The best conflicted protagonists in fantasy books

Who am I?

I’m the author of more than twenty fantasy novels, including the acclaimed Annals of the Nameless Dwarf series, and the hauntingly dark Sorcerers’ Isle duology. In my capacity as a developmental editor, I’ve worked on almost a hundred books for both traditionally published and independent authors. I was brought up reading classic fantasy and Sword and Sorcery, then spent more time than I perhaps should have playing D&D throughout the late 70s and the 80s. I confess to being an unashamed fan of Thongor. I’m an Englishman abroad, pining for the Sussex Downs and warm beer beside an open fire in a medieval pub I was once wont to visit.


I wrote...

The Codex of Her Scars (Sorcerers' Isle)

By Derek Prior,

Book cover of The Codex of Her Scars (Sorcerers' Isle)

What is my book about?

A hauntingly dark fantasy set in a world of carefully constructed lies, where the characters start at the bottom and claw their way up. Or don’t. Mad, cursed by the gods, or possessed by a demon? Whichever it is, Tey Moonshine's scarred flesh holds the secret to real sorcery and threatens to lift the lid on the rulers of Sorcerers' Isle.

"This is honestly the best Grimdark fantasy novel I've ever come across." (D. Woodhouse, Audible Reviewer)

The Books I Picked & Why

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Lord Foul's Bane

By Stephen R. Donaldson,

Book cover of Lord Foul's Bane

Why this book?

Lord Foul’s Bane is a portal fantasy in which both worlds are intertwined, at the least in a quasi-spiritual sense. Significantly, the protagonist, Thomas Covenant, is an author who finds himself an unbelieving visitor to the Land, a world he assumes is imaginary. The leprosy that impedes his work as a writer and numbs him to sensation takes on a mythical/prophetic significance once he is translated to the Land.

The world-building, mythos, and culture of the Land are staggering, and throughout there is an allegorical sense at play.

Donaldson never shies away from psychological realism, but he does temper it with supernatural/spiritual elements. Early on, Covenant wrestles with his disbelief in the Land, to the extent that he lashes out against those who seek to befriend him in the most shocking ways. His explorations are cursed with a sort of reverse Midas touch; but Covenant is a man on a refreshingly different “hero’s journey”, one with intimations of Calvary along the Via Dolorosa toward a world redeemed. 

I found the scenes set in the Land (by far the largest portion of the book) utterly immersive, and there was always a sense of something sublime beneath the surface; something that raises the book above the triteness and triviality of much run-of-the-mill fantasy. Thomas Covenant, a character riven by guilt and shame—and often exasperating, even disappointing the reader—nevertheless possesses enough qualities of an “everyman” to allow for easy identification. Whatever we make think of him at times, he is never dull and always fully three-dimensional.

The vocabulary is rich, at times poetic. Donaldson is certainly not afraid to dip into the dustier tomes of lexicography, but at his best, particularly in scenes of magic, he makes language soar with his rare ability to convey images of absolute clarity using archaic and obscure words.


Elric of Melniboné, 1

By Michael Moorcock,

Book cover of Elric of Melniboné, 1: The Elric Saga Part 1

Why this book?

It’s hard to think of a more iconic character than the albino last Emperor of Melniboné, a melancholy sorcerer/warrior symbiotically linked to his rune-sword, Stormbringer. Moorcock has a way of making myth feel real, as if he immerses the reader in a pre-historic world of chaos gods and demons that existed before the current crop of homo sapiens crawled their way out of the primordial soup. 

The writing is succinct, poetic, mythic. Less concerned with the psychological realism that characterizes much modern fantasy, in true Sword and Sorcery style, the Elric stories confront the reader with haunting motifs and mythic archetypes, and Moorcock is so successful in imprinting his creations on our minds, that the Melnibonéan mythos, acknowledged or otherwise, recurs in new guises in each subsequent generation of fantasy. 

Powerful themes, such as a soul-drinking sword that the author claims alludes to pornography, never get in the way of the story; they are there for those who choose to look for them.


Legend

By David Gemmell,

Book cover of Legend: Book One of the Drenai Saga

Why this book?

Druss, saddled with the blood of a butcher and wielder of a demon-possessed axe, is a man who knows just how far he could fall and exactly what kind of monster he could become. But with an iron moral code, and perfect devotion to his mystical wife, he earns renown on battlefield after battlefield and grows into a living legend. His inner conflicts sometimes spill outside of his head; he can be harsh, even brutal, but the code that defines him sets limits and forms the framework for the man he ultimately becomes. 

I was first drawn to Legend by the original UK cover: Druss kneeling before the walls of Dros Delnoch, the fortress he is destined to defend against impossible odds. The blurb was compelling: an old man, yet still a legend, Druss has been living in the mountains, waiting to die, but now finds himself the last hope of a dying empire.

Gemmell delivers on all counts. His characters, though tropey at times, are fleshed-out and believable, many with likable quirks. His prose is clear and succinct, and he paints vivid pictures seemingly effortlessly. Druss’s defense of Dros Delnoch has become, in the echelons of fantasy,  almost as mythic as Leonidas and the three-hundred at Thermopylae. 


The Blade Itself

By Joe Abercrombie,

Book cover of The Blade Itself

Why this book?

Aside from the Jekyll and Hyde (or should I say Banner-Hulk, Angel-Angelus) protagonist, the oft-times berserk Logan Ninefingers, Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy stands out in terms of the author’s use of extremely close point of view throughout, and his strong sense of dialect, perhaps best shown in the character of the Dogman.

All the usual heroic fantasy tropes are present, albeit with many subtle and not-so-subtle subversions. The book starts at a breakneck pace and never gets bogged down in inconsequential detail. The action is visceral, in your face (in a Bernard Cornwell sort of way). The world-building is very much in the background and plays second fiddle to the characters.


Incursion

By Mitchell Hogan,

Book cover of Incursion

Why this book?

The concept is what initially sold me on this one: the child of a “dark lord” figure. Ultimately, Incursion, the first of five books in The Necromancer’s Key series, is a concatenation of unmaskings as the reader tries to work out who the heir of the Necromancer Queen is—and, be warned, there are some big red herrings.

The protagonist,  Anskar DeVantte, is a young man preparing to become a holy knight, yet as he works his way through the trials of initiation, buried powers and a past deliberately hidden from him by his superiors begin to manifest. He becomes involved (against the Order’s rules) with another trainee knight, a woman taken from among the subjugated local population and forced to adopt the ways of her people’s oppressors. They both begin to demonstrate phenomenal sorcerous powers, which draw the attention of the Order’s superiors, as well as that of the fanatical followers of the deceased Necromancer Queen.

Hogan’s world-building is many-layered and filled with intricate detail. He’s also a wizard (if you’ll excuse the pun) of creating inventive and plausible magic systems. The plot of Incursion is full of twists and turns and succeeded in surprising me on several occasions. The language is clear and succinct, occasionally rising to Donaldsonian heights during descriptions of sorcerous manifestations.


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