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Best Fantasy Books You've Never Read

The Most Criminally Underappreciated Fantasy in the Genre
Most astute fantasy readers have heard about the hyped-up authors – those authors who are often touted as the “best” in a genre; they are quite often the first fantasy books you’ll spot when browsing for fantasy books, displayed prominently to catch your eye. Yes, by now most of us have heard that A Game of Thrones is good stuff; The Name of the Wind is a must-read fantasy, and the Malazan books are some of the best in the fantasy genre.

But what about those lesser-known works of fantasy that are often overlooked but quite often just as good as the “well known” ones. For whatever reason, these are the books that have not received the attention they deserve – maybe because the book was released a couple of decades ago or the publisher did not have the marketing pull of some of big named ones. Or maybe it was that the public was not yet quite ready to receive that work as a more modern audience would. Whatever the reason, these are books and authors that are underrated and quite often ignored by most of the people who offer up fantasy book recommendations. You might also call this list the “best underrated fantasy books.”
And for something completely different, Bridge of Birds is wildly entreating, air-gasping funny, and pretty much unknown by fantasy readers. It's the story of the laugh-till-you-drool misadventures of two characters, Ox and Master Li in a fantastical ancient China.

Books in The Chronicles o... Series (3)

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Ah, a supremely entertaining fantasy tale with a pretty unique magic system. And, it's a vastly underrated epic fantasy series. This is THE epic fantasy series that you should have read, but probably never did. It's a tightly written series with a very novel magic system that becomes more and more important as the story progresses (and even more so as things come to a head) and a cast of well-developed, complex characters who surpass the usual cardboard clich's present in other fantasy. The premise is pretty simple: a princess and stableboy, each with magical skills, become involved in a kingdom's succession struggle. On the surface it's the standard fantasy fare: there's an unknown stableboy with a few special traits, a willful princess who refuses to conform to her social roles, a kingdom suffering from succession turmoil, tides of war looming, and a dark evil magic power brewing somewhere distant. Yes, Duncan initially plays around with the usual fantasy cast of characters, but each character is wonderfully developed Duncan knows how to write complex characters that indelibly leave their mark on you. The plot is very entertaining with plenty of twists and great developments; there are plenty of heroic moments and lots of action; the world is rich and well developed with different peoples, landscapes, and cultures; the characters very well done and the magic system is top notch well developed and completely unique to this series. There are two series  Magic Casement being the first book of A Man of His Word followed by the sequel series A Few Good Men which takes places years after the first series ends.  

Books in A Man of His Wor... Series (4)

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The Monarchies of God is one of the most underrated epic fantasy series out there. The series is original, a break from the usual clich'd fat fantasy that every author writes (or rewrites based on other, more talented authors works). Fans of sailing will find themselves at home, as the art is described in great detail (Kearny is an avid fan of sailing and really knows the subject). Think of this as a cross between Patrick O'Brian and George Martin. There are quite a few main characters, reminiscent of the way Martin does it in A Game of thrones. There is a huge dose of military and political action present in the novel so fans of military fantasy should find enough battles and deep military strategizing to keep them satiated. Fans of epic fantasy too will be licking their chops  there are huge kinds clashing, mysterious magic, and a dark foreboding power rising out of some unknown land across the sea. Throw in a grand naval mission to cross a mysterious ocean and found a new colony on some rumored dark continent, and you have the workings of a very unique plot. The first novel, Hawkwood's voyage, opens up with quite a bang. The holy city of Aekir has been sacked, two great kingdoms are in the midst of a war, and in the midst of this, the King of Hebrion initiates a mission: cross the Great Western Ocean and found a new colony. The thing is, this is the third time such a crossing has been attempted  it's failed twice before and no survivors have returned from across the great ocean. I know a lot of authors are compared to George Martin as a marketing ploy to sell more books, but there are quite a few elements in these books that are reminiscent of Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series; think of this series as a lighter, less intense and morally ambiguous version.  It's one of the great travesties that Paul Kearney has been ignored and is slowly being forced out of writing due to low sales. He's one of the best fantasy writers and one of the most underrated authors out there in the genre.

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With a Martin-esque plot and Jim Butcher pace, The Axe and the Throne is a definite "must read" for even the pickiest fantasy fans.

In his stunning debut, Ireman has built the type of world so vivid and engrossing that leaving it at the end is agony. In spite of leaning toward grimdark, where authors often enshroud every scene in depressing darkness, there is no lack of cheerful moments or brilliant scenery. Yet the pangs of near-instant nostalgia that come after you put down a book like this have less to do with the inspired setting, and far more to do with those who inhabit it. 

From savage, unremorseful heroes, to deep, introspective villains, the cast of this story is comprised of believable characters capable of unthinkable actions. And it is these characters -- the ones you wish you could share a drink with or end up wanting to kill -- that forge the connection between fantasy and reality. Keethro, Titon, Ethel, Annora. These are names you will never forget, and each belongs to a man or woman as unique as they are memorable. 


No book would be complete without a its fair share of intrigue, however, and there is no lack of it here. Each chapter leaves you wanting more, and Ireman's masterful use of misdirection leads to an abundance of "oh shit" moments. Do not be fooled (or do -- perhaps that's part of the fun) by storylines that may appear trope-ish at first. This is no fairytale. 

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This one makes the list because most modern fantasy readers have never ever heard of the fantasy series. And this is a crying shame because many of the modern fantasy books, especially those that follow some of the classic sword and sorcery conventions, draw heavy inspiration from Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, either directly or indirectly. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is especially influential on the whole gritty urban fantasy movement (think Dresden) that's been going on in recent years; I'd argue even that these stories are the defining influence on the subgenre. And despite this, most people don't even know the name of the author. Make sure you read these despite the age, they are enthralling and you'll quickly see why they've influenced a generation of writers.

Books in Fafhrd and the G... Series (8)

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Gritty detective fantasy in a warzone – this is The Dresden Files before Dresden. Garrot PI has been vastly overshadowed by Cook’s The Black Company, but these are actually some of cook’s best writing. The books are funny but don’t go overboard with humor The Garrett P.I. series follow the detective adventures of Garrett, a detective living in a gritty, noir city called TunFaire, a magical city that’s populated by elves, dwarves, ogres, and other magical entities. Garret is a soldier-become-private detective and he’s not out to try and save the world from any sort of dark evil; he just wants to do his job as a P.I. and get paid, badly. Cook carefully crafts a gritty, nasty place in the city of TunFaire. It’s not a place you would ever want to live, but it’s an interesting place to watch Garrett navigate through. In this world, everyone has their own – usually nasty – agenda and it’s a world that Garrett must navigate through carefully if he wants to survive to get paid. If you love Dresden, detective noir, urban fantasy, or gritty fantasy, you’re going to love this series.

Books in Garrett, P.I. Series (14)

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Virtually unknown by most and recently reprinted, The God Stalker Chronicles are very underrated. For those in the know, this is one of the better unknown series out there. The author incorporates a number of different elements from Eastern mythology, martial arts, and heroic fantasy, making this quite a unique fantasy. The protagonist, Jamie, struggles against her role in a society that does not welcome her  even despises her  other than as a political pawn. This is the story of her search for her long-lost brother, her people, and a destiny. There's plenty of action and some deep characterization, but what makes this series stand out is that underneath the fantasy trappings, some very deep issues are explored: self-determination, the price of honor, family and what it means to have family, identity, loyalty and its limits, and so on.

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You might call this a more focused, mini version of The Lord of the Rings and one that most of you will probably never have heard of. It's an older fantasy series, but one that still has that magic that will keep you reading till the wee hours of the morn. It is highly influenced by Welsh folklore, and while the world-building and mythos is not as well-developed as Tolkien's Middle Earth, there's still a lot there certainly more than most of the new fantasy books. The story unfolds in the land of Prydain a world that's steeped in Welsh mythology. The young hero of the story starts off as a Pig Keeper and dreams of becoming a hero until the unlikely opportunity arrives where he becomes just that, and finds it's not all it's cracked up to be. Like many high-fantasy tales, this is a classic coming-of-age story with a deep exploration of wisdom, love, loss, and the road to adulthood, but one that's lovingly told through the talented strokes of Alexander's pen. This is one that not only kids will thoroughly enjoy, but adults as well the story is one that transcends age.

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Starts with Heroes Die, but I’m throwing in the whole series because every single book is so damn good. You read one, you’ll read them all. The plot is highly original: it follows the exploits of Hari Michelson, an man living in a futuristic cast-bound world as an actor, a day job that basically requires Hari, under the guise of an alter ego named Caine, to brutally murder people in another reality for the entertainment of billions. This is an unapologetically brutal world and the author doesn’t mince around with the brutality of it all. Life is not fair, the innocent are crushed and like the title suggests, heroes die. And through this journey of raw violence, you’ll be glued to every page. Stover is criminally unknown in the fantasy world; with the exception of a select few people who toss his name around with whispers on forums, the average fantasy reader will have never heard of him. And that’s a blooming shame because the man can write some damn compelling fantasy.  

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Another series that seems to be virtually ignored by the general public. Perhaps because it’s a low fantasy series (i.e. there is no magic, though the world is a sort of fantastic, alternative earth world). However, this is a series that doesn’t require magic to have the right magic, so to speak. This is one of the most tightly plotted series I’ve read, with one of the most entertaining protagonists. I love how the main character is backed against the wall time and time again and forced to come up with some ingenious (but completely believable) solution to the problems surrounding him. This is a series where the characters’ choices really affect what happens plot wise and it’s wildly entertaining to see where the story goes, based on the choices and mistakes some of the key characters make. The characters really grow and develop over the series as does the plot, which becomes more and more complex. I’m generally not a fan of Fallon’s other works, but her Second Sons trilogy is absolutely outstanding and should be read by those of you looking for a top-notch series that leaves out some of the usual fantasy elements (magic) but more than makes up for it with complex characters and a deep, intricate plot. Trust me, once you start reading, you won’t be able to put the books down.

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C.S. Friedman’s outstanding dark fantasy series has featured on a number of BestFantasyBooks.com’s lists. Her Coldfire trilogy is one of the more underrated series out there. Why? Perhaps it’s the sheer depth of the series – some of you may not get the deeper aspects of the novel and instead focus on the slow-moving plot and the lack of action. This is a series that requires you to read and to pay attention to the details and the characters. The characterization is top notch, with a cast of characters that include one of the most interesting anti-hero characters in the genre. Friedman jumps right into the deepest psyche of the main characters, and through them really explores the concept of human morality. This is not just a story about some great quest, but also the quest to understand the morality of man and what actually defines it. You can read into the characters as different representations of humanity: there is a character in pursuit of power of immortality at the cost of humanity, there’s a character who stands for morality and never wavers from good in the face of abject evil, a character who represents the innocence of humankind, and one that stands for the cunning nature of humanity. The characters are made even more indelible as they stand out in dark contrast against the world itself – a primal dark place where the dark imagination of mankind directly manifests itself as monsters that prey on humankind. If you’re looking for a fast-paced action epic fantasy that’s as simple as it is dull, avoid this series. But if you want a story where the plot is tightly driven by the development and key decisions of the main characters as they move through a disturbing world and face morally ambiguous decisions rather than some haphazard deus ex machina, you’ll want to read this series. In fact, you’ll NEED to read it.

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A hugely influential high-fantasy series that's inspired many of the great fantasy writers. It's an older work, published decades ago, and probably now out of print, which is perhaps why most modern fantasy readers haven't read it. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't! Vance knows how to write and write well  better than most writers of any genre. His prose is so delicious you'll want to lick it, then lick it again. Every word belongs, every sentence is as crisp as a potato chip without any of the extra fat.

This trilogy is the closest thing you'll find to Lord of the Rings  an entire world full of enchanting mythology. Vance merges Tolkien and Old English myth with the likes of the Grimm Brothers; it's high fantasy in the highest sense: faeries, ogres, witches, kings, queens, children, knights, and monsters populate his rich world. All in all, it's a spellbinding tale that should be read by all and sundry.

Jack Vance is one of the pillars of the science fiction and fantasy world. If I could pick out three works that have influenced the speculative fiction genre, they would be Dune, Lord of the Rings, and Lyonesse and it's so tragic that out of these three magnificent works, Lyonesse has been virtually forgotten. You know the world is not fair and will never be fair when the latest trash spewed out by the likes of Goodkind is eagerly consumed by millions of readers, while the truly great works of fantasy literature like Lyonesse are virtually ignored, out of print, and doomed to a life of dusty shelf abandonment.

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Guy Galverial Kay is by no means a forgotten author, but his first fantasy series, The Fionavar Tapestry seems to be ignored by most. It’s a mostly forgotten and yet stunningly underrated series. Yes, it’s a flawed jewel and the plotting wavers throughout the trilogy and becomes somewhat predictable. Some of the characters’ actions are not so believable. But on the whole, it’s truly a work of surprising beauty – one that was clearly written with love, care, and passion that only a first work would ever be. This was not written with a publisher in mind, but written for the story itself. I’ll say this is not a series for everyone, and fans of the modern epic fantasy (especially those who are entertained by the more action-heavy fantasy with magic tossed around like sand on a beach) may not find it to their taste. But for the discerning reader, it’s a must read – one that deserves to be read.

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Anaimon: The Starfall is a highly original and imaginative foray into an epic fantasy series. Grand adventure abounds across a vast world steeped in rich history and vibrant cultures.

Sharing camaraderie, sorrow, terror, and moments of levity, Burning Flower and her friends journey to undo the breaking of Anaimon. Forging a friendship and a destiny inconceivable, they travel to undo the ruin of their world as the pursuit of foes and nightmares converge upon them. Fans of Malazan, Tales of the Otori, and LOTR will find much to enjoy here, with immersive world-building and vivid descriptions of a unique and colourful setting. 

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Not strictly unknown, yet still ignored by the average fantasy reader. The world of Amber is one of the most original and most interesting fantasy worlds out there – something that one might argue, rivals Tolkien’s Middle Earth (if middle earth was one of many realities). Their plots are numerous as are the characters. Part of the sheer joy found in this series is the actual sense of discovery and wonder revealed when you start reading. The first book follows the story of Corwin, the Prince of Amber – the one true world and from whom only the royal ruling family can move through the different dimensions of the world (also called the Shadow) – as he discovers his true identity and learns his place in the ruling Monarchy of all the worlds. Those who are fans of Lord of the Rings with a more science fiction bent will probably love this series. Hell, even if you don’t like Lord of the Rings, still read it!

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A beautifully written trilogy with strong, vivid characters, and a darkly realized world. There are elements of horror too, especially in the first novel, The Bone Doll’s Twin. Beneath the surface story, there’s a lot going on that forces the reader to stop and consider some of the issues presented some of which include questions about gender roles, sexuality, and the afterlife. The novels are a compelling mix of epic fantasy, a ghost story, a love story, and a coming of age tale with a strong exploration of gender identity tossed in. It’s hard to throw in all of that and still have a story that wildly entertains. Lynn Flewing manages to do this. This is one of the best underrated fantasy series out there and I highly recommend you read it.

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The story follows Alodar, an apprentice magician, as he discovers and masters the five paths of magic. It's an exciting adventure that's virtually unknown by the modern fantasy reader and it's probably out of print. Master of the FIve Magics has one of the most logical and complete explanations of each magic path, while keeping the rules internally consistent (unlike most fantasy worlds where magical rules are broken left and right)  if you like to read about concrete magic systems that make intuitive sense without the usual abstract wave your hand and stuff happens, this is your book. The author goes to great lengths to detail each tenant of the five magical paths  both the rules and the limitations. It brings to mind the rigid and rule-based magic system present in Rothfuss The Name of the Wind and the detailed exploration of the One Power in Jordan. The quality of the prose won't knock the socks off the best in the genre, the plot isn't anything unique, and no new fantasy grounds are broken by the author, yet it's still a very entertaining read. For sure, one of the most internally consistent and logical magical systems I've yet read  so if you are a fan of adventure heroic fantasy with some really interesting magic systems and you love the whole young man prodigy goes to magic school plot setting, this is the book for you.

Books in Magics Series (3)

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A character-driven fantasy with plenty of magic to boot. It’s fallen by the wayside with all the recent fantasy that’s come out, but it’s a sharp tale with great characterization, a well-developed world, and an enticing plot – it’s better than most of the epic fantasy out there and is sadly unappreciated. It takes a while for the plot threads to weave together (which may be why it’s underappreciated), but once they do, you are taken for a grand ride. There’s a lot of good world-building in this one – lots of different kingdoms and cultures explored. Your surface impression might be that this is a typical fantasy, but it’s quite a bit deeper than that once you get past the surface – plenty of political intrigue, extensive world-building, and great characterization with complex relationships.

Books in Winds of the For... Series (5)

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McKinley has been around for a long while now, writing excellent but often underappreciated fantasy – at least by the mainstream “epic fantasy” crowd. The Hero and the Crown is her magnum opus, yet it’s difficult to find and has very little hype behind it. The Hero and the Crown tells the coming-of-age story of a young woman who being scorned and derided by her countrymen, takes an old horse and heads off to slay a dragon and in the process, finds herself. It’s ostensibly categorized as a YA novel, but the story transcends both age and gender. There are complex themes explored (love, tragedy, heroism, sacrifice) here, so it’s not a simple book.

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Steven Brust, while known in some circles, seems to be largely ignored by most fantasy readers these days. For a certain type of fantasy – heavy comic book action with a wise-cracking hero and a band of merry sidekicks – Brust can’t be matched. Vlad, the hero (or villain, depending on how you see it), lives in a rather appalling city ruled in part by giant Dragaerans. These creatures routinely abuse other races, including Vlad who becomes an assassin in response to his mistreatment. The books detail his rise through the ranks of a criminal syndicate. Steven Brust has a lot of heart and soul to his writing – the characters are as colorful as the setting, and he really develops the mythos of his world, which is fully explored throughout the different books. The writing style is simple and direct – no overly flowery words or eloquent sentences that other more (pretentious) authors toss around.

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A higher-level, more advanced reading than Harry Potter. There was a movie made from the book, but the books are so much better you can just forget the movie ever existed. This one has been around for several decades, but never garnered the critical mass-market attention that some other fantasy works have, which is a shame since this is certainly one of the best young adult epic fantasies ever written. These are loosely based on Celtic and English legends and stories. Downsides: lengthy descriptions that would bore some younger readers, and the characters and plot are complex; this is not a simple Harry Potter tale. This is the story of Will Stanton, the last of the Old Ones – immortals who protect the world from evil. Will comes to this knowledge of his fate on his 11th birthday. To prevent the Dark from conquering the world, Will must collect 6 signs. It’s a gripping story with fast-paced action, an interesting quest, and a smart and surprisingly complex protagonist.

Books in The Dark is Risi... Series (5)

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One of Stephen Lawhead’s lesser-known works, but perhaps the most beautiful. It tells the tale of an ordinary man, Lewis, who’s a graduate student from Oxford. Lewis is a rather plain chap without anything to recommend him as heroic material. He ends up crossing into a parallel world (ancient Celtic) by accident, while trying to find his roommate, Simon, who incidentally crossed into the same world before him. It’s a rich and thoroughly engrossing story that will keep you hooked. There are many “cross over” fantasy stories out there, but A Song for Albion is the finest and best-written of them all. The world created is highly detailed, heavily influenced by Lawhead’s research into Celtic folklore and traditions. This is not a white-washed fantasy world either – the author stays true to the savage nature of the ancient primitive cultures with a depiction of bloody battles. The narrative is rich and complex with three-dimensional characters who learn and grow through the series, evolving into different people by the end of the tale. The grim bloodshed and harsh primitive realities of the world are juxtaposed with the stunning beauty and peacefulness of the landscape and peoples – it makes for an interesting, yet disturbing comparison. For something a little different than the normal epic fantasies out there, I highly recommend A Song for Albion. You won’t be disappointed.

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This is probably the biggest epic fantasy that you’ve never heard of. It’s fat fantasy with a lot of strong characterization. If you are fans of the recent crop of Martin-style gritty fantasy with shades of grey and dark, brutal worlds, this series won’t be for you. If you want fantasy with non-stop action, violence, and magic on every page, this series is not for you. It requires some serious patience on your part to get into the flow of things. One thing you can’t accuse Michelle West of is being a hack – she writes about as original a high fantasy epic as you’ll find out there. Let me be clear – this is NOT The Wheel of Time and if you like that sort of faster-paced epic fantasy that’s heavy on the magic, super heroes, and action, then this series won’t be for you. This is a more plot-driven, more pedantic paced epic that requires focus on your part. It is, however, an epic fantasy for those who like to savor the slow buildup of a good, complex story. This is a story that can take books to really build up the threads and get the ball rolling, but the journey is worth it. The author is a fantastic wordsmith; this is a grand tale that’s told in a grand manner with flowery, poetic language. So if you can put up with a slower-paced complex, plot-driven epic fantasy with delicious prose, read it. It’s a vastly underappreciated work of epic fantasy and for those with the patience, a real treat awaits here.

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An original fantasy standalone with a bit of an eastern flavor. It gets much less attention than her “The Death of a Necromancer” but is, in my opinion, every bit as good. If you are looking for fantasy with a bit of a different flavor, you should try reading Martha Wells. Wells is known for her original world-building, strong characters, and sharp plotting. The world created is deep and fascinating, but it’s so subtly built up that you don’t get hit over the head with massive chunks of exposition as some authors are wont to do. There are distinct cultures present in the book rather than re-written proto-typical medieval ones that seem to be the base template for 99 percent of the fantasy outside there. The magic system is pretty unique as well. This is superior sword and sorcery – a big cut above most of the genre. With keen writing, strong plotting and characters and a fascinating, highly original setting, Wheel of the Infinite is one book you should read.

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The author J.R.R. Tolkien is certainly not underrated but his majestic work, The Silmarillion gets very little attention compared to his other great works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is in the Silmarillion that the history and mythos of Middle Earth is fully fleshed out. Perhaps because it reads as an overview of The History of Middle Earth and not a novel that the average person (extreme Tolkien fans aside) bothers reading, even if they enjoyed Tolkien’s other, more popular works.

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Another “forgotten” epic fantasy. As seems to be the case with these forgotten epic fantasies, there is a big tradeoff between action and characterization, this series opting for characterization over action. Mind you, there is action, but it takes time to build up to these scenes, rather than numb your senses with fireball after fireball, and sword fight after sword fight with every page.

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Michael J. Sullivan's Riyria Revelations reminded me of Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora

There's a bit of a history to this series. This used to be an indie series self-published but through hard work and persistence, Sullivan managed to make it to the big leagues and land a publishing contract.

Many years ago, when bestfantasybooks.com was still in its infancy, the author actually sent us a copy to review. Sadly, the copy was lost and we never officially reviewed it, alas. Since then, it's taken a long while to finally review it and I very much wish I had done so years ago when I should have. This is a great series with a wildly entertaining protagonist. It's not a perfect book, but it's definitely worth your time. I'm adding it to this list because it has been highly underrated and almost unknown for many years; word is getting out now, though, and quite a few people are starting to read the series. It's not a dark, twisted tale, nor is it anything that's unique, but instead it's a light-hearted adventure that combines elements of conspiracy, intrigue, and adventure. Stress on the light-hearted part. The author never takes himself too seriously when writing the adventure  it's not darker than dark grim and the author doesn't try to win any awards with deep characterization or anything. The series is brought down a bit by some of the writing: there are a number of clich characters (callow, inexperienced prince for example), cheesy soliloquies given out by the bad guys, dialogue at times bordering on the ridiculous, and the world-building is a bit shallow. However, the story gets more complex and things improve quite a bit as you progress into the series and start to get into the later books. Worth a read? Yes. And it's more entertaining than a lot of the fantasy out there.

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