While skimming the news, I saw a tweet about the popularity of MILFs. I didn’t have time to read the article itself but the headline didn’t surprise me. After all, MilSF—military science fiction—is very popular within science fiction, while fantasy generally outsells SF, so it stood to reason that military fantasy books—thus, MILFs (no need to google it!)—would be popular as well.
In fact, the problem wasn’t coming up with five fantasies about war. The problem was narrowing my list down to just five.
The Dragon Lord by David Drake (1979, rev. 1982)
Arthur Pendragon has a simple dream: crush the Saxons, force them to acknowledge Arthur as King, then draft Saxon warriors into Arthur’s legions. He has a grand scheme to unify Britain under the Pendragon banner. To crush the Saxons, Arthur needs a dragon. Inconveniently, the key to Merlin delivering a dragon—a monster’s skull—lies in Ireland. A legion invading Ireland would guarantee resistance from the Irish clans. However, a single soldier might infiltrate enemy territory and return with a skull. If he fails? Well, Arthur can stand to lose a single soldier.
Irish mercenary Mael mac Ronan seems an ideal candidate. Being Irish himself, his presence in Ireland would not raise the questions a Pendragon warrior would. Having publicly embarrassed Lancelot, Mael is at the top of Arthur’s expendable list. And best of all? Mael’s best friend, the Dane Starkad, is a perfect hostage to ensure that should Mael succeed in his quest, he will return with his prize.
Legend by David Gemmell (1984)
United under the warlord Ulric, the Nadir tribes have carved out a grand kingdom for themselves. The Nadir lack many virtues but it cannot be denied that under Ulric, they have a rare talent for war. To resist Nadir conquest is to die. This is a matter of great concern for the Drenai empire, next on Ulric’s shopping list.
To conquer the empire, the Nadir must first reach it. Between the Nadir and their goal lies a narrow pass spanned by the great fortress Dros Delnoch. If Dros Delnoch can hold back the invading horde for three months, the empire can bring up an army to defeat the barbarians. However, as impressive as the fortress is, the army within it is undermanned. They are convinced that defeat looms. Nevertheless, soldiers like the legendary (and rather elderly) Druss the Ax will do their best before falling.
The empire’s best hope is a slender one.
Devices and Desires by K. J. Parker (2007)
The city of Mezetia is the queen of all the industrialized cities. This is due in no small part to its relentless and ruthless protection of its intellectual property. The mere appearance of having filched a Mezetian secret or two is sufficient to ensure a swift and painful death for the thief and anyone with whom they may have shared the secret. Exterminating whole nations is a small price to pay to maintain dominance… or so Mezetia would assert.
Mezetian wunderkind engineer Ziana Vaatzes is led by his curiosity into heresy. Innovation is synonymous with heresy in Mezetia. He eludes execution but is forced to leave his beloved wife and child behind. All is not lost! Vaatzes has a Plan to reunite with his family.
Step one: offer his services to Ermia’s army, knowing the mere fact that he is supporting Ermia (and possibly sharing industrial secrets!) will be enough to provoke a horrifying response from Mezetia. Vaatzes is as much a sociopath as he is a brilliant engineer and doting husband—his Plan involves oceans of blood and the deaths of thousands of innocent people.
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle (1998)
Ash is no mere soldier in the ranks. Guided by infallible voices in her head, the talented mercenary has gained her own army. She dreams of more: a title and lands to call her own. This goal is within reach, if she agrees to marry the odious Fernando. There could be a problem: The legal system grants all power to the husband and very little to wives. No problem at all, really—this wife has a sword and unwanted husbands can always suffer fatal mishaps.
Luckily for Fernando but less so for Ash, Visigothic Carthage is determined to expand their empire into Europe. Worse, their army is led by a woman who could be Ash’s twin, a woman guided by her own infallible oracles. For Ash to prevail, she needs to discover:
- the nature of the connection between her and her duplicate;
- the true nature of the voice;
- why Carthage is so obsessed with Burgundy.
The Unbroken by C. L. Clark (2021)
The Balladairans took Touraine from what they regarded as a life of superstition and barbarism in her native Qazāl. Brutal discipline has civilized Touraine. Now she is asked to serve as a Sand, a conscript soldier. Well, less “asked” and more “ordered.”
The Balladaire empire does not lack for confidence. Convinced that Touraine and her fellow Sands have been brutalized into unquestioning obedience, Balladaire dispatches Touraine and her company to Touraine’s native Qazāl to suppress a rebellion in El-Wast. It is unthinkable to Balladaire’s ruling class that their slave-soldiers could consider rebellion. As it turns out, unthinkable and impossible are two entirely different things.
Of course, these are only a few book from a very large field. No doubt you have your own favourite examples of military fantasy. Feel free to mention them in the comments.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.