What defines military fantasy as a subgenre? Is it, as the post title suggests, a wizard wielding a fireball in one hand and a shotgun in the other, drawling “Do you feel lucky, punk?” Well…maybe in some versions of the world. In others, it may be more an army marching in rank, overseen by magician-generals, with dragons as air corps and elves in the cavalry (and most likely archery ranks).
Many fantasies–especially epic fantasies–have enormous battles as part of the over-arching story, often as a backdrop to the hero or band of heroes and the main quest. However, for some, the battle takes center stage and the military tactics are just as important, if not more so, than the clever ways in which the plucky band will outwit the Dark Lord. Let’s form ranks, then, and march through several novels where the military maneuvers are on the front lines of the plot and your ability to lead a trained squad may be just as crucial as your ability to understand esoteric prophecies and wield magical talismans.
THE RUNDOWN: Magic has returned to the modern world, imbuing random people with the ability to reshape the elements, heal with a touch, and transport themselves across the realms. Of course, international governments are doing their best to take control of the resulting chaos, and one method involves conscripting magical recruits into the military and turning them into tools and weapons. Those who are forced to serve within the ranks, however, aren’t always exactly happy or willing to do so, and much of the conflict comes from characters being yanked out of their own lives and into strange worlds they never imagined.
THE CONTRAST: This actually involves two books in the Shadow Ops series, the second of which came out just last month. Control Point, while full of marvelous magic and worldbuilding, stumbled over the significant flaws of its own main character, Oscar Britton. Whereas Fortress Frontier introduces a new front man who gives readers someone to truly cheer for. This series isn’t just rooted in military lingo, tactics, and culture. It’s cemented in it, giving a unique option for those who want to get their modern warfare and urban fantasy fixes in the same spot.
THE RUNDOWN: In warfare, what makes someone a hero? This book covers the span of a three-day battle from several perspectives, including a military commander given to fits of murderous rage and a bunch of officers who can’t see past the glare of their spit-shined breastplates. As the battle unfolds, it’s not just an exploration of the nature of heroism, but also the brutal indifference of warfare itself, as it claims young and old, skilled warriors and lucky novices alike.
THE CONTRAST: Joe Abercrombie has made his mark with bleak, gritty fantasy that doesn’t lack for blood, bashed bones, and characters cast aside in death without a second thought. The humor is morbid and no would-be hero is without a flaw (or two…or a dozen). At the same time, the world here feels extremely real, with authentic battle scenes and political maneuverings spiced with the occasional flare of magic.
THE RUNDOWN: Consider your average fantasy quest adventuring band…translate that into a military-trained squad…and then populate that squad with monsters, rather than men. This is the reality of the titular Goblin Corps (aka Demon Squad), brought together by an actual Dark Lord looking to conquer a fantasy realm. Headed up by a demonic imp who acts as the squad’s training sergeant, this corps somehow squabbles its way into shape–despite practically every member wanting to kill all the others. And it’s now their mission to infiltrate enemy territory and secure the artifacts their Lord requires to cast a final darkness over the land.
THE CONTRAST: This novel takes the normal fantasy adventure, dips it in muck, and sets it on its head. With a questing band of goblins, trolls, gremlins, and more, the book is rife with crude humor, violence, and constant betrayals, some readers have described it as the results of a drunken DnD campaign. It is a fun, twisted take on many of the cliches within the genre, and the monstrous characters are all unique in their own…colorful…ways.
Joe Abercrombie’s work probably doesn’t require much highlighting at this point. It’s also quick to divide readers–those who don’t mind the dark-and-gritty and those who are turned off by how stark and bleak the stories can be. The Heroes is excellent, going several layers deep into the awful thing that is war and those we celebrate within it, but let’s give the other contenders a chance to throw their own punches.
The Goblin Corp will be a fun read, especially for anyone who is already steeped in traditional fantasy quests. Seeing the corrupt creatures try to work within a military system where “might makes right” is the main rule, as well as the group dynamics will never cease to be entertaining.
However, Shadow Ops gets to take point in this maneuver. While Control Point falters with Oscar Britton, it is refreshing to see a series already in an upswing with its sequel, Fortress Frontier, rather than getting lost in a mid-trilogy muddle like many tend to. Military magic–especially in a modern context–is rich with potential, and it should be fascinating to see how the Shadows Ops books expand on this new world, especially as they further explore the variety of intercultural adoptions of this transformed reality.
Just keep this in mind: The best way to beat a wizard on the battlefield is with a sniper rifle…preferably from a mile away.
Hut hut hut!