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Thread: Hard fantasy recommendations?

  1. #1
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Hard fantasy recommendations?

    I like epic, gritty stories set in imaginary worlds, therefore I like fantasy. However, I dislike magic, prophecies, zombies and anything else that's just implausable, so there's a lot of fantasy that I don't like. I guess I like fantasy that feels more like an alternate history than a fairy tale. "Hard fantasy" is sometimes defined this way. Any recommendations for me?

    Some examples: I love ASoIaF for all the political dealings and intrigue in Westeros, but the zombies annoy me. I like Abercrombie's First Law trilogy because the magic is not that present.

  2. #2
    Assistant Deputy Backup SillyLittleTwit's Avatar
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    But surely the First Law has the First of the Magi as a major character? In that sense, it's no more "hard fantasy" than The Lord of the Rings.

    If you're after fantasy-flavoured alternate history, there are the likes of Guy Gavriel Kay and Jacqueline Carey. It rather depends on how keen you are on purple prose though.

  3. #3
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    True, but the First of Magi is just one of a whole cast of main characters and only uses his magic occasionally, so it doesn't set the tone of the work. In contrast to, say, a Brandon Sanderson novel in which the main character is always eating metal or using magic marbles to cast spells.

    I didn't know Carey, thanks.

  4. #4
    Three of a perfect pair. AW Moderator amergina's Avatar
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    I'd recommend Ellen Kushner's Riverside books. (Swordspoint, Privilege of the Sword, Fall of Kings)

    No magic. Just politics and people.
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    practical experience, FTW Patrick.S's Avatar
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    Try Traitor Baru Cormorant. I got busy and had to return it to the library before I could finish it, but there was no real magic to be seen.

  6. #6
    practical experience, FTW Cobalt Jade's Avatar
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    Richard Adams, who passed recently, wrote 'realistic' fantasy with his fat novels Shardik and Maia, a duology that told a century's worth of history in the Beklan Empire. The latter was written first, but tells the second half of the history. No magic to be seen, and a subtle sense of irony at the follies of belief.

  7. #7
    There's a stick up there Kjbartolotta's Avatar
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    It's YA, but the False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen impressed me as a rather light a fluffy version of this.

  8. #8
    practical experience, FTW rwm4768's Avatar
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    I'd have trouble recommending much in the way of these kinds of novels. Generally, if it doesn't have any fantasy elements, I don't really enjoy it. There are some exceptions, of course, but I'm less likely to enjoy books that are low on magic and other fantasy elements.

  9. #9
    is watching you via her avatar jjdebenedictis's Avatar
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    I'd recommend K J Parker as someone who writes pretty great alternate world fantasy that has absolutely no magic in it. Sharps might be a good place to start, although I really liked The Folded Knife.

    You might also look at some of Jo Walton's stuff. Ha'penny was an alternate version of our world during WWII, where England allied with Germany. There is no magic in it (and I assume the sequels are the same), although it is based on a world that's just like our Earth, not on a fantastical world.

    And I'll +1 for Guy Gavriel Kay; his books always have a tiny bit of magic in them, but Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors are both brilliant books with almost no magic beyond a spooky encounter with a bison.
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  10. #10
    practical experience, FTW Cobalt Jade's Avatar
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    You forgot about those telepathic metal birds... (not that they did much in the plot)

  11. #11
    Who's going for a beer? waylander's Avatar
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    Swords of Good Men by Snorri Christiansen, small magic component, lots of vikings

  12. #12
    Oerba Yun Fang DragonHeart's Avatar
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    I'm not sure hard fantasy is the best way to define what you're looking for. The wiki might define it in the way you do, but in general use it usually tends to be very high magic with rigid rules and structures defining said magic as a system, ie like how in hard science fiction the technology is highly detailed and explainable in how it functions. Stuff like The Way of Kings, which is the virtual opposite of what you're looking for, can be defined as hard fantasy, for example.

    What you're looking for is low fantasy set in a secondary world. I think it's definitely possible to have no magic fantasy, but it is very uncommon, and historical fiction/alternate history is probably more to your style.

    If you were only annoyed by the zombies and not the dragons in ASoIaF, maybe Temeraire? It's alternate history with dragons, but there's no magical elements beyond the dragons themselves.
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    Assistant Deputy Backup SillyLittleTwit's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DragonHeart View Post
    I think it's definitely possible to have no magic fantasy, but it is very uncommon,
    Peake's Gormenghast being a good example there.

  14. #14
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    Thanks all, some great recommendations. The works by Mervyn Peake, K. J. Parker and Seth Dickinson (none of whom I'd heard of) are exactly what I was looking for, though some of the other works interest me too.

    I know 'hard fantasy' is also used for fantasy with detailed magic systems, which is the exact opposite kind of fantasy, but there seems to be no unique term for secondary world fantasy with few or no supernatural elements.

  15. #15
    Not as sweet as you think Aggy B.'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by krommenaas View Post
    Thanks all, some great recommendations. The works by Mervyn Peake, K. J. Parker and Seth Dickinson (none of whom I'd heard of) are exactly what I was looking for, though some of the other works interest me too.

    I know 'hard fantasy' is also used for fantasy with detailed magic systems, which is the exact opposite kind of fantasy, but there seems to be no unique term for secondary world fantasy with few or no supernatural elements.
    Yes. It was mentioned above. Low Fantasy.

    ETA: It also intersects with Grimdark Fantasy. Young Adult examples would be Cynthia Voight's Jackaroo books.
    Last edited by Aggy B.; 01-12-2017 at 10:24 PM.
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  16. #16
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by krommenaas View Post
    I like epic, gritty stories set in imaginary worlds, therefore I like fantasy. However, I dislike magic, prophecies, zombies and anything else that's just implausable, so there's a lot of fantasy that I don't like. I guess I like fantasy that feels more like an alternate history than a fairy tale. "Hard fantasy" is sometimes defined this way. Any recommendations for me?

    Some examples: I love ASoIaF for all the political dealings and intrigue in Westeros, but the zombies annoy me. I like Abercrombie's First Law trilogy because the magic is not that present.
    Try the works of Guy Gavriel Kay. Some of my favorites are Under Heaven, Tigana, and The Last Light of the Sun. He writes alternate world fantasy with little to no magic.
    Last edited by BethS; 01-13-2017 at 12:39 AM.

  17. #17
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    Quote Originally Posted by Aggy B. View Post
    Yes. It was mentioned above. Low Fantasy.
    That is usually defined as fantasy taking place in the real world, which is opposite from what I mean.

    E.g. from Wikipedia: "High and low fantasy are distinguished as being set, respectively, in an alternative "secondary" world or in the real "primary" world."

    All these definitions of fantasy's subgenres are so ambiguous as to be useless, unfortunately.

  18. #18
    Not as sweet as you think Aggy B.'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by krommenaas View Post
    That is usually defined as fantasy taking place in the real world, which is opposite from what I mean.

    E.g. from Wikipedia: "High and low fantasy are distinguished as being set, respectively, in an alternative "secondary" world or in the real "primary" world."

    All these definitions of fantasy's subgenres are so ambiguous as to be useless, unfortunately.
    Actually, they aren't. They exist for a reason and the quote you have picked from Wikipedia ignores the rest of the wiki article there. Like this, which is literally the second sentence on the wiki page "Low fantasy stories are usually set in a fictional but rational world, and are contrasted with high fantasy stories, which take place in a completely fictional fantasy world setting with its own set of rules and physical laws."

    There are also some good distinctions over at TV Tropes

    None of it says low fantasy has to be set in our world (although it could be and still be low fantasy and not specifically Urban Fantasy or Magical Realism).
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  19. #19
    Oerba Yun Fang DragonHeart's Avatar
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    Fantasy that takes place in the real world is usually labeled as urban or contemporary, not low. Think of high/low fantasy more as characteristics than actual genre labels, which tells you how much magic to expect in the story. A story can be low fantasy and take place in the real world--it's often called magical realism. If it were high fantasy and took place in the real world, it'd be urban fantasy.

    I'm not sure what set of definitions you're using for the subgenres, but they don't seem to be following any of the common ways I see them referenced.
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  20. #20
    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    How is it possible nobody has mentioned China Mieville yet? Take a look at The Scar or Perdido Street Station (a secondary world, no real magic but a lot of seriously weird stuff) or The City and the City (a world that is almost ours, without magic, but with 2 very different cities that simultaneously exist in the same place but don't interact... until they do).

  21. #21
    Queen of Quixotica Marumae's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by benbenberi View Post
    How is it possible nobody has mentioned China Mieville yet? Take a look at The Scar or Perdido Street Station (a secondary world, no real magic but a lot of seriously weird stuff) or The City and the City (a world that is almost ours, without magic, but with 2 very different cities that simultaneously exist in the same place but don't interact... until they do).
    I was going to say this, I'm not a fan of Mieville personally, but his works spring to mind. Definitely takes place in a secondary world but little or no "Magic", however he has some seriously...unique? Ideas to his works and his worlds.

    Guy Gavirel Kay is a good one, I personally loved "The Lions of Al-Rassan" an alternate reality retelling of how the Muslims were kicked out of Spain. No magic, but definitely not earth.




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  22. #22
    Quote Originally Posted by krommenaas View Post
    I like epic, gritty stories set in imaginary worlds, therefore I like fantasy. However, I dislike magic, prophecies, zombies and anything else that's just implausable, so there's a lot of fantasy that I don't like. I guess I like fantasy that feels more like an alternate history than a fairy tale. "Hard fantasy" is sometimes defined this way. Any recommendations for me?

    Some examples: I love ASoIaF for all the political dealings and intrigue in Westeros, but the zombies annoy me. I like Abercrombie's First Law trilogy because the magic is not that present.
    It sounds like you're after what is sometimes known as "Low Fantasy" or "Historical Fantasy" - basically, where the focus is on realism rather than fantastical aspects, though they'll still be present in some form.

    This is the area of fantasy I prefer to read - and write.

    As for other writers in this part of the fantasy genre, aside from GRRM and Joe Abercrombie, I'd very much recommend David Gemmell - "Legend" is the book he's most famous for, but his "Lion of Macedon" set in Ancient Greece, and "Sword in the Storm" which has a Celtic feel, and are wonderful historical fantasy books.

    Brian McClellan's Promise of Blood is the first book in a series where gunpowder is more of a feature. I didn't think I'd enjoy something with a Napoleonic flavour, as I much prefer ancient and mediaeval world works, but his powder mages are a superb concept and the whole thing works surprisingly well.

    Aside from that, I've found very little other historical fantasy, other than Raymond E Fiest's The Magician, which doesn't actually have much magic in but a lot of historical detail. Douglas Hulick's Among Thieves is pretty good, though he's just announced there's no book 3 coming any time soon. Scott Lynch's Lies of Lock Lamorra isn't so much historical as much as lacking in magic, and the characters are sometimes like something from a Tarantino.

    I'd actually recommend you give some historical fiction a try, if you haven't already - Robert Fabbri's Vespasian series is superb, and the first book often runs at a big discount, and Robert Harris does wonderfully engaging Roman Historical Fiction - give Imperium a try.

    If you'd rather try something mediaeval, then Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth is a pseudo-historical novel that is lavish and superb for its depth and breadth.

    See if there's anything on that list to start with.
    Last edited by Brian G Turner; 01-23-2017 at 12:06 AM.
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  23. #23
    There's a stick up there Kjbartolotta's Avatar
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    So, just wanna plug the Great One Gene Wolfe, not exactly low fantasy but close. Would point to the Latro series as an awesome Bronze Age fantasy series featuring the author's character obscurity. He is QUITE the Hellenist, so you get a really fun take on the ancient world and it's ever-popular pantheon.

  24. #24
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    Aggy B.: yet the wikipedia page for high fantasy says "low fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary, or "real" world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements" - which is twice opposite to what I was referring to (secondary world, no magic). The definitions are ambiguous. Maybe not in your mind, but definitely on wikipedia, which is as good an authority as we have.

    Thanks for the tips everyone! I've already read some GGK and am a big fan of the Vespasian series, currently reading part 6

  25. #25
    practical experience, FTW Cobalt Jade's Avatar
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    Tanith Lee wrote some great alternate world fantasies with gothic elements, but no elves, dragons, or magic systems.

    The Secret Books of Paradys is a four volume set based in the city of Paradys, an alternate world equivalent of Paris. Each book has a theme (The Book of the Mad, The Book of the Beast, etc.) and each story is based around a particular color.

    The Secret Books of Venus does the same, but the city is Venice, and each book is based around the elements (Air, Fire, Water, Earth.)

    Mortal Suns is a little different, it's an alternate world version of Mycenaean Greece, and reads like a Mary Renault historical novel.

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