Dungeons and Dragons novels are pretty much responsible for me becoming the fantasy fan I became as an adult. If not for the books I bought at my local Waldenbooks (the literary equivalent of a Blockbuster from the Nineties and just as absent today), I would have rotted my brain on silly things like interacting with my peers or group activities like a healthy functioning teenager. Whew. Glad I avoided that. Just kidding.
One of my favorite settings for Dungeons and Dragons novels were the Forgotten Realms. The creation of Ed Greenwood with other authors adding to it, I always found the setting to be wilder and more fantastic than Dragonlance’s Krynn. The plots were not interconnected as, unlike the War of the Lance, there were a thousand different things going on in the Realms at any given point.
People who have been following my work on Before We Go will note this is the third article on the subject with Ten Recommended Classic Dungeons and Dragons Novels and Ten Recommended Dragonlance Novels.
Special thanks to Whitney Reinhart who helped me write this.
10. Darkwalker on Moonshae by Douglas Niles
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 of the Forgotten Realms novels wasn’t actually intended for the setting but was written independently. Nevertheless, I love the people of the Moonshaes. A very simple “beginner’s novel” for people getting into fantasy, it’s really good and entertaining. The dark god Bhaal wants to take over the Moonshaes and kill the Earthmother. The very Celtic Moonshaes Ffolk and the Viking Northmen are decently developed cultures too, if a bit archetypal. Its sequel trilogy is even better, dealing with the generational nature of Forgotten Realms as well as how even heroes can fall.
Bhaal and his minions are pretty generic “muhahaha” villains while Robyn and Tristan are stalwart goodie-goodies but that isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes you just want a god of darkness invading the peaceful Not-Britons before they are defeated through the power of love. I also liked the fact druids are the focus of the book since they rarely got attention in classic Dungeons and Dragons.
Blurb: The first novel in the now-classic D&D trilogy set in the Forgotten Realms
Alias is a sell-sword, a warrior-for-hire, and an adventuress—and she’s in big trouble. She woke with a series of twisting, magical blue sigils inscribed on her arms, and no memory of how 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 5 evil masters find her first, she may discover all too soon their hideous secret.
Review: Azure Bonds is fantastic as an introduction of the differences between the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance or, say, something like the Lord of the Rings. Whereas other stories ease you into the weird, Azure Bonds has cloning, a halfling bard, a dragon man paladin, a chatty red dragon, demons, liches, sexy sorceress ex-opera singers, and a magical curse in just the first volume. The characters are likable, entertaining, and just plain weird. It’s a reminder why 5th Edition has Tieflings and Dragonborn as starting characters.
Alias is a fantastic protagonist as a sword-swinging sarcastic mercenary with the voice of an angel. She has no respect for the gods, society, her fellow mercenaries, and altruism. Which is problematic when she has a charitable lizard man, a faithful merchant, and a roguish halfling as her associates.
8. Dissolution by Richard Lee Byers
Blurb: The race to save drow society begins in this first installment in the War of the Spider Queen series
The subterranean drow-city of Menzoberranzan is in chaos. The Silence of Lolth has descended, leaving the priestesses’ without their magical abilities—and effectively cutting off the city’s main source of power. While their world changes around them, four dark elves struggle against different enemies but are led to the same terrifying discovery about their society. Now, they must all embark on a quest to save not just the jewel of the Underdark but the dark elf race itself.
The War of the Spider Queen begins here . . .
Dissolution is the first novel in an epic six-part series from the fertile imaginations of R.A. Salvatore and some of the most exciting names in fantasy. Join them as they peel back the surface of the richest fantasy world ever created to show the dark heart that lies beneath.
Review: What do runaway males, a slave revolt, and powerless priestesses have in common? The potential for true chaos and societal collapse. Lolth’s priestesses struggle to contain the secret of Lolth’s disappearance while wizards contrive to exploit their unexpected weakness. Rogue male drow band together and partner with an unlikely ally to incite a rebellion and wreak further havoc on the always precarious balance of power in Menzoberranzan.
In this, the first book of the War of the Spider Queen sextet, the Ruling Council chooses four representatives to determine whether other drow enclaves are affected or if Menzoberranzan stands alone. Phauraun Mizzrym, chief threat to Socere archmage Gromph Baenre; Ryld Argith, a Master of Melee-Magthere; Quenthel Baenre, Mistress of Arach-Tinilith and next in line to the Matron of House Baenre, First House of Menzoberranzan; and, Faeryl Zauvirr, daughter of Ched Nasad and ambassador to Menzoberranzan must journey into the Underdark and work together to preserve and protect their homeland, their way of life.
7. Elminster: The Making of a Mage by Ed Greenwood
Blurb: Elminster the Mage’s origins—the first in a series of magical fantasy novels set in Dungeons & Dragons’ Forgotten Realms
In ancient days, sorcerers sought to learn the One True Spell that would give them power over all the world and understanding of all magic. The One True Spell was a woman, and her name was Mystra—and her kisses were wonderful.
It is the time before Myth Drannor, when the Heartlands are home to barbarians, and wicked dragons rule the skies. In these ancient days, Elminster is but a shepherd boy, dreaming of adventure and heroics. But when a dragon-riding magelord sweeps down upon him, the boy is thrust into a world of harsh realities, corrupt rulers, and evil sorcerers.
With patience and grit, Elminster sets about to change all that. The result of his labors is a world reborn—and a mage made.
Review: Who knows the Forgotten Realms more than the creator? Ed Greenwood manages to distill the events of an entire trilogy’s worth of epic fantasy into a single book. Elminster of Shadow has long been the ultimate quest-giver in the Realms, being a sage on everything but also slightly mad. Reading his origins is a fun deconstruction of classic fantasy tropes as he is a hidden prince as well as farm boy who needs to retake his homeland from the sinister Mage Lords. Along the way, he becomes both lover as well as apprentice to the goddess of magic, Mystra.
Some people have criticized Elminster as a Gary Stu over the years, do to the over-the-top nature of his adventures but I actually appreciate the more interesting story of self-realization that he undergoes. Mystra forces Elminster to live a life as a rogue, priest, and even woman to help give him a perspective on the varieties of lives in the Realms. While he wants to overthrow the Mage Lords, by the time he finally confronts them, he’s mostly let vengeance leave his heart. We also get why Mystra wants so many Chosen, magic tends to attract power-hungry lunatics and this turns the public off it.
6. Prince of Lies by James Lowder
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 ingrained 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: The gods are always active in Dungeons and Dragons but the ones in Krynn are far more morally absolute than the ones in Faerun. Here, at least under some authors, they are every bit as petty and conniving as the Olympians. Their flaws are exaggerated and even the gods of good are prone to major screw ups. After the Time of Troubles, three new gods are elevated to ruling over the spheres of Death, Magic, and Evil. Watching Kelemvor, Mystra, and Cyric grow into their roles is a fascinating story.
Prince of Lies has Cyric as the primary focus with the newly crowned God of Evil being absolutely crap at his job. He’s more concerned about making his followers worship him fanatically and systematically dismantles the Zhentarim that, previously, were the most effective force for villainy in the Realms. However, just because he’s terrible at his job doesn’t mean he’s not incredibly dangerous. An idiot with omnipotent power is no less terrifying than a genius. Just in different ways. The sequel, The Trial of Cyric the Mad, is also a fantastic follow-up by Troy Denning.
5. Elfshadow by Elaine Cunningham
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: Arilyn Moonblade is a fantastic character and I really enjoy her as a contrast to Drizzt and Tanis Half-Elven as “outsider” characters. Drizzt is a fantastic character but being a drow means that stories regarding racism always have the tinge of, ‘But Drow are a race of evil schemers.’ Tanis also has a really dark origin as well. Arilyn Moonblade? She’s a half-elf who is hated precisely because elves are blood purity obsessed bigots. Worse, she struggles with the fact that as the only half-elven Moonblade wearer, she is a “model minority” to some while a hated usurper to others. She just wants to kick some Zhentarim ass.
Arilyn is accompanied by a Wizard/Thief/Fighter named Danilo Than. If you’re thinking multiclassing into those three classes versus going into Bard is overcomplicated, you’re probably right. Also, it predates a similar joke in Order of the Stick by a decade. It’s also one of the rare fantasy romances I’m actually invested in.
Blurb: The New York Times–bestselling author of the Legend of Drizzt introduces a thrilling fantasy series set in the Forgotten Realms universe—the story of a young cleric who is destined for greatness.
High in the Snowflake Mountains sits the Edificant Library, a place of scholarly study for priests, bards, and anyone who seeks knowledge for the sake of the greater good. This mystical place is home to Cadderly, a young cleric who lives a peaceful life of scholarship and invention.
When a vicious curse is unleashed on the library, Cadderly must set aside his pursuit of knowledge to lead a motley team of monks, dwarves, and druids—and one alluring young warrior monk named Danica—into the catacombs of the library and a perilous fight against evil. There, the friends must join together as a group of unlikely heroes to save their home from the destruction already pulsing through its walls.
Review: While the Legend of Drizzt books are some of the most famous fantasy of all time, certainly up there with the best of “popcorn fantasy”, I actually prefer the Cleric Quintet of Bob Salvatore’s creations. Cadderly is an agnostic cleric of Deneir who struggles with the existence of his god despite being granted magic by him. He is aided by a beautiful bare-fisted monk named Danic and two oddball dwarves named the Bouldershoulder Brothers.
I like Cadderly as an alternative to Drizzt as he while he constantly questions and philosophizes, he often comes to definitive conclusions. I also feel like priests and clerics are an underrepresented group in fantasy. They’re very much fun adventures and enjoyable stories with good versus evil narratives. Which is how we like it in Faerun.
3. Daughter of the Drow by Elaine Cunningham
Blurb: As beautiful as she is deadly, drow princess Liriel Baenre undertakes a dangerous journey to the surface world—where discerning friend from foe is no easy task
War has passed, and the drow return to Menzoberranzan to face the unthinkable: their armies defeated, their ruling houses shattered, their magic faded in the cruel light of the sun. In the aftermath of war, the dark elves brace themselves for the power struggle to come. Left with no other choice, they will submit themselves to the rule of the matrons and the tyranny of Lolth. Or will they?
Liriel Baenre is a free-spirited drow princess who searches out adventure as passionately as most drow pursue power and status. When she discovers a way to take her heritage of dark elf magic to the surface world of Faerûn, she sets off alone on a hazardous quest. Many want to possess Liriel’s secret—or destroy it. Pursued by enemies from her homeland, Liriel does not receive a warm welcome in the world of light. Her best hope for an ally is Fyodor of Rashemen, a young berserker warrior who may also be her deadliest rival.
Review: Liriel Baenre is a drow apart. She is the daughter of Gromph Baenre, Archmage of Sorcere and brother to the most powerful Matron of Menzoberranzan. Liriel’s innate magical abilities are beyond those of most drow wizards and under Gromph’s protection, she is allowed to run free and wild throughout the city and wild Underdark tunnels.
She laughs and dances, fights and schemes, studies and explores at will…until Matron Triel Baenre orders her wayward niece to enter Arach-Tinilith, the proving grounds for all of Lolth’s priestesses. But Liriel yearns for more than clerical supremacy. She discovers a way to take her Underdark magic to the surface world but the power players, both priestesses and wizards alike, seek to strip her of her discovery, her freedom, her life.
2. Forgotten Realms Classics by Jeff Grubb, and illustrated by Rags Morales and Dave Simons.
Blurb: The classic DC Comics Forgotten Realms series returns to print for the first time! This action-packed volume collects the first eight issues of the fan-favorite series by writer Jeff Grubb and artist Rags Morales.
Review: This is cheating because it’s a comic book series rather than books but I have to say that Jeff Grubb’s Forgotten Realms comics are one of my all-time favorite. The crew of the Realms Master are an eccentric bunch of oddballs ranging from an iron golem to an alcoholic former paladin to an incredibly obnoxious elven priest. The crew only grows stranger from there. It’s the willingness to embrace the wackiness of Dungeons and Dragons that makes me happy.
Dungeons and Dragons is, at its heart, not just fantasy. It is all fantasy everywhere shoved into a blender and then you hit frape. This is the kind of book where you have an airship, a winged rogue, liches, and the Time of Troubles. Yet, for all the silliness, there’s actually quite a few stories that are touching or serious. When you hear about a halfling with substance abuse problems, you think it’s a joke, but it’s actually played entirely straight. Not everything has aged well (a half-drow is split between her dark and light personalities and guess which ones are the evil?) but most of it is awesome.
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: There was really no chance that there could be any other book at the top. As much as I love Everis Cale, the Spellfire books, or the Cormyr series, nothing will ever approach the popularity of the Legend of Drizzt series. While it technically started as the Wulfgar series with The Icewind Dale books, the books that cemented the popularity of D&D’s most iconic ranger (if not character) were the ones about his origins in Menzoberrazan.
Part of what makes the books so great is that they’re so very different from typical fantasy. The decadent corrupt matriarchal society of the drow is incredibly fun. It’s absolutely ridiculous but played dead serious as Drizzt struggles to deal with the fact everyone else he knows is an enormous sociopath. The subsequent books lack the punch of Homeland but subsequent series have given us many more insights into drow society (two of which are on this list). Bob Salvatore may not have created the drow, a lot of the society he depicted was in Vault of the Drow (D3) but he certainly popularized them.
No mention of Pool of Radiance at all?
It almost made the list! But there’s so many to mention!
Threat From The Sea is an excellent triology from Forgetten Realms as well. Meat is Meat!
Why would you recommend Prince of Lies without referencing the rest of the Avatar trilogy?
I would have recommended Cormyr as I feel that it is the easiest book to get people into Faerun who haven’t had much exposure into d&d.
I read Prince of Lies without having read the original Avatar trilogy. I also feel like it and its sequel are of a much higher quality than the Avatar trilogy.
I enjoyed Cormyr (and Evermeet) but feel the books don’t really work as novels due to the fact that you need a familiarity with the setting beyond reading.
Each of those books are great choices! I also loved anything with Erevis Cale or the Seven Sisters. I collected all of the Forgotten Realms novels up until the spellplague events and kind of lost interest in the Realms. Thanks to your article I think I will revisit some of those fun books!
Waterdeep is one of my absolute favorites. I agree that Forgotten Realms is the best setting. So much can be done and explored there.
For your readers: you can’t go wrong with the Erivis Cale series by Paul S. Kemp. Definitely worthy of your time.
Have you done (will you do) a Shadowrun post? Top 10?
Sadly, I’ve never read any Shadowrun books.