Somewhere along the line, between devouring everything Tolkien wrote nine times, and putting down the eighth volume of The Wheel of Time in disgust, I lost my appetite for fantasy. There was a time when I would have departed for Middle Earth in a heartbeat, if you had shown me the door. I used to prance around my bedroom wearing my Dad’s Korean war-era bayonet as Sting. It was way too small to be any other sword, but as Sting it was ideal, even if I was far from the archetype of a hobbit.
I never recaptured that feeling with any other story, although I have read very many fantasy novels and series since. I have some favorites, such as The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, or Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. I have my least favorites too, like The Wheel of Time, and The Wheel of Time, not to mention The Wheel of Time. In general, though, I’m just not that into it anymore. Part of this is no-doubt because I grew older. Another part of it is certainly because fantasy grew weirder. Whatever the reasons, I haven’t purchased a new fantasy novel since George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Kings.
That doesn’t mean I have lost my taste for swashbuckling adventure, the struggle of good vs. evil, and the days when men were men and wore armor to bed. Far from it. But I have lost my tolerance for what feel to me like the excesses of modern fantasy. Fortunately, to replace it I have gained a huge appreciation for historical fiction. After all, European history is awash with exactly these sorts of stories. So, for those of you who, like me, are a little worn out on High Fantasy, or no longer high enough to appreciate it, I present some alternatives that will take you to places just as epic, and just as moving.
Bernard Cornwell. Mr. Cornwell is the reigning Master of Dark Ages and Medieval European historical storytelling. Begin with The Last Kingdom, first in his currently five-part Saxon Chronicles. If that whets your appetite, and it will, finish out the rest of the series and then dig into The Archer’s Tale, which begins his three-part Grail Quest story. Speaking of grails and quests, be certain not to miss Cornwell’s Arthurian Cycle, beginning with The Winter King. It is one of the best renderings of that subject matter that I have ever read, second only to Mary Stewart’s, which I will get to below. Bernard Cornwell is a highly accomplished storyteller whose narratives will grip you from the first page. I devour every new one like a bag of potato chips, and even when I want to linger I can’t possibly.
David Gemmell. Mr. Gemmell was to the pre-Roman Classical Age what Bernard Cornwell is to the post-Roman Dark and Middle Ages. You can pretty much throw a dart at a list of his works taped to the wall, and be assured you’re getting something excellent and satisfying. If I were just discovering Gemmell I would start at the end. His Troy stories, the last series he wrote before his death in 2006, begin with Lord of the Silver Bow, and tell the story of the conquest of Troy from the perspective of Helikaon, Achilles, Ulysses, Priam, Andromache, and many other well-known characters from Greek Mythology. The last installment, The Fall of Kings, was finished by his wife Stella after he passed away. Once you’ve dined on those tasty dishes, don’t miss Lion of Macedon, and Dark Prince, or any of the Rigante books, beginning with Sword in the Storm. Like Cornwell, Gemmell was the very essence of a master storyteller.
Lady Mary Stewart. For my part, when it comes to the Arthurian tales, nobody has told them like Mary Stewart. I read the first book in her five-part series, The Crystal Cave, back in the early eighties and quickly finished off the three additional volumes that were then available. Since then she has published a fifth, The Prince and the Pilgrim. My favorite aspect of these stories is her treatment of Merlin’s character, and the way she weaves Arthur and his family seamlessly into actual events taking place in Britain at the close of the Roman era, and the dawning of the Saxon invasions. If you love stories of King Arthur then Lady Stewart’s cycle is not to be missed.
What you will not find in any of these books are flashy magic, elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, amulets of power, or rings that can save or doom the world. What you will find in abundance are the essential qualities of epic storytelling: compelling characters, irresistible historical forces, honor, loyalty, treachery, betrayal, the clash of mighty armies, and the saving of the occasional female in need. In other words, all the good stuff, and none of the hokum. Enjoy!