I have to admit that Dungeons and Dragons is where I got my start in fantasy. Aside from The Hobbit when I was a small child, my first real experience was the worn paperbacks I picked up in my school library of Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and Ravenloft. However, for every awesome work of fantasy, there’s going to be five that aren’t up to snuff.
These are some of my favorite books from the TSR/WOTC era of novels and what I enjoyed most among them. There’s some other fantastic novels other than these but I don’t want to recommend a hundred of them.
Blurb: Discover the origin story of one of the greatest heroes of the Forgotten Realms—Drizzt Do’Urden—in this thrilling first installment in the classic Dungeons & Dragons series, the Dark Elf Trilogy
Drow ranger Drizzt Do’Urden, first introduced in The Icewind Dale Trilogy, quickly became one of the fantasy genre’s standout characters. With Homeland, Salvatore pulls back the curtain to reveal the startling tale of how this hero came to be—how this one lone drow walked out of the shadowy depths of the Underdark; how he left behind an evil society and a family that wanted him dead.
As the third son of Mother Malice and weaponmaster Zaknafein, Drizzt Do’Urden is meant to be sacrificed to Lolth, the evil Spider Queen, per drow tradition. But with the unexpected death of his older brother, young Drizzt is spared—and, as a result, further ostracized by his family. As Drizzt grows older, developing his swordsmanship skills and studying at the Academy, he begins to realize that his idea of good and evil does not match up with those of his fellow drow. Can Drizzt stay true to himself in a such an unforgiving, unprincipled world?
Homeland is the first book in the Dark Elf Trilogy and the Legend of Drizzt series.
Review: RA Salvatore is one of the most successful fantasy authors of all time with over fifteen million copies of his books sold. The Homeland Trilogy is, for me, the best of his works. Setting in the underground city of Menzoberranzan, the dark elf race is a theocratic and sexist fascist state that practices racial supremacy as well as worship of the demon princess Lolth. In this horrific environment, a young drow boy named Drizzt Do’Urden is born.
Drizzt is, to turn a phrase, “Not like other drow” and suffers from the pangs of conscience. Struggling to articulate why he does not feel ruthlessness and power-lust are the ways to live, he wishes to find something better but finds no other dark elves who feel like him. It’s a fascinating and well-done work that ranks among not just the best of D&D fiction but fantasy in general. Or maybe I’m just remembering it fondly because it was the best thing ever when I was fourteen. Maybe both.
Needless to say, if you read this trilogy and like it, you have about thirty other books starring Drizzt to read thereafter. RA Salvatore is a writing beast and they’re a steady meal that I have enjoyed for decades.
9. Elfshadow by Elaine Cunningham (Forgotten Realms, Song and Swords)
Blurb: An undercover agent and a half-elf assassin join forces to bring a killer to justice in this first installment of the Song & Sword series, set in the Forgotten Realms
Silent death stalks the Harpers of Faerûn, a semi-secret society dedicated to preserving justice and peace in the Realms. One by one, the Harpers are falling to the blade of an enigmatic killer—and every victim has associations with Arilyn Moonblade.
A half-elven fighter and Harper agent, Arilyn’s surname derives from the magical sword she wields. But even after she’s tasked with finding the murderer, there are many who believe she is the true culprit. Enter Danilo Thann, a bard who joins Arilyn’s quest after they meet in Waterdeep. Though Danilo may play the fool, he is secretly a capable Harper agent and mage—charged with determining Arilyn’s innocence and uncovering the secrets of her powerful moonblade.
Together, the unlikely duo set out to save the Harpers, embarking on a magical, action-packed adventure that launches an exciting new story in the Forgotten Realms universe.
Elfshadow is also the second book in the Harpers series.
Review: The Drizzt Do’Urden books are fascinating tales about a ranger dealing with racism on the surface as well as the philosophy underscoring life, the universe, and everything. Unfortunately, the metaphor of Drizzt Do’Urden for oppressed minorities breaks down since his people are the equivalent of Nazis.
Elfshadow deals with the metaphor of racial bias in Dungeons and Dragons in a more successful way by making the subject Arilyn Moonblade, half-elf. Arilyn is a Harper, sort of a secret service for adventurers, and the reluctant wielder of the Moonblade. The Moonblade is a sacred elvish relic designed to protect their species from its many enemies. The relic kills anyone who isn’t worthy but a lot of elves take it personally the gods think Arilyn is.
Arilyn isn’t an elvish nationalist and can barely stand her people at times. She’s also attracted to a human wizard (who acts like a bard) named Danillo Than. It’s a rocky-rocky road for Arilyn and no one can say which side of her heritage she’ll end up pursuing–or if she needs to make a choice at all.
8. Azure Bonds by Kate Novac and Jeff Grubb (Forgotten Realms, The Finders Stone Trilogy)
Blurb: Her name is Alias, and she is in big trouble.
She is a sell-sword, a warrior-for-hire, and an adventuress. She awoke with a series of twisting, magical blue sigils inscribed on her arms and no memory of where she got them.
Determined to learn the nature of the mysterious tattoo, Alias joins forces with an unlikely group of companions: the halfling bard, Ruskettle, the southern mage, Akabar, and the oddly silent lizard-man, Dragonbait. With their help, she discovers that the symbols hold the key to her very existence.
But those responsible for the sigils aren’t keen on Alias’s continued good health. And if the five evil masters find her first, she may discover all too soon their hideous secret.
Review: One of the early successes of the Forgotten Realms, Alias is a woman who wakes up with no memory of her past and a magical tattoo. Describing more of the plot would potentially spoil it but it is an odd collection of weirdos that slowly become a family as well as resolve a fascinating mystery. I really enjoyed the character of Alias and think this is one of the most Dungeons and Dragons-like novels in this novels I’m listening.
7. Vampire of the Mists by Christie Golden (Ravenloft)
Blurb: Alone and torn by grief, a vampire accepts the hospitality of the local lord—only to question if he has placed his trust in the wrong person
Jander Sunstar is a gold elf, a native of magical Evermeet in the Forgotten Realms. He is also a five-hundred-year-old vampire.
Torn by rage and grief, Jander is transported into the nightmare realm of Ravenloft, where he gains the attention of the demiplane’s master, Count Strahd Von Zarovich. But can Jander trust this elegant fellow vampire once he discovers that his own quest for revenge is linked to the dark heritage of the count’s domain?
Vampire of the Mists is the first in an open-ended series of Gothic horror tales dealing with the masters and monsters of the Ravenloft dark fantasy setting.
Review: Ravenloft is a fascinating setting as well as a frustrating one. Created around the Hollywood Transylvania-like nation of Barovia, Dungeons and Dragons chose not to make it a setting like others but a weird demiplane where it touched multiple other worlds before drawing in the wicked or simply vulnerable. This premise was best illustrated by Vampire of the Mists. Jander Sunstar, elvish vampire, is sucked into Demiplane of Dread where he becomes the semi-willing guest of Strahd von Zarovich.
A bit like Interview with a Vampire, Jander is the “good” vampire to Strahd’s “bad” vampire but the two of them are stuck with each other since no one else can possibly understand their shared plight. However, there’s a limit to how far Jander Sunstar is willing to go to ease his loneliness and he unwittingly starts a religion dedicated to fighting the undead.
It’s a fun mix of Gothic horror and high fantasy.
6. Time of the Twins by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (Dragonlance, Legends)
Blurb: The first installment in the New York Times–bestselling epic fantasy trilogy about twin rivals Raistlin and Caramon, set in the magical Dragonlance universe.
The War of the Lance has ended, and the darkness has passed. Or has it?
Sequestered in the blackness of the dreaded Tower of High Sorcery in Palanthas, and surrounded by nameless creatures of evil, archmage Raistlin Majere weaves a plan to conquer the darkness—to bring it under his control.
Two people alone can stop him. One is Crysania, a beautiful and devoted cleric of Paladine, who tries to use her faith to lead Raistlin from the darkness. She is blind to his shadowed designs, and he draws her slowly into his neatly woven trap.
The other is Raistlin’s twin, Caramon. Made aware of his brother’s plan, a distraught Caramon travels back in time to the doomed city of Istar in the days before the Cataclysm. There, together with the ever-present kender Tasslehoff, Caramon will make his stand to save Raistlin’s soul.
Review: I know what you’re going to say, but Charles, isn’t the proper place to start with Dragonlance the Chronicles trilogy? Time of the Twins is the first book in the Legends Trilogy that is the sequel to the Chronicles trilogy. Yes, my readers, this is true. However, the first fantasy novel I ever read was Time of the Twins and I loved it.
The War of the Lance is over and the Heroes of the Lance have been feted as legendary heroes. However, not every one of them has landed on their feet. Caramon Majere, warrior, has become nothing more than a fat drunk due to being abandoned by his magic-using twin brother, Raistlin. Raistlin has become the most powerful and feared wizard in the world but turned to the powers of darkness. A beautiful cleric, Crysania, has decided to recruit the former to engage the latter and things get complicated from there.
The storytelling dynamics of these books hold up decades later and I regularly re-read them. What happens after the big adventure? What new vistas are left to conquer?
5. Prince of Lies by James Lowder and The Crucible: The Trial of Cyric the Mad by Troy Denning
Blurb: The gods may have been restored to their rightful seats of power—but the end of the Time of Troubles does not mark the end of all strife
Although the gods have regained their powers and no longer walk in the mortal world, there is still little peace between them. When their deeply engrained power struggles erupt once more, ex-comrades Mystra—formerly known as Midnight and recently elevated to godhood—and Cyric are bound together in conflict.
Cyric, now the god of strife, murder, and the dead, has become even more obsessed with power and revenge. No longer content with just the Tablets of Fate, he wants the Forgotten Realms all to himself—and to rule them in the name of evil. Only Mystra, the new goddess of magic, has the ability to defeat him and restore the balance that has been lost.
Review: I’m cheating by including these two but they’re not quite a duology and both work as standalones. Both of them deal with an area not often discussed by Dungeons and Dragons: gods and how they react. It is also a book from the perspective of one of the gods of evil no less. Cyric the Mad, God of Evil, has been royally screwing up his side. This would be good if not for the fact that there must be a cosmic balance in the universe.
Both of these books follow various deities and mortal champions as they attempt to deal with Cyric’s erratic, even stupid, behavior that causes massive damage to both his side as well as the side of good. I really enjoyed both books and think they get into the Olympian-like antics of Toril’s heroes.
4. The Verdant Passage by Troy Denning (Dark Sun, The Prism Pentad)
Blurb: Return to the apocalyptic deserts of the Dark Sun world as unlikely heroes spark a revolution against an evil sorcerer-king
For thousands of years, the devil sorcerer King Kalak has used vile magic to drain Athas of its precious life-force. Now, his reign is coming to an end—though the city of Tyr, like the rest of the world, is nothing more than a magic-blasted ruin and a desolate place of dust, blood, and fear. All that’s left is desperation—and revolution.
Leading this revolution against Kalak are a maverick statesman, a winsome half-elf slave girl, and a man-dwarf gladiator bred for the arenas. But if the people are to be freed, the mismatched trio of steadfast rebels must look into the face of terror and choose between love and life.
First introduced in 1991, Troy Denning’s post-apocalyptic world of Athas remains one of the most talked-about and fan-requested settings in the Dungeons & Dragons universe. Now, a new generation of readers can discover the magic-blasted deserts of the unforgettable Dark Sun . . .
Review: Dark Sun is a very strange setting that attempted to broaden what Dungeons and Dragons was all about. Basically, a magical post-apocalypse setting, Dark Sun had the majority of the world reduced to a brutal unforgiving desert ruled by depraved sorcerer kings. Troy Denning took this opportunity to tell a huge epic about a group of adventurers who make the decision to tackle this world head on and do their best to save it.
Sadira of Tyr and her companions are part of the city-state of Tyr’s resistance against the brutal sorcerer king, Kalak. They are determined to be heroes and overthrow the tyrant but even when the book was first written, they weren’t your typical adventurers. The antiheroism was strong in this group and made all the stronger for their ruthless Darwinist society.
3. I, Strahd by P.N. Elrod (Ravenloft)
Blurb: Part of an open-ended series of gothic horror stories, this is another thrilling dark fantasy set in the Ravenloft universe of Dungeons & Dragons—where vampires and dark magic reign
War-hardened vampire Strahd von Zarovich will do anything to win the hand of the woman he loves—even if it comes at the cost of his brother’s life
Ever since a vampire slew his son, Dr. Rudolph Van Richten has waged a personal war against these monstrosities of night. Now he has discovered the Font of Knowledge—and the most powerful vampire of them all: Strahd.
The very heart of evil in Barovia, Strahd Von Zarovich has ruled his land with an iron fist for nearly four centuries. At first, he was a strict but fair human lord, demanding honesty and repaying treachery with death. He rose to power through war, his life comprised of armies and assassins, taxes and laws. But beneath the grim gray weight of these thousand duties, Strahd was growing old.
Then came Tatyana.
The nearly dead soul of Strahd was revived; his dusty heart began to beat again. Tatyana awoke something in him—the hope of the youth and happiness he had so willingly squandered. And she awoke in him desire; raised his spirit to empyrean heights so that when he fell, he fell like a meteor.
The Devil Strahd, his people call him now, an unnatural necromancer by all accounts. But few of the living know he is a vampire lord. Van Richten is one of those few.
Review: Strahd Von Zarovich is undoubtedly Dungeons and Dragons‘ greatest villain. The Count Dracula-esque antagonist not only had personality when most villains were, “Stay in the end of the dungeon waiting for the players to reach them” but also a genuinely compelling character.
So, reading his biography from his perspective is quite the treat. It may seem a bit redundant to read this with Vampire of the Mists but I actually think the books make excellent compliments. Specifically, I, Strahd has Strahd putting all of his actions in the best light possible and you can tell he’s outright lying in several places.
2. Darkwalker on the Moonshae by Douglas Niles (Forgotten Realms, Moonshaes Trilogy)
Blurb: The very first Forgotten Realms novel ever published—and an exciting introduction to the kingdom of Corwell in the Moonshae Isles
The evil beast Kazgaroth wages war against the peaceful balance of the Earthmother, goddess of the Isles of Moonshae. The beast’s relentless army of giant Firbolgs, dread Bloodriders, and other vicious creatures are a force to be reckoned with—and only young Tristan Kendrick, heir to the legacy of the High Kings, can stand in their way.
However, Tristan is more interested in hunting, drinking, and revelry than heroism, and the realms are in grave danger. Can Tristan rise to the mantel of his legacy to unite forces of good and to save his home from evil?
Review: The first Forgotten Realms novel was actually originally written unrelated to the setting but created one of the most vibrant and interesting stories of the setting. Part of what makes these books so good is the fact that they are set in a self-contained isle around a limited but likable royal family. The Kendrick family are worshipers of the Earthmother and living on the idyllic Irish-themed islands. Unfortunately, Bhaal the God of Murder has decided to summon himself in the physical world to lay waste to their home. That’s it and that is an impressive epic story by itself.
1. The Legend of Huma by Richard Knaak (Dragonlance)
Blurb: In the realms of Dragonlance, the legend of one heroic knight is larger than life . . .
When word spreads that goblins are roaming nearby, Huma Dragonbane, a Knight of the Crown, is sent to patrol the woods and fend off chaos. It is there that he stumbles upon a tortured minotaur, Kaz, who he swiftly frees from vicious goblin captors. So beings an unlikely but powerful friendship—one that will plunge Huma and Kaz into a deadly battle against the treacherous Knights of Solamnia and the dark goddess Takhisis. Even with the power of the legendary Silver Dragon at their side, Huma and Kaz face overwhelming odds . . .
Only fragments of the account of Huma survived the Cataclysm that broke the world of Krynn. His story has never been fully told—until now.
Review: One of my all-time favorite fantasy novels and what introduced me to the works of Richard Knaak. The Legend of Huma is a prequel to the Dragonlance Chronicles as well as Legends books. Takhasis, the Queen of Darkness, has started a massive war to conquer the world with the forces of good on the losing side. Huma, a young Knight of the Crown, finds himself the reluctant champion of the god Paladine against her efforts. It is a compact but entertaining story with a strong narrative that manages to introduce all the elements of Krynn you need to know without being otherwise familiar with the setting.