Monday 26 October 2015

Underrated Fantasy Authors

These are not the "best" fantasy novels (most of the top authors are already recognized) though all of them are, obviously, worth your time to read.   I wouldn't claim they are all "unknown" either - just guys who are sitting a little below their rightful place in the pecking order.

Again, I reserve the right to update this list as I think of new books tp include (I'd have 2800+ novels in my personal library so I can't think of every one offhand).

Paul Kearney (Monarchies of God, Sea Beggars, Macht)
One of the series has never been completed due to lack of a publisher, yet his books are all good and the *Monarchies of God series (1400s not-Islamic invasions with werewolves etc) is really interesting and has some great battle scenes. Recommended.

James Enge (Blood of Ambrose) 
This story of the life of Merlin's family (the Ambrosii) has an uncommon writing style - it reminds me of the fantasy books I read in the 70s, but with a modern voice.  Like hearing your grandad use modern slang.  It's catchy, interesting, and unique in its style and pacing. 

*Traitor's Blade (Sebastian de Castell)
This "Three Musketeers with Magic" is a swashbuckling romp that won't be underrated for long.   A new author who grabbed my attention instantly.  This is a good book, a fun book.  Highly recommended. One of the unexpected hits of the year.

*City of Stairs (Robert Jackson Bennett)
Another newcomer who grabbed my attention.  A highly original fantasy where a once-mighty city has lost its gods and is now just an outpost of its old colony.  Some memorable characters and a gripping plot premise.  Unusual in style.  A great mix of genres from spy thriller to fantasy. An author who deserves a wider audience.

Anything by Chris Wooding
Speaking of fun, Retribution Falls* is not strictly fantasy (more steampunk) but it is an awesome mashup of golems-airships-sky pirates-dogfights-demonologists. Pure fun. A steampunk Firefly if you will.  Whilst more workmanlike than genius, most of Wooding's other work is solid to good, such as the Weavers of Saramyr Asian fantasy series. 

Shadows of the Apt (Tchaikovsky)
He's only a workmanlike author but his world building is good. His fantasy human races have insect traits (spider kinden are schemers, ant kinden are telepaths, beetle kinden are industrious) and whilst it doesn't perhaps need to be dragged into a 10 book series like it has, it's a decent read. 

Chronicles of Prydian (Lloyd Alexander)
A kids book, not really "unknown" to its target audience, but I found the French-Revolution with magic fantasy much better than Narnia.  Not a bad "light read" as an adult. 

Anything by Guy Gavriel Kay
He's not exactly unknown, but underrated, sure.  Since his writing skill edges nearly all the authors on the "top 10" lists, I think he deserves to be in this category, and his work is definitely worth checking out. He often tends more towards historical fiction than fantasy.

Tales of the Kin - Doug Hulick
Another one of those gritty "fantasy crime" books which are flooding the market at the moment.  When the Lies of Locke Lamora gets all the plaudits, I feel this one is underrated in comparison. So that's why it's here.

*The Witcher (Sapkowski)
Certainly not underrated if you are Eastern European, where he is "the" GRR Martin/Tolkien.  But whenever I say "Witcher" all people know of is the PC game that derives from this series.  It suffers from some rather awful translation work, but is still good. I recommend the short collection of twisted gritty fairytales "The Last Wish"as a starting point.

The Darkness that Comes Before (Scott Bakker)
Sometimes more philosophical discourse than fantasy book, it overreaches itself at times. A bit too much navel gazing, but unique and interesting.  A different flavour of fantasy for the jaded palate, though I recommend it with caution - it's not for everyone. 

Low Town/*Those Above (Daniel Polanksy)
The Low Town series (about an ex-Imperial agent turned crime lord/drug dealer) was a bit grim and dank to wholeheartedly recommend.  A solid gritty-crime-fantasy though. I did re-read it though. But his new world introduced in the series which leads with the book Those Above looks to be great, and I predict he will climb into the "top 10" lists when it gets more traction.

Fallen Blade - Jon Courtney Grimwood
Mr Grimwood has always written good but unusual sci fi but he is a talented writer and I'm surprised his werewolves-vs-vampire assassins in Venice hasn't got more notice, given how it taps into a popular theme. 

Killer of Men* (Christian Cameron)
Technically historical fiction but with gritty fantasy nowdays the line is blurred. It's weird as his other work is laboured and poor in style, while the Killer of Men series are my favourite Greek historical novels.

Dagger & the Coin (Abraham) + Long Price Quartet series
Daniel Abraham is one of the American midwest clique and is probably the most talented writer.  His flaw - he's a bit slow to build the action. That said, he's far less famous than the others who are inferior writers, so I'd definitely tag him as underrated.

Brian Ruckley (The Free)
First books a bit derivative and long winded (I liked the American Indian Elves vs Vikings battles from the Godless World), but standalone The Free (mercenary company with magicians) will be appreciated especially by wargamers for its platoon-level gritty battles and balanced magic. 

Anything by KJ Parker
I'll nominate the standalone "Sharps"but all are similar in tone.   They are well written in a wry way, and are a lot better written than their modest fame suggests - perhaps because KJ Parker can be a bit grim in large doses (industrialisation, money and banality always triumph over gallantry and flair).

JV Jones (Sword of Shadows)
I remember being impressed with this series but they were published only sporadically (the series has yet to be completed with often 4-5 year gaps between books). Quite grim and gritty, but different and good compared to the "standard" gritty which has become the norm in fantasy. 

Django Wexler (Thousand Names)
The first book started poorly but improved as it went. The second shows solid improvement over the first.  I'm now actually really looking forward to book three. It's basically Napoleon-in-Egypt hunting demons, then a fantasy French Revolution.  A series to watch, which should definitely find a wider audience. 

Underrated, not epic

Well there you go. Not necessarily the best fantasy you will ever read, but all decent, enjoyable books with authors which tend to slip under the radar.  I've resisted the urge to include a lot of newer fantasy authors (and there are a lot of those: fantasy is at the moment, at the cutting edge of literature compared to the tired crime/thriller genres, and sci fi which had its golden age decades ago.)  However the series tagged with a (*) are ones which I'd say deserve to be in everyone's library.

I hope you find something interesting and new in this list - if you want more detail, or you have a book/author that deserves to be here, toss it in the comments below.  


  1. Guy Kay my favorite Fantasy author of them all. Have to check out some of the others.

    1. If you prefer "better writer" and are willing to accept a slower pace (as your liking of Mr Kay suggests) I recommend: KJ Parker, Daniel Abraham, Robert Jackson Bennett, and maybe JC Grimwood/Polansky of the above.

  2. You and I have similar opinions, reading habits, and collections when it comes to fantasy and science fiction literature, so I don't have much to add here. Not much... :)

    I'll just add that The Darkness that Comes Before by Bakker is, in my opinion, easily the best of the bunch on your list and surpasses many of the well known top sellers out there. I've read the series [and that book in particular] several times, and I'm fascinated each time I return by the world and characters he's created and how it manages to draw me in again. The world building might be the closest thing in modern literature to what Tolkien accomplished in his time.

    The cinematic staging of the chapter intros and sweeping images would make for perfect movie scene fodder. And the magic system? Don't even get me started on that!

    I get why you're hesitant to recommend it, but for me it's like a really incredible restaurant. Even though it may not be to each and every persons personal taste, I'll recommend it anyway as I think they'll still get something out of the experience even if the 'don't get it'.

    1. Why am I not shocked to see you advocate the most "out of left field" entry... :-)

      I must say I enjoyed The Darkness That Comes Before much better on my second read through, though I felt a bit "overdosed" on his particular writing style after reading the first three books and have yet to start on the second trilogy...

  3. I haven't done the second trilogy either [and don't plan to right now]. I thoroughly enjoyed the world, the origin story, and the element of discovery of the three books but didn't feel compelled to read the next three. I do agree that the heaviness of the writing style does take a toll and you need a bit of a palate cleanser after. I recommend following up with a course of Joe Abercrombie. Perhaps 'The Blade Itself'? ;)

    +1 to Guy Gavriel Kay, KJ Parker, and Sebastian de Castell

    1. Abercrombie is a favourite but I don't think he's "underrated" any more. That said, I binge-read all his books a while back and even he can be "overdosed" on as his books are quite dark in tone and have a distinct "voice" (a bit like KJ Parker). His YA books "Half a King" and "Half the World" are an easier read as they are toned back a bit and are totally fine for adults.

    2. Random Fact: Did you know KJ Parker is actually Tom Holt? I always thought KJ Parker was a bloke due to the writing "voice" but never connected the rather wryly grim fantasy with the more whimsical Holt style...

  4. Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain" is actually based on Welsh mythology, much of the action takes place in North Wales. It was made into a film by Disney, "The Black Cauldron" (nowhere near as good as the books!).

    1. Oops - in that case I must be thinking of his Westmark series which I liked way better than the Prydian ones!