“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!” J.R.R. Tolkien
The great success of Game of Thrones on HBO and the movie franchise Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit have brought fantasy into bright focus. Sadly, for some, they like aspects of these works but long for more depth of characters, less violence, more fantasy elements such as magic, faeries, and "love".
“It all goes back and back," Tyrion thought, "to our mothers and fathers and theirs before them. We are puppets dancing on the strings of those who came before us, and one day our own children will take up our strings and dance in our steads.” George R.R. Martin
I was asked if there were any good fantasy books that are NOT like either Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien or George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones. They also asked that works such as the Shanara Terry Brooks series and the Mithgar series by Dennis McKiernan not be considered, as the person asking wants fantasy but nothing like the quest or struggle for power. The sets here I am going to show therefore are fantasy, born of different mothers, and not of the sort of quest or war of the Roses situation found in the two series above. There are many.
“All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Erol and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.” J.R.R. Tolkien
The first series of excellence is the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series. While some books preceded the arrival of Lin Carter as editor of the series, he was very much an eloquent and erudite champion of the books chosen. Along with writing introductions and explanations for whichever work in question, he additionally wrote some guides for the series that were deep, entirely accurate, and made the series as much a celebration of great fantasy works as it was nearly a scholarly enterprise. I learned about Lord Dunsany's work through this series, William Morris, E. R. Eddison, as well as the art work of Gervasio Gallardo and Frank Utpatel.
“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”
Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard was a master of the pulp fiction genre. He was also a product of his time. He was imaginative, bright, and, despite some critical reviewers finding him limited, I think he had an ability to tell stories that was immediate, intimate and felt true, however odd or weird the setting. He moved me, and the series from Glenn Lord as editor and commentator, the Berkley Books, are without any doubt on my part the very best. Swords, antiquity, guns, action are all that you need to know.
Another aspect of Robert E. Howard that I like, is his wide look, at everything exciting, and his primal, powerful poetry. For a tough guy he had a very complicated and diverse heart.
AND OTHER SERIES OF FANTASY
There are many series to consider, with some having dragons, some high magic, some with brutal struggle, some are deeply serious, others, light and fun.
Anne McCaffrey's work had/has a huge following. I cannot say I liked what I read, but at the time I read it I was not inclined to enjoy it. I wasn't stupid or chauvinistic, I didn't like the idea of the work, so whatever followed wasn't bound to succeed. But from a very close friend who I trust, the works are not the same plot over and over, and he said, he fell in love with the lead character with every new book.
I bought this series for my wife, she loved it, shared it with family, and those books made the rounds. I read them and liked them in a way that I find hard to describe. The characters were real, the motives felt real, and while the level of action was somewhat less than most fantasy, the stories were rich with detail and the world concerned was lush.
“So you do believe in... true love? she whispered.
I took a deep breath, I think I have to, I said, blinking back tears. Without it, we're all going nowhere.” Juliet Marillier
A long time ago, while in college, I was told by a woman I didn't know well, to read Katharine Kerr's work. The stories were said to be complicated, intricate, but, compelling. I tried reading these and, the writing was excellent. But there was a story aspect that I didn't really enjoy. However, others probably do. The work follows heroes and others living and reincarnating over the course of long stretches of time. And that isn't a horrible thing, I just wasn't about that.
Jonathan Thomas Meriweather is from the planet earth of our reality. He is somehow is transported from it to a magical land where animals speak, have intelligence on a level of humans, or more. Humor and wit fill this series. Since Alan Dean Foster is a favorite author of mine I think you can deduce whether or not I liked this.
Ursula K. Le Guin moved my heart deeply. Her writing is beautiful, and the world of Earthsea is one that is lavish in detail, and beautiful in fact. The world is a water world with no great continents. The humans upon the world have lives that are directly related to the oceans, harvesting and trading. Another aspect of life on the Earthsea world is the central role of magic in the lives of the occupants.
“Even if a tamed wolf makes a good sheepdog, he will never understand how the sheep feel....You are most fortunate. For having been, as you thought, a coward, and helpless to fight - you know what that is like. You know what bitterness that feeling breeds - you know in your own heart what kind of evil it brings. And so you are most fit to fight it where it occurs.” Elizabeth Moon
Elizabeth Moon's Deed of Paksenarrion and Legacy of Gird were excellent. The people of the planet were of the standard fantasy variety, elves, orcs, humans and others. A farm girl, Paks leaves home due to an upcoming arranged marriage. Her strength makes her a very likable character, and Moon's writing shines as this work, extended into the second series with Gird, is parts military fantasy, an individual path of the warrior becoming realized, and, most interestingly, religious. Moon made certain, for me, that other writers of the day were just waving their hands at issues, Moon made each issue worthy, and that she did so with three vital themes when others might have just done one, was extremely impressive.
Katherine Kurtz series following the Deryni is clever in many ways. The characters feel real while the canvas Kurtz paints upon makes the political and religious intrigues for power thrilling. This world has humans and a race called Deryni who have mental and magical abilities, and as a race they have been hounded and outcast from society. The stories concern life in the Eleven kingdoms, and these works are very satisfying.
Raymond Feist's Riftwars and other works are all worth reading. The cities and states are incredibly well conceived, the Rifts in question revolve about the wars of magic users created portals between worlds and clashing. If this is less deep in characterization it makes up for it with devastatingly well written action.
“Are you a storyteller, Thomas Covenant?"
Absently he replied, "I was, once."
"And you gave it up? Ah, that is as sad a tale in three words as any you might have told me. But a life without a tale is like a sea without salt. How do you live?"
... Unconsciously, he clenched his fist over his ring. "I live."
"Another?" Foamfollower returned. "In two words, a story sadder than the first. Say no more -- with one word you will make me weep.” Stephen R. Donaldson
At the time I read the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant I was not comfortable with a lead character who I rather disliked. There was also too much yakking not enough whacking... OK maybe not. It had a fast pace, it was vivid, and the depth of characters was highly impressive. At the time I read these I was not used to, perhaps not ready to enjoy psychological versus visceral fantasy. Though it is well, oh, far beyond well written, it was extraordinarily complex, at times abstract, and always bleak. This is the kind of story that I've always thought should exist, but I am guilty of expecting and preferring the less intense and more "fun" works. Anyone liking that challenges you, would love this. If you are bored by anything easily, you might pass on this.
“What was that?" Belgarath asked, coming back around the corner.
"Brill," Silk replied blandly, pulling his Murgo robe back on.
"Again?" Belgarath demanded with exasperation. "What was he doing this time?"
"Trying to fly, last time I saw him." Silk smirked.
The old man looked puzzled.
"He wasn't doing it very well," Silk added.
Belgarath shrugged. "Maybe it'll come to him in time."
"He doesn't really have all that much time." Silk glanced out over the edge.
"From far below - terribly far below - there came a faint, muffled crash; then, after several seconds, another. "Does bouncing count?" Silk asked.
Belgarath made a wry face. "Not really."
"Then I'd say he didn't learn in time." Silk said blithely.” David Eddings
David Eddings wrote well, and his characters are vivid, well motived and interesting. But, by the third book of this series I found myself less and less interested. I am not complaining, I just recognized it wasn't for me. Magic and sweeping tales of Garion and his companions to find and use a stone also sort of violates my "epic quest" aspect of this, but what the hell.
“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.”