In honor of Veterans Day – and all of those heroes who have served in the military – I thought it would be fitting to write a blog about the very best military fantasy series that I’ve ever read.
As someone who comes from a family with a long line of veterans – and has heard more than a few horrific stories related to the Korean War, Vietnam, etc. – reading good military fantasy has an even deeper resonance with me. It’s literary escapism, yes, but it’s also about the unimaginable existential and spiritual angst associated with being a soldier.
Well-written military fantasy can be intensely moving – dare I say life-changing – and below are my five all-time favorite military fantasy series, classics all:
5. Harry Turtledove’s Darkness Saga
This six-volume series was thoroughly enjoyable and, in my mind, one of Turtledove’s strongest sagas. Set in the fantasy realm of Derlavai, it’s essentially WWII with dragons, behemoths and leviathans. Featuring a cast of hundreds, this was just a jaw-dropping and emotionally intense read.
I wrote in my review of Darkness Descending:
“Turtledove doesn't sugar-coat the brutality of war. Instead, he revels in its realism. The reader isn't a detached observer looking down on the action; he's right down in the middle of the chaos, hungry and cold and covered with dirt and blood. The book is filled with graphic quotes like this: 'He shrieked and clutched at his face. Blood poured around the edges of his mittens. After a moment of standing there swaying, he slowly crumpled. His hands fell away from the hideous wounds. His eyes were gone, as if he'd never had any. His nose was burned away, too, leaving only a gaping hole in the middle of his face.'
In most novels, there is usually an obvious good side and bad side. Not so in this series. As the story progressed, I found myself rooting for certain people and certain kingdoms but then, a few pages later, rethinking my position. At first I was pulling for Algarve and their nation of redheads to defeat the great Unkerlant war machine but then after reading about Algarvian war atrocities, I found myself torn. In the end, I wasn't rooting for anyone. All I wanted was for the war to end.”
4. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire
“The common people pray for rain, healthy children and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.”
― A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
GRRM’s shelf-bending saga is a towering literary achievement – unparalleled world building, an insanely ambitious storyline on a breathtaking scale… when all is said and done with this projected seven-volume saga, it could very well be #1 on my list, but for now I’m placing it in the four slot.
3. Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen
“War has its necessities... and I have always understood that. Always known the cost. But, this day, by my own hand, I have realized something else. War is not a natural state. It is an imposition, and a damned unhealthy one. With its rules, we willingly yield our humanity. Speak not of just causes, worthy goals. We are takers of life.” – Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson
This massive ten-volume saga is very much comparable to GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire in terms of scope and power. Simply put, Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is the ultimate in grand scale storytelling – thematically breathtaking and epic in every sense of the word, these meaty novels will immerse readers in a truly unforgettable realm.
2. John Marco’s Tyrants and Kings Trilogy
This sadly underappreciated trilogy, which revolved around the character of Prince Richius Vantran and his epic quest to save his people and his realm, was simply extraordinary. Although the storyline was most definitely epic, the meticulous world building and insightful focus on character development throughout makes this a deeply intimate reading experience.
1. Glen Cook’s Black Company Saga
My favorite military-powered fantasy saga has to be Glen Cook’s Black Company series. Begun way back in 1984 with the release of The Black Company, this series is action packed, wildly entertaining and filled with unforgettable characters (Goblin, Croaker, etc.) but it also – very poetically – describes the insanity and inner turmoil associated with being a soldier. Here’s one of my favorite excerpts from Soldiers Live:
"Incessant wind sweeps the plain. It murmurs on across grey stone, carrying dust from far climes to nibble eternally at the memorial pillars. There are a few shadows out there still but they are the weak and the timid and the hopelessly lost.
It is immortality of a sort.
Memory is immortality of a sort.
In the night, when the wind dies and silence rules the place of glittering stone, I remember. And they all live again.
Soldiers Live. And wonder why."
Cook's Black Company novels are unarguably (at least in my mind) the very best military fantasy ever written. I cannot recommend these novels highly enough.
Do you have a favorite military fantasy series that isn’t on this list?
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for the last two decades and has written thousands of reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and BarnesandNoble.com. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow him on Twitter at @paulgoatallen and get all the latest Barnes & Noble book news from @BNBuzz.