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Fantasy: Five of the Best

July 30, 2008

Moribund. If I was given one word to describe the fantasy genre, that is the one I would choose. There’ very little of interest there. The giants, Tolkien and Howard, authors of Lord of the Rings and Conan respectively, sit atop the genre. Exactly two modern authors are doing interesting things with the genre and producing good writing. Those are George RR Martin (when’s that sequel coming, George?) and Terry Pratchett.

Everyone else is focused on trying to re-created Tolkien’s epic with their own name on the cover. Stop. Tolkien already wrote Lord of the Rings, stop trying to copy it, and do something original with the genre, please. For the most part, fantasy books are what you walk past on the way to science fiction or historical fiction, where good original and interesting stories are being written. There’s not a lot going on in fantasy, and what’s there is going round in circles.

I wanted to get that off my chest, and it explains why this top 5 list has but four entires. Nothing else is worth your eyeball time.

1. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. It was written as one book, something lost on modern authors who insist on cranking out trilogy after overblown trilogy. Make sure you buy and edition that contains the appendices, as the story continues on in there, for another 250 years or so. Really.

2. The Complete Chronicles of Conan by Robert E Howard. For some reason Howard’s work is less copies these days than Tolkien. Reading both of these works together gives you an interesting look at ‘British fantasy’ versus ‘American fantasy’. Both works have elements heavily reliant on the culture they were written in. Along with Tolkien, consider these original Conan tales as your best introduction to the genre.

3. A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin. Finally, I move on to something written within the last fifty years. Ice and Fire is four book long so far, and will likely end up at seven. Don’t let this put you off, it’s not another one of those never ending stories that infest the genre. In these books, things actually happen. Gripping overarching story, with excellent characterisation, this series is notable for the other books in the genre it is not like – pretty much all of them. I recommend this series to every reader I meet.

4. Discworld by Terry Pratchett. Pratchett’s Discworld setting contain elements familiar to readers of Howard, and English folklore, and Victorian England in the later books about Commander Vimes. Pratchett’s books make interesting points without being preachy, and with his own brand of humour running strong throughout. People who like to talk about ‘the fantasy genre’ often ignore Discworld books. I suspect this is because they are good.

There is no five.

There are other fantasy books that aren’t awful, but those don’t make my ‘highly recommended’ list either. They are worth the time it takes to read. You may wish to try:
Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn (light on the ‘classic fantasy elements)
The Silver Door by Grace Dugan (here’s an author doing something interesting with the genre)

If you’re a younger reader, and here I mean someone between ten and sixteen years old, there are tales here for you. Eddings’ Belgariad, Feist’s Magician, and others are fine introductions to the genre, and there are worse books you could be reading at that age. Older readers wanting to explore the genre would be advised to start, frankly, with Martin. You’ll probably end there too, but that’s ok.

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  1. Nathan
    July 31, 2008 at 4:10 am

    Have you read R. Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing books? Strange, vigorous, and demanding high fantasy. I think it sits quite comfortably with the others you’ve listed (a good list, too, by the way).

  2. July 31, 2008 at 4:40 am

    I hear fairly regularly — from folks in the publishing industry — that “there’s no market for humor” in the SF&F genres.

    Pratchett notwithstanding (and a hat-tip, too, to the late Douglas Adams) why might that be? Has Terry just raised the bar so high nobody can reach it?

  3. davekay
    July 31, 2008 at 6:48 am

    Honestly deCadmus, I just think publishers are too scared to touch it. Both Pratchett and Adams have proved there is a large market for intelligent humour in sf and fantasy, yet no one else will touch it (Jasper Fforde, maybe?).

    Nathan, I’ll have a look for that series. Though I’ve just picked up A Game of Thrones after writing about the series, so I won’t need anyting new to read for at least a month!

  4. Snargle
    July 31, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Man, you have to read something that’s less than 20 years old! I mean, Martin, Brooks, Modernist? yes, they publish frequently and recently, but those series have been around FOREVER.

    Just because you’re scared of trying something new, doesn’t mean new and interesting don’t exist.

  5. July 31, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    I don’t think it’s a matter of being scared of trying something new. I feel much the same way about high fantasy, in that it frequently seems to be less about telling stories and making worlds, and more about the author telling you what he loved about Tolkien.

    But I do think there are other good authors out there.

    Diane Wynne Jones, for example. They’re put under YA, but any of her books (try Howl’s Moving Castle for a start) are top of the line fantasy.

    And Gene Wolfe, who I realize is mostly known for his brilliant SF…but he DID produce “THe Wizard Knight” duo of books, and they take all the classic elements of a high fantasy and turn them into something pretty incredible and faithful.

  6. July 31, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Wow. You are missing a whole lot of great stuff — so much that it’s hard to know where to begin. But I’ll give it a shot.

    Gregory Frost: Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories, Shadowbridge, Lord Tophet.

    Jeffrey Ford: The Empire of Ice Cream, The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque.

    China Mieville: Perdido Street Station, The Scar.

    John Crowley: The Aegypt Cycle, Little Big.

    Felix Gilman: Thunderer.

    Steph Swainston: The Year of Our War, No Present Like Time, Dangerous Offspring.

    Neal Stephenson: The Baroque Cycle.

    Tim Powers: The Stress of Her Regard, Last Call.

    Ursula K. LeGuin: Changing Planes, Lavinia.

    Elizabeth Hand: Bibliomancy.

    Sean Stewart: Perfect Circle, Galveston, Mockingbird.

    Joe Hill: 20th Century Ghosts.

    Scott Lynch: The Lies of Locke Lamora.

    Mary Gentle: Ilario, The Books of Ash.

    Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell.

    Zoran Zivkovic: Hidden Camera.

    And that’s just off the top of my head.

  7. July 31, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    A bunch of those crossed my mind too, but I was limiting myself (as I thought the discussion was too) to works of “high” fantasy. We’re taking fantasy as a whole, then hell, there is so much out there you could be buried under all the good books and never quite read your way out.

    (I’m, at the moment, cheerily reading through Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell for the third time. It’s one of those books you just go and live in for two weeks.)

  8. July 31, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    I don’t think I’d call Pratchett “high fantasy,” though, would you? Fantasy, yes. High fantasy, no. Though I guess it does suit the definition of the term used by Clute in his Encyclopedia of Fantasy: fantasy set in other or secondary worlds and which deal with matters affecting the destiny of those worlds. Wikipedia adds to it that it has to be epic in nature.

    But even then, you’d have to include Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell; Shadowbridge & Lord Tophet; Thunderer; Scott Lynch’s books; Powers’s Last Call; and Mary Gentle’s books. And this leaves out Steve Erikson, Robin Hobb, Neil Gaiman (American Gods), Matthew Stover, David Keck — gosh, there are a LOT of great people writing right now. I think we’re in a new golden age of fantasy, myself.

  9. davekay
    July 31, 2008 at 11:50 pm

    Thanks for the list Terry – I see you went over five ;), but seriously I’ll check some of those out once the current reading pile is diminished.

    Baroque cycle is top of the line, I’d put that up there with Catch 22 and Snow Crash in terms of the best books ever ever.

    I cut my genres different to you evidently. Baroque cycle and Joantahn Strange I covered previously in this article on historical fiction (to me, that’s what that is): https://icantstopreading.wordpress.com/2008/07/25/historical-fiction-five-of-the-best/

    Likewise Perdido, Amrerican Gods and so on I put under ‘speculative fiction, since they fit neither fantasy nor sf for me.

    Fantastic books all.

    ‘High Fantasy’ to me is a dead genre. Just pale imitators trying to write Lord of the Rings, when Tolkien already beat them to it. I’d rather read a great 50 year old book than a dull two year old book trying to copy it.

    With A Song of Ice and Fire I feel George Martin has proven you can write great fantasy without being an imitator.

    A Game of Thrones came out in 1996, not sure what you’re getting at there snargle. The fact that two of the five choices were written over 50 years ago is indicative of the lack of great fiction produced in the genre since then, nothing more. There’s some good stuff, but little to really remark on.

    All my own opinions of course, thanks everyone for taking the time to respond with your own, I really appreciate it.

  10. August 1, 2008 at 10:43 am

    Have you read Janny Wurts’ Wars of Light and Shadow saga? I think it’s a good read.

    Weiss and Hickman’s Death Gate Cycle is good, too, though I haven’t got hold of book six and seven. I’d have to say the first book, Dragon Wing, is the most imaginative and well-written of the five I’ve read so far.

    Angus Wells’ Godwards Trilogy is also a decent read.

    No one beats Tolkien in my list, yet, either.

  11. August 1, 2008 at 10:47 am

    Strange, read through the comments, and recognized Le Guin’s name among the mentioned.

    Strange coz I realized when I thought of epic fantasy her works didn’t even cross my mind. She’s one of my favorite authors, mind you. I just can’t seem to categorize her Earthsea Cycle alongside the epic fantasies I’ve read. I think her magical characters are quite of another make.

  12. davekay
    August 1, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    Death’s Gate is certainly a series where the story is outstripped by the setting. The first book is the best in my opinion also.

    Of LeGuin’s books The Word for World is Forest has always been my favourite.

    Light and Shadow is another of those series that goes round in circles to me. Very little has happened across the 8 or 9 books so far. Arithon agonises, Lysaer is arrogant, the sisters scheme, and the wizards just try to hold things together. Having said that I know other avid readers who do enjoy the series.

    Other books by Janny I did enjoy are To Ride Hell’s Chasm, a good single book to read. Also the Daughter/Servant/Mistress of the Empire trilogy she wrote with Raymond Feist is great.

  13. onyxdrake
    August 3, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    I just read a fascinating book that gives an overview of Tolkien’s world and his influences. By the time he got to writing LotR, he wasn’t going on with new material. He had a number of precursors and his material was heavily influenced by the Norse Eddas, as well as Celtic mythology. He just happened to be the first modern fantasy writer to break through into a mainstream audience.

    Fantasy writing has been with us since the Greek epics, not to forget the French romances that were so popular during the Middle Ages. Don’t forget Beowulf, either.

  14. August 30, 2008 at 9:11 am

    Fantasy writing indeed has been with us for a long time, but I think modern writers have greatly enriched the old epic tradition through more creative means of telling.

    Imagine if all fantasy books followed the Greek tradition of the epic, i.e. listing of heroes in the Argonautica, or the characteristic appeal to the muses.

  1. July 31, 2008 at 2:29 am
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