Top 10 Heroic / Sword & Sorcery fantasy books

An image illustrating the  sub-genre.

The sword and sorcery sub-genre become very popular in the 1950's with the Conan the Barbarian novels by Robert E. Howard. In these novels the hero's are usually atypical and are far from perfect and walk a fine line between doing good and serving their own self interest. This page features the works of the late, great David Gemmell and the magnificient Steven Erikson.

Our recommended trilogies/series
A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson
A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen

Bled dry by interminable warfare, infighting and bloody confrontations with Lord Anomander Rake and his Tiste Andii, the vast, sprawling Malazan empire simmers with discontent. Even its imperial legions yearn for some respite. For Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his Bridgeburners and for Tattersail, sole surviving sorceress of the Second Legion, the aftermath of the siege of Pale should have been a time to mourn the dead. But Darujhistan, last of the Free Cities of Genabackis, still holds out - and Empress Lasseen's ambition knows no bounds. However, it seems the empire is not alone in this great game. Sinister forces gather as the gods themselves prepare to play their hand...

Steven Erikson has no peer when it comes to action and imagination and A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen has established itself as the most significant work of epic fantasy since Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Erikson is the master of lost and forgotten epochs, a weaver of ancient epics drawing upon fantasy to recreate histories and legends as rich as any found within our culture.

"The kind of epic narrative that will have you scrambling for more. Steve Erikson afflicts me with awe... his work does something that only the rarest of books can manage: it alters the reader's perceptions of reality" Stephen R. Donaldson

"The Malazan series is a towering achievement: Brave, ambitious and skilfully executed." Fantasy Book Review

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The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson
The Stormlight Archive

According to mythology mankind used to live in The Tranquiline Halls. Heaven. But then the Voidbringers assaulted and captured heaven, casting out God and men. Men took root on Roshar, the world of storms. And the Voidbringers followed . . . They came against man ten thousand times. To help them cope, the Almighty gave men powerful suits of armor and mystical weapons, known as Shardblades. Led by ten angelic Heralds and ten orders of knights known as Radiants, mankind finally won. Or so the legends say. Today, the only remnants of those supposed battles are the Shardblades, the possession of which makes a man nearly invincible on the battlefield. The entire world is at war with itself - and has been for centuries since the Radiants turned against mankind. Kings strive to win more Shardblades, each secretly wishing to be the one who will finally unite all of mankind under a single throne. On a world scoured down to the rock by terrifying hurricanes that blow through every few day a young spearman forced into the army of a Shardbearer, led to war against an enemy he doesn't understand and doesn't really want to fight. What happened deep in mankind's past? Why did the Radiants turn against mankind, and what happened to the magic they used to wield?

"The Way of Kings is epic in every sense. Sanderson has built a world that leaps to life, a cast of varied characters and a vast history that slowly unfolds. While Sanderson cuts from the familiar cloth of fantasy, his narrative impetus and meticulous world building bode well for future volumes." The Guardian

"It is, in every sense of the word, an epic beginning to what I can only guess (and hope) will be an epic story told over, apparently, ten books with the second one nowhere near being published. In essence, Sanderson has just begun the next Wheel of Time-like series." Fantasy Book Review

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Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook
Chronicles of the Black Company

Darkness wars with darkness as the hard-bitten men of the Black Company take their pay and do what they must. They bury their doubts with their dead. Then comes the prophecy: The White Rose has been reborn, somewhere, to embody good once more...

"With the Black Company series, Glen Cook single-handedly changed the face of fantasy - something a lot of people didn't notice, and maybe still don't. He brought the story down to a human level, dispensing with the cliche archetypes of princes, kings and evil sorcerers. Reading his stuff is like reading Vietnam fiction on Peyote" Steven Erikson

"There are no larger than life characters to be found in The Black Company, all contain frailties and failings that are found in all humans. This book is beautifully amoral and contains no two-dimensional characters. As I've already mentioned, The Black Company is a wonderfully amoral book, often dark and containing violent battles and fantastic characters. Glen Cook changed the face of the fantasy genre forever - and for the better." Fantasy Book Review

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The Macht by Paul Kearney
The Macht

On the world of Kuf, the Macht are a mystery, a seldom-seen people of extraordinary ferocity and discipline whose prowess on the battlefield is the stuff of legend. For centuries they have remained within the remote fastnesses of the Harukush Mountains. In the world beyond, the teeming races and peoples of Kuf have been united within the bounds of the Asurian Empire, which rules the known world, and is invincible. The Great King of Asuria can call up whole nations to the battlefield. His word is law. But now the Great King's brother means to take the throne by force, and in order to do so he has sought out the legend. He hires ten thousand mercenary warriors of theMacht, and leads them into the heart of the Empire.

"A terrific writer, one of the best working in epic fantasy." SciFi.com

"But that is nothing compared to the overarching splendour that is The Ten Thousand. Kearney captures all the best parts of fantasy - the young nobodies destined for glory, the gathering of a team, mercenaries, and exotic races and places - and combines them together with grit and realism and enough blood to drown a horse." Fantasy Book Review

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Shadow Ops series by Myke Cole
Shadow Ops series

Army Officer. Fugitive. Sorcerer. Across the country and in every nation, people are waking up with magical talents. Untrained and panicked, they summon storms, raise the dead, and set everything they touch ablaze. Army officer Oscar Britton sees the worst of it. A lieutenant attached to the military’s Supernatural Operations Corps, his mission is to bring order to a world gone mad. Then he abruptly manifests a rare and prohibited magical power, transforming him overnight from government agent to public enemy number one. The SOC knows how to handle this kind of situation: hunt him down–and take him out. Driven into an underground shadow world, Britton is about to learn that magic has changed all the rules he’s ever known, and that his life isn’t the only thing he’s fighting for.

"As a military officer myself, I feel like I can really relate with Cole and the book he has written. It is a book that accurately portrays military life on a military base, while enhancing it using the fantasy elements I love to read about. Whether you are a military buff or not, this is an entertaining book packed full of intense action sequences – a modern interpretation of the fantasy genre that you should have no hesitations in reading." Fantasy Book Review

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The Rigante Novels by David Gemmell
The Rigante Novels

"In my pantheon of literary greats, David Gemmell stands alone. I read his first book, Legend, when I was fourteen and knew even then that I had found the kind of writer I wanted to be. Like Julius Caesar himself, Gemmell wrote with a spare elegance, racing along with characters and events until I found it was dawn and I had to get up for work. Gemmell is the only writer who ever stole my nights in such a way. I read Ghost King when I was at university. I was studying Arthurian literature at the time and somehow missed the references to Gian Avur and the Lancelord. It's difficult to recall a last line of any book that was more of a shock to me than that one. Gemmell was superb at endings. Some of them were so powerful that I could only stare at the ceiling with tears in my eyes." Conn Iggulden

"In short, a book by David Gemmell is about morally grey heroes, who fight for what they believe in, and regularly get kicked in the nuts by fate. A Tavern brawler who selflessly stands up when faced with injustice. A Drunkard that, without a moment of hesitation, sacrifices his life in favor of an innocent family. A Burly woodcutter that travels to all corners of the world to rescue his captured crush. A pacifistic priest forced to slay numerous enemies. These tales tell of honor and glory, duty and loyalty, courage and resolve, all coated in a wonderful blend of action, black humor and suspense." Fantasy Book Review

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The First Law by Joe Abercrombie
The First Law

Inquisitor Glokta, a crippled and increasingly bitter relic of the last war, former fencing champion turned torturer extraordinaire, is trapped in a twisted and broken body - not that he allows it to distract him from his daily routine of torturing smugglers. Nobleman, dashing officer and would-be fencing champion Captain Jezal dan Luthar is living a life of ease by cheating his friends at cards. Vain, shallow, selfish and self-obsessed, the biggest blot on his horizon is having to get out of bed in the morning to train with obsessive and boring old men. And Logen Ninefingers, an infamous warrior with a bloody past, is about to wake up in a hole in the snow with plans to settle a blood feud with Bethod, the new King of the Northmen, once and for all - ideally by running away from it. But as he's discovering, old habits die really, really hard indeed... especially when Bayaz gets involved. A bald old man with a terrible temper and a pathetic assistant, he could be the First of the Magi, he could be a spectacular fraud, but whatever he is, he's about to make the lives of Glotka, Jezal and Logen a whole lot more difficult...

"Abercrombie's talent for developing believable characters and changing the tone and voice of each chapter according to the point of view is a joy to read. Although he takes familiar fantasy staples, he manages to avoid coming off as a cheap hack reinventing Tolkien." Fantasy Book Review

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The Ascendants of Estorea by James Barclay
The Ascendants of Estorea

The Estorean Conquord has stood for 850 years. Its Advocate, Herine Del Aglios, knows that she presides over the greatest civilisation in history. But she wants more. And in Estorea's recently conquered territories dissent is brewing. Forced to fight old friends and neighbours in the cause of the ever-growing Conquord, they face brutal choices and savage demands for money and men to be fed into Estorea's wars - demands made by Paul Jhered, head of the Gatherers and the iron hand of the Advocate, With Jhered by her side, Herine believes that nothing can go wrong. Until a disastrous and bloody reversal in the war to overrun the Kingdom of Tsard puts Estorea's armies on the back foot and has Tsardon troops flooding into the Conquord. As the empire trembles, far from the war four unique children are discovering their powers. They are the first true Ascendants, in touch with the elements, able to shape the world. An empire descending into war is about to discover the wonder and terror of magic...

"The large scale battles are detailed and exhilarating. Cry of the Newborn is a satisyingly self-contained fantasy blockbuster.. set against a more thoughtful, realistic background." SFX

"With his Raven series, James Barclay made himself a cult hero. With the Ascendants of Estorea, Barclay stepped away from the action adventure realm and settled into a very fantasy style book. More character focus and interestingly enough styled after the Roman Empire, Cry of the Newborn - the first in the series - makes for an interesting introduction to a new realm for Barclay to play in." Fantasy Book Review

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The Drenai Novels by David Gemmell
The Drenai Novels

The Legend Druss, Captain of the Axe: the stories of his life were told everywhere. Instead of the wealth and fame he could have claimed, he had chosen a mountain lair, high in the lonely country bordering on the clouds. There the grizzled old warrior kept company with snow leopards and awaited his old enemy death. The Fortress Mighty Dros Delnoch, protected by six outer walls, the only route by which an army could pass through the mountains. It was the stronghold of the Drenai empire. And now it was the last battleground, for all else had fallen before the Nadir hordes. And hope rested on the skills of that one old man...

"In my pantheon of literary greats, David Gemmell stands alone. I read his first book, Legend, when I was fourteen and knew even then that I had found the kind of writer I wanted to be. Like Julius Caesar himself, Gemmell wrote with a spare elegance, racing along with characters and events until I found it was dawn and I had to get up for work. Gemmell is the only writer who ever stole my nights in such a way." Conn Iggulden

"The is the kind of book that the term fire-side reading was invented for. This book is far from perfect, this was Gemmell's first foray into the realm of writing fantasy and his skills are from as honed as they would later become. But this is where it all began, the book in which Gemmell stamped his trademark on the fantasy genre. This showed just how enjoyable heroic fantasy could be and in Druss, invented an unforgettable figure able to overcome insurmountable odds." Fantasy Book Review

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The Aspect Emperor by R Scott Bakker
The Aspect Emperor

A score of years after he first walked into the histories of Men, Anasurimbor Kellhus rules all the Three Seas, the first true Aspect-Emperor in a thousand years. The masses worship him as a living god, though a few dare claim he's a walking demon. With Proyas and Saubon as his Exalt-Generals, he leads a holy war deep into the wastes of the Ancient North, intent on destroying Golgotterath and preventing the Second Apocalypse. His wife and consort, Esmenet, meanwhile, remains in Momemn, where she struggles to rule not only his vast empire, but their murderous children as well. And Achamian, who lives as a Wizard in embittered exile, undertakes a mad quest to uncover the origins of the Dunyain. But Achamian, of all people, should know that one must be very careful what one seeks...

"This first book is a very strong lead in to the second trilogy of Eärwa. I believe it is meant as a standalone series, but I feel that if I hadn't read the first series The Prince of Nothing, I would really have had a lot of questions and not enjoyed my reading as much. So I was happy that I didn't have to drag through the first hundred page recap where everyone talked about what happened last week, but felt that a new reader may have been a bit lost." Fantasy Book Review

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Our recommended stand-alone books
The People of the Black Circle by Robert E Howard
The People of the Black Circle

Conan the Cimmerian: he rose from boy-thief and mercenary to become kingof Aquilonia. Neither supernatural fiends nor demonic sorcery could oppose the barbarian warrior as he wielded his mighty sword and dispatched his enemies to a bloody doom on the battlefields of the legendary Hyborian Age. Collected together for the first time anywhere in the world, in chronological order, are all Robert E. Howard's definitive stories of Conan, exactly as he wrote them, as fresh, atmospheric and vibrant today as when they were first published in the pulp magazines more than sixty years ago.

"There is never a dull moment or wasted moment. Never so much as a modicum of tedium. The writing is fluid, exciting and simple. Robert E. Howard has a style that writes itself, a quality that stands, like his creation, a head and shoulders above the rest. There are times when you feel the bones crunch, the sword sing through the air, the flesh rend under steel. I could go on and on, this is a book like no other. If you love the swords and sandals, style of fantasy then you simply must read this. This is the birthplace of many a hero. Many have tried to write Conan stories but none can hold their own against the might of Robert E. Howard." Fantasy Book Review

Shadow by KJ Parker
Shadow

A man wakes in the wilderness, amid scattered corpses and inquisitive crows. He has no memory of who he is or how he came to be there. The only clues to his former existence lie in his apparent skill with a sword and the fragmented dreams that permeate his sleep. Alone in a hostile world he moves from village to village, masquerading as a god to obtain food and shelter. But the shadow of his past pursues him relentlessly. It whispers to him a riddle far more complex than he could ever have imagined - and a truth he may not wish to believe.

"Shadow by K.J. Parker, is an interesting story, especially for people who enjoy having a lot of mystery in their books and also for those who like action, adventure, a plethora of intriguing characters, and a challenge." Fantasy Book Review

Death Angel’s Shadow by Karl Edward Wagner
Death Angel’s Shadow

Kane is battling the prophet of an ancient cult of evil and confronting the demons of darkness on his journeys. He faces death duels in strange swamps, assassin's attacks and the heart freezing terror of the werewolf.

"Wagner’s love of exposition and large paragraphs describing setting set the mood in a much more economical fashion than in Darkness Weaves (which was one of my criticisms of that novel). Due in no small part to the constraints of the form, the short stories allow for tightly focused action, excellent character development (especially of the secondary female characters in each story), and giving the lead character a chance to both pontificate about life’s mysteries while still maintaining time for splitting someone’s head open with a sword. While not for everyone, fans of adult sword and sorcery and charismatic anti-heroes will want to add to this collection immediately." Fantasy Book Review

The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach by Steven Erikson
The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach

Set in the awe-inspiring world of the Malazan Empire, three tales of the enigmatic and eccentric necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach collected in a single, readily available volume.

"This collection of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas is an ideal companion pieces for fans of The Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence. It is also a great entry point for those contemplating reading the series. Definitely recommended." Fantasy Book Review

The Wolf Age by James Enge
The Wolf Age

The Wolf Age is the third book in the Morlock Ambrosius series written by James Enge. When I first encountered this book I thought it was a stand-alone book. However, even though The Wolf Age is part of series featuring Morlock Ambrosius I could easily read this book and understand it clearly although I might not have gotten the full dark background of Morlock. It felt like The Wolf Age does not narrowly focus on Morlock per se but that he is woven into the storyline, and this combined with the details of the werewolves produces an illustrious story.

Red Country by Joe Abercrombie
Red Country

If you can’t stand - or don’t like your kids - to read a story in which there is plenty of, gritty violent scenes, swearing, questionable characters and sexual relationships then this isn't your book. Abercrombie’s style is to write a fantasy story in which the characters react like realistic people. You’ll never see a ‘teenage-prodigy’, heroes are non-existent or in for the cash, and there are plenty of crooked and corrupt characters, just like the real world.

Bleak Seasons by Glen Cook
Bleak Seasons

Glen Cook has the reputation he has today for a reason; he’s a marvellous storyteller with an eye for detail that captures the attention rather than bores it, and focuses the attention down onto ground level where the hardest choices are made. You’ll be exhausted, emotionally drained, and probably really sad, but Bleak Seasons is definitely worth the read.

Darkness Weaves by Karl Edward Wagner
Darkness Weaves

As a fan of both dark fantasy and sword and sorcery stories, I deeply enjoyed Wagner’s Darkness Weaves. If you are a fan of Howard’s Conan series or Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, I would strongly recommend picking up this book. There are six books in total that Wagner wrote before his death in 1994 that deal with Kane. To borrow a line from Wagner’s sister series though, that is a tale for another time.

Blood Song by Anthony Ryan
Blood Song

Beautifully written, wonderfully cast and populated, Anthony Ryan does indeed seem to be placing himself as one of the next master storytellers. Book two in his series, ‘Tower Lord’ comes out in the first half of 2014, and given how much I’ve enjoyed Blood Song, immediately steps into the category of ‘Most Anticipated’.

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