There is an expectation that books and series in the fantasy genre will contain elements to differentiate their worlds, characters, and magic from the rest; however, there are a few that do something completely out of the ordinary, even for fantasy. Below are 5 epic fantasy books and series that pushed the boundaries, forever changing the genre.
The Mistborn Saga – By Brandon Sanderson
The highly prolific fantasy author Brandon Sanderson is working to write a saga with 4 different eras, all taking place in the world of Scadrial, where a magic called Allomancy allows characters to gain a whole range of powers by consuming metals. The first trilogy comprises the books The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages.
Brandon Sanderson has also published three books in a sequel quartet that take place 300 years later, with technology that has developed from medieval to early 20th century. He is currently at work on the fourth and final book of that era.
And he is not stopping there: the next era will be Scadrial with early 2000s technology, followed by a final era that will launch his world and characters into science fiction with space-faring technology.
If you are looking for an epic fantasy series where you can watch the steady advancement of technology and the changing tone of character, story, and action through time, the Mistborn Saga will provide you with all of that and much more.
The Stand – By Stephen King
The premise is simple: the population of humanity is cut to the bare bone—roughly 1%—by a merciless disease. The brilliance of this Stephen King novel of literal epic proportions is the way it realistically meshes the supernatural elements offered by the fantasy genre into the familiar setting of the United States…minus all the crowded restaurant lines, customer service call traffic, and piles of cheeseburgers. It is in this chaotic new face of America that Stephen King’s characters are forced to start from scratch.
Taking into account the year 2020, roughly 30 years after the book was set, The Stand takes on a layer of reality that is, to put it honestly, terrifying.
It should be noted that this Stephen King’s book has 2 editions (the shortened first edition and the more recently published uncut edition); I highly recommend investing the time into the ladder option, as it is packed with more of what makes this book stand out among others in the fantasy genre: It shows the contemporary flow of the characters’ lives during the gradual progression of the disease followed by the total wipeout of civilization. The combination of character realism with the fantastical circumstances makes The Stand a tome that you’ll want to read, reread, then read again, so on and so forth.
Wizard’s Hall – By Jane Yolen
Are you a Harry Potter fan? Have you been waiting for the next Harry Potter Weekend to start on the SYFY channel? Are you itching for something—ANYTHING—to satisfy your wand-casting-spell urge since you’ve already read all seven books and watched the movies nine hundred and thirty-four times?
Jane Yolen’s book Wizard’s Hall, it turns out, was written before J. K. Rowling published Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and features many similar elements to the phenomenon that followed just a few years later. Her book, being of shorter length, is perfect for providing you with that wizard fantasy fix you’ve been searching for all these years.
Though it wasn’t adapted into a billion-dollar franchise, the book may have helped set the innovative groundwork for J. K. Rowling’s series even though Jane Yolen said in an article on Wired, “I’m pretty sure she never read my book.” Just as J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy benchmarked the rise of the fantasy genre for series like A Song of Ice and Fire (George R. R. Martin) and The Dark Tower (Stephen King), it is likely that Jane Yolen’s preceding novel may have indirectly set the tone for the “wizard school” fantasy phenomenon to take off.
Star Wars Legends – By George Lucas And Numerous Authors
When it comes to worlds in the fantasy genre, most consist of continents, islands, regions, etc.—sizable places that we can wrap our heads around. That is where things change in regard to this next mention. Star Wars Legends is a literary behemoth unlike any other.
The result of fans writing “several hundred tie in novels,” which span across more than 36 millennia of fictional history according to Wookieepedia, the Star Wars Fandom website, few works of fantasy can claim to have reached this scope in terms of world size, character exploration, and fictional lore. The sheer number of works that comprise it is enough to make one question the very fabric of reality. After all, it seems unreal that so much content can exist purely based off of 2 film trilogies. That, folks, is the power of fan collaboration.
If you’re looking to become completely lost in a galactic-scale fantasy universe, complete with its own distinct magic system, cultures, religions, technologies, and countless individual planets, or you simply want to see more of your favorite mainstream Star Wars characters in action, pick up one the hundreds of books Legends has to offer, and good luck trying to find your way back to Earth.
A Song of Ice and Fire – By George R. R. Martin
The series you were most likely thinking of. Though A Song of Ice and Fire made its mark with the help of the HBO television adaptation Game of Thrones, its primary innovation was not bringing fantasy to cable; rather, that of dying protagonists.
In fantasy series prior, characters were known to avoid death unscathed despite dire circumstances or it being the sensible result of their actions. There are even examples of characters dying, only to be resurrected, such as Gandalf the Gray, who reemerged as Gandalf the White in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (I’m not complaining).
With so many fantasy masterworks using all sorts of ‘life-hacks,’ the groundwork was established for Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, beginning with his iconic A Game of Thrones to send earth-quakes through the fantasy genre. He did this by taking beloved characters away from us. Their lives on the page and in the adaptations were made all the more real and dire by the knowledge that the wrong swing of the sword, bow of the head, or answer to nature’s call could result in their certain death.
A Song of Ice and Fire found the formula that all other fantasy novels had been searching for but couldn’t quite figure out—to combine thriller and suspense with the grandiose world-building and massive cast of characters that define the genre. George R. R. Martin’s blending of these elements forever changed the fantasy genre, calling on more authors to cast aside the fear of murdering their characters out of cold blood for the sake of entertainment.
The 5 books and series above represent the inventive spirit of the fantasy genre to the fullest. They and other books like them are contributors to the evolution of not only the genre they belong to, but to the entire world of literature. By pushing the boundaries and doing things unseen prior, these books and series paved the way for other writers to wander further into the wilderness of the blank page, guaranteeing us readers a steady and eclectic realm of fantasy to indulge in.