Military fantasy books are a sub-genre that examines the lifecycle of war in fantasy settings. The lifecycle of war is made up of the brewing conflict before war, the violence during war, and the destructive aftermath of war. Oftentimes military fantasy interacts with other sub-genres such as epic fantasy, high fantasy, and gritty fantasy. Now, my study of western history and literature may shape my account of military fantasy. Although other cultures have their own compendium of both military fiction and military fantasy throughout history, I admit I am unable to fully contextualize that history in this summation of the genre.
Now, Where Does Military Fantasy Come From?
Military fiction or the War Novel is a genre that deals with the physical and psychological repercussions of the lifecycle of war and conflict, and is set before, during, or after a battle. World War I and World War II led to an explosion in military fiction globally. Ultimately, as people came to terms with the physical and psychological effects of war at home and abroad, they turned to literature for comfort. As the Korean War and the Vietnam War shortly followed, so did additional novels exploring the challenges of those respective military experiences. Military fiction continues to adapt as conflicts change.
Interestingly, the military fantasy genre can find its origins in ancient texts. Greek epics like Homer’s Iliad, Icelandic sagas like Grettir’s Saga and Njáls Saga, Medieval lais like Beowulf, Chrétien De Troyes’s Arthurian Romances, and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of The King’s of Britain all explore the effects of war in society with the aid of fantasy elements. The origins of the genre infuse creatures of myth and legend to draw readers into the story.
Military Fantasy and The Rise of Genre Fiction
Much later, literary magazines like Weird Tales (1923–1954 and its later revivals) featured short stories exploring the military fantasy genre. Soldiers in the World Wars looked to pulp magazines for comfort. Later, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine also published several military fantasy short stories during its run between 1988 and 2000. Notably, the magazine primarily featured female writers who delved into funny, explorative fantasy worlds.
The 1980s saw a rise in military fantasy with the release of novels like A Shadow of All Night Falling and The Deed of Paksenarrion. A Shadow of All Night Falling by Glen Cook, published in 1983, follows a war that even wizards dread to fight for a princess. In 1988, Elizabeth Moon publishes The Deed of Paksenarrion, a novel detailing the life of a teenage girl who flees a marriage and joins a mercenary group, only to find her destiny as a paladin in her journeys. These epic series expand on the Arthurian-style Medieval battle, including epic heroes, magic companions, and holy quests. Typically, both series receive praise for being notable pillars of the genre.
Now, Lets Get Into Military Fantasy
In the following guide to military fantasy, I include books where the lifecycle of war and military service affects characters in fantasy settings. I also include some traditional fantasy, some young adult fantasy, and a spattering of romantic choices.
Also, as military fantasy books often deal with difficult subject matter, I included content warnings where appropriate. I hope this selection ultimately gives you a few books to add to your TBR list.
Military Fantasy Set in The Lifecycle of War
Before The War
Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst
Content Warning: Death
A ruthless matriarchy stands in the way of murderous nature spirits in the midst of an epic battle. Renthia is at war with both neighboring Queens and the spirits that seek to destroy humanity. Female students with a natural affinity for controlling spirits are collected from towns throughout the kingdom to train to be the next queen. Only the strongest queen can control the spirits, and Daleina is preparing to take the reins. As the spirits become more restless and outside forces press in, Renthia must prepare for a battle and bloodshed.
The Wrath & the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh
Content Warnings: Death, Suicide, Miscarriage, Sexual Assault, Explicit Depictions of Mental Health
A Caliph who murders his new bride nightly doesn’t know what awaits him when he selects the wrong bride. The boy-king takes Shahrzad’s best friend, and so Shahrzad decides to marry and destroy him in turn. Uncovering the secrets of the king may prove dangerous in more ways than one. How can she confront a hard truth, a pernicious curse, and a developing love? The first book is a modern take on One Thousand and One Nights, introducing the events leading up to war.
Starless by Jacqueline Carey
Content Warning: Death
When princess Zariya and her soul-twin Khai were born on the same night, they were placed on the path to fulfill the god’s prophecy. Khai, destined to become the princess’s warrior shadow, develops his lethal abilities under the tutelage of a deadly brotherhood. Across the sands, Princess Zariya learns how to fulfill her duties and use her canes to navigate the kingdom after developing a physical disability due to a childhood illness. So, when the two meet, they begin to decide how they would like to fulfill their prophecy alongside one another. While this book does not contain a specific war, Khai is a nonbinary warrior who works for the government in a fantasy military service. A feat of evocative fantasy sweeps the continent as it examines the journey of intersectional identities alongside a magical quest.
The Queen of The Tearling by Erika Johansen
Content Warnings: Sexual Assault, Death
An exiled princess assumes the throne as she comes of age, bringing new ideas to a kingdom ruled by old blood. The Tearling sapphire is a strong magic stone with the wisdom of the woman who came before her. Alas, the new Queen of the Tearling, Kelsea, also inherits an archaic court. They hinder her actions as she tries to move forward with her plans for reformation. In a neighboring kingdom, the Red Queen will do anything for power…and she has set her sights on the Tearling. As Kelsea begins to help her people, she must contend with a war on the horizon.
Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
Content Warnings: Sexual Assault, Torture, Misogyny, Death
Who would imagine that an illegitimate daughter of a minor imperial governor could be hiding such a powerful secret? Mehr is one of the Amrithi, a nomadic people descended from desert spirits, and she has a power hidden inside her blood—that is, until her spark of magic catches the attention of the Emperor’s mystics, who will do anything to douse her flame. Unexpectedly, in her escape, she develops relationships with a mystical husband and a brewing rebellion. The first novel in the Books of Ambha sets the stage for a war of succession that follows.
The Ranger of Marzanna by Jon Skovron
Content Warnings: Death, Racism, Misogyny
Things get rough when sibling rivalry turns deadly in the Empire of Aureum. The last Ranger of Marzanna trains Sonya to protect the land physically and spiritually. Her relationship with the goddess grants her the ability to trade her humanity for strength. With an ancient power, she will fight against the Aureum invaders for Marzanna. Her brother, Sebastian, is a sorcerer who enlists in the Empire of Aureum’s army. As the two fight on opposite sides, both must wrestle with carrying out their duty without sacrificing their humanity.
The Fight’s Here
Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
Content Warnings: Explicit Depictions of Mental Health, Suicide, Sexism and Misogyny, Child Abuse, Death
The Stormlight Archive is a standout military fantasy series that highlights the effects of war on every level of society. The Knights Radiant have always held the secret to interacting with Stormlight and Spren to accomplish awe-inspiring feats, but these days most believe the group to be closer to myth than history. Complications arise when an upstanding soldier, a clever scholar, an empathetic assassin, and a reformed king begin to uncover the secrets of the past amid an endless war.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Content Warnings: Racism, Misogyny, Genocide, Self-Harm, Suicidal Ideation, Suicide, Addiction, Animal Cruelty, Sexual Assault, Abuse, Death, Torture, Starvation, Cannibalism
In this depressingly realistic Medieval Chinese fantasy world, Rin wants out of a marriage arranged by her abusive guardians. Her plan is to study hard and get an education instead. When she aces a nationwide test, she confounds the elite. But even as she fights a racist and classist academic life, war is brewing on the horizon. The Vengeful Phoenix chooses her. Rin reveals her shamanic powers to the world. Her country invites her to fight. Quickly, events pull Rin into a dark, no-holds-barred Poppy War.
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
Content Warnings: Death, Starvation, Sexual Assault, Torture, Emotional Abuse, Abuse, Confinement, Child Abuse, Animal Death
One mortal girl may be the key to freedom from the invaders of the Faerie Realms in a battle that spans generations. Feyre is a teenager who hunts in the nearby forest to feed her destitute family. When she kills a fae in wolf form, she is forced to live with Tamlin, a faerie lord, over the wall that separates their two worlds. Feyre eventually falls in love with her captor, but when he is taken by invaders, she chooses to free Tamlin and the realm. No matter the cost. Although she is not a soldier, she undoubtedly fights in brutal war throughout the trilogy.
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Content Warnings: Animal Death, Death
Get ready for powerful teens rocking some sexy bone accessories. The Russian-inspired fantasy follows Alina, a member of the military, who discovers her powers in conflict and is recruited to the Grisha, a magical fighting force. In a true battle of dark versus light, Alina must uncover the kingdom’s secrets and save her people.
Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee
Content Warnings: Racism, Death, Imprisonment, Torture
One ordinary artist stands in the way of war crimes to follow in a fantasy world inspired by Korea under Japanese occupation. Like any unemployed individual, Gyen Jebi jumped at the chance for a job, even if it was within the government occupying their country. They are willing to paint mystical sigils on automations, but when the source of the sigil’s power is uncovered, they must quit…and steal the ministry’s dragon automation as they do it. Can one artist and their dragon friend take on an unfeeling government?
The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter
Content Warnings: Death, Misogyny, Sexual Assault, Racism
In a 200-year war, Tau just wants to get in fast, get injured real quick, and get dismissed early. It would be for the best. He can settle down early and start his life with no problem. However, that’s before someone murders his loved ones and he decides on revenge instead. New plan: He will become the greatest swordsman and he will kill the three who betrayed him. In this African-inspired military fantasy, nothing can stop the tide of rage from descending on the guilty.
Incendiary by Zoraida Córdova
Content Warnings: Child Abuse, Death, Torture, Captivity, Starvation, Emotional Abuse
Rebel forces are quick to relinquish self-preservation in exchange for a mission that brings a new meaning to the phrase “No man left behind.” Renata is a member of the Whispers, a group of rebel spies in a kingdom that prosecutes traitors, rebels, and magic users with resounding force. Unfortunately, as a memory thief and former employee of the palace, her fellow rebels do not trust her. When the commander of her unit and the love of her life is stolen, she must return to the palace to recover him and end the war.
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Content Warnings: Misogyny, Death
A revolutionary East Asian–inspired military fantasy overthrows a brutal regime with the power of friendship. A bandit, Kuni Garu, and the son of an ex-duke, Mata Zyndu, find themselves at odds with one another. That is, until they find a common enemy. As they find themselves more aligned than they once thought, they develop a friendship. In a journey to overthrow the emperor, they track through armies, airships, and gods. But when the emperor is overthrown, whose faction of government will rule?
Living in the Aftermath
A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet
Content Warnings: Child Abuse, Animal Abuse, Death
Take a circus performer to get a kingdom. That’s the bargain one warlord makes to solidify his power in a steamy military fantasy romance. Cat may be from the circus, but only so she may hide the fact she is the Kingmaker. At first, Cat is just a weapon of the Gods who can control Griffin’s newly conquered realm, but as they travel together, their courtship develops. This novel is a true enemies-to-lovers road trip with gods, magic, and conflict abounds.
Ruined by Amy Tintera
Content Warnings: Explicit Depictions of Mental Health, Death, Child Abuse, Torture
When a hostile nation captures the former evil queen’s powerful daughter, only her powerless sister can set her free. Emelina travels to the castle of her enemy to impersonate the prince’s fiancée. She will destroy the people who killed her parents and get her sister back. So, when she begins to fall for her fake husband, her murderous rage melts into something far more dangerous: love.
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
Content Warnings: Death, Animal Death, Sexual Assault, Explicit Depictions of Mental Health, Slavery, Child Abuse, Child Trafficking, Torture
A con artist and a djinn warrior team up as they travel to Daevabad, the mythical City of Brass. Nahri was just a cunning mortal thief living in 18th century Cairo, but she was unprepared to deal with djinn, ifrits, and a hidden magical world. Leading her through the hidden world is the djinn Dara, a warrior who is still dealing with the effects of a brutal war. Back in Daevabad, the king’s children mettle with revolutionary thoughts, words, and actions. The war of the past is making its way back to the present as seemingly unrelated events add up to an unavoidable conflict.
The Black Witch by Laurie Forest
Content Warnings: Racism, Explicit Depictions of Mental Health, Animal Cruelty, Torture, Sexual Assault, Misogyny, Abuse, Child Abuse
So much conflict concentrated in a small magical academy. Elloren leaves her small town to become an apothecary and discovers her grandmother ensured that only her race has a claim to freedom from prejudice. Everyone expects Elloren to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps. Instead, she confounds the lot of them by befriending society’s outcasts and spreading blasphemous views. In a reality obsessed with alternate facts, this novel presents contradictory, confusing histories as positive, where different perspectives can be appreciated as both part true and part false in relation to one another.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Content Warnings: Sexual Assault, Torture, Abuse, Self Harm, Slavery, Racism, Death
A brilliant world inspired by Maji—African elemental legends—delivers an epic fight against occupation. Zélie must live with the memory of a better time when her people were free to practice magic. But when magic vanished, so did her people’s freedom. Now, the crown prince is determined to eliminate magic users, and she must strike back with the rebellion or risk being destroyed for her powers. Only her growing feelings for her enemy could possibly stand in her way.
Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth
Content Warnings: Child Abuse, Explicit Depictions of Mental Health, Racism and Racial Slurs, Sexism and Misogyny, Death
The Government must enlist the Chosen One of legend to defeat the Dark One. The only problem: they don’t quite know who the child is. So, the government trains the group of Chosen Ones in magical combat. It does not equip them to deal with the physiological trauma after they defeat the Dark One. As twentysomethings, the world constantly celebrates them for the most traumatic event in their lives. Also, it doesn’t help that being a Chosen One leaves them with limited job prospects. Confronting the Dark One in a new dimension muddles their past experience, personal autonomy, and the clear delineations between good and evil.
What Next for Military Fantasy?
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