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Best Sword and Sorcery Books

Action, Darkness, Antiheroes, and lots of sword fighting and magic

Before I recommend the best sword and sorcery books, it's important that you, the reader, understand exactly what classic sword and sorcery really is. Sword & Sorcery is a complex subgenre and it's hard to firmly categorize. If you are the impatient type and don't want to read my rambling about what makes up the Sword & Sorcery genre, click here for classic sword and sorcery to get to the recommendation list.

What Exactly IS Sword and Sorcery?

Unlike epic fantasy, sword and sorcery does not concern itself with world-endangering events; the stakes, rather, are far more personal. The danger to the hero is usually immediate rather than long term. Sword & Sorcery has a strong preference for fast-paced action tales rather than sweeping story arcs. That means there is (usually) no band of heroes facing off against dark lords that seek to destroy the world, but rather a lone hero on a personal quest of some sort.

Sword and Sorcery often has a much darker feel than some of the other subgenre fantasies; brutality is common and morality is not clearly defined. Ancient myths and legends are often incorporated into the story.

The hero of the story is often brooding and morose, sometimes fatalistic and always troubled in some way. The hero may be the shunned outcast, the perpetual loner, the misunderstood wretch who is pitied. The hero tends to be larger than life, a force of nature who can, at times, defeat more powerful opponents (gods, witches, demons, etc). The hero is not always an unfeeling brute, but might in fact be highly intelligent, though with barbaric traits or uncomfortable habits. In Sword and Sorcery, the end always justifies the means -- even if the means means sacrificing all morality.

I've divided this list up into two parts: Classic Sword and Sorcery and Modern Sword and Sorcery. The modern Sword and Sorcery is more like the "normal" fantasy you may be used to, though with a darker edge.


Conan The Barbarian

(Robert E. Howard)

When someone mentions Sword and Sorcery, what comes to mind is Conan the Barbarian, arguably the greatest representation of the genre.

It’s true that the story of Conan has been more influential than any other genre work. Its been imitated time and time again, but never duplicated. Conan is a figure from pulp fiction that’s transcended into myth, impacting an entire generation of writers and even making a dent in Hollywood as well.

Many know Conan from the films and movies, but if you haven’t actually read the source of Conan, Robert Howard's pulp fiction stories, than you’ve never encountered the real Conan.

Conan, Howard’s hero, dominates the landscape much in the way the ancient heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey were masters of the Greek domain. Like the primal Greek heroes and gods, Conan is an indestructible force of nature, a pure hurricane gale that obliterates all obstacles.

The raw Conan is a character shaped from myth, a figure who’s both a force of nature and a human being. The world of Conan is a landscape not unlike our own past, but it’s a world woven from a patchwork of imagination, history, and legend. Conan is the archetype for an enduring human myth, a raw, primal force of humanity and instant. Conan defines the essence of true Sword and Sorcery.

Don't just limit yourself to the stories of Conan -- Howard wrote other non-Conan tales which are also considered Sword and Sorcery classics. Try Kull: Exile of Atlantis and The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane .

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Elric Of Melinbone

(Michael Moorcock)

The number two pick for the best classic Sword & Sorcery story is the Elric series.

Michael Moorcock is the guy who first coined the word Sword and Sorcery in the 1960s. Michael Moorcock set out to start a new type of S&S that would counter the conventions of his time. In many ways, Elric is the anti-Conan character. And many will argue that Moorcock succeeded. Elric is certainly one of the most interesting fantasy characters.

Elric is a much more complicated character than some of the other classic S&S characters. He’s an anti-hero character through and through, requiring the use of drugs and evil magic to transform himself from pale weakling to kick-ass killer, he’s the prince of a dying kingdom (dying in part because of his own actions), he's got a vampiric blade that sucks the soul out of its victims, and he derives his power from a bunch of evil gods. In any other story, Elric would be the bad guy. 

Like all Sword & Sorcery novels, the Elric tales take place in the moment. The focus of the story is more on Elric’s serial adventures rather than some grand overarching plot.

Books in Elric Series (9)

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Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser

(Howard Chaykin)

Leiber helped to pioneer the sword-and-sorcery genre and is widely hailed as one of the most influential fantasy writers ever. Unfortunately, he's never received the credit he deserves for such an influential work. Many people have heard of Conan, but of the Gray Mouser, no.

The trappings of fantasy are present in the Gray Mouser stories, -- there are evil wizards, magicians, and barbarians -- but it’s all done in such a way that it’s not “the same old thing.”

What’s really refreshing about this series is the strong characterization of the two heroes, who, at the start of the novel are more anti-hero than actually hero.  Leiber does a good job exploring the meaning of relationships as the tale progresses – complicated stuff for a “mere sword and sorcery” tale.

True to the classic Sword and Sorcery form, the backdrop, world-building, and mythology of Leiber's world are thin; the focus is on the adventures of the two heroes and not so much the world which they live in.

These are small novels (less than 300 pages), but there’s a lot of substance to them and no matter what type of fantasy you enjoy, there’s something for everybody in these great stories.

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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.


Chronicles Of Amber

(Roger Zelazny)
(Amber Chronicles)

Roger Zelazny’s classic has been ignored by an entire generation of new fantasy readers, which is a tragedy since these books are classic sword and sorcery at their best. Amber reads like a lucid dream – strange worlds, strange characters, and strange events all connect by a tightly woven thread. And moving through this malleable landscape is Corwin, Prince of Amber -- Zelazny’s own version of Conan.

Unlike some of the classic Sword and Sorcery, the world (or should I say worlds) of Amber are more fleshed out, though hazy as if in a dream. And that's as it should be, as Amber is a world with many refections, each substantially less real then the true source of them all. Amber can’t adequately be described, but must rather be  explored and experienced. Fortunately, it's a world WORTH exploring.

Books in Amber Chronicles Series (11)

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Jirel Of Joiry

(C. L. Moore)

A story about one of the first S&S heroines. Pretty much unknown by those not well versed in the classic Sword and Sorcery tradition, but Moor's work helped pioneer the way for female writers of speculative fiction (she was one of the first). These tales were written in 1934.

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This author, together with Robert Howard and HP Lovecraft, helped pioneer a whole genre of "weird tales" that the public had never encountered before. Clark blends together different genres: horror, fantasy, and science fiction. In his collection of short stories, there are a number of classic Sword and Sorcery tales: necromantic kingdoms and dark worlds of sorcery among the bunch. The writing is raw and beautiful -- Smith is surely a wordsmith.

If you are the sort of person who loves to read about violence dressed up in the prettiest of words, you need to read Smith.

Books in Works by Clark A... Series (9)

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True to classic Sword and Sorcery, there are plenty of barbarians, wizards, and seductresses lining the pages of this classic work. The story centers on Gath of Baal, a barbarian guarding a realm that borders both a desert empire and a forest kingdom. Gath forms an alliance with a seductive sorceress. Mayhem for all involved results.

Fans of true sword and sorcery fiction will love this series with oodles of bloody battle, evil sorcery, and dark demons. There are a lot of similarities between this series and Robert Howard's Conan tales.

Books in Frank Frazetta's... Series (5)

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You don't normally read about an African hero in fantasy literature, but Saunders creates a compelling episodic Sword & Sorcery tale with Imaro.

The titular hero grows up as an outcast from his tribe, born to a mother who was banished from the tribe. He returns to the tribe to train as a warrior and though despised and mistreated as the son of an outcast, grows into the role as the greatest warrior in a tribe famous for great warriors.

This work is basically episodic in nature. Readers will see in Imaro the same qualities found in other famous Sword and Sorcery heros (Conan). What makes this hero unique is that he's African and not of European decent.

Books in Imaro Series (4)

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This is a different breed of fantasy fiction than its pulp fiction brethren. However, there are many elements found in the Black Company that have Sword and Sorcery qualities to them.

Glen Cook is one of the modern authors who writes what you might call modern Sword and Sorcery. Black Company is not traditional Sword and Sorcery, but there are enough elements to loosely class it as such. Cook, Erickson, Lynch, and Kearney all write fantasy that modernizes some of the older Sword and Sorcery traditions -- instead of the almost serial adventures present in S&S such as Conan, these authors incorporate a more "epic" fantasy style in the the sword and sorcery traditions.

The Black Company is a true classic -- a thrilling tale of magic and might, where the characters are neither good nor evil, and evil itself has shades of good. I recommend reading the Books of the North followed by The Books of the South. Many will argue that the series loses some of its appeal after that (in part because the narrator of the story changes to a different character).

Books in The Chronicles o... Series (11)

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A Sword Of Shadows

(J. V. Jones)
(Sword of Shadows)

This is more of an epic fantasy, but with quite a few Sword and Sorcery elements to it. First it's a dark world where morality is questionable. There's the loner hero with an emerging power. The landscape is one of ice and stone, a setting that fits perfectly with the brooding hero of the tale. Yes this is epic fantasy -- there is a world that's in grave peril and an emerging hero who steps up to set this world-gone-wrong back on the right path. But there's also a hack and slash quality to the series.

If you are looking for a modern sword and sorcery mixed with epic fantasy, a combination that works perfectly in this case, read Sword of Shadows.

Books in Sword of Shadows Series (4)

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Gemmell specializes in heroic fantasy. His best book is widely regarded as Legend. Legend doesn’t try to be anything but what it is: a heroic adventure with lots of blood, battles, babes, and badass magic. There’s a plot in there somewhere, but in true Sword and Sorcery form, the focus is on the action itself and not so much the plot. Gemmell explores a lot of themes in this book -- the idea of true heroism for instance. And there’s a hell of a lot of action and blood.

So if you’re in a mood for a rousing adventure that would put Braveheart to shame, David Gemmell’s Legend is a good pick.

Books in The Drenai Series (9)

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Paul Kearney's Sea-Beggars series which starts with The Mark of Ran. Kearney reported that these stories were inspired by some of the original Fritz Leiber stories.

Sea Beggars would be a modern sword and sorcery by any interpretation: there’s a lot of action present in the series and there’s no world-endangering threat to defeat. You might also want to try his The Ten Thousand novel for another similar sort of tale, though one that focuses even more on action and battle.

Books in The Sea Beggars Series (2)

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Comments (12)
Award Nominations:2000 WFA

While these are epic fantasy, there's are more than a few sword and sorcery elements present in the series to land them on this list. Gray morality. Check. Dark, brooding heros. Check. Super powerful villains. Check. Heros who can beat unbeatable foes. Check. Sorcery. Double check.

Books in The Malazan Book... Series (9)

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The Broken Sword

(Poul Anderson)

This series draws on Nordic influence and European myth. You get a good dose of ancient Norse gods, the beginnings of Christianity, beings from Irish mythology, and even a few half-gods from Greek mythology tossed in for good measure. Into this melting pot of myths is thrown the human hero, Scarfloc -- a man whose very love for his adopted immortal parents has doomed them all. This is the tale of his struggle to save them.

The Broken Sword is a dark tale and the heavy influence of the dour Norse mythology is present on every page, in every word. But for a sword and sorcery tale that's quite different from anything else out there, The Broken Sword is a recommended read.

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A perfect blend of sword & sorcery, science fiction, and heroic fantasy. Caine brings back to mind some of the classic S&S heroes -- a raw heroic force unleashed upon an untamed world, unstoppable as the wind. This hero matches sublime martial prowess with an equal level of intellect.

So if you are looking for a mix of different speculative fiction genres with a good dose of sword and sorcery blended in and one of the most vicious ass-kicking characters ever created in the fantasy world, read the Acts of Caine.

Books in The Acts of Cain... Series (4)

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A lesser known work by Jennifer Robson, but a great romantic sword and fantasy read.  It’s not complicated nor does it do anything new in the genre. And you know what? That doesn’t matter one bit.

The series is a wild ride, with each (small) novel a page turner.  Those who  particularly enjoy romantic fantasy novels with lots of action and good characterization will enjoy this series.

Tiger and Del are some of the more well painted characters in the Sword and Sorcery genre. You slowly see how the characters change over the series -- Tiger is a hero in the truest sense, but he's a flawed one. He transforms from machismo hero to a softer, more understanding character by the end of the series. The female lead Del's hard-ass edge begins to melt away into a more softer aspect. Overall, Robinson does a very good job with her characters and the slowly built romance in particular.

Robinson breaks the traditional Sword and Sorcery convention and paints a richly detailed landscape with vibrant cultures and traditions, even incorporating different languages into the mix.

Books in Tiger and Del Series (6)

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The Sword, The Ring, And The Chalice

(Deborah Chester)

(Sword, Ring, and Chalice)

Another modern sword & sorcery tale. There’s a lot of swashbuckling swordplay, adventure, and romance present in this novel. While some might say the series is more high fantasy  than sword and sorcery, there’s enough swashbuckling in the novel to list it here. The plot’s pretty sharp and the Chester does a great job with the characters – they live and breathe as real people, something you don’t normally find in a Sword and Sorcery series.  Chester also takes some of the standard Tolkienesque conventions (elves) and reworks them into a new form. This series is entertaining in a B Action movie sort of way -- you can enjoy it for the fast paced action and the cheap thrills.

Books in Sword, Ring, and... Series (3)

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A great tale that doesn’t take itself too seriously and one that doesn’t get bogged down with the little details. This fantasy marks the heyday of the 60s and 70s style of fantasy. Because of this, the series is easy to read and harkens back to the pulp classics of the Robert Howard era.

You may find Saberhagen's prose a bit off-putting at first, if you are used to the bloated prose common in the epic fantasy of today. But move past the idea that bulk equals quality mind-set that most younger fantasy readers have these days, and you'll find a series with a lot of substance to it.

Books in Books of Swords Series (3)

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Tales Of The King's Blades

(Dave Duncan)
(King's Blades)

I'm treading loosely on the term Sword and Sorcery by including this work here, but Duncan's hack n slash "with style" series, Tales of the King's Blade, brings to mind some of the old Sword and Sorcery classics. This series is all about raw action. Unlike the classics in this genre, Duncan spends a great deal of time building up the hero and the world around the hero. The hero, unlike Conan,Fafhrd, and Elric (the Sword and Sorcery archetypes by which all characters in this sub genre must be compared), is not a force of nature or a myth given form and life yet still incomprehsible. The hero is rather brought fully to life as a living and breathing man.

This is a series with a lot of action, but it does bring to mind some of the older Sword and Sorcery days.

Books in King's Blades Series (6)

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