MIND MELD: Fantasy Books/Series That Are Better Than The Lord Of The Rings

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Just over a week ago I was chatting with a friend about nothing important when he made the following statement: “The Lord of the Rings is the best fantasy story, ever.” Well, I think he used the word “evah!” but you get the idea. Not being well read in fantasy I couldn’t immediately throw out any book or series names that might be better, or just as good. So we asked our panelists this week the following question:

Q: What fantasy book or series is just as good, if not better, than The Lord of the Rings?
Andrew Liptak
Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and science fiction fan, and writes regularly at Words in a Grain of Sand on speculative fiction and history, and has written for sites such as SF Signal, io9 and Tor.com. He currently holds a degree in History and a master’s degree in Military History from Norwich University, and resides in the green mountains of Vermont with a growing library of books.

The Lord of the Rings is a hard set of books to top. They rank amongst some of the best books that I’ve read, because of the depth to the world-building, the epic story, the high quality writing, allegory that transcends the subject matter and the nostalgia that I have for it being one of the first book series that I really got into. So, when it comes to another series that really tops that, there’s quite a lot to surmount: this is assuming that those qualities are what makes Tolkien’s classic a benchmark in the fantasy genre.

The series that comes to mind is Philip Pullman’s excellent His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass). Ignoring the weak points in the series with TSK, the series is an excellent, epic trilogy that blends genres, and tackles a number of philosophical issues that for me, were very formative. The series has remained amongst some of the best books that I’ve ever read, and as I’ve re-read them over the years, it’s been a constant source of amazement.

When it comes to singular books, there’s no question in my own mind: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a standout novel that looks to mythology in North America. As I re-read it this year, I found myself sucked into Gaiman’s excellent prose, engaging stories and poise behind the novel, and remembered just why this was a great book the first time I read it.

Lisa Paitz Spindler
Lisa Paitz Spindler is the alter ego of Danger Gal, whose stiletto heels are licensed weapons and who keeps Ninja stars in her bra. Lisa, however, gets through each day on steady infusions of caffeine and science blogs, while constantly trying to beat her Free Rice high score of 45. Occasionally she writes science fiction and designs web sites.

I’m not sure it’s possible to one-up The Lord Of The Rings since it pretty much established epic Fantasy as a genre, but there are several books that I read shortly after The Lord Of The Rings when I wanted more of the same. I don’t think any discussion of Fantasy is complete without mentioning The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon books. I also loved Diana Paxson’s The Serpent’s Tooth and some of her other stories as well as some of the books in Elizabeth Haydon’s Symphony of Ages series. Even though it’s more Science Fantasy, I have to include Patricia Kennealy-Morrison’s Keltiad series. Part of the story depends on space travel, but the epic series is more of an extrapolation of what thriving Celtic cultures might be like if they continued developing independently of Earth. Kennealy-Morrison took her stories way beyond the familiar tropes of Arthurian legend and demonstrated a deep understanding of what we know about the Celts.

Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick is the author of 61 novels, 250 short stories, a pair of screenplays, and the editor of over 40 anthologies. According to Locus, he is the leading award winner, living or dead, of short fiction. His work has been translated into 25 languages.

Let’s start with T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, the best fantasy novel I’ve ever read.

Then, in no particular order:

The Dying Earth, by Jack Vance

The Face in the Frost, by John Bellairs

The Book of the New Sun tetrology, by Gene Wolfe

The King of Elfland’s Daughter, by Lord Dunsany

The Red Magician, by Lisa Goldstein

The Land of Laughs, by Jonathan Carroll

Orlando Furioso, by Ludovico Ariosto

The Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R. R. Martin

The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen Donaldson

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

…and a bunch more (but not Narnia). As you may have guessed by now, I’m in that tiny minority that simply doesn’t like Tolkien or his methodology.

Hal Duncan
Hal Duncan was born in 1971, brought up in a small town in Ayrshire, and now lives in the West End of Glasgow. A member of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle, his first novel, Vellum, won the Spectrum Award and was nominated for the Crawford, the BFS Award and the World Fantasy Award. As well as the sequel, Ink, he has published a poetry collection, Sonnets for Orpheus, a stand-alone novella, Escape from Hell!, and various short stories in magazines such as Fantasy, Strange Horizons and Interzone, and anthologies such as Nova Scotia, Logorrhea, and Paper Cities. He also collaborated with Scottish band Aereogramme on the song “If You Love Me, You’d Destroy Me” for the Ballads of the Book album from Chemikal Underground

If you’re looking for a latter-day Romance set in an alterior realm you can immerse yourself in — if you’re looking for the worldscaping, the epic/heroic plot dynamics, all the things that Tolkien does so committedly — The Lord of the Rings is probably unrivaled when it comes to fantasy of that particular form. The law of diminishing returns applies to copies and copies-of-copies by writers simply trying to offer more of the same, and this Oxford don applied his dedication and erudition over nearly a decade, so he set the bar way high for writers wanting to go one step further, to give something different. I mean, while your George R.R. Martins and Gene Wolfes might do prose and characterisation better, might have more thematic meat to them, Tolkien has this trump card of subcreation, having spent so much time and toil on developing his worldscape; I suspect the immersive effect of that worldscaping is important enough in fantasy of a certain idiom that many will place Tolkien above all others on that basis alone. But then I can’t really speak to that, to be honest; I’m not really interested in fantasy of that form, that flavour, so I’m not sufficiently well-versed in it to make valid suggestions of comparable works of equal or greater merit.

Thing is, The Lord of the Rings is kind of a pointless benchmark for me in the first place. It’s like asking if there’s any poem that measures up to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which isn’t really doing anything that I’m remotely interested in, in terms of poetic technique. Like, of course there are better poems than Idylls of the King, as far as I’m concerned; I’d suggest most anything by William Blake, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens — and that’s just a start. But this is largely because I find Tennyson’s whole aesthetic tedious as fuck; it reads as trite Romantic doggerel to me, so with even a glimpse at the vast field of poetry in general my eye falls on scores of other writers I consider better. But none of them are trying to do something really comparable, so it’s not a wholly fair comparison. Tennyson and Stevens are so vastly different in approach, you might as well be comparing artists in different media. And for me fantasy is such a broad field, I have exactly the same response with Tolkien. I find The Lord of the Rings turgid and reactionary, hate Tolkien’s whole aesthetic, so there’s a host of works I’d call better, but it’s a bit like saying I think Braque is better than Bach.

The thing is, I know for some The Lord of the Rings is the very essence of fantasy — it’s what fantasy is all about, what all fantasy aspires to — but I think that’s buying into a very narrow notion of an idiom which is, to me, defined simply by the fact that it utilises the fantastic. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, Edward Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet, the short story collections of Jeff Ford or Kelly Link, if you allow them under the general term “books” — these are my benchmarks of fantasy at its best. Ackroyd, Bulgakov, Carter, Delany — there’s a whole alphabetised library of writers whose books or series — Hawksmoor, The Master and Margarita, Nights at the Circus, the Nevèrÿon books — I think are ultimately better than The Lord of the Rings as works of literature. They just leave him in the dust in terms of general literary craft, I’d say… unless, of course, you’re trying to fit them into this particular mould set by Tolkien, unless you’re asking them to match Tolkien at his quite idiosyncratic game of subcreation. Actually, in terms of conjuring an alterior reality, Nevèrÿon is more alive to me than Middle-Earth, but then Delany’s series isn’t remotely epic/heroic in its narrative grammar, so it’s still not so much beating Tolkien at his own game as it’s playing a different game entirely.

When you’re dealing with an idiom as broad as “fantasy,” that old fruit analogy holds true. It’s a bit daft to say this apple (or this banana or plum or apricot or whatever) is as good as or better than that orange. Or, in terms of my personal taste when it comes to Tolkien, that lemon of all lemons.

Matt Hughes
Matt Hughes is a Canadian author of science-fantasy and crime fiction who now lives wherever his secondary career as a housesitter takes him. He has won the Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada, and has been short-listed for the Aurora, Nebula and Derringer Awards. His novels and stories regularly make Locus Magazine’s annual recommended reading list. His latest novels are Template and Hespira: A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn.

The fact is I’m not all that widely read in fantasy published over the past twenty or so years, though I read all kinds of stuff, from Dunsany to MacDonald to Barringer to Cabell back in the sixties and seventies. But if you want an unfounded opinion, I’d say it would be hard to top The Lord of the Rings on at least two grounds: first, it is no more than the tip of a scholarly iceberg, representing only a fraction of the immense and unparalleled work that Tolkien put into the whole scenario of his Middle Earth; and second, it is inarguably the most influential fantasy work of the twentieth century, having spawned the entire modern genre of post-Tolkien, quasi-Tolkien, faux-Tolkien war-and-politics series that are still being churned out.

Karen Burnham
Karen Burnham reviews science fiction and fantasy for SFSignal and Strange Horizons, blogs at Spiral Galaxy Reviews, and works for NASA.

OK, the first two that spring to mind are Raymond Feist’s Riftwar series, and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

In defense of Riftwar, it was the first epic fantasy series I read after being familiar with Tolkein my whole life. It was great to see another world with a different set of moral choices. At least in the first two books (Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master), it wasn’t a matter of Good vs. Evil, but instead of two cultures that simply didn’t understand each other yet. And the main character, Pug, moves between the two cultures and we get to see inside each. That was very refreshing, and I’ve always very much enjoyed the world-building there.

Does Discworld need defense? Certainly not. 25+ books, still going strong, which has made Sir Terry a pile of money the size of St. Paul’s. I came to this series later in life after seeing Pratchett do a reading in 2006. I fell instantly in love–the way he plays with all the fantasy tropes, deconstructs them in a flash of wit, and leaves you smiling. He applies Enlightenment values and analysis to a distinctly pre-Enlightenment genre. What’s not to love?

26 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Fantasy Books/Series That Are Better Than The Lord Of The Rings”

  1. The only answer I can think of that wouldn’t have caveats is The Silmarillion ;-)

     

    For others, there are lots of ‘buts’ involved:

     

    A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin is more ‘realistic’ and has far better characters, but the worldbuilding is less thorough and the mythological side less well-developed.

    The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan has an even larger and more detailed fantasy world than Tolkien with a similar interest in myth-making, but it’s too long and the writing much less accomplished.

    The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson has more interesting magic and addresses some different thematic points, but it lacks the approachability of Tolkien.

    The Prince of Nothing/Aspect-Emperor series by R. Scott Bakker has some fantastic worldbuilding and well-developed philosophical ideas, but it lacks the wider appeal of Tolkien.

  2. I really hate these types of question, because it seems they draw any number of critics out of the wood work who just want to bash the target of the question.

    To my mind Tolkien is the great grand daddy of Fantasy fiction, no he wasn’t the first to tell fantasy stories, and I do agree that his writting style leaves something to be desired but his works are seminal, they created the Fantasy genre that I grew up reading, every fantasy novel and series that has been published post LotR has been shaped by the existence of LotR (which is probably 99% of all fantasy I have read), Tolkien defined any number of tropes that have become the bedrock of the genre.

    As for series that I have enjoyed as much as LotR

    Song of Ice and Fire, Wheel of Time have both been mentioned and both are great but both suffer from the author loosing the plot, Jordan by writting dull novels and Martin by not publishing anything for years.

    Katherine Kerr’s Devery sequences are fantastic and show a fully involved world with rich stream of history integral to the story, Philip Kearny’s Monarchies of the Gods series are also up there as contenders for me because of their gritty realism and beautiful characterisations. I would also draw atteniton to some of the early works of Feist, Gemmel and Eddings who all wrote exciting fantasy that I loved in my teens and have revisited since and still found highly enjoyable, even if all 3 authors did loose the plot to varying degrees as they started to repeat larger and larger chunks of their previous works in their later novels.

  3. Crap. One book that I forgot that should be mentioned is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Suzanne Clarke. Absolutely fantastic book, and it holds up well to the benchmarks that I mentioned. 

  4. I think that Hal Duncan has hit the ur-nail on the head with the mighty hammer of incommensurability.  It is hard to answer this question when the comparison is between the great ancestor spirit of the presumed genre and all that it has spawned, influenced, or haunted.    So much of the work cited by the respondents reveres or exists in tension with (if not opposition to!) the unblinking eye of Tolkien that you cannot escape the fact that these works would be very different without its omnipresence.

    That said. . . of course there are series that are more culturally resonant, more erudite, more cleverly constructed in terms of style and plot and relevance to the contemporary reader.   There are entire subgenres that have split off from the main branches of the sept and formed their own squabbling families, grudgingly accepting the influence of their forebears while trying to create their own legacy. Many of these works would not be so good if they did not build on or forsake their ancestor.

    I am not a fan of series, for a number of reasons, but certainly Phillip Pullman’s trilogy exceeds Tolkien’s in the complexity of ideas and grasp of character.   GRRM’s Song is a loud, gritty chorus that adeptly uses dissonance, raucous politics, and rawness to overcome the slightness of its setting.  Chip Delany’s fantasies are always working to counter the facile programming that underlies a lot of epic fantasy, and he is eight times the writer Tolkien was.  Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea works to take the mythic echoes and anthropological potential in LotR and make legends that are less strident and rigid, that feel more genuine.  

    There’s a lot out there that is better in some way, but none of it can really escape the fact that Tolkien exists, and is always a foundation and a challenge.  Monstrous influence aside, there are other reasons to look at Tolkien critically (my own notions have been disheveled by reading Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry & Wild Romance recently), and gives us more food for thought in determining how well his progeny have outdone him.

  5. First standard agreements: Discworld, American Gods, Song of Fire and Ice.

    I think Dennis L. McKiernan’s Iron Tower trilogy may have ripped off all the good parts of The Lord of the Rings, but when I was younger the virtually non-stop action of it was much more interesting than the constant walking and hiding of the later.

    Robert Howard’s Conan never seems to get the love it deserves. It was been reincarnated yet again by Dark horse and once again show how vital the series is in all of it’s forms.

    Simon R Green’s Blue Moon Rising was a fantastic book that it’s sequel just couldn’t match up to.

    I know it’s a commercially created entity but the original three Dragonlance books kept me from learning math for a few weeks in the 5th grade (reading books instead of paying attention to what’s going on is not a good way to earn the grades you should, something I didn’t understand until half way through college, but it was this series that started it).

  6. I’m another of the minority that didn’t particularly care for the Lord of the Rings books.  It could be the time I read them (maybe I’ll like them more now) but the style of writing didn’t grab me. 

    I would agree with Song of Ice and Fire, and would add Eddings’ Belgariad and Butcher’s Codex Alera to the list. 

    Dragonlance Chronicles (and Legends) were also incredible, but I don’t know if they quite reach that level.  I still love re-reading them, though.

     

  7. I forgot all about mentioning The Once and Future King and Gormenghast. Also, count me in the group that enjoyed The Silmarillion almost more than LOTR. I also probably should have mentioned Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Saga.

  8. @Ms. Burnham: Kudos for including Feist, my personal favorite fantasy author! His work is underrated, IMHO. :) :) :)

  9. I think people sometimes forget how much of an influence LOTR has had on the popularity of epic fantasy, and given that it was first published some 50 years ago, it’s importance should not be diminished. Personally I loved it, and it was a gateway into the world of fantasy for me.

    I would agree that the Gormenghast trilogy deserves to be up there, along with Discworld and American Gods. I didn’t like Feist’s Magician, but I loved the Empire trilogy he co-wrote with Janny Wurts. Another favourite of mine is Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series; not to everyone’s taste I know, but the worldbuilding and political intrigue are imaginative and worthy of mention here. I would also suggest Mark Chadbourn’s Age of Misrule trilogy as an excellent example of modern fantasy.

  10. The Tolkien and Lord of the Rings bashers prove his greatness by their reaction against him. A lesser author and his masterwork could and would never incite such rhetoric denouncing him and the book. He INVENTED modern epic fantasy and world building; he wrote the freakin’ rulebook. All fantasy since has been either an homage to, imitation of or reaction against Lord of the Rings. But even those authors falling into the latter camp confirm his greatness. So more power to them–some of the greatest art in the world has been produced that way. Any author who denies or feigns ignorance of Tolkien as an influence in that context is lying, or at least lying to himself or herself.

    He’s on a pedestal all his own. But one of the few who has come even remotely close is Stephen R. Donaldson, with the Thomas Covenant books. I said close.

  11. I’m with Greg L. — there is Tolkien and then there is everything else. My apologies to Moorcock or any other critic but their approval is not necessary for LOTR to be considered the top of the heap.

  12. I’ve not found another fantasy book/series that comes close to the imaginative breadth that Tolkien displayed with his Middle-earth saga.  And I’m referring to his body imagination, not just The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.  Even his prose and grasp of the English language puts other authors to shame.

    That’s not to say there isn’t any good fantasy left in the world, it’s just that Tolkien is that far above everyone else.

    I’ve read a lot of fantasy and science fiction.  Many books are forgotten, or sold, or traded for other books.  Over the years I’ve owned, ohhh, maybe 6-7 copies of both The Hobbit and the trilogy.  I currently have 3 copies of each in the house.  Every other book I’ve owned (no matter how good)…one copy, and probably will never get a re-read due to all the other stuff to read.

    Tolkien…ALWAYS deserves a re-read once in awhile.

  13. Bernard of Chartres also wrote on this subject. He talked about dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. I think that some of us here have failed to notice the difference between dwarf and giant.

    Also, Hal Duncan is right: in order to grow higher than Tolkien (i.e., to become a giant of your own), you simply need to write a different kind of prose. And then the question inevitably appears: do comparisons keep making sense?

  14. It’s odd that as soon as words like “critical” or “doesn’t like” crop up near the word “Tolkien” a host of defenders arise and dismiss that proximity, reaffirming his eternal, unquestioned omnipresence and denigrating any attempt to look at his work and influence with anything less than pure adulation.

    Tolkien’s influence is unquestionable. The questions that arise are:

    —what is that influence’s scope, value, and effect?

    —how can works that come after be compared to it, and what does that tell us about how literature is produced and received?

    —how can examine that influence and glean new information from it that helps us understand its positive and possible negative effects?

  15. Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” trilogy is interesting in regard to the “better / worse than Tolkien” question, because the first two books in the trilogy were published well before LOTR, with the third appearing two years after.  It’s clear that the books owe nothing whatsoever to Tolkien; they suggest a completely different sense of what fantasy is or can be.  (Among other things, there’s no magic.  There’s a secondary world, like Middle Earth, but it’s a completely “secular” one.  And there are no nonhuman characters, no elves or dwarves or what have you.  And so on.)  I’d like to see a discussion of the “Peake tradition” in fantasy — or if there is no Peake tradition per se, I’d like to see one get off the ground.  (Moorcock wrote his novel “Glorianna” in homage to Gormenghast.)

  16. John, would you agree on the following point:

    General comparisons (“Tolkien is better/worse than Martin”) are not of much use. However, specific comparisons (“Tolkien’s plotbuilding is worse than Martin”, “Tolkien’s worldbuilding exceeds Martins”) may and should be made?

    If you do agree, I think this will summarize much of what has been said.

  17. While I have read the Lord of the Rings more times than I can count since the age of ten years old, I have to say to the people criticizing the critics, There Is More To Fantasy Than Tolkein.

    As has been said, JRRT effectively invented a particular style of fantasy and the depth of his subcreation is rivalled only by the Empire of the Petal Throne, and not bettered by it. But, really, there are better poets. And books around that challenge you more. And books that have more progressive politics. And while there are some pieces of prose in TLoTR that are absolutely beautiful, and some genuinely creepy moments, and glorious scenes, there are books that are better written overall.

    To come charging out angrily denouncing anyone who dares to look askance at your object of veneration, displays a pretty narrow world view.

    As to what I think would be up there with TLoTR – Gormenghast, certainly. One or two Discworld books, in particular Night Watch. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The Gods of Pegana. The Sandman. Lud in the Mist. Lyonesse. A Wizard of Earthsea. Mythago Wood. The Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories. Nine Princes in Amber et seq. (but only the first five of that series).

  18. To the books mentioned, I would add:

    The Book of the Long Sun series, by Gene Wolfe

    The Earthsea Cycle, by Ursula LeGuin

    The Light Ages and The House of Storms (a two-volume work),  by Ian R. MacLeod

    The Book of Confluence (Ancients of Days, Child of the River, and Shrine of Stars), by Paul McAuley

    The Culture series, by Iain M. Banks

    Lanark, by Alasdair Gray

    Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville

    The Majipoor Cycle, by Robert Silverberg

    I like fiction to be “literary” and to arouse a sense of wonder. The Lord of the Rings did that for me the first time I read it. The trouble is, Tolkien has been badly imitated often enough that it is now tempting to say, “Please, no more elves!”

     

  19. no one in their right mind can argue that the hobbit and lotr are not classics and yep of course the films were awsome.how ever i have not read the trillogy but i have read the hobbit twice, once when i was around 12 and again a year or so before the films came out.to me the hobbit was pretty boring with not enougth action in it and yes i am a fantasy fan big time, but i just dont think the stories hold up in todays fantasy genre.The trouble is generational, the same as films, music etc once they get soo old – ok they are classics that will always sell but if they were released today wouldnt last one round against say David Gemmel’s weakest writtings – i guess im saying that lotr is not every fantasy fans cup of tea,and it does anoy me when people get bad mouthed because they have a diff opinion

    - the tern ‘classic’ to me just means something be it book song etc that was loved back when it came out,doesnt means its still good now -

     

    cheers

  20. King Killer Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss.
    1. Name of the Wind
    2. Wise Man’s Fear
    3. Doors of Stone (not yet published, working title)

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