Is this what they call High Fantasy?
March 9, 2015 11:40 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for book recommendations that will get me as close to an experience as reading Tolkein as possible. I haven't read much fantasy for at least 15 years, but I have a pretty good sense of what I like. I want: a huge world with an ancient mythology, as big a sense of history, language, culture, as possible. I don't want: much violence or thrilling action, I don't care much about characterization or story beats, or accessible writing. Really, as close as I can get to a dense anthropological examination of fantasy world's geography, myth, and legend as I can get.

I don't care for the Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones series.

Thanks all
posted by Think_Long to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I don't remember too much violence in The Inheritance Trilogy, and I think otherwise it meets your criteria.
posted by leesh at 11:44 AM on March 9, 2015

Try E.R. Eddison--The Worm Ouroboros and the Zimiamvian Trilogy. These are the highest of high fantasy, and they are definitely more interested in high myth than thrilling action.
posted by librosegretti at 11:49 AM on March 9, 2015

Maybe R. Scott Bakker and the Prince of Nothing Trilogy.
posted by traveltheworld at 11:55 AM on March 9, 2015

It doesn't meet your wish-points precisely. But for something as close to Tolkien as possible, you might try Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry. Kay was the graduate student who edited the Silmarillion into its published form. Fionavar was what he wrote after, and it definitely carries the imprint. It's similar and different, and I love it for both.
posted by solitary dancer at 11:57 AM on March 9, 2015 [13 favorites]

Have you read the Earthsea novels by Ursula LeGuin?
posted by feste at 12:01 PM on March 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

How about a history book? All of the wars and politics of Rome and the various Barbarians is pretty Tolkein-esque if you think about it. But, you know, real.
posted by cmoj at 12:03 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. It's not the same kind of fantasy as Tolkien - no elves or swords or quests - but it has the same feeling of the weight of history and tradition.
posted by darchildre at 12:04 PM on March 9, 2015 [6 favorites]

Oh! And if you want anthropology, try Always Coming Home by Ursula LeGuin.
posted by darchildre at 12:06 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Lightbringer series, maybe.
The Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 12:08 PM on March 9, 2015

Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series will likely fit the bill. It's about an incredibly rich, dense, intense world that he developed with his friends as part of a D&D-like tabletop game.
posted by sockermom at 12:08 PM on March 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

You say "a dense anthropological examination" but I don't really think Tolkien has that sort of distance, except maybe in the Silmarion. It's written more as a myth than as a cultural examination in a more modern sense.

If you are looking for a writer whose work "feels" like Tolkien, ER Eddison as mentioned above is a good choice. I'd also really recommend trying Lord Dunsany, particularly "The King of Elfland's Daughter" which scratches that itch for me.

If you are really looking for the cultural examination above all... kind of a weird recommend, but maybe "Always Coming Home" by Le Guin? It's sort of SF, but it's a really detailed and almost plot-free examination of a low-tech culture. It even has the same sort of occasional little drawings that Tolkien liked to put in.

Maybe R. Scott Bakker and the Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Doesn't work, LOTS of violence. If you don't like GoT there is essentially no chance you'll like this.

Honestly I'm not sure most modern recommends will work.. they have a fast paced conversational style that feels incredibly different from Tolkien.

PS: wow, beaten on the Always coming home recommend.
posted by selfnoise at 12:10 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Malazan Book of the Fallen is definitely what you're looking for in every respect, except on occasion the violence. It's not that regular, and it does have such an amazing impact that it doesn't feel gratuitous, but Erikson does come up with some pretty grim climax scenes and plot turns.
posted by protorp at 12:15 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

You say "a dense anthropological examination" but I don't really think Tolkien has that sort of distance, except maybe in the Silmarion. It's written more as a myth than as a cultural examination in a more modern sense.

I guess this is as good a way to describe it as any. I don't mean "anthropological" in the sense of systematic analysis, but in the way that Tolkein seemed to be way more into his world than he was into writing a conventional novel.

Sci Fi recs would be fine as well.
posted by Think_Long at 12:19 PM on March 9, 2015

The first thing that comes to mind for "huge world with lots of history and myth" is Sherwood Smith's Sartorias novels. There's a Wiki here with a list of the books and stories she has written in this setting. She has a developed a detailed history that covers thousands of years, including language and technological changes, magic, and myth.

Many of her stories involve politics rather than war, but there are definitely occasional battles (the more battle-heavy books are the Inda series). I've been reading her stuff for some years, and I'm still finding myself confused by the depth of the cosmos she has created.

I would also recommend Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars novels, which is a more traditional fantasy series. Long and complicated with a dense backstory and a real sense of the history of the world in question. There is violence, but it's not solely focused on the battles.
posted by suelac at 12:20 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Raymond E. Feist's series are so close to Tolkein that the first couple may as well be straight rip-offs. If you can stand the fact that the first couple of books have plot elements copies almost verbatim from the Lord of the Rings series, they get pretty decent.
posted by General Malaise at 12:21 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wonder whether fantasy role-playing game sourcebooks might scratch this itch as well as novels. They are basically nothing but history, language, culture, climate, etc. The most deeply-developed world I know of is Hârn.
posted by dfan at 12:28 PM on March 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

The "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" trilogy (well, 4 books in paperback) by Tad Williams has a lot of what you are looking for. Definitely a classic "epic fantasy" with a quilt of nations and cultures and fantastic races, ancient magics, and so forth.

Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicle might also fit the bill. While the story is much more personal and some parts of the world are not very much examined, there is a deep exploration of the mythology and legend of the world.

And if you want a really long series, you could try Robert Jordan's Eye of the World.
posted by tracer at 12:39 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, there is definitely some violence in the Malazan series, sorry - I meant to mention that in my original comment. But it doesn't feel gratuitous; it feels necessary as part of the world-building. Unfortunately, I think it's actually going to be hard to find really rich worlds where there aren't descriptions of violence; people are inherently violent, as sad as that is.
posted by sockermom at 12:48 PM on March 9, 2015

Echoing recommendations for both Tad Williams and Guy Gavriel Kay. With Williams, you might also want to try the Otherworld series, which is pretty explicitly about deep worldbuilding.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:07 PM on March 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

Bridge of Birds - Barry Hughart. There's going to be some adventure, sure, and even a bit of daring-do, but not much violence and a very, very deep look at a mythic China that never was.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:10 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, another book you might like is Kalpa Imperial by Angelica Gorodischer. It's a series of short stories about an imaginary empire and has a slower, less plot-driven pace. It's really lovely.
posted by selfnoise at 1:17 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding Jemisin, seconding Scott Lynch with the caveat that I loved the deep worldbuilding but the twist/reveal-driven plot made me tear my hair out.

You might enjoy Lois Bujold's Chalion series, specifically for how developed the religious mythos is. The rest of the world is not that sprawling and also unashamedly based on 15th-16th century Spain.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed has some great worldbuilding; including one of the only deeply thought out examples of an anarchist society I can think of off-hand, though it'd probably be considered scifi more than fantasy.

Shogun, by James Clavell could be considered good worldbuilding, but is of course historical fiction based on actual Japanese history. If you're unfamiliar with Japanese history/culture the effect might be the same?

And of course if you really want to have fun you can always start building your own world. After all, LotR only happened because Tolkien the philologist and linguist wanted to give his invented languages the realism and depth that can only be gained through naturalistic historical evolution.
posted by Wretch729 at 1:47 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

The biggest Tolkien fan I know also has a PhD in Anglo-Saxon literature & language. She loves Tolkien because his work reminds her of the ancient sagas that they both studied.

Have you read Beowulf? or, for fewer monsters, but more politics, Egil's Saga? I'm fond of the The Greenland Saga myself. Lots of sagas.

Or, for vast mythos: How about the Prose Edda or the Poetic Edda?
posted by jb at 1:53 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

You may also dig Janny Wurts (who co-wrote a series with Feist). Her Wars of Light and Shadow series (which I can't believe isn't done yet!) is pretty intense with her world's mythology and history.
posted by General Malaise at 2:11 PM on March 9, 2015

One of my favorite young adult series is Monster-Blood Tattoo by DM Cornish. It's an engrossing adventure romp without too much violence (despite the gory name) -- and sometimes you get the feeling that the whole series is really just an excuse for the maps, glossaries and illustrations (all by the author). One thing that puts some people off is the language -- there are many invented words and strange phrasings (you can get a sense of it in the "Explicarium" on the series' website), but for me it greatly adds in the worldbuilding feel of the books.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:18 PM on March 9, 2015

Nthing gaming source books, Luke pathfinder or dungeons and dragons. Malazan was written by an anthropologist, but it's jaw droppingly violent and almost wholly gratuitous. There are literally cities full of corpses, there's a house with so many dead people in it, the house literally explodes from corpses. Violence, including sexual, is an integral party of the first four books that I've read. It's the primary motivator and characterisation for most of the characters. It's far more violent than game of thrones. But the books are anthropological.

You might like Daniel Abraham's long price quartet. Nthing Kay.
posted by smoke at 3:19 PM on March 9, 2015

It doesn't exactly fit all of your criteria but it's so good I'm going to recommend it anyway: try Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy if you can find it.

It takes place among the Elder Isles, a fictional island chain now sunk beneath the waves, but at the time of the story south of Britain and west of France. Vance clearly enjoyed the world creation element, having created the Elder Isles with a past, present, and future in mind, and then having populated it with interesting and unique personalities.

The overall effect is somewhere between Arthurian legends and fairy tales, drawing from the best elements of both traditions.
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:48 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Gene Wolfe, Book of the New Sun. Be prepared to think a LOT about the crazy far-future setting.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 4:34 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

For some reason this question makes me thank of Patricia McKillip and the Riddle-Master trilogy. Fabulous books.
posted by N-stoff at 12:58 AM on March 10, 2015

Stephen Donaldson's 'Chronicles of Thomas Covenant' sucked me right in. As it says on the wikipedioa page linked above:

"The contextual richness of the Land's varied geography, races, cultures and history enables all three series of the Chronicles to explore and expand upon an increasingly diverse and storied environment."

Still gets me when I re-read the first six books, even now.
posted by muckybob at 5:16 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Robin Hobb's books... for most cohesive experience, I'd recommend reading in this order:
Farseer Trilogy, Tawny Man Trilogy, LiveShip Trilogy, RainWild Books, then the new Fitz and the Fool books that are in-progress. The LiveShip books actually happen chronologically between the Farseer and Tawny Man books, and can be read there - but you'll understand more about what's going on in the wider world if you read them after Tawny Man, instead of before.
posted by stormyteal at 9:50 AM on March 10, 2015

Thanks all, these are all great suggestions!*

*I presume, since I haven't actually read them yet
posted by Think_Long at 1:09 PM on April 8, 2015

« Older True personal financial guidance?   |   What's the best alternative to Turbo Tax? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.