As a lover of books, I’m always on the lookout for the next great one. Whether it be reading reviews, asking friends, or digging through the physical and virtual shelves of sellers, my spare time seems to be unusually obsessed with uncovering these overlooked gems. And I’ve had some success. Success which I’ve tried to pass on in my Overlooked Series post. But I always fear I’ve missed something.
Well, in the last month, I decided to go directly to a source I personally had not mined before: the author’s themselves. And so I began sending out emails, tweets, and Facebook messages to all my favorite writers (ones I have interacted with in the past and those I had not) asking what older, speculative fiction books or series they themselves believed were “underappreciated” and worthy of more attention by current readers.
Much to my delight, most of these fabulous authors took time out of their busy schedule to respond. Their answers forming the basis of this article. So sit back and see what writers themselves (at least those on this list) recommend!
“For those interested in melancholy anti-heroes, I highly recommend Karl Edward Wagner’s ‘Kane’ series. I didn’t know what to make of them when I first encountered them, but they struck me as more believable than anything I was reading at the time (even more so than Moorcock’s ‘Elric’). Kane was far more than a warrior mage, he was philosopher as well, a soul forever doomed to see the evil, and not just the necessity ‘justifying’ it.”
– R. Scott Bakker, author of The Prince of Nothing and Aspect-Emperor
“’The Riddle Master’ series by Patricia McKillip. I remember reading this when I was a teenager, around the same time as I read ‘The Earthsea Trilogy,’ the ‘Book of the New Sun,’ and ‘Dune.’ To this day I’m surprised more people aren’t aware of Miss McKillip’s extraordinary book. The writing is rich, the characters layered and not the predictable fantasy fare, and the world engaging. I recommend it to anybody who wants a rewarding reading experience in the genre.”
– Mark T. Barnes, author of Echoes of Empire
“‘The Prydain Chronicles’ by Lloyd Alexander. ‘The Belgariad’ by David Eddings. ‘The Black Company’ by Glen Cook. The Amber books by Roger Zelazny. The Narnia books by C.S. Lewis.”
– Jim Butcher, author of Dresden Files and Codex Alera
‘The Architect of Sleep’ by Steven R. Boyett is one of my favourites from the 1980’s; ‘The Architect of Sleep’ is arguably both under and over-appreciated. This first book in Boyett’s science fiction series about an alternate earth where raccoons evolve to become the dominate species was beloved by readers (including yours truly). However a dispute with the publisher caused Boyett to buy the rights back to the sequel and put it on hold for decades. So why ‘over-appreciated’ then? Because, according to the author, a number of “furry” groups (look it up, Internet) became so enamoured of the book that this has led Boyett to vow never to write the sequels.
‘Bard’ by Keith Taylor is another favorite. There just aren’t enough books about bards out there so I’d argue the whole category is under-appreciated. That said, it’s hard to top Felimid Mac Fal for his love of music, poetry, magic, and adventure. Taylor’s mixture of fantasy and history made for the perfect world through which to follow in Felimid’s footsteps. As for my proof of the series being under-appreciated? It’s unavailable in e-book and it took me nearly ten years to find a copy of the fifth book in paperback.”
– Sebastien de Castell, author of Greatcoats
“No one who has heard me speak at a convention or writer’s workshop will be surprised to learn that my choice of a beloved older and under-appreciated series is written by Canadian fantasist Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay has long been one of my favorite authors. Complex characters, brilliantly realized worlds, a trained historian’s eye for detail, gorgeous prose — what’s not to love?
I would be hard pressed to choose a single favorite from among all his works, but I was introduced to his writing by his wonderful ‘Fionavar Tapestry,’ a trilogy published in the 1980s that consists of ‘The Summer Tree,’ ‘The Wandering Fire,’ and ‘The Darkest Road.’ In many ways, these are fairly typical classic fantasy novels. People from our own world are transported to an alternate magical realm, where they encounter wizards, dragons, magical creatures both good and evil, and an ancient malevolent god who has been held captive beneath a mountain for a thousand years. Now the god is about to break free of his geological prison, and the transported chosen ones must help defeat him, or the ramifications of evil in Fionavar will destroy all other worlds, including our own.
Same ol’ same ol’, right? Well, actually, no.
These novels blend known mythologies and legends with original fictional elements to create something wondrous and powerful and altogether unexpected. The writing is sublime, the pacing leaves one breathless, and the many narrative threads come together seamlessly. Like so much epic fantasy, these books deal with themes of sacrifice and betrayal, vengeance and redemption. Again, there is much here that readers will find familiar. But this familiarity only serves to make the unique elements of the story that much more effective. These are books I have gone back to reread again and again. In fact, it might just be time for me to open them up again.
— David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson, author of Winds of the Forelands and Thieftaker Chronicles
“Katharine Kerr’s ‘Deverry’ sequence spans 15 volumes to tell an epic historical fantasy saga of quests and battles and magic. The first volume, ‘Daggerspell,’ was published in 1986, which means she began working with the multivolume format to tell a huge story before many of the more famous examples by men. Deverry spans several hundred years of change and politics and war, and it’s a great example of a story that concerns itself with how the past continues to have consequences into the present. Memorable characters like Nevyn, Jill, Cullyn, Dallandra, and so many more have stayed with me years after I first read it. Highest recommend.”
– Kate Elliott, author of Crown of Stars and Spiritwalker
“Michael Moorock’s ‘Elric’ series was hugely influential for me. It was the first anti-hero fiction I read. Really, the whole ‘Eternal Champion’ series (it goes far beyond Elric) is amazing.
Next I’d have to say Dave Duncan’s ‘The Reluctant Swordsman’ books. Adventure fantasy and awesome.
‘Wizard War’ (Hugh Cook) isn’t as old (1987) but is an amazing book with a classic magic system I totally ripped off for several short stories and RPG campaigns.”
– Michael R. Fletcher, author of Beyond Redemption
“I’d go for the ‘Deverry’ series by Katherine Kerr. The first book, ‘Daggerspell,’ came out in 1993. My wife and I read these as they came out and were both instant fans of the series. Kerr is a really good writer – a writer’s writer – she has command of the language. She’s also a great story teller with a powerful imagination. She maintains this tale over generations with the main characters reincarnated, searching for each other over the years. It’s a powerful emotional story with plenty of high-octane battles and scorching magic. Wonderful work.”
– Mark Lawrence, author of The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War
“I would definitely recommend ‘The Monarchies of God’ by Paul Kearney. It’s an excellent five-book fantasy series that borrows and blends elements from history with its own magical world: Christianity-Islam wars, the Roman Empire, werewolves. Yes, you read it right. Were. Wolves.
But that’s just the setting. Forget the fast-paced action, vivid combat scenes, melancholy, history, and extremely accurate and brutal depiction of medieval times and the cheapness of human life. Forget the rich politics, lore, New World exploration, dead-accurate and harrowing maritime adventures, and ancient enemies. What makes Kearney’s writing special is how he portrays despair and despondence. No other author comes close. To call it grimdark would be an understatement. This man bleaches the soul, rubs it dry, lets it rot in the pale January sun, and then bleaches it some more. I rarely feel pain reading books, but this series left me properly distraught. Love and despair. Sadness. This man knows the score.
For some reason – and probably exactly for thsi reason – Kearney is often overlooked in the lists and recommendations, because no one wants to read a book that will depress them for a good solid month. No one wants a book that reads more disturbing than a documentary on genocide. But then, to offset it all, there’s love and survival and the most selfish, unbeatable human drive to prevail and win. Captivating.
Not for those weak of stomach, soul, mind, body, spirit, will, and eyes. Definitely for everyone else.”
– Igor Ljubuncic, author of The Lost Words
“’BITTERWOOD’ by James Maxey is my pick for underrated fantasy. I read it even before it came out (publisher’s ARC) and really enjoyed it. A unique take on dragons and terrific world-building.”
– John Marco, author of The Bronze Knight and Tyrants and Kings
“I’d recommend Steven Brust’s ‘Jhereg’ series. I really enjoyed those for their humor and interesting worldbuilding. I also enjoyed Katherine Kurtz’s ‘The Adept’ series, which isn’t as well known as her Camber and Deryni books but was quite well done.”
– Gail Z. Martin, author of Chronicles of the Necromancer and Ascendant Kingdoms
“My favorite to point out to people is ‘The Chronicles of Prydain,’ by Lloyd Alexander. That includes ‘The Horned King,’ ‘The Black Cauldron,’ et al. A truly amazing series of (technically) YA novels. I can’t recommend them enough.”
– James A. Moore, author of Seven Forges
“Ray Bradbury’s ‘Illustrated Man’ should be taught at schools, IMHO. It’s a classic, and has influenced generations of authors, whether they realize it or not. My favorite author (PK Dick), whom I consider a modern-day prophet. His books peer through the veil of reality in a way that few have ever managed. ”
– Nicholas C. Rossis, author of the Pearseus series
‘Wolf in Shadow’ is the story of post-apocalyptic gunslinger Jon Shannow, who ranges across a future earth where geological upheaval has reversed the position of the world’s oceans. The advent of the Hellborn, an army of Satan-worshippers intent on conquest and human sacrifice, places Shannow at the forefront in the war of salvation, rediscovering his humanity in the process and leading to a wonderfully sombre ending. This is often considered a bit of an odd duck by other Gemmell fans due, I think, to the somewhat off-the-wall setting and the substitution of six-shooters for swords. However, in my opinion, it’s Gemmell’s finest book and was my introduction to his work and the wider world of heroic fantasy.
The ‘Prince of Nothing’ trilogy by R. Scott Bakker is epic fantasy through the prism of Nietzschian philosophy, rendered in compelling and exquisite prose. Dumbing it down to its bare essentials – it relates the course of an apocalyptic religious crusade which gradually comes under the control of a messianic figure who has raised the art of manipulation to the level of magic. Clearly inspired as much by real world history as Tolkien, and featuring some of the finest battle scenes in fantasy literature, I really think this deserves a bigger audience.”
– Anthony Ryan, author of Raven’s Shadow and Slab City Blues
“Janny Wurts has some good overlooked series. And not just the one she did with Raymond E. Feist.”
– Jeff Salyards, author of Bloodsounder’s Arc
“’The Chronicles of Amber’ by Roger Zelazny. The concept of the one true world of Amber from which all others (including Earth) are but pale shadows remains incredibly clever, and provides such a fecund environment for story-telling that even five goods novels and five so-so novels don’t adequately explore the setting. What’s not to like about fantasy Supermen jumping between realities and kicking ass amongst the unsuspecting natives?”
– Luke Scull, author of The Grim Company
“I’m not going to be able to narrow it down to just one. Let’s start with Robert E. Howard’s ‘Conan’ series. While a lot of people know Conan (especially from the movies), I don’t hear this series brought up very often in discussions about fantasy literature. Likewise with Michael Moorcock’s Elric and Fritz Leiber’s ‘Fafhrd and Gray Mouser’ series. These are fundamental pieces of the sword & sorcery genre that every fantasy fan should read. For something more modern, I’ve always believed that Glen Cooks ‘The Black Company’ is among the greatest works in fantasy.”
– Jon Sprunk, author of Shadow’s Son and Book of the Black Earth
“’Watership Down’ by Richard Adams is by far my favorite heroes’ journey story. Great characters that I love even to this day.”
– Michael J. Sullivan, author of Riyrian Revelations and Chronicles
“I have fond memories of Piers Anthony’s ‘Incarnations of Immortality.’ It plays well with the themes of anthropmorphised entities and while every novel stands alone, it also comes together as a great series.”
– Gav Thorpe, author of Legacy of Caliban and Time of Legends: The Sundering
“’Nine Princes in Amber ‘is the opening book in ‘The Chronicles of Amber’ series by Roger Zelazny. It was first published in the 1970s, and I read it all of twenty-five years ago. As such it comes with a health warning: I can’t be sure that it has stood the test of time for modern audiences.
Having thus completely undermined the value of my own recommendation (sigh), I’ll go on to say that ‘Nine Princes in Amber’ follows the story of Corwin, one of the aforementioned princes, who is engaged in a struggle across multiple ‘shadow realms’ to win the throne of Amber. Arrayed against him are the forces of Chaos, not to mention his devious siblings. And the family could certainly have taught Machiavelli a thing or two about political scheming. The story reminded me of Greek myths, with cunning and vengeful immortals fighting it out for power. ‘Nine Princes in Amber’ is a fast-paced book with subtle humour and a flawed but likeable protagonist. It’s available (together with the next four books) as part of the Fantasy Masterworks series.”
– Marc Turner, author of Chronicle of the Exile
“I have a hard time saying what books are overlooked overall, but here’s one I overlooked until recently: Rachel Aaron’s series ‘The Legend of Eli Monpress,’ starting with ‘The Spirit Thief.’ After it was brought to my attention, I tore through all five books; the first volume is solid, but it only gets better from there, and the last couple are truly spectacular. It’s got wonderful, memorable characters and great worldbuilding, and a really refreshing take on a lot of tropes. The tone is on the lighter side, but it doesn’t keep the story from having weight when things get serious – it’s perfect for anyone getting a little tired of grimdark.”
– Django Wexler, author of The Shadow Campaigns and The Forbidden Library
“SF: Love Josh Whedon’s characterization and action packed space opera? The definitely check out R. M. Meluch’s ‘The Myriad,’ that kicks off her ‘Merrimack’ series. Rip roaring, laugh out loud fun, in no way predictable, and a cast of characters to keep you amused and guessing.
SF: Some say this was one of the inspirations for the movie, Predator. Set in ancient Rome, a vicious, illegally-procured alien species is set loose on Earth to be ‘cultivated’ here for an alien species’ macabre blood sport – fun, terrifying, brilliant in a period setting – both my husband and I loved this book. ‘Killer,’ by David Drake and Karl Edward Wagner.
Fantasy: Steampunk from way, way before it became a genre thing: ‘Goblin Moon’ and ‘The Gnome’s Engine’ by Teresa Edgerton. Intrigue, sorcery, hobgoblins, gnomes, and Men – in a setting spanning the seamy back alleys, to elegant salons, this book was ahead of its time in the era of Tolkien clones, and beyond ripe for rediscovery today.
Fantasy: for Arthurian fans, a completely unknown gem: ‘Dragonlord’ by David Drake takes the legend you know, turns it on its ear, and totally twists the tropes. Told from the viewpoint of two Irish sent to kill a rampaging monster, they are ‘pressed’ into service by familiar figures from the Round Table. Except: Merlin is mad, Arthur is obsessed with getting a dragon to win his war (stupid idea) and Lancelot is a thick skulled drill sergeant.”
– Janny Wurts, author of Wars of Light and Shadow and The Cycle of Fire
Wow, lots of books and series mentioned. Many I’ve read and loved. Some I have heard of but not tried as of yet. And more than a few which I had no idea existed. Definitely, my quest to uncover all the great books out there and add them to my reading horde has just grown longer, but I think I’m up for the challenge. So I ask, “Are you?”
If your answer is yes, please purview the list below to help you on your quest. And please feel free to add to the list as well, because I have a feeling authors are just like the rest of us — always on the lookout for the next great book!
LIST OF OVERLOOKED BOOKS/SERIES
- The Adept by Kathering Kurtz
- The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny
- The Architect of Sleep by Stephen R. Boyett
- Bard by Keith Taylor
- The Belgariad, Books 1-3 by David Eddings
- Bitterwood (Dragon Age, Book 1) by James Maxey
- The Black Company by Glen Cook
- Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by R.E. Howard
- The Cycle of Fire by Janny Wurts
- Daggerspell (Deverry, Book 1) by Katharine Kerr
- The Dragon Lordby David Drake
- Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock
- Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Book 1 by Fritz Leiber
- Fionavar Tapestry, Book 1 by Guy Gavriel Kay
- The Gnome’s Engine by Teresa Edgerton
- The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
- Incarnations of Immortality Book 1 by Piers Anthony
- The Book of Jhereg by Stephen Brust
- Kane, Book 1 by Karl Edward Wagner
- Killer by David Drake & Karl Edward Wagner
- Legend of Eli Monpress, Books 1-3 by Rachel Aaron
- Monarchies of God, Book 1by Paul Kearney
- The Myriad by R.M. Meluch
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
- The Prince of Nothing, Book One by R. Scott Bakker
- The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
- The Reluctant Swordsman by Dave Duncan
- Riddle-Master by Patricia A. McKillip
- Wars of Light & Shadow, Book 1 by Janny Wurts
- Watership Down by Richard Adams
- Wizard War by Hugh Cook
- Wolf in Shadow by David Gemmell
BE SURE TO CHECK OUT MY OTHER BEST OF FANTASY LISTS.