Like Dragonlance but, uh...better?
November 27, 2022 11:03 AM   Subscribe

When I was eleven or so, I loved the Dragonlance books. I had the calendar and everything.

God only knows what I'd find in them now since the quality of the prose prevents me from rereading them. On the one hand, yes, it seems like they are probably objectively terrible, but on the other hand I am deeply grateful for the hours and hours of delight and daydreaming when I was in junior high - junior high was awful, but the Dragonlance books were amazing. It's not that I didn't read other fantasy - I'd read Tolkien, Dunsany, etc - but the very non-realism and fantastic exaggeration of the Dragonlance books meant that they took me away from horrible, horrible junior high school better than anything else.

Anyway. I would like to recapture some of that feeling with better prose and hopefully politics that are at least tolerable enough to ignore. In particular, I'm looking for:

1. Epic landscapes! Mountains and rivers without end! Galloping through wild country on the back of a unicorn, flying through icy mountains on dragonback, you get the vibe.

2. A very significant quest where we don't put too much pressure on the logic of the thing - saving the world from evil, averting ancient doom, etc. No books where "evil" is, like, racist caricatures, it has to be Evil Gods or something.

3. A band of heroes, ideally somewhat gender-balanced, with the usual "the intellectual one, the cunning one, the nurturing one, the heroic fighter one, the plucky child" thing. Realism is not necessary here - the hero can be 100% chisel-jawed and heroic, the angsty character can be poetically melancholy rather than annoying and derailing, etc. Again, no racist stuff.

4. Produces some sweeping feelings of epicness, melancholy, sensa wonda, etc. Is it the kind of story where a Michael Whelan cover would be appropriate?

5. Is either a bit cheesy or not too removed from cheesiness - seriousness, flawed heroes and moral ambiguity are not necessary and should take a back seat. I have read, eg, The Book of the New Sun, M John Harrison, the Neveryon books and other serious treatments of these themes, and this is not what I'm looking for. I want to feel like small Frowner imagining epic dragon battles in the moonlight over ancient fortresses and and secret elven cities deep in the immemorial woods, etc. None of this "but won't evil persist even after the quest is achieved" stuff, just heroism.

So anyway. Recommend me some doorstop fantasies, the kind that look like they could be illustrated by Michael Whelan
posted by Frowner to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
You might consider the Lyonesse trilogy by Jack Vance. The first book starts out a bit slowly, to reflect the constrained circumstances of Suldrun's life as a princess. But once she slips free, oh! what a world she discovers! Oddly, one of the things that I recall most vividly from the story is how Vance is always describing what the characters are eating. None of this "iron rations" nonsense for him! Nope, it's sausage and beer, or grilled squab washed down with the local wine, or just apples and onions from a sack.
posted by SPrintF at 11:17 AM on November 27, 2022 [1 favorite]

You're probably already aware of Anne McCaffrey, but I'll mention her just in case.
posted by box at 11:18 AM on November 27, 2022 [2 favorites]

Murderbot is a huge MeFi sci-fi favorite (for good reason; it's awesome!) and I am now enjoying Martha Wells' Raksura series. I think it has good prose and most of what you're looking for, including brawny and brainy builds etc.

But it's a little cheese adjacent when you start out with a young man who can shapeshift into sort of dragon-y person who doesn't know his birth family and may have an important part to play… also really cool landscapes and fantastical wildlife and floating islands etc. It's also about the human condition and examining how people make societies but it doesn't get in the way of the battles and adventure.

It's got lots of interesting gender stuff. Most of the characters are sort of implicitly bi, and the Raksura societies are ruled by queens who are also badass warriors.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:26 AM on November 27, 2022 [4 favorites]

Elfquest is just what you're looking for, if you haven't read it already. And best of all, it's now free online. The trouble is that like Star Wars, it ended 40+ years after the beginning and there were diminishing returns, but the first eight published volumes stand up, I think.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:28 AM on November 27, 2022 [4 favorites]

I read and at least mostly liked the first book of The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. (Celia) Friedman, and a friend with reasonably good judgement likes them all quite well. Definitely firmly in that 80s/90s Epic Fantasy mold.

Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar series are pretty squarely there, too, although the quality ranges widely. I would recommend starting with By the Sword or maybe Exile's Honor for more or less self-contained stories, or the Mage Storms trilogy for proper world-ending threats. They're... cozier? maybe? than most epic fantasy but the politics are at least trying very hard in the right direction.

Bujold's The Curse of Chalion and the immediate sequel Paladin of Souls are perfect. Simply perfect. The recent Penric series is set in the same world but tend to be more detective-story in structure than epic. (I love them very much anyway.)

Less politically comfortable, for a variety of reasons, but they read like (and in at least one case, were) D&D games narrated by someone who at least has some grasp on what makes books work: Elizabeth Moon's Paksenarrion series and the much-more-recent followup Paladin's Legacy series (the first are... not great prose and also contain one (1) rape per volume, the latter are twenty years smoother in prose and do not have the latter problem; you could probably just do those. Devid Weber's War God series, fun and propulsive for the first three books, anyway, plus you can get the first book for free in ebook, which is where I landed with it. Other than the running gag where the protagonist saves women from sexual assault and then grumbles about it, pretty fine.

If you're up for younger fare, the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander are among my favorite books ever, and the Redwall series pretty much sticks to that format.

My personal go-to out of nostalgia is the Eddings' Belgariad/Malloreon, or the Elenium/Tamuli - they're exactly what you're asking for - but they are also the epitome of well-meaning Boomer sexism and racism.

More modern, although modern is a little harder for pure cheeseball earnestness: Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky and Lotus Kingdoms trilogies. Set in the eastern half of fantasy Eurasia, for once, great politics, fantastic worldbuilding, and a lot of characters I really enjoy. Bear is chewy but not trying to do a ton of complicated subversion except in excising western Europe from her version of the world. (Like, literally. With an impact crater.) Disclaimer: I was at Bear's watching TV last night, I read the first two books in this series before I ever met her but I am not neutral on the subject :P

Likewise Rebecca Roanhorse's in-progress trilogy - Black Sun is the first - is set in fantasy South America, and is fascinating and delightful and especially doing interesting things with gender.

I could probably keep going, but let's see how this hit you, and if you want my (usually incredibly detailed) thoughts on some of these and many many others, here's my Goodreads fantasy tag. It's definitely a subgenre I'm fond of, although I kind of fell away from it until the last few years.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:30 AM on November 27, 2022 [8 favorites]

You can always try playing D&D. The next adventure book that's coming out is Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dragon Queen.

There are of course other D&D based series such as the iconic Dark Elf Trilogy. It's a but older so you might run into similar problematic themes (e.g. certain races being straight up evil) so take it for what it's worth.
posted by pyro979 at 11:34 AM on November 27, 2022

Oh and the Wheel of Time is also a classic (though certainly not devoid of weird gender politics)
posted by pyro979 at 11:38 AM on November 27, 2022

For something more recent, you may enjoy the Stormlight Archive books by Brandon Sanderson. It has the epicness, the sweeping vistas, and while I like the characters, I would describe them as within the realm of cheese. There are maps. There are illustrations. There are cool sword (and spear) fights.
posted by past unusual at 12:13 PM on November 27, 2022 [2 favorites]

You might consider the Lyonesse trilogy by Jack Vance.

Just a note--I enjoyed the first book, but there is a lot of sexual assault and threatened sexual assault, including of very young teenagers. It's presented as assault, but...I'm not sure I'd be able to read it with enjoyment now.
posted by praemunire at 12:13 PM on November 27, 2022 [2 favorites]

Middle-era Barbara Hambly, maybe? The series starting with _Dragonsbane_ is smoother, the earlier ones are more D&D campaign ish, but accordingly very band-of-misfits.
posted by clew at 12:17 PM on November 27, 2022 [2 favorites]

Naomi Novik's dragon series and Patrick Weekes?

Novik is a superior dragon-themed product and I've heard most of her other series are good. Patrick Weekes usually writes for Bioware (and a certain plot involving elves in DA3) but I think his caper books hit the" D&D party does adventure" thing well.

Michael J. Sullivan also does high fantasy adventure that I like. Start with Theft of Swords as he suggests.
posted by fiercekitten at 12:37 PM on November 27, 2022 [2 favorites]

Maybe Juliet Marillier. Here's her website and her books on Goodreads. The landscapes may not be epic enough, she skews a bit more domestic. She can be a bit melancholy, which looks as if it's a plus point for you? No actual dragons as far as I recall.

You almost certainly know Robin McKinley's Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown and Pegasus. Again, no actual dragons as far as I recall.

Nora Roberts's Dragon Heart trilogy, the last one of which is just out? The first was The Awakening. Has dragons, has evil god, has cheese, has band of heroes though the focus is on the main protagonist, too much realism is not a problem.

Tor has done several dragon-themed lists: examples here, here, and here's the dragon tag on the Tor / Forge blog.
posted by paduasoy at 1:07 PM on November 27, 2022

Hah! I'm currently re-reading the original trilogy for the first time after... what 35ish years and am about 50% through #2. The writing isn't as bad as I expected, but there are some... topics and viewpoints that don't age well within the stories. In general though, they haven't aged horribly and - yeah... it would still hold up as a pretty amazing movie. When I say it isn't as bad as I expected - it is actually both readable and enjoyable. The places, the characters, the motivations - they're good... The party just cleared Silvanesti (DL10). If you recall, the forest was twisted and warped - and it really captures the fallen beauty, the terror, and the madness. But yeah, Riverwind and Goldmoon have an old school parochial relationship - like racing to get married and then problematically hooking up across the second book... You've got Caramon as a creeper. Sturm, who sets back women's movement any time he volunteers to help insists on helping. Tanis lives for the push/pull and has warped the self-image of two different women (Laurana and Kitiara)... but it does offer more than just the guy's perspective in all of these relationships and show the resilience and the emotional processing for everyone involved... But, once you get past it - hey - actually decent. I mean, Aragorn and Arwen were problematic in the LotR trilogy - I think it only would have been worse if there had been more of a sex-equitable role. If you want sex equity - it isn't a book, but Critical Role and The Legend of Vox Machina is way better on that front.

But, if you want high adventure, amazing prose - but a definitively smaller party - try out the Redwall series... the series becomes formulaic after the second book - and feel free to skip around - but the prose, and adventure is fantastic.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:03 PM on November 27, 2022

I also had that calendar! I'm blanking on a fitting successor, but can vouch for the Novik and Chalion suggestions above. Most of what I've got that has sweeping epic scope is also big on the moral ambiguity, and usually takes its sweet time getting to the epic part.
posted by mersen at 4:22 PM on November 27, 2022

maybe daniel abraham's dagger and coin series, starting with the dragon's path.

also btw...
How Dragonlance Launched My Lifelong Love of Fantasy - "I read Dragonlance first."*

oh and...
The Dragonlance Chronicles Reread: It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over - "Thank you for sticking with us for eighteen months, three books, sixty posts (75,000 words!), and seven guest posts!" (index ;)
posted by kliuless at 11:06 PM on November 27, 2022 [1 favorite]

The Wandering Inn is about as epic as it gets - currently sitting at 10,696,240 words - and eventually encompasses multiple races, worlds, gods, eras while still retaining a core cast of deep, relatable characters. It's a web serial, so the quality gets better the more you read. The first volume/book can be offputting as it's also a lot of background setting. Erin gets a lot less annoying too. I promise it's worth it.
posted by gible at 1:55 AM on November 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

Seconding Elizabeth Bear's two trilogies (Eternal Skies and Lotus Kingdoms), if you need to hear it from someone who doesn't watch TV with her. They are epic in scope, in terms of both threat and landscape. And the protagonists are diverse and refreshingly mature, intellectually and emotionally; they get into trouble because they are facing a difficult foe, not because they do stupid things.

I also second Curse of Chalion/Paladin of Souls as just phenomenal books (especially the second) but I don't think they are epic in quite the same way--Chalion is pretty static in location IIRC.

Another trilogy I love that (like Dragonlance) is feels like it was a D&D party is Kingfisher's The Clocktaur Wars. A paladin, thief, assassin and priest need to end a war. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon) is superb writer and has many fans here; this is AFAIK the closest she's done to an epic.

Agree Elizabeth Moon's Paksenarrion stuff is also good (and very much D&D inspired) but is a bit less consistent in quality.
posted by mark k at 7:43 AM on November 28, 2022 [4 favorites]

You need some old school Sword&Sorcery!
Conan the barbarian
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
posted by SweetLiesOfBokonon at 7:45 AM on November 28, 2022

For more traditional quest-type narratives, I would recommend Tad Williams' Dragonbone Chair series, Patricia McKillip's Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy, and C. J. Cherryh's Morgaine novels, starting with Gate of Ivrel (comes with a Whalen cover!).

For more contemporary fantasy, I recommend Kate Elliott! She has written multiple doorstop fantasy series (and one doorstop SF series), which are well-plotted, epic in scope, and have big casts. The villains are identifiable, although occasionally the protagonists are a bit grey. The characters might struggle with racism or sexism in her worlds, but it is written intentionally rather than embedded in the writer's worldview, if you catch my drift.

The Crown of Stars series is what would happen if GRR Martin had actually had a plan for his epic series, and set it in Dark Age Europe with a gender-neutral Church. And didn't use so much rape. And then actually finished the series.

Court of Fives is kind of Pride & Prejudice crossed with Ninja Warrior, but in a colonized country where a rebellion is brewing.
posted by suelac at 10:59 AM on November 28, 2022 [3 favorites]

The Black Company - follow a band of mercenaries as they try to fulfill their mandate.

The first book is rough - the second is thematically horror - but they get good by the third. There are various narrators who keep a history of The Black Company and the narrator swaps out every so often. There is a large cast of characters, and follows them through decades. Old characters depart or pass, new characters join.

Very (to me) interesting world building, and there are very memorable characters. Fairly well gender balanced.
posted by porpoise at 1:05 PM on November 28, 2022

The first Black Company book is super nasty and rapey and the narrator is like "eh, what can you do, it's wartime."

I enjoyed it and there is a lot of fantasy goodness in it, but it is not a story of heroes, it is a story of order-followers -- at least in the first book.
posted by Sauce Trough at 3:17 PM on November 28, 2022

Also, I read the Kate Elliott Alexander the Great book this year and I found the prose to be really blah, like Raymond Feist level blah, sub-pedestrian, with lots of annoying tics like everyone grinning before, during,and after speech.

I think dragonlance has better prose tbh.

(But if you like Raymond Feist and think his prose is fine then maybe Kate Elliott is for you!)
posted by Sauce Trough at 3:25 PM on November 28, 2022

Have just seen a dragon book, Ancient Protector by Katie Reus, recommended over at SBTB, in the comments on this post. Can't speak to the quality of the prose, but it looks as if it meets some of your criteria.
posted by paduasoy at 5:32 PM on November 29, 2022

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