As I said in a previous post, I thought I’d list some of the self-published and small-press fantasy I’ve read over the past few years that have been a cut above the rest. By this I mean good writing, effective storytelling and something that sets them apart from the masses – including some big-publisher fantasy – and makes them worth reading.
I’ll say up-front that I still think the best books out there are traditionally published. Brilliant writers with exceptional ideas and execution usually get through, at least in fantasy. They also get the benefit of professional editing, proofreading, cover art and the rest, so the final product is almost always of higher quality, in my experience. However, that doesn’t mean that you should ignore indie fantasy. A slick package isn’t the primary criteria in a lot of our choices – film, music, art, clothing, cars, houses, lovers – and if everybody agreed on the best book there’d only be a handful of acceptable authors out there, after all.
As I’ve said before, indie fantasy can be a great source of new ideas and fresh voices; it can provide something you’ve never seen before, or something you’ve wanted to see again (but the mainstream has left behind); and it might just allow you to find a story that is just what you wanted to read, even if it’s not perfectly polished. There are plenty of traditionally published books I don’t want to read, and many a self-published effort that whets my appetite where mainstream fare has failed.
So, with that in mind, here’s a collection of books I’ve enjoyed and which, while none of them are 100% perfect, I’d thoroughly recommend.
Eternal Knight – Matt Heppe
This series is one of few that I read as soon as I can get my hands on the next book. It’s a great adventure in a well-realised world with memorable characters. The scope has expanded with the third book, but it’s a small-scale epic with a manageable cast of characters, fast-paced and easy to read.
What sets it apart? For me, the combination of tight focus, historic realism and honest heroes hooked me, and the third book is the best yet.
A bit like: it’s hard to say, but maybe somewhere between Tamora Pierce and Robin Hobb?
Traitor Blade – Richard Crawford
I’ve mentioned this one before, but it was the book that originally convinced me of the worth of indie fantasy, especially the concept of being able to find something different that was just what you were looking for. This is set in a fantasy version of 14-15th C France, with very little (but critical) fantasy elements, and a personal rather than epic plot. The three books are very much a single narrative (one long book, even), and are far better than the covers (ironically, what first caught my eye!).
What sets it apart? The realism and scale, again, but also the fact that the characters are frustratingly imperfect yet you keep caring, and keep reading.
A bit like: another favourite of mine, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion. But with a bit more angst.
Edit: it looks like a New Omnibus Edition of the book/series came out last year!
The Stone Road – G R Matthews
Inspired by Chinese legends rather than the usual western-medieval stuff, this also takes and interesting perspective on the major events. You might have guessed I prefer a tight tale to a sprawling epic, and this alternates between two characters on opposite sides of a tense peace negotiation.
What sets it apart? Besides the above, I think fact that the story concentrates on other things than fighting or magic (though there are bits of both) was particularly refreshing.
A bit like: again, hard to say – I’m not sure I’ve read anything quite like it!
And here are some honourable mentions:
Black Cross – J P Ashman
The Heresy Within – Rob J Hayes (since picked up by Ragnarok, unsurprisingly)
Stealer of Flesh – William King (he writes for Warhammer, and this is his own series, in a similar vein).
The Tower of Endless Worlds – Jonathan Moeller (prolific)
The Black God’s War – Moses Siregar
Scrapplings – Amelia Smith