The 17 Best Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy Novels
Sci-fi and fantasy have often shared a somewhat antagonistic relationship as the two major branches of speculative fiction have vied against each other. However, there’s more crossover than most people are willing to admit, most readily found in the fertile offspring that is the post-apocalyptic fantasy novel. In this surprisingly common trope, something bad has happened to the world, and magic has come back. This can mean actual, literal magic (which may have even caused the damage) or just that humanity has regressed so far in the future that technology seems magical. These 17 novels (and series of novels) are some of the best to tap into both worlds.
17. The Books of Ember
Starting with The City of Ember, and then The People of Sparks, The Prophet of Yonwood, and The Diamond of Darkhold, the Books of Ember quartet are a young adult series about a group of underground dwellers in a world after an undefined cataclysm making their way to the surface thanks to two plucky teens. Hey, it’s YA fiction, where would it be without plucky teens? While not obviously a fantasy as some of the titles on this list, you do have many of the same tropes, like creepy underground throwbacks (the Troggs), impossible to obtain technology, near-magical crystals and more.
16. Mortal Engines Quartet
Another young adult quartet, the excellent Mortal Engines novels by Philip Reeve are Mortal Engines, Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices, and A Darkling Plain and are set in the far future when Earth is completely altered thanks to a huge war that radically changed the landscape of the planet. Now huge cities roam the inhospitable wastes, attacking and eating each other. It’s part steampunk part post-apocalyptic fantasy. Concepts like enormous cities mounted on caterpillar tracks that move and attack one another while trade is done via airship and zeppelin is a pretty solid point in the fantasy column, don’t you think?
I know no one is going to believe me, but the Shadowrun books written in conjunction to the RPG of the same name were actually really good reads. It’s hard to conceive of a crappy tie-in novel being anything other than utter dreck, but a handful of the 20 or so titles are definitely worth picking up, and the genre’s combination of magic and cyberpunk was stunningly unique when it first arrived. In case you don’t know the setting, in the early 21st century, magic came back. And so did elves, dwarves, trolls, dragons, shamans and everything else — but that doesn’t stop computers, corporations and guns from working too. In a rapidly altered landscape of a magically empowered future, blackops and shadowrunning reign supreme.
Steven Boyett wrote Ariel when he was just 21 (thanks for making me look like a slacker), and it’s a classic in the post-apocalyptic fantasy field. Where Shadowrun is a world where magic came back and technology and fantasy need to learn to live together, Ariel is where magic arrives, and technology ceases to function. Internal combustion no longer works, and electricity no longer flows, and society crumbles into the monsters. Unfortunately, his followup from a couple of years ago Elegy Beach was generally considered a poor sequel.
13. Kate Daniels Series
I’m not going to lie, I’m not a fan of urban fantasy, but this series is incredibly popular, is now 6 novels long, and perfectly fits within the bounds of this list, so I’d be remiss to completely ignore it. So Magic Bites, Magic Burns, Magic Slays and so on are your standard urban fantasy tales of a tough, kick ass lady with a secret soft side, some magical sidekicks, a bit of murder, and humor — but at least the rampant sexy sexy sex times like Anita Blake’s aren’t quite as over the top. They’re set in a version of Atlanta where magic breaks through in waves, causing problems like monsters and the undead, which Kate Daniels is brought in to battle. Apparently great novels for urban fantasy fans, I’ll leave the recommendations in their hands.
You wouldn’t call John Maddox Roberts’ Stormlands series literature by any stretch of the imagination, but what it is is swashbuckling, action hero fun. Roberts cut his teeth on Conan novels, and his love of action and adventure show, even in an America reduced to islands in a distant future. I think there are five or so books in the series, all of which are seriously loved by people who enjoy the smell of yellowing pulp paper, and action heroes larger than life in bizarre worlds oddly connected to our own. So, me.
11. Who Fears Death
Who Fears Death is a very, very different book than most of the other entries on this list. Most of them take their post apocalyptic cues from Europe in some way or another, but Nnedi Okorafor’s novel is set in a ravaged Saharan Africa, torn apart by death, terror and genocide. Much of the setup sounds like an interesting geopolitical future thriller, a fictional African nation where one group in power rape and slaughter a smaller group in order to destroy them — but Who Fears Death adds a heady amount of African sorcery and shamanism into the mix, as the main character has to battle her rapist magician of a father. It’s a brutal, dark and harrowing novel, but well worth the read.
10. Sword of Spirits
The (unofficially titled) Sword of Spirits trilogy are set in an England that has reverted to medieval feudalism in the wake of a new ice age. Technology is feared and hated, though poorly understood, and the mutations mar much of life, those afflicted with dwarfism are forced into roles as forgers and weaponsmiths, while worse mutants are forced into menial and degrading labor. More than just the setting, it’s about a young prince, a flawed and proud man if ever there was, exploring this world and finding himself, growing into a competent and benevolent ruler in a fierce and violent world.
9. Ice Schooner
Calling Michael Moorcock prolific doesn’t even nearly do the man justice. He writes like a machine, and his high output occasionally lands him bizarre and interesting pieces, like the Ice Schooner. Ice Schooner is Moorcock’s take on Moby Dick, a story of a sea captain destroyed by obsession. However, this isn’t about hunting a whale, but rather the mythical city of New York, in a far future where the world is covered in ice, and every year makes it colder. Where ships are on runners to skate over the ice and hunt dwindling supplies of land whales. Where humanity is faced with its own extinction, can a mad quest save them? It’s always interesting to see Moorcock depart from his usual Eternal Champion characters, even in a novel as short as this.
Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings is a trilogy of novellas combined into a single story chronicling a group of travellers in the far future who visit three ancient cities: Roum (Rome), Jorslem (Jerusalem) and Perris (Paris). Their world has been tweaked by insane technology into something much like fantasy, like the genetically engineered Fliers who are similar to the fairies of legend, little pixie wings on their back and all. Technology is either forgotten or so far from what we know that it might as well be magic — plus there’s a constant worry about alien invasion. Hugo winning and Nebula nominated, the first third of this novel is particularly strong, but the other sections don’t quite carry as well.
7. The Black Grail
The Black Grail by Damien Broderick is the story of a barbarian snatched out of time and flung into the far future in order to stop the end of the world. The entire premise is just one wonderful long list of crazy. Super powerful far futures beings need to rob chronal energy from younger versions of the Earth to stop their time from collapsing. 1000 years from now in a dark age, a warrior is accidentally snatched up by them, and used as their avatar to go around chopping off heads and generally saving the world. You can’t get a much bigger apocalypse than the death of the sun.
Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique works are the Conan novels of scifi. So far in the future that the continents have all smashed into one another again, creating a new supercontinent, these 16 short stories were written in the 30s, and are now public domain, so you can dive into them at your will. More firmly in the world of fantasy than science fiction, the disaster the percolated the utter destruction of humanity is never explicitly dealt with, partly because it’s so ludicrously far in the future that it doesn’t matter, and partly because Smith played a lot with non-linear history. The occasional unearthing of ancient/futuristic technology is enough to keep it on this list, especially for fans of dying earth technology.
5. Dying Earth by Jack Vance
Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels were influential enough that an entire scifi sub-genre was named after them. A dark and distant future with a dying sun and blood stained skies, where savage civilizations struggle with the remnants of past peoples beneath them. Magic and science are closely linked, though treated the same by the inhabitants. There are four books that make up the series which have been combined in a single volume, which you can grab off Amazon. They’re huge classics, and must reads who think that rayguns and swords belong in the same setting.
British author John Wyndham made his name by creating young adult novels with a decidedly dystopian twist. He’s best known for Day of the Triffids and the Midwhich Cuckoos (which was filmed as Village of the Damned), but Chrysalids was also a classic. Published in the USA under the title Re-Birth, it’s the story of a future wracked by an unknown plague. The survivors convert to a brutal form of Christianity, horribly murdering, punishing or exiling the mutants that have arisen after what is eventually hinted to be a nuclear war. The books is primarily set in a pre-industrial agrarian community, but the main character and a few others have a mutation that gifts them telepathy. Widely regarded as a classic in the UK, it’s one of Wyndham’s best.
3. Book of the New Sun
I’ve waxed lyrical about the Book of the New Sun more than I care to admit, but that’s only because it honestly is one of the finest and most under appreciated works of literature in the 20th century. Gene Wolfe’s non-linear tale of an executioner turned godking is rife with the most advanced and mature word construction ever committed to page. You think A Clockwork Orange was interesting for its combination of Russian and English slang? You haven’t seen anything until you’ve read this book. You have to actively work to decipher that this book is set in the future, but so far forward that it’s all but unrecognizable to our eyes. Brilliant and dark with technology indistinguishable from magic, it really is an unparalleled piece of literature.
2. Dark Tower
Dark Tower flits between genres the way I do with legitimate employment, never staying particularly long in one place as Stephen King’s incredible opus spans realities in all directions. Far, far too complex to deal with in the limited space I have here, there are just a couple of key points I want to touch on. The main character, the Gunslinger, comes from a psuedo-feudalistic, wild west society, where’s he’s a knightly descendant of a version of King Arthur. There are remnants of ancient technological empires as well as magic, though both are rare. His world was ravaged by war at some point in the past to the point where reality is coming apart at the seams, and time sometimes doesn’t flow properly. Now that’s how you do an apocalypse.
1. Sword of Shannara
At first glance, Sword of Shannara is just another LotR riff, one that follows Tolkien pretty freaking closely when you think about it. But once you get into the first book, you start to realize it’s a world radically changed by war, reverting back to fantasy archetypes. The standard fantasy races are all heavily mutated humans — apart from Elves who had just been in hiding for millennia. After the loss of technology, magic was rediscovered, but ancient technological enemies do still occasionally rear their heads. This immense series of novels has had unprecedented success, and the first entry in the series was the first fantasy novel on the New York Times bestseller list. Loved around the world for both its incredible setting and characterization, it creates a future that hints at technology while still having all the magic and wonder we expect from fantasy.
Written by Tim on February 14th, 2012 | Tagged as: Popular Culture