Fantasy 301

Fantasy 301

This is it, what you’ve all been waiting for. What Steve and I think are the best books of Fantasy right now. The books that once you’ve trained yourself for them, that you should not go without reading. Well, maybe you haven’t been waiting for it because if you’re half as smart as we, reluctantly, give you credit for, than you have probably already guessed the books, or at least the authors.

So why did we wait so long? Well, let’s face it; most people will feel like the 301 level of fantasy a pretty steep hill if they aren’t prepared. There is a reason we want you to read the 101 and 201 levels first (and yes even the 102 and 202). Those books give you the building-blocks of what fantasy is. If you’re already a fantasy reader, then these lessons can be taken and used as checklists of must-reads, because our tastes is just THAT good. If haven’t been a fantasy reader, (because you must be by now if you have made it to 301) and you’ve followed our guidelines, you may be prepared for these novels.

The learning curve jumps significantly here, don’t freak out. Though we picked different novels, we are, in reality, pretty unanimous on all our choices here. That should tell you something. Great minds and all that…

One thing to note here: these books are a lot more mature in terms of content. Most of them have more language than the previous books we recommended, more sexual content, and perhaps more violence. Refer to our reviews of these novels for the specifics. Don’t feel bad if the content is too much for you; that’s why there are a ton of 200-level novels. Read these novels, feel them out, and decide if they are too much for you.

However, this is where the best fiction in the SF&F genre lies, and if you let yourself get sucked into the world-building and characters, you might just find yourself (like we were) in awe of the stories told in these novels.


Steve’s Picks:
Fantasy has changed over the past decade. In the 90’s we were swamped with either Jordanesque fantasy or with the last vestiges of Tolkienesque fantasy. There really was no variety, and I think that hurt the genre. Martin was really ahead of his time when he wrote A GAME OF THRONES, and I think he really set the tone for what fantasy has become. He decided that fantasy readers were intelligent. I know, crazy huh?

Rather than treat readers like they are a dumb subspecies of the human race (read: Goodkind), authors began writing fantasy novels that made people think. The learning curves got steeper and steeper. When I think of fantasy 301, I think of the fantasy novels that make all others simple, and somewhat dull, by comparison. In my picks, the characters are a lovely shade of gray, the plots aren’t clear-cut, the villains truly brutal (until you see their PoV, and then you can’t help but love them as well), and the worlds amazingly imaginative and deep.

For my picks, I decided to go with authors who have been around for a bit. You could say they are all established, and they paved the way for the newer authors that Nick gets into below (in some cases, the authors I chose literally helped get some of Nick’s picks published). These are the authors that make me excited to sit down and read. They are the authors that make me stare anxiously at the clock while I’m at work because I can’t wait to read the next chapter.

GARDENS OF THE MOON (Amazon) — Steven Erikson

A GAME OF THRONES (Amazon) — George R.R. Martin

PERDIDO STREET STATION (Amazon) — China Miéville

NIGHT OF KNIVES (Amazon) — Ian C. Esslemont

(Yes, I’m kinda cheating here. This is part of the same series as Gardens of the Moon, but written by a different author. It’s a shared-world project that Erikson and Esslemont have going on. You have to understand, the Malazan series, for me, is the best work in print. Period.)

Nick’s Picks:
Instead of going into detail about each book, like I have done in the previous University entries, I am going to keep this short and sweet. I have reviewed books by every one of these authors and have said what needs to be said about them and their work individually. As a whole, this group of authors comprises what I feel is the literary equivalent of the rat pack (or brat pack if you prefer). When a reader thinks about the fantasy genre, these are the names that should pop into their head immediately behind Tolkien and Jordan. Others may disagree with me, but I do have my reasons.

One, they are the current face of fantasy. Therefore they are the authors who are the driving force determining where the genre will go (like Grandpa T and Jordan did before them). Two, they know their craft. For being so newly published they show incredible depth in their characters and their plotting. Finally, though there are still many fans of the high sorcery and adventure fantasy that many of us grew up with, I believe that an astonishing and growing number of us readers are looking for something harder and grittier, while not explicit or gratuitous, but with a feeling of immediacy in the writing (Picky right?). We are looking for critical thinking and philosophy in our entertainment. We want books with all of these things, without giving up what fantasy is. These authors deliver exactly that.

They are fantasy books in every way shape and form, but they are also books that beg the reader to ask questions while never missing a beat to thrill us, the readers.

THE BLADE ITSELF (Amazon) — Joe Abercrombie


THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA (Amazon) — Scott Lynch

STORMCALLER (Amazon) — Tom Lloyd

Parent page: Elitist University


  • Dragen says:

    Yes!! Finally!! These books are the books I have been waiting for, and happy day, two of the authors I haven’t read jet. Tom Lloyd and Ian C. Esslemonts books are promptly added to my Amazon shopping basket.

    I read Perdido Street Station last year and didn’t like it, but that is just me.

    What I don’t get is why you haven’t reviewed Patrick Rothfuss The name of the wind at all. I don’t insist (well, I kind of do) that it belongs here in fantasy 301, but come on, it is marvellous!

    I am looking forward to fantasy 302 – Can’t wait!! 🙂

  • Glad we could add to your bill. Heaven knows mine is high enough.

    As for Name of the Wind, we felt it was more Fantasy 201, which is where we put it and briefly talk about it. We have been debating posting a review of it for while, but just can't seem to pull the trigger. Maybe it has something to do with no firm date for the release of book 2. Enough people have been asking about it though, so maybe we will. I'll chat with Nick.

  • Dragen says:

    Shame on me for not remembering The name of the wind from 201.
    Bad girl!!


  • -Slamel- says:

    I refuse to review Name of the Wind. We have pimped that book out inside of a couple other reviews, mentioned it as many times, and put it in Fantasy 201. This is me crossing my arms and stubbornly digging my heels in!

  • Laura says:

    I was wondering if my taste in Fantasy was up off track looking at the 100 and 200 level's, but I'm on track with the 300. I own all the books mentioned except Tom Lloyd whom I look forward to finding.

  • -Slamel- says:

    Well Laura we DO have better taste in books, remember? You are in for a treat when you get into Lloyd's series. Its a lot of fun. Just out of curiousity, for purely academic reasons of course, what would you have included in 100/200?

  • Bejay says:

    Funny, I own all of Steve's picks and none of Nick's. Seems I need to buy some books..

  • SeekingPlumb says:

    Just what I was craving!! Thank you!!

  • Craig says:

    I'd say Nick's picks are way more interesting than Steve's. There is nothing wrong with Steve's picks it's just to sprought off Martin, Erikson and Mieville is far too predictable.

  • I named the authors that paved the way for the authors Nick picked. That was kinda the setup. Bakker, for example, owes Erikson for getting published.

    I could have easily picked the same authors as Nick, but then where would the variety be? Erikson though–regardless of “predictability”–will top any fantasy list I make. I forbade Nick picking him so I could put him on my list. Nearly every author in British Fantasy owe their success, in part, to Erikson.

  • Craig says:

    Steve you explained quite clearly in the text that you were looking at the authors who paved the way in terms of complexity while Nick was looking at more recent authors. That, however, is not what I have an issue with.

    There is a tendency nowadays to draw a line under 1996 and look at the likes of Martin and Erikson ushering in a new age of complexity in fantasy literature. That of course oversimplifies matters as there were certainly writers producing books that treated their readers as intelligent and were decidedly complex. Stephen Donaldson, Glen Cook and even Melanie Rawn come to mind. I just think that you, with those picks, fell into that same trap.

  • Kaz says:

    Erickson is a much steeper learning curve than Cook… and i love both.

  • Laura says:

    There are so many that I had to think about this for a few days. There are standards, like The Hobbit and LOTR. I grew up reading Fantasy and Dragon Lance is an essential part of that. Accessable, yet predictable in a good way. Dark Fantasy would be David Wellington – who's vampires definately do not sparkle. I think Melanie Rawn, early Robin Hobb and J.V. Jones are fabulous, and I still go back and read them. Then there is the entire YA fantasy genre, some of which is actually great.

  • Antonio says:

    From 301 I've only read Erikson, Martin and Abercrombie so far. And I was quite expecting the for this list, though I'not through with Malazan, yet.
    I think I will give all the others a shot as well, if only the day had more hours…

  • linguana says:

    Fantastic picks!

    I know you're guys and all, but I definitely believe that Robin Hobb fits in this list, too. Her books are, in my opinion, on the same level as some of the ones you mentioned. I don't know why I think of hers as more girly fantasy books (because, let's face it, there's not a whole lot of girl characters – or at least not important ones – in her books) and I'm so not a feminist (at least not the bra-burning kind) BUT she has to go in that list, guys.

    Other than that – I love you. Your taste is impeccable. 🙂

    Best wishes from Austria (yes, we have intelligent fantasy readers, too).

  • Vanessa says:

    @linguana – Yep, they don't post any women writers on the 300 list. And most of the book reviews on this site are books men wrote. As a new reviewer I hope to help them balance out that little issue. But to answer your 'girly fantasy' issue, it's clearly about how the novels are written, because, well, they're written by women, whose sensibilities are different. Current female authors like Hobb, Bujold, Monette, etc, all write excellent stuff with male leads, fight scenes, and the greyer shades of human behavior–but their style will still lack that same brutal appeal authors like Abercrombie and Martin have for guys.

  • -Slamel- says:

    @Vanessa – As much as I would love to just shout J.V. Jones at you and leave it at that…I won't.

    J.V. Jones has shown that female authors can write exception works, create believable male and female leads, an engaging story, as well as be just as brutal or even moreso than Abercrombie and Erikson. Martin…well no one can be as brutal as he is. J.V. Jones raised the bar for women in the epic fantasy genre. Until they can write like her, they won't be as good in our eyes.

    Sara Douglass has also done this to a lesser extent. She writes about very girly stuff sometimes but is one of the most brutal, and true-to-the-integrity-of-the-story writers I have read.

    There ARE plenty of female authors out there that I, and Steve, like. Do they deserve to be on this list? The answer is in the list itself.

    EBR is, has always been, and will always be a biased site. We let everyone know that up front. We like what we like, and write our reviews that way. It isn't about any anti-feminist agenda, or in your case a pro-feminist agenda.

    We choose the books for this list based on what we think is the best. Also, keep in mind, this is UoF 301, with Steve and I each picking 4 books each. Do you really think that we don't know there are other fantastic authors out there, and plan on including them in 302, 303, etc?

  • The Robin Hobb of old may have been included in the 201 list (indeed I also put her down on my own list), but not 301. Plus, her new stuff is crap, and horridly cliche. Please refer to the review we posted of her novel several months ago.

  • -Slamel- says:

    @linguana – I LOVE seeing that we have overseas readers. Check the authors I mentioned if you are looking for great female writers, that do the good stuff!

  • Vanessa says:

    Doh. Never read Jones so there you are. Yea, the new Hobb stuff has been disappointing, which is too bad. I haven't read Douglass, but picked up one of hers at the library yesterday.

    Hrm. What else can I poke you guys with to get you riled up? 😉

  • Dan Smyth says:

    You could tell them that KJ Parker rocks!


    Sorry, I couldn't help myself. And, yes, I know you'd probably never make such an assertion. Thus, I did.

    @Vanessa: Read JV Jones. Good stuff.

    I've read some of Douglass and got tired of it. Then her fantasy series I was in the middle of turned into a science fiction story. So I bailed.

  • Vanessa says:


    So. I started Douglass' THE WAYFARER REDEMPTION and got 2/3 of the way through before I reached my annoyance threshold and gave up. I doubt I'll be picking up any of hers again.

    Started THE BAKER'S SON by JV Jones and am liking it so far, the writing is much more fluid. I guess we'll see how the plot/characterization pans out.

  • Vanessa says:


  • skymnolf says:

    Hey I realize I am a little late to the party but I can't say I really cared all that much for Bakker's Prince of Nothing series. Except for the titles of the first and third installments. Its not really that its bad per say after all the characters particularly Kellhus. Nor can one say that Bakker treats his readership like idiots quite the opposite but the story itself feels like its been done before. When I say that I do mean it has literally been done before. Spoilery maybe* It seems like a giant rephrasing of the crusades here in the real world. I mean its like he took random accounts of the crusades and cut out peoples names and replaced them. For such a philosophically deep book it lacks in perspective in my opinion. Suffice it to say if it was going to be on any of your lists it is certainly 300 level. Gotta disagree about Rothfuss though he deserves 300 level as well but I guess thats just me at least hes in good company with Sanderson. Thanks

  • Fantasist says:

    My tastes match Nick's completely! Is that a coincident? Or are we clones?

  • linguana says:

    @Vanessa and Slamel: I have been going very much by your reviews here for the last year or so. And you guys have never disappointed yet. The books I read you found awful, I totally agree with you.

    Haven't read any of Hobb's new works yet (I'm in the middle of the third farseer/liveship trilogies and still liking it) but I've wanted to read Bujold for ages (still a Bujold virgin, shame on me!).

    Lately, I've been getting into sci-fi so I started with the typical beginner's books like Ender's Game (awesome!) and some Heinlein and Dick. But as fantasy goes, there's so much crap out there, it's wonderful to have a bunch of people who pick out the good stuff for you. 🙂

    (P.S. ignore the livejournal blog to my username. That's ancient and my English was kind of embarrasing then.)

  • Vanessa says:

    I'm glad you found us, then @linguana. Lucky for you, you can read sci-fi AND Bujold at the same time, starting with CORDELIA'S HONOR and then the fantastic Miles Vorkosigan Series with THE WARRIOR'S APPRENTICE. If you enjoyed ENDER'S GAME and Hobbs' older stuff, then you're sure to like those.

  • Unknown says:

    Having read most of the other books before finding EBR, I jumped straight here.. Starting with Tom Lloyd after I finish Mistborn. This is me excited.

  • Vanessa says:

    Dude. It's on the Elitist Classics List:

    And it's the first one there, even!

  • Terenbas says:

    In all of your University entries, why is the Lord of the Rings NOT on any of them? Despite the fact that some of you may not like his writing (or sundry other elements) I think this omission is a crime punishable by being kicked out of elite-dom.

    Fix this Elite Book Review Guys! Otherwise you are in danger of having a worse taste in books than I do!

  • Luke, Gordon says:

    Seriously… Scott Lynch? C’mon guys he writes at a grade 4 level at best. Anyone else out there honestly think he belongs on the 301 list?

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