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Best Military Fantasy Books

Fantasy Books Focusing on Military Life

If you like fantasy with plenty of epic battles where the battle scenes and strategies are well-defined (you are immersed in the happenings on the battlefield), then this list of the best military fantasy is for you. This subgenre has been receiving a lot of attention, in no small part to some of the great fantasy writers who have been writing some stellar military fantasy-esque books.

Military Fantasy vs Fantasy with Military Elements

Many fantasy books, especially epic fantasy, have detailed military elements. However, keep in mind that there IS a difference between straight Military Fantasy and Fantasy With Military Elements. What’s the major difference? Pure military fantasy has most of the characters in the military. Fantasy With Military Elements may include battle scenes and wars, but the focus is not only on the military or about military life.


Malazan Book of the Fallen

(Steven Erikson)

(Malazan Book of the Fallen)

This book nearly tops the Best Fantasy Books list and a number of other lists on this site; it would be an injustice to omit this series here as well, considering that it contains descriptions of in-depth military tactics, strategy, and epic battles so big they explode from the pages. The books follow the exploits of the Malazan Empire as they try to conquer an entire continent by fair means or foul. The plot vastly grows to incorporate other kingdoms, gods, wizards, and alternate universes (so brace yourself, these books are epic) as you progress in the series, but one thing never changes: it's all about war, conquest, and power struggles between empires, gods, and men. Battles and tactics make up quite a large portion of every book in this series. Because of the heavy emphasis on war, Malazan takes military fantasy to a new level. Every book has a big battle and quite often, each novel spends quite a bit of time building up to that battle. Now about the battle scenes. One word to describe: ZING. Erickson doesn't hold back when it comes to writing visceral battle scenes. You are swept away through vivid on-the-ground view of battles from the perspectives of both the grunt and the officer. You feel like you are in the center of action as it happens. Erickson is fantastic at really creating realistic battle scenes. Take WW1 and throw in some magic and that gives you a pretty good idea what every Malazan book is about.

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Comments (9)
Award Nominations:2000 WFA

Another book on this list that’s been mentioned in many other best lists (a not-so-subtle hint that if you haven’t read it, get your hands on it asap!). The Black Company, I would argue, helped give rise to the whole military fantasy genre, if not founding it outright, then providing a base template from which MANY of the recent fantasy books have drawn from (Erickson, Martin, Bakker, etc). This is the story of The Black Company’s fight for survival, being squeezed (rather forced) between a rock and a serious hard place. The world of the black company is a dark, depressing, and irrevocably gritty one. This “gritty” aspect has been used to great effect in some of the most popular fantasy books (such as the Malazan and Song of Ice and Fire books). The story follows The Black Company, a famous mercenary band that ends up working for the wrong side on a war – that is, they end up employed by an evil lady who keeps the world enslaved through vile sorcery. The books are all about the day-to-day life of the military from the view of the soldiers who fight the small battles. There are lots of big and small battles with detailed battle tactics, nearly pedantic detailing of day-to-day military life of the company (through one of the most entertaining narrators, Croaker the company’s Physician), and political wranglings. Think Platoon, but throw in some wizards, a cast of criminal characters who relish violence and mayhem, and fighting for the Axis, not the Allied forces.

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Comments (5)
Award Nominations:2012 BFS

Abercrombie has written a number of awesome books, but common consensus is that The Heroes is his best work yet. It's also a stunning work of military fantasy with the whole plot basically detailing a vicious war between two forces sharing a single continent: The Union and The North (basically civilization vs barbarians). Sounds like your standard military fantasy fare, but trust me, it's not. You get to vicariously follow the battle from each side by following a few key characters  from the leaders to the common grunt -- and see how things play out in great detail, both on a personal level and a political level. What really makes this stand out are the unique and quite contradictory characters. Like every Abercrombie book, characters are not static. They are dynamic, they change, they grow, they self-discover. The narration is brilliant as well  the whole dreary situation is eloquently wrapped in Abercrombie's dry, sarcastic humor. There's a subtle sarcasm to the whole tale, and even the characters know it, expressing a dry and often brutal humor that will have you laughing as much as cringing. More about the characters: There are a number of fascinating ones this is where Abercrombie really excels-- from a spurned son of a war hero who's a blatant coward, a homicidal barbarian chieftain who maintains power through brutality, yet still tries to do the right thing, to a failed duelist who's failed his one-shot chance at glory, now relegated to an ineffectual popinjay. If I could sum up this book, it would be something along the lines of war really sucks and is pointless and heroes are made from cowards and cowards are made from heroes.  

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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. 

Available on Amazon & Audible, Barns & Noble, iTunes, Google, and Kobo.


The Ten Thousand

(Paul Kearney)
(The Macht)

Paul Kearny is one of the most underrated fantasy authors out there. He’s written a host of awesome military fantasy books and has been mostly ignored by the wider public for it. A shame, as he writes some of the most entertaining military fantasy out there. The Ten Thousand is loosely based on an ancient historical work by the Greek author Xenophon. The book describes how Cyrus the Younger hired a mercenary force of ten thousand as part of a scheme to overthrow his older brother; when Cyrus dies, his now defunct mercenary army is forced to fight its way out of a hostile empire to return home. It’s a compelling re-imagining of the ancient tale, brought to vivid life by one of the best epic fantasy writers out there. The author does a great job at creating some compelling characters – you really feel for them as they are tossed into a pretty much hopeless survival situation. Kearney has a real talent for paining a living, breathing battlefield, right up there with (and arguably surpassing) some of the other greats in the genre, such as Erickson and Martin. Brutal battles that challenge the key characters, forcing them to grow in both wisdom and perception. With the changing battle scenarios, the characters themselves also evolve as well. Absolutely recommended if you enjoy the gritty and brutal military fantasy worlds of Bakker, Martin, Cook, and Erikson. Kearney has also written another compelling military fantasy saga, The Voyage of Hawkwood, which is more of an epic sword-and-sorcery military fantasy than The Ten Thousand (which is mostly historical fiction with a bit of fantasy mixed in).

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Heroic military fantasy starring woman? This is the premise of Deed of Paksenarrion, following the exploits of a woman who rises above her station to become a legend. This novel is most concerned with the characters and personal struggles framed through the eyes of a young woman (at first a child), living among a military company. It takes a while for the ball to get rolling in terms of the plot, but it's worth the wait. While there is action, the story is more concerned with the struggle of the characters and their rise (and fall) than battle and conquest, though there are plenty of both. So for a strong military fantasy with one of the strongest females characters you'll find in fantasy, read this series.

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This is an all-out epic fantasy with military fantasy aspects. Most of the story takes place on a battlefield and quite a few of the main characters are participants in that battle. You get to see what life is like as the lowest of the low from the perspective of a doomed slave, whose job is pretty much just to die in a form of exotic fantasy trench warfare, and from one of the war leaders.

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The first book of the Draenei series and the best of the bunch. It’s technically classified as heroic fantasy, but the whole book is about war and the cost of being a hero in a hopeless war. It becomes apparent soon enough that the premise of the story is not how long it takes the heroes to survive, but how long it will take them to die. Grand battles and heroes matched by even grander villains. This book has an intense amount of action and does a decent job with characterization (but don’t expect characters that are so real you can hear them breathing, rather they are all larger than life – both in heroics and villainy). Lots of battles as well. I could provide a laundry list of what you can expect if you read this: Babes, battles, brave-heart like prep talks, magic, love and betrayal, valor, and of course unadulterated heroism. What I like about Legend as that the author never tries to make it anything more than it is: heroic fantasy with a hell of a kick to it. There’s no pretense that it’s great literature or some sort of grand epic saga full of meaning.

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Take the roman empire in an alternate world where magic works, toss in a bit of Pokmon, sprinkle a few heroes into the mix and out pops Codex Alera. This one is penned by the uber popular Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files. Lots of battles, an interesting magic system, a likeable hero who ascends the army ranks as the series progresses. Epic military fantasy that's just flat-out fun to read. What's not to like here? It's not dark and gritty like some of the other works (Malazan, Song of Ice and Fire, Black Company), but it's still entertaining as hell.

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The Darkness That Comes Before

(R. Scott Bakker)

(The Prince of Nothing)

A prophet-like character suddenly appears when the world is balanced on a knife edge, with an evil god holding that knife. It’s a selfish world, where kings care nothing for their subjects, religion is about control, and war means profit. It’s a world ripe for a messiah. This is that story, but it’s a story where the messiah may be the worst villain of all… Epic battles, badass fight scenes, politics, love, and betrayal: The Prince of Nothing sizzles with some serious panache on many levels. The cast are a compelling lot of ambiguous characters, including a philosophizing sorcerer, a selfish messiah, a murderous barbarian, a broken prostitute, conniving kings, and a relentless evil. This one is about war, but a complex war where there are no winners and only losers. For some military fantasy that makes you really think and think hard about the world, I can’t recommend this series highly enough.

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The Jackal Of Nar

(John Marco)
(Tyrants and Kings)

This is so much more than just another military fantasy; it’s military fantasy with a beating heart; this one probably has the best characterization I’ve encountered in the military fantasy subgenre. I’d describe this as Fritz, Braveheart, and Martin. The book deals with the brutal conflict between a power-hungry empire, Nar, and the continent Lucel-Lar, a kingdom ruled by a religious zealot. What’s awesome about this series is not necessarily the action or plot (though you won’t complain about either as it’s not lacking in those departments), but that Marcos’ characters are real and believable. They are complex characters with sympathetic motivations that you understand, even if you don’t agree with them. This is not simply a book about the struggle between good and evil, but rather the story of being put into a terrible situation, making bad choices, then having to live with the consequences. There’s a pretty big shift in the novel as the protagonist Richius ends up having to abandon his homeland, military, and kingdom all for the sake of love and live as an exile in a land that wants to use him as a weapon. This is where the novel starts to get good, where the author finally finds his stride – so you may have to bear with the bumpy first part.

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Epic war fantasy where there is a clear sense of black and white. For some, this may be a breath of fresh air from all the gritty, shades-of-grey type fantasy that’s in vogue right now. The “typical” military fantasy being written these days seems to be all brutal shades-of-grey character-driven fantasy epics with a heavy dash of battles, swords, and sorcery – with the requisite no-holds barred graphic violence and gore bleeding from the pages. This is not so much the case with Ascendents of Estorea. Cry of the Newborn doesn’t slot itself into the typical gritty military epic – which is a good thing, I feel. There is room in the genre for a lighter military fantasy epic. The series has a bit of a lighter tone than some of the more heavy modern military fantasy series (Martin, Black Company, Song of Ice and Fire), but the lighter tone is interspersed with some horrific ones too, such as the rape of a child. The novel follows the conflict between two great powers, The Kingdom of Tsard and the Estorean Conquord. The birth of the Ascendants, powerful individuals with superhuman magical abilities, is the game-changing moment in this conflict, one that’s the central focus of the story. Barclay does an excellent job at detailing masterfully crafted battle scenes as they take place on the sea and across large stretches of open ground. Fans of detailed battlecraft won’t be disappointed as Barclay takes you through the battle – some of the battles cover nearly a hundred pages! The author has a firm grasp on battle tactics, much so than most of the authors who write military fantasy; he has a keen eye for real battle strategies and tactics. These are not simple “charge until the enemy dies” or “attack from the flank and win the battle” strategies, but rather Barclay spends a great deal of time weaving together multilayered attacks from both sides – you are never quite sure who is really winning till the end! Unlike some other authors who incorporate large battles (cough Jordan), the use of magic fits in with the battle strategies and never seems overpowered.

If you like Acendents of Estorea, you’ll want to check out Barclay’s other series, Chronicles of Raven, for more military fantasy written in the same vein (though not as epic or grant as that series follows the exploits of a single mercenary band).

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Ash: A Secret History

(Mary Gentle)
(Book of Ash)

A gritty military fantasy with a compelling female lead. The book is set in an alternative (yet real) historical Europe, one that is based on reality and meticulously researched by the author. There is an almost gross amount of details of the mercenary way of life: setting up camp, marching, tactical battles. Court life and the historical cities are quite vividly depicted as well – providing a nice breather from all the dreary day-to-day life among soldiers.The mercenary way of life, camping, battles, cities and courts are vividly described. It’s a long, long book at over 1000 pages, so you are in for a serious read. Fans of military fantasy, strong females (the protagonist is a female), military tactics, and alternate history should jump right on this one. One of the complaints people have is there is a decided lack of romance – so don’t start this novel expecting a serious dose of love, sex, and war. There’s plenty of the latter, but little of the former.

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The Company

(Robert Littell)

Not your typical military fantasy fare, but a compelling if different read. It’s a story about a half-dozen ex-soldiers who are veterans of some of the worst battles of the war. The war is over and the soldiers find they are no longer comfortable living the civilian life. They set off to form their own sanctuary on an island in the middle of nowhere. This is their story.

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An almost painful amount of battle scenes and gore, to the point where reading yet another description about how a goblin’s head was mashed to pulp by a sword loses all impact. Lots and lots of gore and fighting – too much. But there are plenty of battle scenes and military planning. I would describe this as military epic fantasy. If you are looking for epic fantasy with a lot of blood, battles, and gore, this series is definitely worth a read. I personally much prefer the prequel novel, The Dark Glory War better than the sequel series. But it’s not as epic in scope. Also check out his other book, Talon: Revenent which is some pretty good heroic fantasy.

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His Majesty's Dragon

(Naomi Novik)
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Award Nominations:2007 HUGO

For a unique perspective on war, read His Majesty’s Dragon, a sort of naval fantasy, but with dragons used to fight instead of ships. It’s quite good and there are plenty of exciting dragon-to-dragon battles. First couple of books in the series are gold, then it declines.

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Two words describe this series: Love and War. A flawed work as a whole, but certainly an exciting, ambitious one, and the flaws are in many ways compensated by the sheer cracking intensity of the whole thing. I can promise you that you won’t get bored reading Chris Bunch’s Seer King trilogy. The books combine a heady mix of sword and sorcery, passion and sex – yes there are plenty of detailed, almost soft-porn sex scenes sprinkled through every book. There’s a plethora of military campaigns thrown in (the whole trilogy is about a bloody, brutal war) to boot – you are taken along for the ride as soldiers march, camp, and plot defensive and offensive strategies. And of course, there’s plenty of blood and raw gore gushing from the pages as you actually get to the battles. The author is as passionate about writing battle as he is about writing the sex scenes. The author takes the view that if you are going to enjoy fantasy battles, you might as well enjoy the fantasy sex as well. If you like raw battles, high intensity, plenty of military action in all its tedium (both good and bad), and sexy scenes, you can’t go wrong with this series.

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For fantasy with a different taste, you might want to give E.E. Knight’s Vampire Earth series a test go. These are military pulp fantasy. Don’t look for anything groundbreaking or profound, but they are entertaining enough to be worth reading if you like military fiction with a bit of a twist. There’s plenty of military campaigning going on in these books as the protagonist works his way up the ranks as part of a resistance movement. However, instead of fighting against human powers, the resistance is fighting against vampires who have taken over the entire earth. The first few books are pretty exciting with non-stop action on pretty much every page; quality declines in the later books, however. Still, well worth reading the first few..

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