15 Epic Fantasies That Stick the Landing

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

For some reason, everyone is talking today about how important it is to nail the ending of an epic fantasy series. We can’t quite figure out why, but it sure is a fascinating topic. Epic fantasy faces challenges other genres don’t; while there are plenty of long and complex stories in literature, only epic fantasies have to explain magic systems, invent cultures wholesale, and keep track of a huge list of characters—often across three or seven or 14 books.

But, hey, if it was easy to write an epic fantasy—and especially to end one in satisfying fashion—we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Certainly there are plenty of books and series that end on a satisfying note—like the 15 listed here. We’re not claiming these are the only epic fantasies that end well—but they’re some of our favorite examples.

The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin stands with the most important working SFF writers for many reasons, not the least of which because her work displays a perfect combination of ambition and ability. Her books blends sci-fi and epic fantasy concepts with gritty and realistically-portrayed character relationships in a way that is thoroughly modern, while her technical flourishes—playing with point-of-view and second person narration—are deployed so confidently, readers don’t even realize just how hard they are to pull off. All three books in the Broken Earth trilogy won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and the finale, The Stone Sky, stands as one of the most satisfying endings in fantasy history. After slowly and skillfully revealing the secrets of her world—a possible far-future Earth in which all of humanity survives on a single continent that is wracked by periodic apocalyptic events known as the Seasons and the sky is marked by the floating remnants of a past civilizationin the form of mysterious Obelisks—Jemisin hits the gas early in the third book, racing from earned reveal to earned character resolution in a rush of ecstatic storytelling. Best of all, she holds back one final satisfying secret until the very last, demonstrating an incredible level of control over her story.

The House War series, by Michelle West
The House War series is an outgrowth of West’s Sun Sword series focusing on the character of Jewel Markess A’Terafin, and threads between that series and this one proliferate. You can read this series as a standalone, or allow yourself to be seduced into reading the rest of the books—there are no wrong answers here. Because this series tells the life story of a character who plays a big role in the other series—a character who can see the future, no less—West faced a special challenge: the resolution had to make sense in the larger context of both series, but she was also constrained by events described in the other books. The final book of the series (which was split into two when it metastasized in the writing) manages to pull everything together more or less perfectly.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, by Tad Williams
Legend has it that this foundational trilogy by Tad Williams—which recently begat a sequel series that in no way diminishes the achievements of this 30-year-old epic—is what convinced George R.R. Martin to flee a television writing career in Hollywood and begin writing what would become A Song of Ice and Fire. And though Williams’ books are certainly well-loved, it’s a bit of a shame that they’ve been mostly eclipsed by the efforts they inspired. Certainly Martin wasn’t the first writer to riff on the tropes Tolkein codified and Terry Brooks made mainstream. Truthfully, Williams wasn’t either, but he’s at least as good as GRRM at crafting a secondary world, and certainly more efficient at wrapping up a series. On the surface, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn sounds like a paint-by-numbers secondary world fantasy: there’s an ancient evil threatening the medieval-flavored land of Osten Ard, a boy with a mysterious past, a scrappy princess, an evil prince, a dying king, and more magic swords, dragons, elves, and dwarfs thank you can shake a wand at (even if they’re referred to by different names.) It never eschews these tropes—though at the time they were less codified. Instead, Williams’ trilogy feels like a surgically-precise dissection of the genre, from first page to last. It reads differently today, no doubt, but it more than holds up.

Mordant’s Need, by Stephen R. Donaldson
Donaldson’s other series get most of the attention, but let’s face it, the various Chronicles of Thomas Covenant don’t ever seem to actually end, do they? This duology, on the other hand, is tightly plotted and moves towards its conclusion with beautiful precision. It’s a surprising ending, but in no way a cheat. Set in a world where mirrors are the key to magic, with a protagonist who spends much of the story painfully passive, it’s a character-driven story in which each major player has an arc and an evolution that sees them stepping into the roles necessary for the climax to play out in a satisfying fashion. Donaldson plays a great trick on readers who are used to rooting for a “chosen one” character, setting up several possible heroes of destiny while the real story slowly unfolds in the background. The result is an ending that clicks into place with a satisfaction akin to finding a puzzle piece you didn’t even know you were missing.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen, by Steven Erickson
Born out of plans for an expansive role-playing game, Steven Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is the epic fantasy reader’s epic fantasy, and often suggested (on Reddit, at least) as the best and most ambitious fantasy saga of all time. It’s a dense, challenging, and unforgiving series, dropping you headfirst into a frantic battle that is just one small skirmish in a vast conflict that stretches backward and forward in time and across a massive world filled with all varieties of magic, monsters, and living gods. It starts big and just gets bigger from there. The final book in the main series, The Crippled God, has its work cut out for it, yet somehow manages to tie off every single dangling thread readers might be wondering about—plus a few they might be surprised to discover were important in the first place. The final third of the book is just a series of one incredible battle after another, an ebb and flow of tension and release that carries you all the way to a note-perfect finale.

The Riddle-Master, by Patricia A. McKillip
It’s hard enough to finish a fantasy series. It’s just as hard to pull off a truly surprising twist. It’s nearly impossible to pull off said twist in the final book of the series without making everything that comes before seem like either a cheat or in need of serious retconning. But McKillip does it, and so skillfully that you can reread whole series and appreciate it more for the pleasure of discovering the clues she littered throughout, and the structure she subtly built up to sell the twist. Set in a fantasy universe where the rulers of respective nations have a mystical connection to their realm, which ostensibly exists under the dominion of a mysterious High One, this series doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.

The Scavenger Trilogy, by K.J. Parker
Parker’s complicated fantasy, set in an empire stressed by external raiders and internal conspiracies, requires your full attention—not least because by the second book, the twists start coming fast and furious. At the outset, the main character, Poldarn, wakes up on a battlefield with no memory. Given the name of a god by a woman he meets, Poldarn begins to suspect whoever he is, he’s not a very good person—and that he might be famous, or at least infamous, extremely important, and possibly destined to bring on the end of the world. The final book, Memory, piles on the revelations skillfully while managing to leave just a hint of mystery behind, ensuring the world remains fascinating through multiple rereads. Parker’s name has become synonymous with unreliable narrators, and this series certainly fits the bill there, but the payoff never feels like a cheat.

The Dagger and the Coin, by Daniel Abraham
Daniel Abraham actually has two series that would fit perfectly on this list, but this blog has already covered the other one—The Long Price Quartet—at some length, so we’re going with this almost as impressive followup. If Long Price was Abraham’s attempt to craft an atypical epic fantasy, The Dagger and the Coin is his attempt to perfect the more traditional form. All the tropes are here, from plucky orphans who rise to positions of power, to gods that mettle in mortal affairs, to ruling despots who strike fear into the hearts of their suspects. But even when he’s using all the usual toys, Abraham refuses to play by the rules. His chosen one hero is a girl who exercises her might by manipulating coin rather than wielding a blade. His evil ruler is a booksmart, physically unimposing geek who is seduced by power and falls prey to his own ego and insecurities. His dark gods may or may not be real, and his dragons are long gone from the world, which is still shaped by their influence. In the fifth book, The Spider’s War, the saga reaches a truly magnificent conclusion; if anything, the satisfying scope of the action is overmatched by the emotional catharsis you’ll receive from following his damaged, headstrong, all-too-human characters to their fitting ends.

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold
You don’t need multiple books to make an epic, and a great ending is a great ending, so we’re going to call out the finale of The Curse of Chalion, a novel that can be enjoyed as a standalone adventure, or in tandem with the loosely connected sequel set in the same world (Paladin of Souls, which is itself a great standalone adventure with a wonderful ending). Both the story and universe of The Curse of Chalion are fully fleshed out, however, and you don’t need to read the second volume to be satisfied (though you’ll undoubtedly want to anyway). Based loosely on our world’s history, Bujold’s second foray into epic fantasy tells the tale of Caz, a knight of Chalion, who returns home from a disastrous war campaign burdened by betrayal and longing only for peace and rest—but instead finds himself drawn into the mystery of the curse that has doomed the royal family. Filled with vivid characters and the sort of inversions and subversions of fantasy tropes that fans of A Song of Ice and Fire will appreciate, The Curse of Chalion does it all—and in less than 500 pages.

The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
This one makes the list for two reasons. Not only does the fourteenth volume of The Wheel of Time, A Memory of Light, bring the saga of “Dragon Reborn” Rand al’Thor and his companions’ fight against the Dark One—the force of ultimate evil in the universe—to a suitably epic and emotional end, it does so even though it was written after the death of the series’ original author. When he was chosen to work through the notes and outlines left behind by Robert Jordan after his untimely passing, Brandon Sanderson faced a seemingly impossible task. Jordan himself had struggled to bring his ever-expanding epic in for a landing; how could any other author even attempt such a thing? Yet impossibly, Sanderson did, managing to tie off plot threads scattered across a dozen earlier books and provide mostly satisfying conclusions to an army’s worth of character arcs while also attempting to mirror the style of another author. And sure, it took him three 1,000-page books instead of the one he (and Jordan) had originally planned, but considering the stakes—would The Wheel of Time become an epic for the ages or a cautionary tale about the dangers of outsized authorial ambition?—it’s hard to imagine a better ending.

The Mistborn Trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson also deserves credit for his ability to end his own stories well. Certainly he is one of the most influential modern writers of epic fantasy, and for two basic reasons: one, he’s a master of craft, most notably in his detailed worldbuilding and his development of rigorous magic systems (the system in this series, Allomancy, involves the manipulation of ingested metals that give users superhuman abilities; it’s part of a larger meta-system Sanderson has been slowly revealing for years across multiple vaguely related series). Two, he’s so good at pulling off plot twists, it’s almost spooky. Mistborn deploys a lot of classic fantasy tropes in new ways, including the age-old idea of the ancient prophecy that will determine the fate of the world—and the way he reveals the full ramifications of that prophecy in the final book of the trilogy is nothing short of genius. Everything you thought was wrong, but in gloriously right ways, and as the mysteries that have plagued the characters over the course of three increasingly fat volumes fall into place, you realize the story is even bigger than you thought.

The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
In epic fantasy, it doesn’t get much better than when a book delivers really good dragons. Sure, elves are cool, as are magic rings, and mighty warriors, and kings of destiny, but… dragons are the best. Robin Hobb is a good friend of George R.R. Martin, and at least as skilled at deploying dragons effectively. What’s great about the ending of the Farseer trilogy (which, satisfying as it is, isn’t really the ending—the trilogy is followed by many more books in related and sequel series)—aside from, you know, the presence of an army of dragons that arrives via most unusual means—is the rich emotion beneath the spectacle, as the main characters each gets a moment to shine. The protagonist, FitzChivalry Farseer, is far from a perfect hero and endures more failure than most fictional characters would be able to withstand, a fact that makes his final triumph all the sweeter. This story of assassins doesn’t end with gratuitous violence or a sudden heel turn, opting instead for an intelligent and compassionate application of magic.

The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, by Brian Staveley
This recent, under-the-radar series is modern epic fantasy at its best. It’s a tale of political intrigue, war, rebellion, gods, monks, fighters, and family, with a thoroughly constructed world and fully realized characters. It’s a coming of age tale that follows the three children of a recently assassinated emperor: Kaden, the heir who’s gone to study with monks; Valyn, who has joined the Kettral, an elite military force that trains with and flies around on huge hawks; and Adare, the emperor’s only daughter, who fights to keep her father’s empire from crumbling from within as the Minister of Finance. But it’s also not just about the hardships these three face; it’s also about a greater war that’s been waged for centuries, a war all three of them are thrust into as the unwitting pawns of an ancient race of immortal beings. It’s incredibly difficult to create a world as expansive as this one, and harder still to neatly tie off so many disparate narrative threads. Staveley does a fantastic job of it.

Kushiel’s Legacy, by Jacqueline Carey
Carey is another author who has returned multiple times to the same fantasy setting, producing a trilogy of trilogies that explore different points on the timeline. When is comes to her Kushiel series, which began with 2001’s Kushiel’s Dart, you needn’t read all nine volumes to be truly satisfied. The ending she reaches with book three closes out the story of protagonist Phèdre nó Delaunay de Montrève—a courtesan in service to a god who inhabits a complex world inspired by Renaissance France—in a manner approaching perfection. In her youth, Phèdre, a girl with an “ill-luck name,” sold into indentured servitude in the Night Court, high-end pleasure houses catering to specialized sexual proclivities. However, she has a greater destiny as an anguissette, a chosen of a god, who is given the power (and the task) to experience pain as pleasure. This status vaults her into a position of political import, and it soon becomes apparent that the still waters of her supposedly peaceful nation conceal plots, desires, and ambitions, and a vast conspiracy with the potential to bring the whole of society down. Phèdre sets off down a road that crosses a dozen countries and a dozen years, endures multiple periods of slavery and torture, and participates on a full-scale war in her quest to keep her country together. Delivered in Carey’s poetic prose, it’s a story as much about sex and intrigue as one woman’s coming of age.

Blackdog, by K. Johansen
The notion of deities and demons having a corporeal existence in a fantasy world isn’t a new one, but Johansen’s novel takes a different approach: while most of the gods and goddesses in this world remain in “spirit” form unless invoked or interacted with by mortals, one goddess chooses to inhabit the body of a human girl from birth to death, repeating the process again and again. She begins each cycle as a fragile youth, and as the book begins, a duplicitous wizard arrives with an army at his back and plans to capture and enslave her, throwing the world into chaos. Richly observed, excitingly plotted, and crammed with world-building detail, Blackdog is a fantastic, satisfying, and entirely self-contained adventure.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
And yes, last but certainly not least is the mother of all modern epics. Look, The Lord of the Rings winds up on 95 percent of literary listicles for a reason. Aside from being one of the foundational works in the genre, it’s also timeless, even as writers that followed it have riffed on or subverted (hello, GRRM) the tropes Tolkien established here—and much of that has to do with the pitch-perfect ending. At the close, all the kings and warriors and wizards of Middle Earth are no match for Sauron and his evil minions, but a pair of desperately tired halflings and an ancient, ruined creature whose universe has narrowed to a single object somehow defeat him—by failing. Not only are all the characters true to themselves to the end, but all of the plot threads converge elegantly, reaching a suitably epic climax and following it up with a lengthy denouement (the scouring of the shire; the sad partings) that ensures the larger themes hit home.

Ardi Alspach contributed to this post.

What’s your favorite ending in epic fantasy?

The post 15 Epic Fantasies That Stick the Landing appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.