My new book, Spiderlight, is something of a deconstruction of the fantasy adventuring party, as seen in plenty of post-Tolkien works, and as beloved of Dungeons & Dragons players everywhere. It’s not as common as you’d think in fiction—often the action is a single individual or a hero-and-sidekick pair, or something larger, like a military company. What I’m after here is an ensemble cast with a particular feel to it—that mix of clashing characters and different skillsets. Here are some of my favourites.
Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman
When the wizard is evil but he’s your brother.
Impossible to do this list without namechecking that one time when writing up a D&D campaign turned into something amazing. This almost feels like cheating, as Tanis, Goldmoon and the gang really were an RPG party before they were characters in a book. However, it was reading Dragons that first set me on the path to authorship so I owe it a considerable debt. And Raistlin remains one of the all-time great fantasy characters, simultaneously evil and deeply sympathetic, redeemed because even evil characters can have complex relationships with others.
Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
When the wizard is evil but so is just about everyone.
I could just as easily have gone for the excellent Best Served Cold, but I have the cast of a crime caper novel lined up below, so let’s go for Abercrombie’s own deconstruction of the epic Tolkienien quest. “Bajaz, the First of the Magi, is leading a party of bold adventurers on a perilous mission through the ruins of the past,” as the back of my copy says. Because when you’re a gamer, the party can set out with the most heroic aspirations and end up doing the most horrible and misguided things, and Abercrombie captures that experience perfectly.
The Copper Promise by Jen Williams
When there’s a wizard and a warrior but the rogue gets a chance to shine.
Jen is one of the best new voices in UK fantasy, and it’s a testament to her writing skill that Wydrin, the “Copper Cat” and a proper fantasy rogue through and through, does not actually eclipse her companions Frith and Sebastian as they fight, trick and run their way through a world that has gone from run-of-the-mill dangerous to actively-being-set-on-fire-by-a-dragon dangerous thanks, chiefly, to their own poor life choices. “Let sleeping gods lie,” goes the tagline. No need to tell you how that one works out.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
When there’s a wizard and a warrior and a rogue and they’re all cyborgs.
Still one of my favourite books of all time, and there’s a great deal more going on than just the caper that Case is recruited for, but at the heart of the book is the quintessential cyberpunk adventuring party that all others at least nod to. Case is the rogue, the hacker who gets them in; Molly is the warrior with her cybernetic claws; Riviera is the wizard, twisting minds and spinning illusions and utterly untrustworthy; Armitage is the patron with a job they can’t refuse and a secret agenda even he doesn’t know. One of the great SF heist books.
God’s War by Kameron Hurley
When the wizard is the nice guy because everyone else is awful and a cyborg and it’s all covered in giant genetically-engineered bees.
I hadn’t intended it, but Hurley’s SF series seems like the culmination of everything else on the list. It’s a bitter world, and Nyx and her crew are bitter, bitter people, betrayed by their patrons whom they betray in turn at the drop of a hat. Nyx is the warrior, making up in skills and general horribleness for what she lacks in youthful energy. Accompanying her are is a mage, a shapechanger, rogues, rangers… None of it is styled in these RPG terms, but the books would make for a fantastic RPG setting.
Adrian Tchaikovsky is the author of the acclaimed Shadows of the Apt fantasy series and the epic science fiction blockbuster Children of Time. His novella Spiderlight is available now from Tor.com Publishing. He has been nominated for the David Gemmell Legend Award and a British Fantasy Society Award. In civilian life he is a lawyer, gamer and amateur entomologist.