When I was a child, I remember being distinctly disappointed with the power-levels of the average wizard in fiction. It’s possible that’s because the first memory I have of a story where someone lobbed around spells and curses was Maleficent from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. If wizards weren’t changing themselves into dragons, well really, what good were they?
Even most of the villainous wizards were usually hamstrung in some manner to explain why they didn’t automatically win against the heroes. (I mean seriously, Saruman was clearly breaking the rules binding the Istari and yet his greatest power was the Industrial Revolution.) The good wizards? Instead of being forces of nature, most of them were advisers whose main job was to cajole, point, or trick the hero into going on the quest (looking at you, Merlin, Gandalf, and Dumbledore). This inevitably resulted in nine-year-old me jumping up and down while screaming, “Really, Glinda? Dorothy had the power to go home THIS WHOLE TIME? Whose side are you ON?”
So, this list isn’t going to include those books.
No, instead I’m going to talk about my five favorite books (or series) with wizards, witches, and sorcerers who were not at all squeamish about opening a magical can of ungodly power on their enemies, deities, and the whole world, not necessarily in that order.
The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
Now one might argue that the Orogenes of N.K. Jemison’s books aren’t wizards, but to my mind the fact that they have a reasonably narrow field of specialty shouldn’t disqualify them. After all, one of them is powerful enough to break a continental plate straight down the middle. Likewise, the idea of moving entire planetary bodies using magic is a core conceit of the trilogy. These are wizards so powerful that they can (and do!) cause extinction events. I’d say that counts. This story of deeply broken people trying to survive in a deeply broken world is one of the most amazing I’ve encountered in years and deserves every single one of the many awards it’s won along the way. Start reading the trilogy for the disaster porn, keep reading it for the sublime world building and extraordinary emotional climax.
The Black Company by Glen Cook
This take on a mercenary company caught in the crossfire of a rebellion against an evil god-like sorceress was my introduction to grimdark fantasy. I was blown away by Cook’s descriptions of wizards so powerful they were immortal and all but unkillable, in a world where everyone was interesting but nobody was good. I was equally impressed by the sorcerous women, every bit as terrifying as the men; women who didn’t depend on feminine whiles or seduction (although yes, the Lady is beautiful and in later books there is a romance sub-plot) but preferred to magically annihilate anyone who got in their way. This tale of soldiers desperately trying to hang on to what little humanity they still possess remains one of my all-time favorites. (I’m extremely excited to hear that Cook has a new Black Company book—Port of Shadows—coming out in September.)
The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone
Lots of people have written about wizards, but Gladstone was the first I ever saw combine them with the true movers and shakers of the modern world: lawyers. In the Craft universe, wizards attorneys are so powerful that they have overthrown or enslaved gods. Lichdom is so assumed as a career-goal that how-to-adjust-to-your-new-undead-life classes are part of any respectable law office’s employee benefits package. The main protagonists themselves may or may not be wizards, but to my mind Elayne Keverian (senior attorney at Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao) and Kopil, the King in Red (who rules a city-state that technically isn’t Los Angeles but certainly feels like Los Angeles), have earned their place among the greats. Added bonus: Gladstone writes all his characters, even the minor ones, with extraordinary compassion and dignity, which makes for nail-biting reading when their goals are at odds with each other (which happens fairly often).
The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny
I feel sad whenever I meet someone who hasn’t read Roger Zelazny, which unfortunately happens more and more often these days. The Chronicles of Amber (the first five books in particular) were a revelation for me growing up. Now I fully acknowledge that Zelazny’s works were far from perfect: quite a few of his female characters were interchangeable with a sexy lamp and people of color were entirely absent in most of his stories. Yet it’s hard not to love his brilliant, biting prose, and I’m of the opinion that Zelazny’s redemption arc of Corwin, a dimension-striding prince who gradually begins to question his need for revenge (and the cost of that revenge), remains a masterpiece. And powerful wizards? Oh yeah. The family redheads (Fiona, Bleys, and Brand) are especially mighty but special shout-outs are due the two wizards who create entire multiverses at various points: Dworkin and Corwin himself.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Truthfully you could grab almost any book by Diana Wynne Jones and probably end up with a handful of screamingly powerful (if whimsical) wizards. However, Howl’s Moving Castle (which later found a wider audience as a Hayao Miyazaki animated film), with its story of Sophie, a young hatmaker’s daughter who is cursed to be an old woman, remains my favorite. The titular Howl, along with such worthies as the Witch of the Wastes and Sophie herself, think nothing of crafting some truly awesome spells, curses, and gates between cities, countries, and indeed entire dimensions (including ours). Howl’s universe is one where you’ll have no trouble at all believing that there’s little a wizard can’t do – except keep a clean house (oh, how I relate to that one). If you loved the movie, I recommend picking up the book, since Miyazaki changed the story in several significant ways (both versions are lovely). One thing is certain: movie or book, Calcifer is the most adorable fire demon ever.
So, there you have it. My five favorites, not necessarily the ones that usually make these lists (current-me doesn’t understand fifteen-year-old-me’s obsession with Raistlin), but definitely ones that are, in my opinion, well worth picking up.
Jenn Lyons lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, three cats, and a nearly infinite number of opinions on anything from mythology to the correct way to make a martini. Her debut epic fantasy novel, The Ruin of Kings, is scheduled for release from Tor Books on February 5, 2019.