Earlier this year, we provided suggestions for the best fantasy novels to pair with the most well-known Dungeons & Dragons character classes, but if the character you’ve built prefers to sing her way into battle, give in to a wild-eyed rage, protect nature, or don plate armor and adhere to a rigid code of conduct, you might’ve feel left out. Don’t worry: we’re filling in the gaps with this list of the best fantasy novels for bards, barbarians, druids, and paladins.
These four classes are more uncommon than the fighter, wizard, cleric, and rogue, but they’ve all appeared within the core rules of D&D at various points in the game’s history. They’re not exactly obscure, so plenty of novels have been written about each of them. (Just don’t hold your breath for a third list of novels for fans of cavaliers, blade singers, or magewrights.)
In D&D terms, barbarians are defined by three things: an uncivilized background, the ability to enter a berserker rage in battle, and a disdain for wearing armor. If you want to justify an impractical level of immodesty for your character, barbarian is the class for you! A lot of people suggest Conan the Barbarian as an obvious (if a bit on-the-nose) choice here, and he’d certainly fit right in, but we already used him on the fighter list, so other barbarians get the spotlight today.
The Spine of the World, by R.A. Salvatore
The Spine of the World is just part of Slavatore’s epic series about the drow Drizzt Do’Urden and his companions. This book focuses on Wulfgar, a member of the barbarian tribes of Icewind Dale orphaned in battle and adopted by dwarves. In the first novel in the series, The Crystal Shard, Wulfgar is the primary protagonist, but he took a back seat for many years when Drizzt’s popularity exploded. Wulfgar returns to the spotlight in The Spine of the World.
Thongor and the Dragon City, by Lin Carter
This is Carter’s second Thongor novel, and contains every classic sword & sorcery element—the ultra-capable protagonist, a princess in need of rescue, and an ancient eldritch foe (in this case, Xothun the vampire-king). Thongor was very consciously based on Conan, and in fact, Carter would go on to write new Conan stories later in his career. But if you simply must have another doughty, sullen warrior in your life, Thongor is your man.
King of the Bastards, by Brian Keene and Steven L. Shrewsbury
Rogan is a barbarian past his prime, but still more than capable of dealing out heaping doses of gore-soaked brutality in his quest to return home. All that stands between him and his goals are zombies, some kind of weird demon, conniving pirates, and a bunch of other people who are definitely going to regret getting in his way. Imagine The Odyssey, but adapted into an NC-17 rated film directed by Robert Rodriguez; that will give you some idea of what to expect from King of the Bastards.
Bards have a bad reputation among D&D players, often looked down upon as the least effective class. These people underestimate the Bard’s “jack-of-all-trades” ability to fill any role when needed—they aren’t just weirdos who sing in battle. (As if belting out a song of glory while wading into a thicket of orcs isn’t amazing all by itself!) Bards in novels clearly lean toward the artistic side of the class.
Taliesin, by Stephen R. Lawhead
Lawhead begins his Pendragon Cycle of novels with this book, based on the semi-historical bard known as Taliesin (I say semi-historical because, while Taliesin certainly existed, what we know of his life is inextricably entwined with mythology and folk tales). Lawhead’s version ties the bard to the fall of Atlantis and characters from the Arthurian legend.
Elfsong, by Elaine Cunningham
Elfsong has the distinction of simultaneously being part of two different series of novels. It’s part of the Harpers series, about a secret society of do-gooders in the Forgotten Realms, and also the second book in Cunningham’s Songs & Swords series, about the adventures of bardic protagonist Danilo Thann. You could start with the first Thann novel, Elfshadow, but this one is decidedly more barderiffic (in that it has higher bard-per-page content, not that it is necessarily superior as a novel) and even has a green dragon.
Riddle-Master, by Patricia A. McKillip
McKillip’s acclaimed Riddle-Master trilogy traces the adventures of a prince named Morgon as he gradually unravels the secrets of the kingdoms and their connection to the High One. Some of the main characters are unambiguously bards, but the entire trilogy is concerned with the solving of riddles and the unlocking of ancient lore and music, so there’s a broader bardic oeuvre happening as well.
Druids are, in a sense, specialized clerics. Instead of a named deity, they usually worship nature. It isn’t enough to simply wield nature-based magic, though—druids use their abilities specifically to protect nature and reinforce their own bond with the natural world.
The Raven and the Reindeer, by T. Kingfisher
This is one of many reworkings of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale The Snow Queen. Kingfisher plays with gender roles and the sexual orientations of the characters to create a story that’s more nuanced and complex than the original, and at no point does anyone sing, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”
Chalice, by Robin Mckinley
Chalice is the story of a naive beekeeper who is unexpectedly chosen as the Chalice, a magical protector of the demesnes that make up the novel’s world. Mirasol has to figure out how to be a Chalice, tapping into powerful natural magic and using her own ability to care for bees (and the possibly magical honey they produce for her) to find her place in the world.
Druids, by Morgan Llewelyn
File this one under, “Does What it Says on the Tin.” In this novel and its sequel, The Greener Shore, Llewelyn tells the tale of Ainvar, a Celtic Gaul druid in both a semi-historical sense and in a very Dungeons & Dragons way. He’s one of the few novel druids to actually have a sacred grove to care for. This isn’t a secondary world fantasy as most of the novels on this list are; Ainvar battles the forces of Julius Caesar and the invading Romans rather than an evil king or necromancer.
The original paladin was a warrior, usually wearing the heaviest armor available, and bound to the strict morality of the lawful-good alignment. They could be glorious, if inflexible, heroes. In some incarnations, D&D paladins are more like holy knights, still tied to a moral code, but defined by the particular deity they serve rather than a specific alignment. Luckily for us, characters engaged in heroic efforts and inevitable moral conflict are popular topics for fantasy novels.
Three Hearts and Three Lions, by Poul Anderson
Three Hearts and Three Lions is a portal fantasy about a man battling Nazis during World War II who suddenly finds himself in a legendary version of Earth where knights battle dragons and faerie creatures. The concepts of law versus chaos as depicted by Anderson strongly influenced the development of the early D&D rules, and the original paladin is largely based on this novel’s protagonist.
The Elenium trilogy, by David Eddings
The Elenium is a trilogy that begins with The Diamond Throne. The main character, Sparhawk, is a loyal knight on quest to find a cure for his poisoned queen. He’s joined on his journeys by knights from other holy orders, so there are paladins aplenty. D&D fans will find lots to love in this series, with its groups of disparate companions going off on magical quests and adventures.
The Deed of Paksenarrion, by Elizabeth Moon
Almost everyone we asked about their favorite paladin-centric novels mentioned this one, featuring one of the few woman paladins in fantasy. Paksenarrion starts out as a mercenary who realizes one of her commanding officers is the rightful king. She then devotes her life to his cause, uniting various factions and battling evils that stand in the way of him taking the throne.
At this point we’ve covered eight different D&D character classes. What should we tackle next? Is there another roleplaying genre that’s well-represented in novels? Let us know what you think in the comments (I’m leaning toward cyberpunk).