The best fights in fantasy: five authors who have mastered the art of writing fight scenes

Who am I?

Without conflict there is no story. It doesn’t always have to be between the forces of good and evil with all of creation hanging in the balance. Nor does it need to entangle complex issues about morality and the human condition. Readers (and writers) can get just as pumped up about Karen from down the street arguing with her neighbour about that damn tree branch hanging over her fence. It just so happens that fantasy conflict, great and small, is my bread and butter. I was born and raised in New Zealand on a diet of anime and video games and I love reading a good honest dust-up. 


I wrote...

Blades Lost

By Stuart Kurth,

Book cover of Blades Lost

What is my book about?

Mercenaries. All custard-hearted, duty-shirking layabouts who drink all the booze and make themselves scarce when the actual fighting starts. Brothers Pelt and Halling, two killers without enough common decency to deserve surnames, however, are different. If it’s a dark task you want doing, these are the men you want to hire. Some say they walk with the Betrayer’s hands on their shoulders, and that they eat wickedness and drink evil. But as the saying goes, if you stab too many backs, sooner or later the only one left is your own. The past is an enemy the brothers can’t defeat, and now the one battle they can’t win lies before them. They will soon have to choose. Loyalty to their blades, or loyalty to each other.

The books I picked & why

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The Lies of Locke Lamora

By Scott Lynch,

Book cover of The Lies of Locke Lamora

Why this book?

Reminiscent of a Dickens novel, Lies is a stylishly written jaunt into a rotting canal city packed full of gangsters, tricksters, and strange Eldren ruins. It follows a tight crew of young, talented shysters as they attempt to pull increasingly elaborate and dangerous confidence scams on the nobility, and end up embroiled in the sinister plot of a madman named the Grey King. There are no true battles here. The conflict inhabits a much narrower, more personal level. It’s concerned with intimate back alley backstabbings, rooftop chases, and tense confrontations with despicable gang bosses. A barrel of horse urine stands out among the book’s many highlights. The fights are oftentimes nasty and savage and the pace is relentless. Especially when our gang of loveable criminals falls afoul of a particularly vindictive sorcerer with a very clever pet falcon. 


The Lord of the Rings

By J.R.R. Tolkien,

Book cover of The Lord of the Rings

Why this book?

Lord of the Rings. The goat. The grandfather of modern fantasy. As for its many fights and battles, it’s about as epic as it gets. And at the top of that list is the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. An apocalyptic clash between a dwindling army and the overwhelming and endless forces of evil. What makes this truly heart-stopping is knowing that Gandalf and the people of the West have willingly thrown themselves into the jaws of death as a distraction, a sacrifice to a feeble hope they (and the reader) can’t even see. While it may not often delve into the blow-by-blow style of other books on this list, it does cover all its bases from the iconic charge of the Rohirrim to the aerial onslaught of the Nazgul. It’s even got desperate single combat in the midst of all the chaos. The narrative sweeps across the heaving, roiling battlefield from one side to the other, dragging the reader along with it. A true masterwork of action pacing.


The Year of Our War

By Steph Swainston,

Book cover of The Year of Our War

Why this book?

This series is very elegantly written, but that’s not what makes it the most unique on this list. For a start, the protagonist is a skinny womanising drug-addict immortal with enormous wings. Yes, you read that right. He can fly, he drinks coffee, and when he overdoses he trips into a parallel universe. Several, actually. What else inhabits these strange worlds? Giant ants. And it’s these horse-sized monsters that the people of the Fourlands are embroiled in bitter conflict with. They pour through dimensional tears in waves, and the fighting is frenetic, bloody, and gruesome. Swainston has an almost forensic approach to the description of violence in these books, and it adds a dash of realism to an otherwise wildly fantastical setting and premise. A criminally underappreciated series.


Winterbirth

By Brian Ruckley,

Book cover of Winterbirth

Why this book?

Ruckley manages to strike a rare balance between high fantasy prose and Grimdark’s dirt-under-the-nails realism, and combines it all with thoughtful character development and an oftentimes sombre tone. On the one hand it’s about a boy’s coming of age journey and the tragedy of loss, and on the other a bitter and ultimately futile conflict of a people riven by the dogma of an emergent religion. There are visceral and superbly paced clashes between these opposing sides, which are both blinded by the all-encompassing madness of a magic user who is rapidly losing control of his own power. The fact that all of the suffering and slaughter in this story could easily be avoided is what makes it hit deepest. If everyone had just been nice to the poor boy, maybe he wouldn’t have turned into a narcissistic half-corpse hell-bent on psychic slavery and death. But hey, then there would be no story, right?


The Blade Itself

By Joe Abercrombie,

Book cover of The Blade Itself

Why this book?

I’ve saved my all-time favourite for last. The First Law trilogy blew my mind. It shattered my preconceptions about what fantasy could or should be. I was hooked, glued, nailed to each character and scenario and battle, and felt like I was right there in the circle holding a shield. The First Law has everything. It’s gritty, it’s raw, it’s comical, it’s in your face where you can feel the greasiness of the blood, smell the sour breath and taste the dirt on your tongue. There are nasty little fights tooth and nail in the mud. There is heroic single combat in a ring of shields. There are breathless skirmishes between small bands in the snow and mud, and chaotic battles between companies in the mist. Not to mention epic contests between wizards and cannibal sorcerers in the middle of an invasion by a horde of foreign aggressors. This series is the gold standard in Grimdark fantasy.


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