Five Dark Fantasy Books That Read Like Metal Album Covers
Aeons ago, in a better time, men wore leather and grew their their hair long. They braided their beards and tattooed their skin with talismanic imagery of gods and demons. Now, when man continues their traditions, he still carries an axe, but these axes are less for decapitation and more for face-melting guitar solos.
Sadly, it seems that time may soon leave even these last noble warriors of the metal tradition behind. When they are gone, who will sing the songs of their heroic acts? The answer is, perhaps, no one, but we are lucky enough to live in an age when one can read the books that tell of their proud culture in the most honest of terms.
To that end, we are proud to bring you the five dark fantasy novels that are, in our opinion, the most unashamedly metal fantasy you could care to read.
Michael Moorcock: Elric of Melniboné
For whatever reason, Michael Moorcock tends to get a little forgotten among the broad swathe of “classic fantasy” authors. Could this be because his Elric Saga is perhaps too metal for the average reader of modern fantasy? The Elric books are a perfect fit if you think your mind is suitably prepared for the strange geometries of a world where plot is determined by the question, “What would be most hardcore thing that could happen next?”
Elric is the last rightful emperor of Melniboné, also known as the Dragon Isle, which sits at the centre of an empire that has been in decline for centuries. Though physically weak, Elric is a powerful sorcerer, capable of marshalling the many supernatural forces pledged to the service of his house and his people. His life and strength are also sustained by his sword, Stormbringer (as in the Deep Purple song of the same name), a cursed blade that must drink the souls of the living to continue to fuel its master.
Once upon a time, Melniboné ruled the world through its powerful sorceries, but Elric hastens its collapse, and then travels the world getting himself involved in a series of adventures each more spectacular than the last.
Throughout the books, his slender frame, albinism, and pitch-black sword read like a series of dark fantasy daydreams that are genuinely hard to visualize without thinking of metal album covers. There is a point at which Elric attempts to rid himself of his sword by flinging it into a lake, only for it to stand upright on the water and scream at him until he takes it back.
Raymond E. Feist: Magician
Magician is the first book of a series that, ironically, centres around a world that does not actually have any metal in it. If that doesn’t sound engaging, it may help to hear that the full series is called The Riftwar Saga; the combination of “rift” and “war” into a single word tells you pretty much exactly what you’re in for.
True to fantasy form, the protagonist is an orphaned young boy named Pug, whose origins are as mysterious as his unexpected ability to use magic to manipulate the world around him. While Pug might lack the immediate flare of someone like Elric, he soon finds himself at court, and from there becomes embroiled in a war with an enemy that comes pouring in from a parallel world through a tear in the fabric of space and time.
When Pug is stranded on the Tsurani homeworld, he finds himself able to draw on the magic of the alien world and becomes a powerful sorcerer. It is in his mastery of elemental magic that Pug rises to a degree of wizardly untouchability seldom seen outside the venerable artwork of 1980s posters of wizards fighting dragons.
Robert Howard: The Complete Chronicles of Conan
Conan is remembered better than most sword-and-sorcery fantasy, thanks in no small part to a truly spectacular cinematic adaptation starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. As well you might expect from an age before computer generated effects, the movie manages to miss some of the more spectacular events of the Conan stories.
Conan is a bit of a strange beast, having spent the best part of fifty years in-and-out of print, with many stories contributed by other writers after Robert Howard’s death. The more recent collections (sometimes titled Conan of Cimmeria) go a long way toward ensuring that Howard’s Conan stories remain accessible. Moreover, these volumes also include much of the notes and fictionalized histories that Howard lay down around the history of the fictional Hyboria, all of which serve to ground the Conan stories in a sense of place too often missing in dark fantasy.
All that aside, the Conan stories are strong and often oddly bleak for the genre. Given Howard’s connection with HP Lovecraft, this may not be surprising, but there are few times that text is never more metal so closely as when Conan falls on some extradimensional horror with a blade. It’s very simple, and on some level probably very stupid, but it’s fantastic all the same.
Diana Wynne Jones: Howl’s Moving Castle
Believe me, I know what you’re thinking. You’ve probably seen the Studio Ghibli adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle in all its bucolic, pastel-coloured glory, and you now find yourself struggling to marry that image with the likes of Elric and Conan. Indeed, in that incarnation it’s a fairly tricky prospect, but consider the core themes and ideas of Howl’s Moving Castle and you’ll begin to appreciate how metal it is.
At its core, Howl’s Moving Castle is the story of an already talented sorcerer who trades some of his own humanity for further power. He also finds himself pitted against another powerful mage in the Witch of the Waste. Here, the Witch is not the same monstrous creature as we see in the film, but a more elegant spellcaster altogether. While the film diminishes their enmity somewhat, the book spends more time focussing on the arcane feud between her and Howl.
Indeed, once you get into the meat of the book, you begin to appreciate the mechanical strangeness of the ambulatory castle, as well as the fact that Howl/Howell is a guitarist who frequently disappears out to look for a woman to spend time with. It’s hard not to fall in love with a spellcasting guitarist.
Glen Cook: The Black Company
The Black Company is a bit of a change of pace from the rest of the books recommended here because it doesn’t follow a single hero, instead the series focuses on the eponymous Black Company, a group of soldiers-for-hire in a mercenary outfit. The mercenary company is a common feature of fantasy novels, but there are relatively few books that show a fantasy world from the point of view of the mercenaries.
The result is a dark and practical take on fantasy warfare that has more of the vibe of a disaffected war novel than a typical sword-and-sorcery dark fantasy novel. Moreover, in a genre that frequently follows a formula in which a lone hero has to sacrifice everything they have to save the world from some great evil, it’s an awful lot of fun to read about a group of people who really are just in it for the money. Sure, individual characters have their own motivations and consciences, but the primary objective is to get paid.
The whole story is related from the point of view of the company’s doctor and chronicler, Croaker, which jives well with the overall slightly jaded tone of the novel. The grim atmosphere and bleak outlook combine to give the book a solid metal-album-cover feel.