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Wheel of Time and other quest fantasies

Mercurius

Legend
The Wheel of Time series has inspired me to start a re-read of Eye of the World. For background, I read the first seven or eight books as they came out, starting in 1990. For me, as a huge fan of "quest fantasy," it felt like the culmination of the plethora of such fantasies in the 80s. It was almost like Robert Jordan took the best elements of these and then turned it up to 11. I bought and devoured each book as they came out, before getting stalled out at Path of Daggers (book 8) and didn't finish the series (though know the gist of how it ends).

I started a first re-read of EotW about five years ago, but though I was enjoying it, for reasons I forget, I only made it about a third of the way through. But the series and various online discussions (including here) have inspired me to revisit Jordan's world, so I picked up a copy of The Wheel of Time Companion and am greatly enjoying EotW so far. Who knows how far I'll get.

Anyhow, it got me thinking (again) about quest fantasies. In the various sub-genres of fantasy, epic, high, quest, and secondary world fantasies have all been used to describe what I'm talking about, but I'm talking about something a bit more specific than any of those larger categories.

What I mean is this: The main story involves some kind of quest, with a group of companions. It usually starts in some sort of pastoral, or at least homey, setting, and then involves a journey into the "wilderness." There is usually some kind of "dark lord," of course (although in a variety of configurations), magic, magical creatures, lost history, hidden secrets, etc. The emphasis is usually less on politics than it is on some kind of quest or great struggle against the dark lord. And it is generally set in a secondary world.

For many, this is fantasy, although anyone with any knowledge of the genre knows that it is just a thin slice of the larger pie, at this point, with many other different sub-genres, as well as various forms of subversions.

For lack fo a better term, we could also call this "Tolkienian fantasy" - although some of it has other more primary sources of inspiration, and some of it doesn't go into deep world-building like Tolkien did who, in a way, wrote The Lord of the Rings as a way to share his creation, rather than the other way around. But the best of such fantasy, imo, has a feeling of a hidden "legendarium" (to use term for Tolkien's body of Middle-earth work): a body of work, of myths and legends, world details, etc, that is always much larger than what is portrayed in the story itself and that, in the best such instances, gives a strong sense of a living world.

I will also say that while Tolkien codified a certain formula, he isn't the first writer of such fantasy - though he holds a rather titanic place in the sub-genre. In a way, he's the Babe Ruth of such fantasy: Ruth wasn't the first baseball player, or even the first great baseball player, but he not only instituted a new approach to hitting, but he is the archetype of the great baseball player in a way that no other player before or after has been.

So my questions for discussion are this:

What are some examples of truly good "Tolkienian fantasy?" Particularly those that, while they might clearly have Tolkienian elements (e.g. Two Rivers = the Shire, Myrddraal = Nazgul, etc), feel unique in their own right. Like the Wheel of Time.

What are your favorite "Tolkienian fantasies?" This could go hand-in-hand with the above, but broadens a bit to include "guilty pleasures" - stories that you might feel aren't the best written or most original, but are just fun to read and/or hold a special place in your heart, perhaps from your childhood.

I will reply in a separate post, so as not to extend this one too long. But I look forward to hearing from everyone else - especially with regards to more recent books, as I think this sub-genre has somewhat lessened, at least in terms of market-share (in other words, I am unsure if less is being written, or if the field has just diversified and broadened more, while this sub-genre has stayed the same).
 

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TheSword

Legend
I did enjoy the David Eddings works. I read the Belgariad as a boy and remember devouring it before getting on to Robert Jordan a few years later. It was probably my first fantasy epic.

I also remember thoroughly enjoying its sequel, the Mallorian. And the sister trilogy the Eleium and it’s sequel trilogy the Tamuli.

All these books fit the themes you described above and have tolkeinien style characters. Though often they become more extraordinary than the hobbits of the shire. I personally prefer that, probably why I enjoy the Wheel of Time.

The secondary casts are also quite interesting. I remember a snake worshiping vizier, a princess, a bevy of knights, ancient sorcerers, rogues, north men and various other party members.

I think I’d definitely be interested to get them on audio book and give them another go.
 
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Mercurius

Legend
To respond to my own questions:

What are some examples of truly good "Tolkienian fantasy?"
First and foremost, Tolkien himself, although while I love Lord of the Rings, I am more a fan of the Legendarium as a whole - as presented through The Silmarillion, but also various other bits and pieces, such as: the History of Middle-earth series, his Letters, the One Ring wiki, and the recent The Nature of Middle-earth. In my opinion, Middle-earth is still unsurpassed in terms of the "aesthetics of world-building." Others have perhaps done it with as great detail or effectiveness in terms of setting, but none have done it so beautifully.

I only read a few books, but Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen is a tremendous work of fantasy, although may be fudging it a bit in terms of being "Tolkienian." But it has the depth of world-building, if the emphasis and style is rather different.

R Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series is, in some ways, a 21st century, almost nihilistic--or at least dark--take on Tolkienian fantasy.

I haven't read it in years, but I imagine Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series still holds up well. In some ways, it started the popularity of the "Big Fat Fantasy," the first book--The Dragonbone Chair--published in 1988, a couple years before Jordan's series began. I haven't read the more recent series.

I already mentioned Robert Jordan in the original post, but would re-mention him here. As I said, I think in many ways, The Wheel of Time is the culmination of Tolkienian fantasy that dominanted the market during the 80s.

What are your favorite "Tolkienian fantasies?"
Growing up, I absolutely loved David Eddings' Belgariad series. It seems rather crude compared to Tolkien in terms of world-building and aesthetics, but it was just a fun read, with many colorful characters.

And of course, Dragonlance - another childhood favorite. When I tried re-reading a couple decades later, I could barely get through the first book as the prose was so amateurish, although I remember it improving by book 2.

One more, before this gets too long (there are others): Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga, another very popular series. I read and enjoyed the original quartet of books (or trilogy, if you go by the original printing), and then finding that my interest diminished with later books and I only read a few more.

I'm sure I'm forgetting a bunch, but oh well. I mainly started this thread to hear from you all. I showed you mine, now show me yours ;-).
 

Mercurius

Legend
I did enjoy you David Eddings works. I read the Belgariad as a boy and remember devouring it before getting on to Robert Jordan a few years later. It was probably my first fantasy epic.

I also remember thoroughly enjoying its sequel, the Mallorian. And the sister trilogy the Eleium and it’s sequel trilogy the Tamuli.

All these books fit the themes you described above and have tolkeinien style characters. Though often they become more extraordinary than the hobbits of the shire. I personally prefer that, probably why I enjoy the Wheel of Time.

The secondary casts are also quite interesting. I remember a snake worshiping vizier, a princess, a bevy of knights, ancient sorcerers, rogues, north men and various other party members.

I think I’d definitely be interested to get them on audio book and give them another go.
Yeah, I mentioned Eddings in my follow-up after yours: also very much enjoyed them. One of the only series that I re-read within a few months of finishing, but this was back when I was in middle school.

I liked the Elenium, although not as much. I also felt like the Mallorean was sort of a re-tread of the Belgariad, although still enjoyable.

I re-read the Belgariad some years ago - I think maybe fifteen? Still very enjoyable, although also was a bit simplistic to my jaded 30ish self. I've thought of re-reading them again at some point.
 

Mercurius

Legend
One more thing. I started this thread because I find that even as I like to read widely within fantasy and science fiction, I always come back to this style of fantasy as my favorite. There is something almost comforting about it. And even though it is often accused of being derivative and formulaic, I find that authors still find ways to keep it fresh.
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
I haven't read it in years, but I imagine Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series still holds up well. In some ways, it started the popularity of the "Big Fat Fantasy," the first book--The Dragonbone Chair--published in 1988, a couple years before Jordan's series began. I haven't read the more recent series.
I came to say that Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is pretty close to being the only epic fantasy that I know of that actually imitated Tolkien's prose style instead of borrowing some trappings. Mostly people going on long walks to destiny, singing songs about history.

The Wheel of Time leaves the formula behind pretty hard, and takes a weird left turn in books 4-5, when the main characters really start to get into their personal Hells and stay there fighting till Kingdom Come. Becomes more Tolstoy meets Austen than Tolkien.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Yeah, I mentioned Eddings in my follow-up after yours: also very much enjoyed them. One of the only series that I re-read within a few months of finishing, but this was back when I was in middle school.

I liked the Elenium, although not as much. I also felt like the Mallorean was sort of a re-tread of the Belgariad, although still enjoyable.

I re-read the Belgariad some years ago - I think maybe fifteen? Still very enjoyable, although also was a bit simplistic to my jaded 30ish self. I've thought of re-reading them again at some point.
Elenium was my first Eddings series. I have fond memories, but there is a good amount of stuff that has aged poorly.

Still, I love the characters, and I want badly to play in a game where a cadre of knights from the same faith but different orders go on a quest.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
I did enjoy you David Eddings works. I read the Belgariad as a boy and remember devouring it before getting on to Robert Jordan a few years later. It was probably my first fantasy epic.

I also remember thoroughly enjoying its sequel, the Mallorian. And the sister trilogy the Eleium and it’s sequel trilogy the Tamuli.

All these books fit the themes you described above and have tolkeinien style characters. Though often they become more extraordinary than the hobbits of the shire. I personally prefer that, probably why I enjoy the Wheel of Time.

The secondary casts are also quite interesting. I remember a snake worshiping vizier, a princess, a bevy of knights, ancient sorcerers, rogues, north men and various other party members.

I think I’d definitely be interested to get them on audio book and give them another go.

I lived Eddings as well when younger.

He gets a bit repetitive though if you read him a lot.

Still he cranked those books out.

Magian by Feist count?

Wedding best work was the Elenium imho and Feists the Empire Trilogy.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
Yeah, I mentioned Eddings in my follow-up after yours: also very much enjoyed them. One of the only series that I re-read within a few months of finishing, but this was back when I was in middle school.

I liked the Elenium, although not as much. I also felt like the Mallorean was sort of a re-tread of the Belgariad, although still enjoyable.

I re-read the Belgariad some years ago - I think maybe fifteen? Still very enjoyable, although also was a bit simplistic to my jaded 30ish self. I've thought of re-reading them again at some point.

Think I was 14 when I read them.

Very enjoyable but yeah more if a young adult type book.

Still better than most D&D novels and other fantasy books.
 

Dioltach

Legend
I agree that Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is among the best. Other examples include the first three of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books and the first three Shannara novels. (They get a lot of stick nowadays, but back in the late 1970s and early 1980s they essentially codified the genre, by establishing what elements from Tolkien make a good fantasy story.)
 

I'd add The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. Like Tolkien, it's also a work heavily informed by the author's religious beliefs.

And it's not a book, and it's certainly done for laughs, but there's also the Hello from the Magic Tavern podcast. After all, it does have a Dark Lord...
 

Mad_Jack

Adventurer
I only read a few books, but Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen is a tremendous work of fantasy, although may be fudging it a bit in terms of being "Tolkienian." But it has the depth of world-building, if the emphasis and style is rather different.

Eh, the whole "Fellowship/quest" vibe of the first book doesn't last much past that - Erikson's saga is more like shoving all of Tolkien's works into a single book, bouncing back and forth from LotR to The Hobbit to the Silmarillion in each chapter... The scope of Erikson's world balloons massively with each successive book. There are actually a fair number of characters (or groups thereof) whose "quests"/character arcs take them through a good portion of the various storylines in the series, but there are so many subplots and events going on at any one time that not many of those characters/groups stick out as a main protagonist for very long.
But Erikson definitely has the same depth of world-building. By the end of the series, his world(s) actually make Middle Earth look small.
On a side note, Erikson is an anthropologist, and his world started out as the backdrop for his and his co-author's GURPS campaign, so it's not surprising that he put some serious depth into all the different aspects of his world.
 

GreyLord

Legend
No one's mentioned the Shannara books yet?

One of the funny things about the Sword of Shannara vs. Thomas Covenant (the first trilogy) is that the First Trilogy of Thomas Covenant is more of a rip off of the Lord of the Rings than the Sword of Shannara. The First book in the Shannara series get's obvious cues from Lord of the Rings, but the first trilogy of Thomas Covenant is a blatant rip off.

The first book has it where you have the all powerful ring that the Dark lord wants and the group has to go on a quest through catacombs to find a solution to things...or so they hope, entirely with their Gandolf figure and the fellowship as well as the council.

In the second book you have the Ring bearer now on their separate journey in the mountains as well as the Battle of Helm's Deep.

The third book you have the siege of Gondor (well, it's not called that, but it's that in all but name), and the ring bearer taking the fight to the Dark Lord with his faithful companion.

The parallels are far more than that for one who looks at it, but I won't go and make a ten page comparison. Sword of Shannara is obviously based off Lord of the Rings and gets slack for it, but ironically the Thomas Covenant trilogy which also is very blatant on it never get's called out on it.

I like both series, I just find it ironic.

Elfstones of Shannara on the otherhand is awesome (still has a Helm's Deep moment though) and perhaps my favorite of all of them.
 


Mercurius

Legend
No one's mentioned the Shannara books yet?

One of the funny things about the Sword of Shannara vs. Thomas Covenant (the first trilogy) is that the First Trilogy of Thomas Covenant is more of a rip off of the Lord of the Rings than the Sword of Shannara. The First book in the Shannara series get's obvious cues from Lord of the Rings, but the first trilogy of Thomas Covenant is a blatant rip off.

The first book has it where you have the all powerful ring that the Dark lord wants and the group has to go on a quest through catacombs to find a solution to things...or so they hope, entirely with their Gandolf figure and the fellowship as well as the council.

In the second book you have the Ring bearer now on their separate journey in the mountains as well as the Battle of Helm's Deep.

The third book you have the siege of Gondor (well, it's not called that, but it's that in all but name), and the ring bearer taking the fight to the Dark Lord with his faithful companion.

The parallels are far more than that for one who looks at it, but I won't go and make a ten page comparison. Sword of Shannara is obviously based off Lord of the Rings and gets slack for it, but ironically the Thomas Covenant trilogy which also is very blatant on it never get's called out on it.

I like both series, I just find it ironic.

Elfstones of Shannara on the otherhand is awesome (still has a Helm's Deep moment though) and perhaps my favorite of all of them.
I think you're missing a huge difference: the Thomas Covenant books were meant as a deliberate subversion of Tolkien tropes, whereas the first Shannara book was clearly an attempt (and a successful one) to ride on Tolkien's coat-tails.

But I agree that Elfstones and Wishsong were more original and much better books than Shannara, although it has been 35ish years since I read them.
 

Mordhau

Adventurer
There was the Winter of the World trilogy by Michael Scott Rohan.

I remember it was a refreshing take on a lot of the Tolkien cliches while still playing them largely straight. It was actually mostly set in a lost civilisation in Ice Age North America and the enemy/dark lord force was actually the malevolent will behind the encroaching glaciers. There were a lot of elements of Norse and Finnish mythology.

With the exception of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, it's much better than anything else mentioned in the thread so far. (I haven't read R. Scott Bakker and the Malazan books are something vastly different as already mentioned).
 

Hex08

Explorer
As a huge fantasy fan, I am almost embarrassed to say this, but I have never read Lord of the Rings. I've tried several times, but I just didn't enjoy it. That said, I do love that style of fantasy. If I were to pick my favorites they would be:

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are my all-time favorites books and get re-read every few years. Unfortunately, I doubt they would appeal as much to a younger, more modern audience since Covenant engages in some reprehensible behavior. Regardless, I love The Land and its inhabitants.

I loved the Shanarra series and of all of these books The Sword of Shannara is probably the most Tolkien-like. I never read beyond Bearer of the Black Staff though

Both the Belgariad and the Mallorian were also huge favorites.

The Wheel of Time of course, although I do think it is way longer than it ever should have been. Someone should have reigned Jordan in.

The Chronicles of the Black Company are a great read, but they might not be exactly the same style of quest driven books as the others.

I really need to get around to reading those copies of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn I bought years ago.
 
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Second The Winter of the World. It's one of my favourite fantasy series.

And for all I enjoyed Memory, Sorrow and Thorn I think it comes a distant second to his Shadowmarch series.
 

Dioltach

Legend
Several of the Squire's Tales books by William Morris are quest fantasies. (They're YA retellings of Arthurian stories, from the perspective of the knights' sidekicks: squires, minstrels, a young girl, and so on. Excellent books.)
 

S'mon

Legend
What are some good Quest Fantasy RPG campaigns? They seem rather thin on the ground. There's Dragonlance of course, and I'm GMing Odyssey of the Dragon Lords which is a Greek-themed Quest Fantasy.
 

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