As every grognard knows, the original AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide had a section at the end called “Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading.” It was a list of the fantasy novels that inspired Gary Gygax to create the game. But it was also a “further reading” suggestion, the idea being to pay some love backward to the authors who carved out the fantasy genre while also serving up some sources of inspiration to beginning game masters looking for campaign ideas. And it was a wonderful thing.
Recently on Twitter, @RamblingSkull asked Chief Kobold Wolfgang Baur, “Do you have any suggested reading (Appendix N style) for someone about to commit to the Midgard setting?” And that got the kobolds thinking. So @RamblingSkull, this article is for you and for everyone wanting to read fantasy fiction with a touch of Midgard flavor.
Now, I have a background in science fiction and fantasy editing. Years ago, while wearing another hat, I created an imprint from scratch for a midsized publisher, and I ran it for ten years, acquiring and editing well over a hundred novels. So what I hope to do is list not only the obvious classics everybody knows but also some works you may not have heard of and bring them to your attention as well. Some of these suggestions are my own, and some come from other kobolds.
To begin with, one of the ur-texts is unquestionably Fritz Lieber’s tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. These short stories and novellas have been gathered into seven books beginning with Swords and Deviltry. Written across an incredible period of time, from 1939 to 1988, they tell the tale of a tall, red-haired barbarian and a short thief who together are the quintessential lovable rogues always getting into trouble, always surviving, but never quite coming out as on top as they’d like to be. Anyone reading them for the first time will be astonished at all the tropes that originated here, but one of the wonderful things about the book that isn’t so readily apparent, and why I think it’s perfect Midgard reading, is this: the Gray Mouser is forever pontificating on the nature of the world. Is the world inside a vast bubble? Are the stars contained inside giant waterspouts? Are the stars jewels stuck in the fabric of the sky? Invariably, his outlandish theories will prove to be correct at the end of the story even if—and here I think is the underlying point—they contradict one of his previous theories. Reading all the text together, I think the author is hinting that reality is truly what you make of it. This reminds me of the conflicting creation myths in Midgard and to an extent the masks of the gods. Regardless, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser wander all over their world, visit the realm of the dead, and even pass through a portal to our earth and back. They also apprentice to two warlocks, Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. Of the former, Head Kobold Wolfgang Baur says, “Ningauble of the Seven Eyes was such an influence on Bemmea’s mages.” That alone should make the stories worth checking out! Meanwhile, those who want to see modern sword and sorcery duos cast in the vein of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are encouraged to check out Violette Malan’s Dhulyn and Parno novels, Michael Swanwick’s Darger and Surplus stories and novels, and Michael J. Sullivan’s Royce and Hadrian novels.
Before Saladin Ahmed became an acclaimed writer for Marvel comics, writing such titles as Black Bolt, Miles Morales: Spider-Man, and The Magnificent Ms. Marvel, he penned a magnificent sword and sorcery novel called Throne of the Crescent Moon. Any fan of Midgard’s Southlands would find much to love in this tale of Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, “the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat,” and his young assistant, Raseed bas Raseed, a fantastic fighter who is as inflexible in his rigorous interpretation of piety as his master is relaxed. Clearly written as a love letter to D&D—the characters are essentially an older cleric and a young paladin/monk—this novel will resonate with anyone traveling to Per-Bastet and parts beyond. Likewise, Howard Andrew Jones’s The Desert of Souls is full of Southlands inspiration. A sort of sword and sorcery meets Holmes and Watson in an 8th-century Baghdad menaced by an evil magician, it’s certainly of interest to Southlands fans.
Glen Cook‘s Chronicles of the Black Company series sits between sword and sorcery and epic fantasy. Inspired by Cook’s own experiences in Vietnam, the novels tell the story of a mercenary company who may not exactly be the good guys. Or at least they may not be working for the good guys. Clearly an inspiration behind the Crossroads Mercenary Companies (see page 65 of the Midgard Worldbook), they would be an aid to anyone planning a sojourn in the ranks, especially those of Midgard’s Black Brotherhood.
It should go without saying that Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion mega-series should be required reading for anyone interested in any aspect of fantasy. This is the man who coined the term multiverse as well as the writer who switched the dichotomy from good vs. evil to law vs. chaos. His books range from sword and sorcery to highbrow literary novels but always feature an ever-changing protagonist who is the same person born over and over again in different guises to fight either for Law or Chaos but ultimately in the service of the Cosmic Balance. It was my privilege to publish his Elric novella, “Red Pearls: An Elric Story,” in my anthology Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery (co-edited with Jonathan Strahan). In that tale, Elric actually sails a vessel over the edge of his flat world, discovering what lies on the other side—something every Midgard fan wonders about!
Naomi Novik’s fanciful take on Rumpelstiltskin, Spinning Silver, is about the daughter of a small-town moneylender whose talent for the family business draws the attention of a creature who can bring eternal winter. Uprooted, also by Novik, is about a wizard known as the Dragon who takes one teenage girl every ten years as payment for protecting the villagers from a magical wood. A magical wood? Like the Margreve perhaps?
And speaking of the Margreve, no one would be amiss to look at the Russian fables of Baba Yaga and Koschei the Deathless. Or the original Brothers Grimm. Add to this the Arabian Nights, Ottoman tales, and Wallachian vampire stories. Heading northward, the Norse sagas would be good inspiration for a Northlands campaign; though if you like, you could certainly make do with Neil Gaiman’s retelling, Norse Mythology, in which he reshapes the stories into the arc of a novel. Prior to this, Gaiman also penned the Norse-inspired Odd and the Frost Giants. It was billed as a children’s novel, though I dispute that label. But it’s certainly worth reading. As is George R.R. Martin’s The Ice Dragon (which isn’t a children’s book either, despite how it was packaged, in my humble opinion.)
As an example of actual children’s fiction, I’ll recommend The Adventurer’s Guild by Zack Loran Clark and Nick Eliopulos. Zack and Nick are huge D&D fans, and they make no secret of the enormous impact that the game has on their fiction. Set in a world in which a wizard accidentally opened a portal to a realm of unspeakable horrors (Wasted West anyone?), there are only a few cities left and everything else is overrun by nightmares straight out of, well, the Monster Manual. Humans hide behind heavily warded city walls, live in highly regimented societies, and only the members of the Adventurer’s Guild are allowed outside. I love this book and its sequel, think every RPG fan should read it, and only wonder why it’s not a movie already.
Now if I can talk about some of the books which I actually helped usher into the world, I’ll recommend the criminally underappreciated works of James Enge. Enge chronicles the long life of Morlock Ambrosius, greatest swordsman of the world, master of the twin arts of seeing and making, estranged son of Merlin, adopted son of a dwarf, exile from his homeland, a hunchback and an alcoholic. Morlock lives on a flat world in which the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, in which there are dwarves but no elves. The six novels are collected in two trilogies; Blood of Ambrose, This Crooked Way, The Wolf Age, and then a prequel trilogy of A Guile of Dragons, Wrath-Bearing Tree, and The Wide World’s End. They range in tone from hysterical to horrifying, from near young adult to what I would call sword and sorcery erotica. They feel like Elric meets Doctor Who with a touch of Arthurian romance. There is nothing quite like them.
K.V. Johansen’s Black Dog tells the story of a goddess in a land where every river, hill, and forest is alive with spirit. This goddess, unlike the others, incarnates as a young girl and lives a human life, over and over. Each time, she is born small and grows into her power. When an evil wizard comes to devour her during her vulnerable youth, slaughtering her priestesses, she is forced to go on the run with a ruffian from a foreign caravan. He introduces her to his companions as his illegitimate daughter, and she grows up on the spice roads. It’s a coming of age story featuring a deity that has a lot to offer fans of both the Southlands and the Rothenian Plain, told with the lushness of Tolkien but with more of an Eastern and Middle Eastern influence.
Jon Sprunk’s Shadow Saga (Shadow’s Son, Shadow’s Lure, Shadow’s Master) is about an assassin accompanied by an invisible girl that he believes to be an imaginary friend. She’s been with him since he was a baby, but when he grew up, he was very surprised to find that she would not fade away. She helps him by passing through walls and telling him what’s on the other side and warning him of danger and generally just being his edge. I won’t spoil what she is exactly, but I’ll say people who like the shadow roads and the shadow fey will certainly find plenty to love here.
And speaking of the shadow fey, Mark Chadbourn‘s Swords of Albion books, beginning with The Silver Skull, feature an Elizabethan James Bond—Will Swyfte, England’s greatest superspy, and the magician John Dee takes the role of Q—battling the Spanish who are backed by the Unseelie Court. In this book and the series that follows, evil fairies function like the Smersh of the Ian Fleming books. Fantastic inspiration for those visiting the shadow courts.
Anyone planning a trip to Morgau wouldn’t be amiss to first read the Vampire Empire novels of Clay and Susan Griffith. Beginning with The Greyfriar, these books are pulp fiction meets horror meets paranormal romance meets steampunk. Imagine the Scarlett Pimpernel set loose to war with a kingdom of Nosferatu in a world of flying airships.
And finally, if I can be forgiven, if you still need recommendations, I’ll humbly suggest my own Thrones & Bones trilogy. The series starts off in a Norse-inspired corner of the world, but my protagonists cross two-thousand miles of territory across three books, visiting realms inspired by Switzerland, the last days of the Byzantine Empire, and a hybrid of classical and medieval Greece. Starring a boy who is essentially a young Viking board gamer and a half-human girl whose father is a frost giant, the books are middle grade novels but were written to appeal to fans of all ages and strongly reflect my own love of elaborate RPG campaign settings.
And that’s it. I hope you’ve enjoyed this Appendix M. Obviously, no list is complete, and this list is just one opinion (with a few kobold suggestions incorporated). Feel free to offer your own ideas and offerings in the comments below. And happy reading!
Lou Anders is the author of Frostborn, Nightborn, and Skyborn, the three books of the Thrones & Bones series of middle grade fantasy adventures, as well as the novel Star Wars: Pirate’s Price. You can find out more about him and his works at www.louanders.com and visit him on Facebook and on Twitter @LouAnders.