As perhaps you’ve noticed, the New Yorker’s list of Seven Essential Fantasy Reads caused a bit of a stir in the blogosphere when it was released a short while ago. Some people liked it (like me), some people did not (like Mark Charan Newton, author of Nights of Villjamur), and opinions popped up all over the place.
I’ve read a few best-selling fantasy series – Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, Twilight, Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, The Dark Is Rising – but I would never describe myself as an aficionado. First because all these books are on about a fourth-grade reading level, and second because I read them for their best-sellerness, not their fantasy-ness (to stay in the loop, I tell myself).
I asked [a friend] what he would recommend for someone like me – a beginning fantasy reader ready to graduate to more serious (but not too serious) fare. Here are his picks, complete with explanations of their greatness. He sent them to me with the reassurance that ‘there is no shame in being a real fantasy reader.’
It dismayed me a bit, to see that I think some of the commentors seemed to miss the point of the thread. Adam at the Wertzone and James at Speculative Horizons and Suvudu had nice,even responses, but Newton and Larry of OF Blog of the Fallen presented lists that, while great for someone like me who’s decently well-read in the genre, are probably unstuiable for someone who’s just come off of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
In the spirit of the blogosphere and vanity, I figured I would throw my name into the hat, and present my own list of books I consider essential second-step Fantasy novels. Just keep in mind that my tastes (and history) in the genre tend towards Epic Fantasy, and also that we naturally want to direct people down the same path we followed into the genre we love so much. I took the Tolkien -> Brooks/Feist/Salvatore -> Goodkind/Jordan -> Martin/Erikson route into Fantasy, and my list will reflect that, if just a little. Of course, my tastes have broadened significantly, so I’ll slip a few wildcards into the mix as well, just for a bit of the variety that the New Yorker list was missing.
War of the Flowers by Tad Williams
This space could be occupied by Terry Brooks’ Running with the Demon or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which are both fantastic examples of what Urban/Contemporary can be, but The War of the Flowers is the one that’s stuck with me the most. It’s an eerie look at the classic tale of a person from our world getting sucked into a mysterious Fey world, but told in a way unlike any other I’ve come across. Instead of a quasi-medieval setting, Williams’ version of the Fey world has progressed along with ours and is filled with Skyscrapers and and warring Fey lords, night clubs and goblins, skyscrapers and obnoxious pixies. It’s another stand-alone novel, and it’s been a huge inspiration on me as a writer. Is there any higher praise I can heap upon it?
The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks
Ask any fan of Brooks what their favourite Shannara novel is, and they will likely pick The Elfstones of Shannara. Brooks’ has been accused by many, based on his first novel, The Sword of Shannara, of ripping off The Lord of the Rings, but he was able to leave that stigma behind with the release of his second novel, The Elfstones of Shannara. Brooks’ novels won’t have you contemplating your existance, or require a minor in political science and religious studies, but they won’t have a problem keeping you up well past your bed time. The Elfstones of Shannara is the best example of Brooks’ ability to wrap interesting characters up in a rip-roaring adventure… and manage to tie it all up in a single-volume.
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
This is one of the bigger stretches on the list. It doesn’t really have anything in common with Traditional Fantasy, but it’s just too damn good a representation of what Fantasy can be, while remaining accessible and fun. Powers mixes Egyptian mythology, time travel, 19th century London and an off-the-wall cast of characters into a fantastic (in every sense of the word) stand-alone novel. It crawled its way onto my list of favourite novels as soon as I finished it and hasn’t ever left.
Anything by Guy Gavriel Kay
Like the New Yorker list, I’m going to cop out and lump all of Kay’s novels together. No one does pseudo-Historical Fantasy better than Kay. He chooses a period from our real-world history, creates his own beautifully realized version and then tells a heart-wrenching story full of haunting set pieces, tragically flawed characters and courtly intrigue and action in equal parts – Tigana, A Song for Arbonne or The Lions of Al-Rassan are some of his more lauded novels. If Epic Fantasy if what you’re looking for, his Fionavar Tapestry will fill your boots.
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
A newer novel, Lynch’s debut hit the scene with a well-deserved bang. In an Venice-like city, Lynch’s charming cast of thieves plan a heist that seems near impossible. Using a cross-hatched narrative (each chapter is split into two parts, one following the current timeline, the other looking into the past of the characters), Lynch builds a lot of sympathy between the reader, investing them in the scheme as surely as the thieves. Of course, this being a fantasy novel, things get well out of hand and a lot of intrigue, fighting, swearing, back-stabbing, laughing, and general mayhem ensue. Though the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies was a disappointment (and Lynch’s next novel seems to be put on the backburner at the moment), The Lies of Locke Lamora stands fairly well on its own, leaving most of the plot lines wrapped up nicely.
The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams
I didn’t want to put the same author on the list twice, but I just couldn’t leave Memory, Sorrow and Thorn off the list. It’s Epic Fantasy in the most pure sense of the term – big battles, hidden magical powers, evil lord who wants to rule the world, castles and princesses, dragons and magical swords – and has a word count that would make even the fastest readers blanche, but it’s also one of the most honest examples of the genre. You want to know what post-Tolkien Epic Fantasy looks like? Memory, Sorrow and Thorn will show you. Plus, without it, the final entry on my list never would have been written.
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
This is a tricky recommendation, and I’m sorta breaking my rules by including it. For starters, I wouldn’t point people at Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire, right off the bat for one simple reason: once you read it, there’s no looking back. Rather, I’d encourage readers to come to Martin after exhausting everything else on this list (and maybe even some of the honourable mentions), because Martin’s gritty, labyrinthine saga is so damn good that it makes the rest of the genre feel a little empty. Martin, on reading Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn realized that Fantasy could be so much more than he thought and set out to write A Song of Ice and Fire, and shook the genre to its core.
Honourable Mentions (and why they didn’t quite make the list)
- The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie: His First Law trilogy is great, but a bit of knowledge of the genre tropes and cliches will make the series resonate more with readers.
- Magician by Raymond Feist: Almost made the list, but I felt Memory, Sorrow and Thorn was a slightly better fit.
- Running with the Demon by Terry Brooks and American Gods by Neil Gaiman: Same thing. I felt War of the Flowers just filled this space on the gap a bit better.
- The Briar King by Greg Keyes: It’s a fantastic series, but the weak final volume might deter (and confuse) newbies.
- The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson: The first volume of the trilogy is great, but the second (based on the 300-pages I’ve read, as of writing this) is a slow burn and not a great introduction to the genre.
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss: Totally awesome, but let’s see a couple of more books from him before we judge.
So, there’s the list. These are the novels that I’d stick on my list for “a beginning fantasy reader ready to graduate to more serious (but not too serious) fare”. They’re all novels I’ve pawned off on my girlfriend, my family and my friends, when I want to convince them that my genre of choice isn’t as lame as they think it is. Everybody’s different, though, so I’d obviously take their reading history and tastes into account (I wouldn’t go recommending The Elfstones of Shannara to my father, for instance), but I think, all in all, it’s a pretty rounded taste of the more accessible side of the genre.
Now’s your turn. What’d I miss? What should I have left off? What would your list look like?