This is it, what you've all been waiting for. What Steve and I think are the best books of Fantasy right now. The books that once you've trained yourself for them, that you should not go without reading. Well, maybe you haven't been waiting for it because if you're half as smart as we, reluctantly, give you credit for, than you have probably already guessed the books, or at least the authors.
So why did we wait so long? Well, let's face it; most people will feel like the 301 level of fantasy a pretty steep hill if they aren't prepared. There is a reason we want you to read the 101 and 201 levels first (and yes even the 102 and 202). Those books give you the building-blocks of what fantasy is. If you're already a fantasy reader, then these lessons can be taken and used as checklists of must-reads, because our tastes is just THAT good. If haven't been a fantasy reader, (because you must be by now if you have made it to 301) and you've followed our guidelines, you may be prepared for these novels.
The learning curve jumps significantly here, don't freak out. Though we picked different novels, we are, in reality, pretty unanimous on all our choices here. That should tell you something. Great minds and all that...
One thing to note here: these books are a lot more mature in terms of content. Most of them have more language than the previous books we recommended, more sexual content, and perhaps more violence. Refer to our reviews of these novels for the specifics. Don't feel bad if the content is too much for you; that's why there are a ton of 200-level novels. Read these novels, feel them out, and decide if they are too much for you.
However, this is where the best fiction in the SF&F genre lies, and if you let yourself get sucked into the world-building and characters, you might just find yourself (like we were) in awe of the stories told in these novels.
Fantasy has changed over the past decade. In the 90's we were swamped with either Jordanesque fantasy or with the last vestiges of Tolkienesque fantasy. There really was no variety, and I think that hurt the genre. Martin was really ahead of his time when he wrote A GAME OF THRONES, and I think he really set the tone for what fantasy has become. He decided that fantasy readers were intelligent. I know, crazy huh?
Rather than treat readers like they are a dumb subspecies of the human race (read: Goodkind), authors began writing fantasy novels that made people think. The learning curves got steeper and steeper. When I think of fantasy 301, I think of the fantasy novels that make all others simple, and somewhat dull, by comparison. In my picks, the characters are a lovely shade of gray, the plots aren't clear-cut, the villains truly brutal (until you see their PoV, and then you can't help but love them as well), and the worlds amazingly imaginative and deep.
For my picks, I decided to go with authors who have been around for a bit. You could say they are all established, and they paved the way for the newer authors that Nick gets into below (in some cases, the authors I chose literally helped get some of Nick's picks published). These are the authors that make me excited to sit down and read. They are the authors that make me stare anxiously at the clock while I'm at work because I can't wait to read the next chapter.
Gardens of the Moon -- Steven Erikson
A Game of Thrones -- George R.R. Martin
Perdido Street Station -- China Miéville
Night of Knives -- Ian C. Esslemont
(Yes, I'm kinda cheating here. This is part of the same series as Gardens of the Moon, but written by a different author. It's a shared-world project that Erikson and Esslemont have going on. You have to understand, the Malazan series, for me, is the best work in print. Period.)
Instead of going into detail about each book, like I have done in the previous University entries, I am going to keep this short and sweet. I have reviewed books by every one of these authors and have said what needs to be said about them and their work individually. As a whole, this group of authors comprises what I feel is the literary equivalent of the rat pack (or brat pack if you prefer). When a reader thinks about the fantasy genre, these are the names that should pop into their head immediately behind Tolkien and Jordan. Others may disagree with me, but I do have my reasons.
One, they are the current face of fantasy. Therefore they are the authors who are the driving force determining where the genre will go (like Grandpa T and Jordan did before them). Two, they know their craft. For being so newly published they show incredible depth in their characters and their plotting. Finally, though there are still many fans of the high sorcery and adventure fantasy that many of us grew up with, I believe that an astonishing and growing number of us readers are looking for something harder and grittier, while not explicit or gratuitous, but with a feeling of immediacy in the writing (Picky right?). We are looking for critical thinking and philosophy in our entertainment. We want books with all of these things, without giving up what fantasy is. These authors deliver exactly that.
They are fantasy books in every way shape and form, but they are also books that beg the reader to ask questions while never missing a beat to thrill us, the readers.
The Blade Itself -- Joe Abercrombie
The Darkness That Comes Before -- R. Scott Bakker
The Lies of Locke Lamora -- Scott Lynch
The Stormcaller -- Tom Lloyd
(Yes I used multiple covers for these books. Get off my back. They are all just way too cool not to show off.)