Military Fantasy has a special niche in the canon of Fantasy Literature. It has its origins in the iconic Fantasy orignal (although it was hardly the first fantasy book) The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Few people know that Tolkien actually served in World War I and wrote much of the background for The Lord of the Rings (The Silmarillion and other works) in the trenches of embattled Europe. I would argue that the greatest influence the war had on Tolkien was in the way he used the Hobbits to glorify service but not warfare itself- but that is a post for another day.
What follows are my top five picks for best military fantasy novels that were published after the Lord of the Rings:
- The Black Company by Glen Cook
This book series is one of my favorites overall as it does a great job of capturing the odd dichotomy between family and duty that exists in long serving military units. Glen Cook was a military man and it definitely shows, but there are some surprising high fantasy elements that really suck the reader into the world that Cook has created.
- The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
If you are looking for gritty, fast paced military fantasy this read is for you. Excellent combat scenes are paired with genius level humor to blast you through to the last page. Personally, I was able to relate to the dark, sometimes dry humor of the book. One of the best coping mechanisms for the trials and tribulations of war is humor, and without it one descends (further) into madness.
- The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
R. Scott Bakker is a professor of Philosophy and this really shows in his Prince of Nothing series, of which this is the first. This is the kind of book that gets you thinking about some truly deep questions of both a political and military nature without drawing you out of the story or going off on too lengthy of a tangent.
- Dune by Frank Herbet
This will probably be my most controversial pick, and I would welcome your feedback in the comments section if you feel strongly enough. Dune is traditionally a Science Fiction piece and not normally associated with Military Fantasy. It certainly is Sci-fi but there are definitely strong fantasy elements present. Additionally, reading the book through the lens of the Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and the subsequent rise of the new caliphate and ISIS (DAESH) shows that Herbert had his finger on the pulse of the human tendency to seek a Messianic figure or cause. It also paints an accurate picture of how an insurgent, religious, and militant movement can turn into an oppressive monstrosity.
- Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson
This one totally takes the prize because of how Erikson focuses on military tactics. If you’re a tactics and strategy nerd this one is totally for you and the great action sequences keep the pages turning. Frankly if there wasn’t any magic thrown in there (which, of course, there is) I’d be hard pressed not to call it military fiction.