Two years ago, after only ever touching technical literature for many years, I got back to books since their audio format looked like a right way to improve vocabulary. Additionally I wanted to explore modern fantasy as It’s was favorite genre of my childhood while I only barely touched it since.
Anyhow I end up listening books almost non-stop especially for the last year and half. Thanks to friends who provided me with recommendations today my reading list is more varied, but I managed to finish plenty of fantasy series. I was never particularly skilled at reviewing specific books and listening with extremely fast pace doesn’t help with it either, but I feel it’s time to draw some conclusions. Since it’s not really reviews I’ve managed to only leave few very minor spoilers in this post so everyone can read safely!
Year and half of fantasy books
So here is list of series that I read. Favorites are in bold:
- The Wither by Andrzej Sapkowski
- A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
- The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan
- Discworld by Terry Pratchett
- Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
- All of Cosmere
- The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson
- Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson
- The Dark Tower by Stephen King
- The Broken Empire by Mark Lawrence
- Gentleman Bastard by Scott Lynch
- The First Law by Joe Abercrombie
Below you can study musings about every single series that are not exactly reviews, but my personal view on weak or strong sides of specific series and their authors.
I finally got my hands on Wither 3 and finished game between March and May 2017. While playing I decide to go for another re-read and that was at least 5th time for me. First time I checked book series in my childhood long before first game was released. This time I went with audiobook in English and translation end up better than I expected since I seen quite a few negative opinions about it.
Even today first two short stories books are one of my favorite books. Everything about them is amazing: world building, characters, pacing and moral. They are fairly good even for someone who isn’t much into fantasy.
Remaining five that make Witcher Saga is mixed experience with numerous ups and downs. Not everyone will like these books. Nonetheless games and book series together make best fantasy series adaption in form of computer game. CD Project Red put huge amount of work and love into Witcher 3 and for reader of book series that turn game into extremely rewarding experience. There are thousands of accurately interwoven references and small details to the point where it’s almost unbelievable.
I’m playing games all my life and finished these books plenty of times so it’s was indeed hard to surprise me. I only fall in love with games or books few times in decade. Yet It’s was really emotional and breathtaking journey and upon completion I had no other choice than to read more books since no game was there to fill the void inside me.
A Song of Ice and Fire:
After The Witcher I read Albert Camus books and then went for third re-read of Martin’s books during summer of 2017. I was listening it at slow pace and picking some small things that I didn’t get from previous reads or digging on wiki.
I’m not going to stop here to write fully featured review of the series since this time I was mostly intrigued by number and complexity of plot lines that will need to be resolved in that future book. Although it’s definitely one of my favorite series it’s as well the one that turn me against of unfinished book series. So I for instance honestly wanted to read Patrick Rothfuss book for a long time, but seems like I wont do that anytime soon.
The Wheel of Time:
Within a month before I started series I successfully sold my year-old GPU for about twice of it’s original price, thanks to yet another cryptocurrency bubble. Taking a sabbatical from PC gaming and PlanetSide 2 in particular looked like a good plan to boost my productivity. Unfortunately instead I started to listen the series in first half of September of 2017 and finished it within two months around my birthday on 28 October.
In summer I was intentionally looking for fantasy series that is complete and at least complex as ASoIaF in terms of point of view characters and plot lines. I was mostly seen recommendations to read Malazan and Wheel of Time and I choose former. First book didn’t impressed me, but I kept reading and shortly after I was hooked. For the first time in my life I went further to look for fan art and even proper world map since it’s made tracking of characters adventures and plot lines so much easier.
There are many things Robert Jordan is criticized for and I totally agree with most of them, but his battle scenes are solid and intricate foreshadowing since first books is mind blowing. It’s also unusual for book writers to make characters that will be outright annoying for many readers, but while many dislike that side of story I’m largely appreciated the role lack of information or miscommunication play in the story. Another love note will go to antagonists of this series and their backstories: they’re flawed in very humane way and even in polarizing story most of their actions make sense.
Looking back I’m really happy with reading order choice because no matter how many flaws this series have I enjoyed it thoroughly. Undoubtedly it’s would be much harder to relish it after reading something like Malazan. I want leave special note that Michael Kramer and Kate Reading narration made all of braid tugging and skirt smoothing much more bearable.
When I finished reading it’s was second time during that year when I felt absolutely devastated and this powerful feeling made me positively addicted to books for months and years to come.
In November I really wanted to read something lightweight seeing that my brain was still full of thoughts about WoT. At that time I couldn’t handle anything serious. I was getting recommendation to read Discworld for a decade from friends and acquaintances of mine including those who wasn’t into fantasy or reading in general so I picked my first Discworld book.
It’s was indeed what I needed. At first I never manage to catch every joke due to my upbringing and the fact of how old first books are, but they are still hilarious since Terry Pratchett done wonderful job on diversity of topics and characters. Now I understand why Discworld is recommended so much: it’s not a single series, but multiple series with very distinct style. What is more important you can pick any of the series without previous knowledge and still enjoy it since author carefully remind you of all relevant information along the way.
Personally novels about Death are my favorite, but I certain that almost everyone might find out one of sub-series that is perfect for specific personality and mood. Today I finished almost twenty Discworld books and I’m inclined to think that I’ll check most of them at some point in life.
Considering that I liked WoT and ending finished by Sanderson didn’t put me off it was logical choice to check his other works and notably books are narrated by the same people as Wheel of Time and I use to their voices. I started to listen series on my flight in the middle of November 2017 and to be honest I didn’t liked it all that much in the beginning. It’s was one of first books Sanderson wrote many parts were quite bleak: characters and their interactions, beginning of the story and unusual well explained magic system that his books are famous for.
Within two more books of trilogy I clearly started to appreciate his writing style more and more. Flaws like shallowness of character personalities, interactions well compensated by majestic world building and a lot of subtle details that you’ll catch later on. I’m avoiding leaving too many spoilers, but for instance character that plays a role of main antagonist in first book probably one of my favorite non-PoV characters in fantasy. We only learn things about his doings by little pieces during three books, but he’s extremely well written and over time his horrible deeds become much more understandable and logical.
I read Era 2 books shortly after. They tell less epic story and have more lighthearted style overall, but you can see how author writing skills has improved over years: character personalities, backstories and interactions are way better. This is also the first of Brandon books where attempts on humor didn’t made me cringe so often.
All of Cosmere:
I checked everything related to Cosmere however I don’t see the point to write something about every book and short story. Nevertheless that’s important to explain concept itself as it’s essential to understand why many people like these books so much. I put this part before Stormlight Archive because of chronology of my listening.
When Brandon Sanderson started his career he wanted to write epic fantasy series, but it’s was very tough for young writer so he went different way. Instead of writing massive series with ten books thousand of pages each he starter to craft single universe where multiple series are interlinked. It’s still possible to read his best books as standalone and appreciate them for what they are, but real worth of his work will only emerge if you dig little bit deeper.
As I learnt more about Cosmere lore over time I also started to appreciate logical and predictable magic systems. I guess not everyone will like this straightforwardness, but it’s very refreshing after classical fantasy where magic is deus ex machina. Stories still heavily rely on magic and all of the books are still high fantasy, but magic is feel akin to immutable law of physics instead some rabbit out of hat.
Another important difference is how much of work author put in communication with community. He answer almost every question that appear on Reddit and community reciprocate by collecting every bit of information he share and creating tons of fan art and theories. As result these books have one of most active internet communities I ever seen.
The Stormlight Archive:
So it’s time to leave few words about Sanderson’s crown jewel that I saved for the last and read it in December 2018. As always author present us with a world unlike any other, another hard magic system and lots of politics. Big part of this series is life stories of flawed main characters and their upbringing. This time characters are flawed mostly in a good way and each book tell a very personal story of single primary character. Secondary characters also interesting because unlike previous books far more of them represent shades of grey rather than generic bad and good guys.
Structure of the books need special note as well because switching between different point of views and world-building and character introducing interludes is done extremely well. Each time chapter of specific character is finished you can’t wait to continue their story and it’s give you that thrill of just one more chapter, then another. Yet there are no big cliffhangers to make it annoying since every book have amazing ending with a good payoff.
This series also starting to provide a lot more of information for Cosmere-aware audience and it’s give interesting vibe to me as reader while main characters of that book are too busy with their own problems. There are so many of interesting theories of what’s happening and why.
With Sanderson specifics in mind series is easily as good as ASoIaF. It’s positive instead of being bitter-sweet Both are unfinished, but I won’t even start on fact that author is one of most prolific writers of our time and I have no doubt he’ll complete his job. So if you want to check some not too complicated fantasy that slowly turn into epic story it’s definitely your choice. Just keep in mind that author have a weak sides like characters interactions and love to write about politicking.
Malazan Book of the Fallen:
After Cosmere run out I took another pause from complex series and finished another batch of Discworld books. On my way to Indonesia in February of 2018 I knew that next month I’ll barely do anything useful except of reading so it’s was perfect time to try something serious. Everyone says that Malazan is hard to get into and I tend to agree since no matter how well I prepared, Gardens of the Moon still made me question my choice multiple times. Compared to first Malazan book even ASoIaF look just like light read and Wheel of Time thousands of named characters not look so overwhelming anymore. Erikson just immediately drop you into action with zero explanation and you only start feel like you actually aware after first three books. First five books introduce new places, characters and plot lines almost non stop.
I was criticizing character writing in other fantasy series and there is good reason for that. Usually in any book I can find one or sometimes even a few characters that I personally like, but in Malazan I enjoy almost every single one of them and it’s extremely hard to tell who I like the most. Furthermore it’s not just single characters, but their duos and interaction between them. At some point I got an itch just from temptation of future interaction between specific characters and not once Erikson failed my expectations.
Many people who read books don’t take fantasy genre seriously and some also consider fiction in general as waste of time. This series is actually excellent for breaking that pattern because author write about extremely life-like personalities and situation. There are likely no social, philosophical or psychological problem or dilemma that author didn’t touch: self-worth, duty, religion, love, death, loyalty and betrayal, cruelty and perversion, honor and corruption, etc. Most of these things are shown usually from multiple completely different point of views. I would honestly say that with some characters it’s could sometimes feel way over the edge, but it’s fantasy after all and attempt of author to see the world through eyes of some thousand years old personality will look somewhat alien no matter what.
I was big fan of Remarque in past because I’m not very emotional person and here I can confess that Malazan is one of few books that not only make me laugh like crazy, but also made me cry. There also multiple bits that make me feel sick in stomach since some of events explained in the books are very fucked up. Obviously there is tons of fantasy that paint grim, dark and cruel worlds image like in ASoIaF, but it’s never felt so real.
Another strong point of series is that all books except last two have meaningful ending and more than one big convergence in each. While series require a lot of attention to details to enjoy you can still get some kind of checkpoint on ending of each book. Overall Malazan is masterpiece and as a consequence I could write twice as much about it and it’s will never be enough.
Malazan is the only world that I didn’t manage to fully conquer at first try since it’s took me almost half of year to finish main series. In July 2018 I picked Esslemont books, but within a month I understood to finish all side-series I’ll need another go. Considering there is nice mixed reading order available recommended by authors it’s good reason for re-read.
The Dark Tower:
It’s very hard to write anything about Dark Tower without spoilers because what this series do the best is mixing completely different genres and well known stories into single book. So to explain what is special about it I’ll have to spoil it and I don’t want to.
Obviously it’s much easier to read compared to usual epic fantasy so I finished all of it in September 2018. My reading experience in terms of genres nowhere close to diverse so I’m undoubtedly biased here, but for me of today this was easily most unusual series I ever read and it’s looks like Stephen King certainly have unique way to tell his stories.
On first book I was quite confused, but then story pick up pace and it’s getting better. Then each book is good separate adventure that slowly moves story to conclusion.
The Broken Empire:
Eventually I decided to read something short and explicitly grimdark and get to this series. Jorg character is ultimate anti-hero and example of how the end justify the means. There are certainly many interesting chapters that shed the light on character backstory especially in second and third book. Since I’m a fan of games where you can play for evil side it’s was nice to see this story told. I also appreciated some bits of dark humor that was actually good.
Unfortunately for my taste even in the end it’s still felt way too artificial. It’s very much possible that it’s exactly how Mark Lawrence is intended these books to be, but it’s not quite my cup of tea.
First time I attempted to listen Lies long ago, but for some reason I felt that story starting too slow and worrying it’s will drag like that further so I went to listen something else. Today I can’t even describe how inaccurate I was since all three books probably have fastest pace of all books on my lists. What other writers usually spend third of a book on Scott Lynch fit into single chapter. Moreover it’s not just fast paced, but also written using beautiful and elegant language where gloriously looking cities are depicted using stunning writing style.
I have weakness for stories about criminal world and this is second reason why I appreciated these books so much. Main characters are fun, lovable, witty and situations that author put them into are far from mundane. Stories are about very smart, resourceful and nimble protagonists, but they’re neither omnipotent nor invulnerable which make story so interesting. Despite that there is some place for some moral and number of serious themes.
This is precisely kind of book that to recommend for a person who is not into fantasy at all. If you just want to read well written story without need to track hundreds of characters or thousand of backstory pages it’s series for you.
The First Law:
This was my second attempt on fantasy series that usually labeled grimdark and it’s actually have far better balance between cruel world, grim atmosphere, politics, dark and not so dark humor compared to The Broken Empire. Joe Abercrombie also one of rare authors who managed to add adult content into fantasy that don’t look badly written or awkward.
Main trilogy tell single story, but reader see it from multiple characters points of view and it’s curios how they react to things they learn about their world. There is plenty of events that influence character personalities and you can distinctly see how they changed over time. All of that makes characters as interesting in Malazan or ASoIaF even if books are much shorter.
Books after trilogy even better at moments because they don’t try to tell some epic story and are far more personal. I also like the ending of the series it’s made me almost completely change my view on certain characters. It’s interesting how my opinion about their personality affected based on facts from their backstory. My greatest disappointment was that author went to write something else instead of explore this world, but I understand that some stories dont have to be finished. Hopefully I’ll like other series written by Joe once I get to read them.
That series would also work perfectly for people who dislike magic in general since it’s low-fantasy like ASoIaF. Yet it’s grim, cruel and realistic while Gentleman Bastard is positive, adventurous and humorous.
Instead of conclusion
Fantasy books are very different and unlike each other so there is something for any mood and amount of free time. I’ll probably not going to read as much of fantasy within single year anytime soon, but there is certainly more series to check.
To your information listening for audiobooks actually helped me with both my vocabulary and spoken English. With this post I finally starting to practice my writing outside comments on Reddit, Hacker News and bunch of chat apps.
Happy New Year everyone!