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.
1. Homeland by R.A. Salvatore (Forgotten Realms, The Legend of Drizzt)
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.
2. Elfshadow by Elaine Cunningham (Forgotten Realms, Song and Swords)
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.
3. Azure Bonds by Kate Novac and Jeff Grubb (Forgotten Realms, The Finders Stone Trilogy)
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.
4. Vampire of the Mists by Christie Golden (Ravenloft)
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.
5. Time of the Twins by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (Dragonlance, Legends)
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?
6. Prince of Lies by James Lowder and The Crucible: The Trial of Cyric the Mad by Troy Denning
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.
7. The Verdant Passage by Troy Denning (Dark Sun, The Prism Pentad)
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.
8. I, Strahd by P.N. Elrod (Ravenloft)
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.
9. Darkwalker on the Moonshae by Douglas Niles (Forgotten Realms, Moonshaes Trilogy)
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.
10. The Legend of Huma by Richard Knaak (Dragonlance)
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.