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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.

The List

The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams

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

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

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. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

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

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

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

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?

Discussion
  • Joe Sherry August 20, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    I think that’s a much better list, Aidan. It beats the New Yorker list.

    I still disagree with MS&T. For me it’s a turnoff for fantasy and always has been. I would definitely put Magician in its place.

    I haven’t read War of the Flowers, but Running With the Demon is an excellent alternative entryway novel. But then, MS&T has given me a serious Tad Williams mental block and I’m not likely to get to it anytime soon.

  • aidan August 20, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Thanks, Joe.

    Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and I have a rocky past. I read The Dragonbone Chair three-and-a-half times before the series finally clicked, but once it did, I absolutely adored it. I suppose the reason it makes the list, over stuff like Feist or Sandserson or Brett is for those who enjoy taking a step back and falling into a novel, head over heels. I expect a lot of people, especially those with a background in the classics, might actually enjoy the more languid pace of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, though I certainly understand that it’s not for everyone.

    I actually went back to it after finishing Shadowmarch and really enjoying it. So maybe it’s worth it for you to give War of the Flowers a shot.

  • Peta August 20, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    War of the Flowers is a great book and I’m really pleased to see it included on this list. I have such very fond memories of reading the MS&T series (several times!) as a teenager and Williams, along with authors like Brooks and Feist, is a great way to ease a newbie into the Fantasy genre.

    I have both The Lies of Locke Lamora & Tigana on my “TBR” pile so I guess it’s time I read them!

  • Mark August 21, 2009 at 12:46 am

    I think the thing to remember is that not everyone comes to the genre from one direction. This isn’t a one way street. It’s a sprawling junction of literary tastes. To let more advance readers have someone like Brooks as their first experience of genre, could really turn them off and they might never return.

  • deslily August 21, 2009 at 3:54 am

    I see very few “epics” are of the “old age”.. I rather think Weis and HIckmans Dragonlance series was done with longevity as well as David Eddings Belgarian series.. but I guess they would be “grouped with” Lord of the Rings…?

  • Larry August 21, 2009 at 5:53 am

    I believe you misread my post. I had no interest in writing a list for “beginners,” as I explicitly stated that I was writing a list for those who were jaded and wanted something that wasn’t “genrerific.” In other words, I created a list for those who were tired of MEP or those who wanted something closer to “literary” fiction. That’s why my post referenced the original title and made sport of it ;)

  • CupofDice August 21, 2009 at 7:10 am

    And where is The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan?

  • aidan August 21, 2009 at 8:39 am

    Peta – I suppose ‘easing’ is the best way of describing my list. There are maybe better representations of the heights to which Fantasy can achieve, but I didn’t want to throw new readers into the deep end.

    Mark – Of course, and that’s why it’s important for multiple lists to exist. It’s also why I wanted to include such variants as The Anubis Gates, War of the Flowers and A Game of Thrones – to give the reader a variety of starting points, based on their preference/tastes. I wouldn’t send a 12-year-old cousin after Lynch and Martin, and I wouldn’t send my classical-reading, philosophy-major friend after Brooks.

    This list is, obviously, not exhaustive, and, supposing they enjoy some of the books on the list, there’s all the time in the world for them to trawl the genre themselves and find some of the more niche novelists who might tickle their fancy, but not mine. As Adam said in his response, we’re not trying to show off cinema by digging out obscure art house flicks, but by pointing them at some major releases. When one has little experience with a genre/medium, it can be jarring to be thrown in the deep end. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule.

    That all being said, just remember that authors like Brooks did provide a very positive first impression for a lot of people, myself included. You don’t sell that many novels if people don’t enjoy your work.

    deslily – I didn’t read Weis & Hickman, and Eddings is an author I’d warn newbies to stay far, far away from.

    Larry – Yep, and I mentioned it as a list that would be great for people who are more familiar with the genre (like me!). I suppose it is more of a companion or follow-up piece to the New Yorker list, rather than a response.

    Speaking of your list, I ran into a copy of 2666 at a used bookstore the other day, and considered buying it until I flipped through the pages and ran into a paragraph that lasted pages. I’d be curious to learn more about the novel, though.

    CupofDice – Not on my list. I made it through the first six books, and I’m waiting to hear how Sanderson succeeds before deciding whether I’ll finish it. I suppose it could have been an honourable mention, but it has too many ups and downs in terms of quality to really successfully represent the genre.

  • Stephen August 21, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    I haven’t read ’em all, but I’ve read at least something from each of those authors. Looks like you’ve covered a good many styles and approaches there. Good list.

  • Larry August 21, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    Yes, I read Adam’s piece and almost left a comment there the other day that would have stated why I disagreed with that comment of his you highlighted. Is the point of having such lists to create some sort of homogenized “starter” list that just happens to be WASP/male dominated? Or is that just the by-product of not questioning why the list (which apparently came from what might be termed a “garden-variety Caucasian fantasy reader”) is rather monotonous in tone/feel…and which likely would not represent the diversity of tastes of the readers of the magazine in which it was published?

    That’s the elephant in the room, I suppose…

  • Adam Whitehead August 22, 2009 at 11:16 am

    Like I said, the point of the original list was to find a list of starter works in the explicity epic fantasy subgenre, and that’s what I was responding to. A list reflecting the wider spec fic field would obviously be more varied.

    As I have said before, I do not assemble lists by racial profiling, and will not do so in the future, although I do need to radically increase my reading of female authors which is pretty woeful at the moment.

  • GP August 23, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    to address the lack of female authors…

    1. Rah-Kirah (Transformation, Revelation, Restoration) by Carol Berg (most guys i know like this one)
    2. Age of the Five by Trudi Canavan
    3. Fortress of… by C. J. Cherryh
    5. Rhapsody by Elizabeth Haydon
    6. Sword Dancer by Jennifer Roberson
    7. Essalyean by Michelle West
    8. Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin

    these are all series, i’m having trouble remembering stand-alone titles off the top of my head…

  • Adam August 30, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    An excellent list overall Aidan.

    I would add a few essentials – LeGuin’s Earthsea (which GP mentions above), Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and Lavondyss (two of the greatest fantasy novels ever written, though the books that carry on after these two lost their way in the woods, so to speak) and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

    Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn certainly belongs on any list of fantasy must-reads. Derivative? Somewhat, but beautifully written, steeped in northern mythology, and holding a fabulous tension throughout.

    There are several that were mentioned above that I would not rank as anywhere near the best that fantasy has to offer, but I dislike criticizing the tastes of others, so I will refrain.

    I was rather disappointed to read in the quoted paragraph that The Lord of the Rings had been grouped with several others as “about a fourth-grade reading level” which it is certainly not. The absence of the sex, gratuitous violence, and gritty realism of the current line of popular fantasy authors (Martin, Abercrombie, et al) does not make LotR less adult, poignant, and relevant than it has always been. I think this is more of a knee-jerk reaction against LotR simply because it has become so popular and pervasive in our culture.

    Overall, great list. Purchased the Scott Lynch novel today since I wasn’t previously familiar with it.