLESS WORLD trilogy beginning with WINTERBIRTH. His series is ruthless and well-written.

Brandon Sanderson
With all the 'gritty' fantasy around, it's unsurprising there might have been a slight backlash. Sanderson is a rather 'safe' author who doesn't use bad language or sex, but makes up for it with bundles of invention: endlessly impressive magic systems, well-drawn characters and a vast, cosmic scope. His new series, THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE, begins in August, whilst he continues to bring THE WHEEL OF TIME series to its conclusion with TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT due in October and the final novel in the series, A MEMORY OF LIGHT, to follow next year.

Andrzej Sapkowski
Sapkowski has been a mainland European superstar for twenty years, but has only recently become known in the USA and UK. Two of his novels, THE LAST WISH and BLOOD OF ELVES have been translated and met with critical and popular success, whilst a computer game based on his work, THE WITCHER, has been one of the biggest-selling PC games of recent years. His work combines inventive humour based on traditional folk tales and fairy stories with a more gritty element based around the character of Geralt, a monster-hunting 'witcher' of dubious morality.

Ken Scholes
Ken Scholes is another new fantasy author whose PSALMS OF ISAAK series (starting with LAMENTATION) has met with widespread acclaim.

Jon Sprunk
Jon Sprunk is another brand new author whose first novel, SHADOW'S SON, is due in a few weeks. His book follows the misadventures of an assassin who ends up befriending the daughter of the target he was sent to kill and becomes embroiled on political turmoil.

Steph Swainston
After China Mieville, Swainston's CASTLE series (commencing with THE YEAR OF OUR WAR) is the standard-bearer for the New Weird. A world is riven by war between humanity and the giant insects that live beyond, with several powerful godlike entities leading the fight against them. The four books follow the misadventures of the only being in the world who can fly under their own power, but who is also a drug addict.

Adrian Tchaikovsky
Adrian Tchaikvosky's SHADOWS OF THE APT series (planned to eventually run to ten novels, with four out now and the fifth soon), starting with EMPIRE IN BLACK AND GOLD, is based around a world where human cultures have become influenced by insectoid totem-like figures and adapted the characteristics of those insects. When the wasp-kinden wage war on the rest of the world, a mighty struggle begins.

Chris Wooding
Chris Wooding is a YA author who's been around for a while (an early project was working on some of the YA tie-in material for THE PHANTOM MENACE) but has only recently come to high-profile attention for his adult fantasy work. THE BRAIDED PATH TRILOGY is set in a China-like empire controlled by mask-wearing wizards where political tensions are threatening to spill over into civil war. His stand-alone, THE FADE, is a subterranean fantasy set in an underground environment that is brilliantly realised. His new series, THE TALES OF THE KETTY JAY (the first book is RETRIBUTION FALLS), is a steampunk FIREFLY focusing on the redoubtable and secret-keeping crew of a mercenary airship who are trying to make enough money to stay flying. Well-written and endlessly entertaining.

The Exchange

Thanks for this. I have been looking for new authors to support my crack... er book habit. This list is a good starting point!

How did you overlook Jim Butcher?

You missed Karen Millar/K.E Mills as well

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber, Campaign Setting, Companion, Roleplaying Game Subscriber
Peter Stewart wrote:
How did you overlook Jim Butcher?

He mentioned Butcher in his opening paragraphs, he's "Urban Fantasy" in genre.

DM Wellard wrote:
You missed Karen Millar/K.E Mills as well

There's a bunch of authors who aren't bad as such, but are pretty mediocre, so haven't included (Gail Z. Martin and Karen Millar would fall into that, Trudi Cavanan as well) or who may have once been great but not produced anything worthwhile for many years (Raymond E. Feist, Robin Hobb), or who are simply far too atrocious to be seriously considered (Terry Goodkind, David Bilsborough).

Rathendar wrote:
Peter Stewart wrote:
How did you overlook Jim Butcher?
He mentioned Butcher in his opening paragraphs, he's "Urban Fantasy" in genre.

Codex Alera is urban fantasy?

Peter Stewart wrote:
Codex Alera is urban fantasy?

Good point :) The simple answer to that is that I haven't read CODEX ALERA as it's taken a long time for it to come out over here in the UK. Now it is out, I'll get round to it at some point.

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