Have you ever finished a book (or a series) that leaves you craving for more of the same? And have you then looked for more of the same and found everything lacking?
I certainly have. For me (I’m sure many of you will agree), The Lord of the Rings was more than a book. Reading it for the first time was an experience never to be repeated. Naturally, I looked around for other fantasy fiction series like it. If nothing could ever exceed that first experience, perhaps something could at least match it?
But I hit an unexpected wall. All the lists that I found online of “books to read after The Lord of the Rings” were filled with books that I read and hated. So, I’m making my own list.
But first, let me explain what I think makes a fantasy fiction series “Tolkienesque:”
- Based on myths and legends
- Engages seriously with questions of religion, ethics, and morality in the “real world”
- Just a rollicking, good adventure story
Here are five fantasy fiction series that fit the bill:
1. The Deed of Paksennarion by Elizabeth Moon
Paksenarrion, a simple sheepfarmer’s daughter, wants nothing more than a soldier’s life, but secretly dreams of becoming a hero from myth and legend. At seventeen, she runs away from an arranged marriage to join a mercenary company and begin an epic life.
What I loved the best about this series is its treatment of “good magic.” Too often, in epic fantasy, the good guys can only beat the bad guys by taking more and more power for themselves. Yes, of course, they’ll use it better than the bad guys (allegedly). But in “real life” that’s rarely the case. Tolkien understood this very well, making “Boromir’s solution” something that never ends well.
The paladins and saints of Moon’s secondary world wield power only when they humbly ask for it. It comes, or it doesn’t come, not because of their own will, but because of the will of the gods they serve. This is convincing, good magic, because the wielder becomes humble through lack of control, and is safeguarded from the temptation of abusing power. It’s brilliant, effective, and inspiring.
2. The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
Yes, these are supposedly YA. But they have real violence, zombies, romance, and huge cats. What’s not to love? These five books are steeped in Welsh mythology. Every tidy volume is a concrete adventure in its own right, but the five-book series as a whole is a long-form character’s journey of a pig farmer destined to be king.
The most surprising of these books is Taran Wanderer, the meditative fourth book. It has no antagonist. There is no quest, other than the main character’s journey to, literally, find himself. The main character spends long pages in conversation with a potter about what makes a good life. Not a bit of romance in sight. And it’s still riveting.
3. The Dreamblood Duology by N. K. Jemisin
Lots of fantasy nowadays seems to be little more than a 13-year old boy’s imagination run rampant. But occasionally, a fantasy writer creates a world so compelling, with characters and moral dilemmas so real, that the effect is like reading Tolstoy or George Eliot or any other master of fiction who tried to illuminate the beautiful madness of what it means to be human.
N. K. Jemisin is such an artist. She has created a world that could have actually happened in some deep past that we have long forgotten about. Her alternate Egypt is almost as compelling as Egypt itself.
Most importantly, her humane approach to questions of faith, doubt, sacrifice, and love just dazzles. Jemisin presents us with characters and questions that are universal, but she refuses to suggest easy answers for anything. Modern literary fiction rarely looks at sincere faith in the divine with an unironic eye. But Jemisin is not afraid to show us flawed, suffering individuals who have every reason to turn their back on their faith, but who are too brave to do so. And we can’t help but look at them with awe.
4. The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. LeGuin
This series was the closest I ever got the “wow” factor of The Lord of the Rings. The books are all bite-sized, a far cry from the doorstoppers that most heirs of Tolkien end up being. But the characters are so real, their desires and needs are so compelling, and the writing is so beautiful that it takes the breath away. All this with sparse language that does little more than suggest, unlike Tolkien’s sweeping use of descriptive language.
But really, the heroes here are the dragons. You will never meet a dragon in any other fantasy novel like the dragons in this series. These ancient creatures are not the kind that you can ride or share a mental bond with. They are certainly not the evil worms that Tolkien took from Beowulf. They are dangerous, utterly foreign, but also mysteriously related to human beings. Really, the revelation concerning the dragons at the end of Tehanu is worth reading the entire series.
5. The Traitor Son Cycle by Miles Cameron
This is my absolute favorite new fantasy series, and it’s not even finished yet! It’s a rollicking adventure based on the legends surrounding King Arthur. This should be particularly interesting to Tolkien lovers, because Tolkien was famously fascinated by Arthur, but could not bring himself to adapt those stories in his secondary world, because they were too tainted by the French flavor of post-Norman invasion England.
Unlike Tolkien, it’s quite dark. The violence is very vivid. There’s lots of swearing and lots of sex. But Miles Cameron is a true knight. He knows the Middle Ages well (he is a reenactor in his spare time). He can honestly see the brutality and the violence of the age, but he sees it in technicolor, not the drab browns of Kristen Stewart’s offensive and idiotic Snow White.
But the best part of this series is Mr. Cameron’s ability to write grand spectacle. For the first time in a long time, I was swept away by pageantry nearly as gorgeous as Tolkien’s. At least one scene in each of the first three books makes me laugh out loud with sheer pleasure. These include, but are not limited to:
- cinematic battle scenes
- cunning traps sprung by the main character that even the reader didn’t see coming
- the vindication of the virtue of an innocent Guinevere-like queen after a two-book build-up
Really, this is a series you must not miss.
What about you? Any additions to this all-to-short list? I’d love to read them in the comments!
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