What combines my favourite Fantasy books, beyond the fact they’re mostly groundbreaking efforts in some way, mostly pushing the genre in surprising directions? Siege, I realise, as I glance through the first options coming to mind.
Every book making my mental shortlist involves the scenario of siege. And there it is, really. One of the things I love most of all in Fantasy—those desperate, backs-to-the-wall, fight-or-die Last Stands. So here’s my top five Fantasy siege books ranked in some kind of preference, with a nod to their unique or groundbreaking qualities as well.
The Drawing of the Dark—Tim Powers
Undoubtedly one of the finest historical fantasy novels ever written, The Drawing of the Dark is a masterpiece of story-telling written by the legendary, pioneering author Tim Powers.
In the year 1529, a road-weary Irish mercenary called Brian Duffy accepts employment as a tavern bouncer at the very beginning of the siege of Vienna. With the city facing imminent downfall, Duffy finds himself in the midst of a world-tottering plot involving the supernatural properties of an ancient, dark Ale—yes, the fate of entire civilisations rests upon a supernatural beer.
Highly intelligent, yet fun and flamboyant at the same time, The Drawing of the Dark contains action sequences made all the more thrilling by their realism—including some of the finest sword fights ever described—and a tense ratcheting of pace as the siege reaches towards its climax.
A Fantasy novel that every dedicated fan should have in their collection.
Upon its release, David Gemmell’s debut novel of a dying legend’s last stand upon the walls of Dros Delnoch made a huge and lasting impact across the scene. It was written in a fast and breezy style lacking any of the common pretensions found in the genre at the time, and focused firmly on the characters themselves as the tensions of a siege were relentlessly intensified around them—more like a thrilling adventure movie than the plodding-travelogues of other, contemporary, ‘epics’. There were no elves or dwarves to be seen anywhere in this story. No prancing unicorns either. Instead it depicted the realities of war with a gritty, cynical eye in which innocents were slaughtered in the maws of powerful ambitions, and ordinary conscripts on the line were real people with character and backstories, making their deaths equally as vivid when the siege reached its terrible conclusion…
As a story, Legend has soul. Gemmell’s battered soul. And fighting spirit. Street-smarts. Compassion. Hard-earned wisdom.
A thrilling, unforgettable read.
For a lighter take on siege, try reading Martin Scott’s Thraxas At War and Thraxas Under Siege. Described as pulp fantasy noir, each Thraxas book sets an overweight, underemployed Investigator called Thraxas on the trail of some unsolved mystery, accompanied by his beautiful ‘bodyguard’ Makri, an elf/orc/human ex-gladiator, who wears a chainmail-bikini for tips as a barmaid while trying to gain a place in the city’s male-only university.
The series is set in the wonderfully living city of Turai, where magic is woven into everyday life and even the chief sorcerers are usually stinking high on weed. When the city becomes besieged, covered in the two books listed above, it makes for a thrilling read, especially if you’ve been following the series so far—though I won’t give away what happens at the end of the final battle…
The Thraxas books are character-driven, written in a tongue-in-cheek voice that is warm at the same time, and for all that they’re fun-and-light afternoon reads, they remain one of my favourite ongoing fantasy series of them all.
Bleak Seasons—Glen Cook
Cook’s groundbreaking series known as The Black Company is a dark epic fantasy spanning forty-odd years, and tells the story of unfolding war as seen through the eyes of a band of elite mercenaries, the last of the Free Companies.
In his novel Bleak Seasons, we see the Black Company facing the armies of the Shadowmasters, while the citizens of Dejagore fight for their lives. Here, as in his other works, Cook’s style is grittier than most fantasy—even now—with down-to-earth characters and an eye for strong story-telling which always surprises.
The Lord of The Rings—J.R.R. Tolkien
I couldn’t, in good conscience, end this short list of fantasy sieges without including the great-granddaddy of them all, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which has battles and sieges galore. The series was ’groundbreaking’ in its own day, much like Robert E. Howard’s earlier muscular fantasy stories of sword and sorcery—since both authors were defining a genre that did not yet exist.
As for stirring tales of siege, who can forget the battles for Helm’s Deep or Minas Tirith (more vivid in my teenage mind than any CGI could ever match)?
And there it is—right at the core of the earliest fantasy literature—Tolkien’s dynamic of siege, dark forces nearly overwhelming the light—which lives on in all the works listed above. Lives on in my own series too.
Colin Buchanan was born in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, and from an early age he turned to reading and writing fantastical works to escape his troubles. In school he was the quiet dreamer who always sought out the back of the classroom. Later, in his stretches of work as a copywriter, he would be the quiet dreamer who always sought out the back of the office. In recent years he has mostly settled down, and loves nothing more than a late-night gathering around a fire with good friends. He is the author of the Heart of the World series; the third book, The Black Dream, is available March 12th from Tor UK.