I found myself, the other day, mulling over some of my favorite battle scenes (and sequences) in fantasy, and realized something: a lot of them seem to be sieges. This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy a good battlefield chapter, or that fast-paced wars don’t excite me (they do; there’s one in All Flames Cast). There are some great ones out there, from Dumai’s Wells and the Seanchan campaigns in Altara in The Wheel of Time, to the Nírnaeth Arnoediad in The Silmarillion, to the Department of Mysteries in Order of the Phoenix, and on and on.
But today, I want to talk about my five favorite siege battles (and a couple of honorable mentions).
5) The Shattered Plains in Way of Kings and Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
Am I cheating right off the bat? Maybe a little bit, but the warcamps and fighting over gemhearts and all that is definitely a type of siege. In fact, it’s precisely because this isn’t a conventional siege that it made this list.
Sanderson has a reputation in fantasy for taking established tropes and putting a unique spin on them. The Stormlight Archive is no different, kicking things off with a catalytic prologue before showing the resulting war—that ends up being almost nonexistent because of the peculiar geography at work.
With ten warcamps, each semi-independent of the other, and nigh-impenetrable terrain between the Alethi and the Parshendi, the war is reduced to a series of skirmishes for natural resources (gemhearts, harvested from pupating chasmfiends). By necessity, none of these engagements are large: speed is of the essence, moving across the multitude of chasms and cracks that make up the Shattered plains. The plateaus themselves are too small for large scale formations and maneuvers. The result is a brutal war of attrition in which human lives are sacrificed for speedy placement of bridges.
When things come to a head, however, the final engagement of the siege is beautifully orchestrated, written in vividly cinematic prose, featuring a multi-fronted battle in the middle of a cataclysmic storm. It doesn’t get much better than that.
4) The Battle of Sulingen in Through the Darkness by Harry Turtledove
Still probably cheating a little bit here, but for a different reason than the Shattered Plains. The Battle of Sulingen takes place over a significant portion of the third book in Turtledove’s Darkness series—a fantastical adaptation of World War II. When you think of sieges in WWII, your mind probably jumps straight to one battle.
Yep, the Battle of Sulingen is the Battle of Stalingrad. Except with dragons, behemoths, magic bombs, sorcerors, and fire-beam-shooting guns. How can you not find it fascinating?
The creativity in adapting WWII to a world run with magic instead of tech is pretty cool. Where in real life, the Germans really needed oil to run their incredibly effective tank-based tactics, in Through the Darkness the Algarvians need brimstone and cinnabar to allow their dragons to breath fire. Sulingen, straddling a large river in southern Unkerlant (see: USSR), is the gateway to the Mamming Hills and the largest cinnabar mines out there.
The result is a several-hundred-page plot arc of urban siege, with many of the very wide cast of characters converging and meeting their fates. The glamorized sniper/counter-sniper stories of Stalingrad have their own place in Sulingen, and Turtledove’s racial commentary takes an important step forward in the plot. With the multitude of alliances between nations and kingdoms, the Battle of Sulingen is a major turning point in the Derlavaian War.
Stalingrad having already happened, we can pretty much guess how Sulingen is going to turn out, but the how is where the fun comes in. Despite being painted on a worldwide war, Through the Darkness is a very character-driven book, and that really shines in Sulingen.
3) The Battle of Charm in The Black Company by Glen Cook
I had to do this one. One of the most magic-heavy, strategically detailed, and conspiracy-rife battles out there, the climactic battle of the first Black Company novel is just awesome.
The Battle of Charm is set up over an extended retreat, a lure that the powerful Lady of Charm baits and pulls the Rebel in. With her lieutenants, the Ten Who Were Taken, at hand and the impregnable Tower as the lynchpin of their defense, the Black Company finds itself in the third tier of a layered battlefield that features hundreds of thousands of combatants.
The battle itself plays out over several days, with large-scale sorcery used by the Taken against the Rebel Circle—and these powerful magic-users drop like flies while the less-talented soldiers die in droves. The body count skyrockets before the Lady herself comes out and leads a counterattack that buys a reprieve, and opens the door for eventual victory.
Throughout all of this, the Taken are in fact warring amongst themselves, treachery and backstabbing rampant. All of this sets up not only the plot arc for the next book, but also lays the foundation for the middle of the series, called The Books of the South.
What should especially be noted is that, in the typical fashion of fantasy, the Lady is the Big Evil Emperor-type. The Rebel Circle has prophecies and a righteous anger and a savior to trot out. The protagonists in the Black Company itself? Well, they’re fighting for the Lady. They’re mercenaries, and they’re good at what they do, but they do it for whomever pays them.
2) The Battle of Longmot in The Sum of All Men by David Farland
A pretty underrated series, initially, that sadly went downhill on the back end of things, The Runelords holds a special place in my heart. I featured The Sum of All Men as my Book of the Week a couple months ago, and a big part of why I thought it was worth such a highlight was the Battle of Longmot.
This entire book points toward a huge confrontation with the invading forces of Raj Ahten, the southern Wolf Lord who is seeking to gain so many magical endowments that he can become the legendary Sum of All Men. Expectations are held off early in the book, as Raj Ahten’s siege of Castle Sylvarresta is built up over the first couple chapters…and then ends very tamely. Instead, that delayed tension grows before all the pieces come together at Castle Longmot.
Longmot, which is basically a super-duper version of Helm’s Deep, has never fallen to an enemy. Typical fantasy trope, and all that, and it’s got a reputation as always being the last line of defense against invasion. So, despite being slightly outnumbered (and definitely outclassed on the magic side of things), King Orden holes up in Longmot and plans for an extended siege while making sure he has a couple magical aces up hit sleeve.
The way this battle plays out, from the skullduggery pulled during a parley, to the one-on-one duel, to the spectacularly cinematic magic use is just amazing. The flow of the battle is handled so, so well, tugging the reader through a rollercoaster of expecations, hopes, and crushing losses. There are very few battles that I think would translate better to the big screen. Longmot is just incredible.
1) Dejagore in Bleak Seasons and Dreams of Steel by Glen Cook
Yup, we’re going back to the Black Company. This one truly is a siege and less so a battle, but it provided the platform for one of the most profoundly emotional fantasy books I’ve ever encountered.
I hardly know where to start with this one, and that’s not the normal cliche that line is. The events in Dejagore (or Stormgard or Jaicur, depending on whom you’re asking) start in the fourth Black Company book, Shadow Games, and properly end in both Dreams of Steel (book five) and Bleak Seasons (book seven).
Shadow Games is really the setup, featuring the first battle at the fortress city, where the Black Company rolls up and through a combination of superior forces, tactics, and typical Company trickery, captures the city. However, things quickly go awry, and most of the survivors of the battle find themselves trapped in the walled city, under attack by the forces of the Shadowmaster Moonshadow.
During Dreams of Steel, we get the perspective of survivors on the outside, doing what little they can to lift the siege and deal with the Shadowmaster armies. By the end of Dreams, we know the eventual results of the siege, but not really much of the details.
Enter Bleak Seasons, told from the POV of Murgen, the new Black Company Annalist. Murgen was among those trapped in Dejagore, and found himself in charge of one faction of Company brothers almost by accident. Now, this faction isn’t “the faction stuck inside the walls.” This is a faction within that faction, because the current leader of the Company in the city, Mogaba, is not a swell dude. He’s actually a cannibal.
Remember, the Black Company are ruthless mercenaries.
Mogaba and his Nar faction are basically your typical “best fantasy soldiers ever” tropes, except they’ve got secrets and they’re not protagonists at this point.
As the siege progresses, the factions splinter further, and a Shadowmaster ploy floods the city. Between the Company brothers, the Nar, and the mysterious Nyeung Bao pilgrims trapped in Dejagore, sparks are flying, people are dying of disease and starvation, and nobody knows how they can possibly be saved.
This book gets dark. It’s called Bleak Seasons for a reason. In fantasy, sieges are generally romanticized quite a lot, culminating in big, flashy battles (like the Battle of Longmot, above). Cook, as was his penchant, opted for the gritty and horrific realities of an actual extended siege. This is a viscerally scarring experience, and reading it from a retrospective first-person POV makes it all the worse. Murgen is clearly affected by Dejagore, quite possibly driven insane by his memories of death in the night, his memories of fear and confusion and cannibalism.
In the course of the series, Dejagore might be the single most important event for the Black Company, and Murgen is at the heart of that. Getting to see all of this from such a close perspective makes for an incredibly compelling view on siege warfare.
The Battle of Emond’s Field (The Shadow Rising)
One of the foundational sequences in Perrin Aybara’s character development, this Wheel of Time battle features great visuals and constant twists.
The First Siege of Castle Carris (Brotherhood of the Wolf)
The climactic battle of the second Runelords book. I had a tough time choosing between this and Longmot. The scale here is much bigger, and reveals one of the more terrifying enemies in fantasy.
The Battle of Coruscant (The Unifying Force)
What? Star Wars is fantasy.