As George R.R. Martin continues to toy with our emotions (The Winds of Winter won’t be out in 2015! Wait, maybe it will! WHO EVEN KNOWS?), it’s a good moment to ask the question: How many books do you need to ensure an epic fantasy is suitably… epic? Sure, there’s a surfeit of it when you have four, five or more books to explore a world and a set of characters, but is it possible to build a whole world in one book?
We think so. Don’t mistake us—we love our multi-book sagas. But these 5 books prove that you don’t need a series to create an epic.
Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson
Sanderson is known from writing towering multi-book sagas like Mistborn and The Stormlight Archives, but he can also do it in one. In Warbreaker, he creates a fully-formed world with a beautiful, unique, and complex magic system—Awakening, the use of breath and commands to give an illusion of life to inanimate objects, fueled by draining the colors in from the surrounding environment. The story is no less layered or intriguing, as a marriage-by-treaty deception leads to reversals, betrayals, and mysteries revealed. The characters are slowly revealed like the layers of an onion, and a plot that could have easily been stretched out over three volumes is more satisfying encapsulated into a single adventure.
The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Curse of Chalion represents the best of both worlds: It’s a novel that can be enjoyed as a standalone adventure, but there’s also a loosely connected sequel set in the same world (Paladin of Souls, itself a great standalone adventure). Both the story and universe of The Curse of Chalion are fully fleshed out, though, and you won’t have to read the second volume to reach a satisfactory conclusion (though you’ll undoubtedly want to anyway). Based loosely on our world’s history, Bujold’s second foray into epic fantasy tells the tale of Caz, a knight of Chalion, who returns home from a disastrous war campaign, burdened by betrayal and longing only for peace and rest—but instead finds himself drawn into the mystery of the curse that dooms the royal family. Filled with vivid characters and the sort of inversions and subversions of fantasy tropes that fans of A Song of Ice and Fire will appreciate, The Curse of Chalion does it all—and in less than 500 pages.
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Imajica, by Clive Barker
Huge in both scope and physical size (this is one big book). there’s enough here for a trilogy (or more), but Barker manages to get it all into one without breaking a sweat. The whole thing is built on the concept of Earth being “reconciled” with parallel worlds: historical figures (including Jesus) are revealed to be powerful mages trying to bring Earth back into contact with the other “dominions,” and unexplained phenomena on our world are the result of the rift between parallel universes. It’s no small commitment of time of brain power to absorb this tale, a complete universe (or more than one!) and an admirably epic fantasy story in one dense, beautifully-constructed book.
Talion: Revenant, by Michael Stackpole
A completely realized fantasy environment, Talion: Revenant is also a deeply affecting story of flawed characters struggling to preserve their agency and do what they think is right. The concept of the Talions—powerful figures who assist in the great struggles of the world, or mete out justice, at their own discretion—is a unique and interesting one, and the novel is written using alternating timelines and dense, lively dialog that plays with language in exciting ways. Best of all, the world-building, rich character development, and a fantastic magic system all converge on an ending that is satisfying and exciting without setting you up for six more volumes.
Blackdog, by K.V. Johansen
The notion of deities and demons having a corporeal existence in a fantasy world isn’t a new one, but Johansen’s novel takes a different approach. While most of the gods and goddesses in this world remain in “spirit” form unless invoked or interacted with by mortals, one goddess chooses to inhabit the body of a human girl from birth to death, repeating the process again and again. She begins each cycle as a fragile youth, and as the book begins, a duplicitous wizard arrives with an army at his back and plans to capture and enslave her, throwing the world into chaos. Richly observed, excitingly plotted, and crammed with world-building detail, Blackdog is a fantastic self-contained adventure.
Did we miss any standalone epics? Let us know!