Best Sword and Sorcery Books
Before I recommend the best sword and sorcery books, it's important that you, the reader, understand exactly what classic sword and sorcery really is. Sword & Sorcery is a complex subgenre and it's hard to firmly categorize. If you are the impatient type and don't want to read my rambling about what makes up the Sword & Sorcery genre, click here for classic sword and sorcery to get to the recommendation list.
What Exactly IS Sword and Sorcery?
Unlike epic fantasy, sword and sorcery does not concern itself with world-endangering events; the stakes, rather, are far more personal. The danger to the hero is usually immediate rather than long term. Sword & Sorcery has a strong preference for fast-paced action tales rather than sweeping story arcs. That means there is (usually) no band of heroes facing off against dark lords that seek to destroy the world, but rather a lone hero on a personal quest of some sort.
Sword and Sorcery often has a much darker feel than some of the other subgenre fantasies; brutality is common and morality is not clearly defined. Ancient myths and legends are often incorporated into the story.
The hero of the story is often brooding and morose, sometimes fatalistic and always troubled in some way. The hero may be the shunned outcast, the perpetual loner, the misunderstood wretch who is pitied. The hero tends to be larger than life, a force of nature who can, at times, defeat more powerful opponents (gods, witches, demons, etc). The hero is not always an unfeeling brute, but might in fact be highly intelligent, though with barbaric traits or uncomfortable habits. In Sword and Sorcery, the end always justifies the means -- even if the means means sacrificing all morality.
Books in Elric Series (24)
Books in Amber Chronicles Series (12)
Books in Works By Clark Ashton Smith Series (5)
Books in Imaro Series (3)
Books in The Chronicles Of The Black Company Series (10)
If you like Black Company, you should definitely read his other fantasy series, The Instrumentalities of the Night. It combines an ancient evil coming-back-into-the-world plot, a military genius hero, plenty of conflicts between worldly powers, political scheming, all filtered through Cook's military narrative. The closest you'll find to The Black Company in style and form. And duh, it's by the same freaking author. How much closer CAN you get?
Starts with Scourge of the Betrayers. About as close as you are going to get to Cook -- the narrator is even an archivist and the tale is told in first person. There's a LOT of similarities and the Bloodsounder books are gritty gritty grimdark dark. Delicious and some of the best fantasy to come out the past couple years. Do NOT pass this series by if you want something similar to The Black Company. It's the best of the similar recommendations I can give.
For another "dark" military fantasy, you should read Malazan Book of the Fallen. It's more epic in scope than The Black Company, but there are enough similarities that you'll find yourself right at home. Steven Erikson has even stated that Glen Cook's books were an influence on his own writing, so there you have it.
You may want to give Daniel Abraham's The Dagger and the Coin series a good go at it. Books one and two are out and they are seriously good -- some of the best epic fantasy that's come out. Abraham's work is a good mix of epic and military fantasy with some smart writing and a cast of compelling characters (some which are anti-heroes). Both are character driven, though Black Company has a hell of a lot more action and angst while The Dagger and the Coin is far more about the characters. It can be somewhat plodding and slow at times. However, if you like Black Company, and military fantasy with strong characters, you may just like this series.
Paul Kearney's The Ten Thousand is a superb military fantasy by a much underrated author. If you like Black Company, you'll dig this one hard.
Sanderson's awesome The Way of Kings is also another book you might want to read (it's first in the Stormlight Archive series). The main character (Kaladin) has a few basic similarities to The Black Company main character (Croaker). Both are retired physicians who've given up their profession to become soldiers. Both lead a squad of men (and there is the squad dynamics). Cook's work is more gray and his style more dry, however. The narrator (Croaker), is not a crazy badass super hero, while Sanderson's work is more heroic in nature as is the character. So don't get the idea that The Way of Kings is anything like The Black Company as a whole, but as stated there are some similarities.
Heroes Die by Mathew Woodring Stoover. Dark and gritty world. Check. An anti-hero character who ends up working for the bad guys most of the time? Check. Explosive and brutal action? Check. Strong characterization. Check and Check. Heroes die is MORE about a singular hero than a company of characters, as is The Black Company, but there's enough that you'll probably love it if you like Glenn Cook's work.
The Darkness that Comes Before. Ah, grimdark epic fantasy at it's best, but not your standard epic fantasy: this shit is deep and philosophical. Lots of wars and grand military battles and dark gods taking over the world. There's nothing else quite like it to be honest, but ignoring all the philosophy sprinkled between the chapters, there's a hell of a lot of bloody action, gratuitous sex, character development, and political intrigue to keep you turning the pages. Oh and there's a world-ending apocalypse coming.
Black Sun Rising is a different sort of work. But it's a very dark and grim world featuring an anti-hero character and side kick heroes that are all flawed individuals. One of the best fantasy books in the genre. You'll probably like it, even if it's about a couple characters solving a quest rather than a military band caught up in incessant warfare.
The Thousand Names by Django Wexler. This is a new series that came out in 2013 with two books out so far (the last one was out a few months ago, mid 2014). If you like large scale battles and the story of a squad/company facing extreme survival odds in a foreign country, you'll love this series. It's one of the better fantasy books to come out the past few years. And it's certainly one of the best military fantasy series since Erikson's Mazalan. If you like Black Company, you'll love this series.
Legend by David Gemmell. A classic, but one all about a hero fighting an endless war against endless odds. There's something of beauty in this heroic treatment of an old washed up hero who's pressured by the need of his people to come back from retirement to kick some ass.
For a very medieval fantasy with magic and monsters and knights, Miles Cameron's The Red Knight. This was one of my favorite reads of 2013. There's a lot of military battles and squad/company warfare against foes with superior numbers. It's not as dark, on a whole, as The Black Company, but it's a stellar read. If you like might and magic and battles and warfare, this is one for your.
Books in Sword Of Shadows Series (5)
Try George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga, which features a brutal, gritty world set in an ice-filled milieu. Characters are realistic and Martin holds nothing back. It's a superlative epic fantasy saga. You might also try J.V. Jones's other excellent Book of Words fantasy saga (starts with The Baker's Boy ).
Books in Drenai Tales Series (14)
Books in The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series (11)
George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga also features an epic scope and the grey characterization that Erikson so loves. Martin's work is smaller in scale though and tends to be more focused, plot wise.
You can also try Scott R. Baker's The Darkness That Comes Before saga, which is an alternative history saga, where the Roman Empire has never fallen and magic works. Oath of Empires is epic, featuring massive magical battles and huge opposing armies (Persian and Roman) clashing so hard you can hear the horses scream.
Also give James Barclay's The Cry of the Newborn a whirl which is similar in style and content (though less epic) to Erikson. It's an example of a Fantasy military fiction done right. Barclay also knows how to write damn good battle scenes, giving even Erikson a run for his money. Also give David Anthony Durham a try.
His recent novel, Acacia, is a fantastic read -- big on the epic battles and gritty dark realism of Erikson and Martin. At it's core,
The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a military fantasy; you might want to read Glen Cook's classic Black Company series. It's dark, gritty, and has a hell of a lot of battles. It's the book that has forever defined military fantasy.
The Broken Empire
Mark Lawrence's delicious gritty anti-hero military fantasy. If you like large battles, underdog heroes, and a full scale invasion of the dead into the land of the living, well, The Broken Empire is what you need to read. One of the more interesting heroes in the genre and featuring superbly written prose.
Starts with Scourge of the Betrayer. Some new 2014 military fantasy in a good grimdark tradition. Reminds me of Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence mixed with The Black Company by Glenn Cook.
The Thousand Names came out 2013 with a serious bang. Detailed military campaign and squad tactics/warfare as several companies of foreign colonial soldiers must make their way through an inhospitable desert to escape hostile locals trying to kill them.
Starts with The Red Knight. Plenty of medieval warfare here - tactics, sieges, and fierce battles against men and monsters.
Books in The Acts Of Caine Series (4)
For similar recommendations, I'm give books that fuse action, blood, grittiness, flawed humanity, and anti-heroes. Some books may also feature assassins. All these books also explore the idea of 'the hero.'
The sequels of course! There are 3 of them as of 2014 and it's more of the same with Caine's story fleshed out more and more. Each book does something new though. The books are all good, but the first books is the best and the second book nearly as good. There rest may be a dissapointment though, depending. The direct sequel to Heroe's Die is The Blade of Tyshalle.
The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan. Some elements of Heroes Die here: you have a dark and unforgiving world with a misunderstood hero who's not afraid of being a serious bad ass to those who fuck him over. This is one of the darkest fantasy books you'll read. But oh so good and something unique in the grim dark genre. It's a trilogy with the final book released by the end of 2014 making this trilogy a complete one.
The Heroes. When all villains are really just misunderstood heroes and heroes turn out to be villains. Abercrombie's best book so far, which is saying a lot since every book he's written is some of the best works in the genre. Tons of action, awesome and compelling characters, and vicious battles. Abercrombie is one of the best writers of violent scenes that just pop out of nowhere. If you love the action and blood of Heroes Die and you like the character of Caine, I think you'll like The Heroes. Note Heroes is more of a subversion of the idea of heroes, politics, and war. Heroes Die is more of a straight bad-ass anti-hero guy murdering everything around him rather than a sly statement about the state of humanity.
If you like the Assassin factor of Heroes Die, read Brent Weeks' The Night Angel Trilogy. It's a good read and Weeks is a rising star in the Fantasy world. The series is much, much lighter reading than the Acts of Caine, and the prose is not half as good. Good for light reading though.
For some compelling anti-hero reading about an assassin king, you should read Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. Right up your alley if you like the violence and amorality of Stover's Caine character. Honorable Jorg Ancraft, the hero villain of Prince of Thorns, is an immoral and vicious bastard. Even so, you can't stop rooting for him to win.
Also read Robin Hobb's The Farseer Trilogy -- an epic tale about an assassin-in-training in a fantasy landscape, but with one of the best drawn characters ever to grace the Fantasy scene. As for being bad-ass, Fitz has nothing on Caine though and if you are expecting a heroic amount of violence and kickass-ness on the part of Fitz, expect to be disappointed. The whole kick ass that happens is to Fitz who gets ass whooped over and over. Really, he's kind of a bitch. But fabulous read, nevertheless.
The Folding Knife by KJ Parker's might just be up your alley. Dark, gritty, filled with flawed heroes with realistic motivations. Not everyone appreciate's Parker, but if you want a slower-paced 'rich' fantasy that's all about the characters, man Parker knows how to do it right.
The Red Knight. Knight heroes, monstrous elves, and damsels in distress all clash in this remarkable book released in 2013. The tale is a different one than your normal fantasy with a highly detailed and realistic medievil world built by the author who is a legit medievil historian. There's a huge cast of characters (though the focus remains on The Red Knight, the titular hero of the story and series) rather than a single one. However, like Heroes Die there's a lot of sizzling energy to this series, with brutal action, action, and lots of war. You'll probably like it if you like gritty violence and lots of fighting.
Talion: Revenant is the best work by prolific fantasy author Michael A Stackpole. Heroic fantasy with a lot of energy. One of the best 'boy becomes a man and then a hero' tales I've read and certainly Stackpool's best work.
Legend, the book that made Gemmell's career and certainly his career defining work about what it means to be a hero. He also explores the same idea in many works -- including a couple books about a bad-ass assassin turned hero (Waylander).
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss -- just about one of the best fantasy books in the genre. Another sort of heroic fantasy, but a tale that focuses on a character-driven narrative about the life of a hero. This is not a subversion of the heroic tale, but an expansion of it. It's frame story that's told after-the-fact, and we are never sure if the tale of Kvothe, a larger than life hero, is truth or exagerration. The writing is lyrical and gorgeous -- showing itself to be a perfect intersection between a powerful narrative and strong writing.