The New Yorker is about as uppity and high-brow as it gets, so imagine the shock when they ran an online article about the best jumping in points for our great genre. And, you know what, the list is pretty damn good.
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.’
The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams
This is the stereotypical epic fantasy that begins with a young, inexperienced, immature youth toiling away as a kitchen boy in a castle, daydreaming his life away. […] And it’s easily the best in the genre’if you want to read a classic epic fantasy series that is not the Lord of the Rings, start here. Williams has several other books (the Otherland series, “The War of the Flowers”) that are also worth reading.
Considering Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is my favourite completed work of Epic Fantasy, I’d say they hit the nail on the head with their first choice. It’s a slow burn in places, but a great look at what can be achieved with the basic framework laid down by Tolkien.
Anything by Guy Gavriel Kay
For those who don’t want to jump into a long series right away, Kay has written a number of standalone novels that take place in alternate worlds with a similar geography and history to our own, and they are all excellent. His strengths are strong characters and fantastic set pieces […] Kay also has a rather flowery writing style, which in most cases adds to the romance of the novel, although in some books (not listed here) he can get a bit carried away. Two of the books in the Fionavar Tapestry were the last books that I can remember making me cry.
Kay is a personal favourite of mine, and it’s nice to see he author of the article not confining his choice to only one of Kay’s novels. He’s an author who I save for a rainy day, when I feel like I’m beginning to become jaded on the genre, and he always sucks me right back in. His novels probably hold the most appeal for those who don’t read within the genre.
Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind
A fabulous single-volume epic fantasy. […] Sadly, Goodkind did so well on this completely self-contained fantasy that he wrote ten sequels, each one worse than the one before and more prone to excruciatingly long Ayn Randian monologues from the main characters. Read this book, and then pretend the others don’t exist.
Yeah, yeah, Terry Goodkind sucks. I know… but so does the author of the list. But, he’s right that Wizard’s First Rule (and a few of the following books) was a decent novel, and an easy starting off point for anyone looking to get into Fantasy. Plus, it only barely hinted at the tripe that Goodkind would start trying to sell.
Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
Hobb puts a slight twist on the usual starting point, as her protagonist is a royal bastard (and therefore not the unknown kitchen boy who secretly is the son of a king) who must find his place in court as an assassin. Hobb can be pretty hard on her characters, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
Again, another personal favourite of mine, and an author that I save for those rainy days, similar to Kay. Another slow burn, like The Dragonbone Chair, but worth every second of the read. Hobb’s stories are much more about the characters, and their relationships to the world around them, than it is about action and warfare. Hobb single handedly turned me away from my I-only-read-Brooks-Salvatore-and-Feist-because-they-rock-my-socks-off phase, and for that she has my eternal gratitude.
The Scions of Shannara by Terry Brooks
Terry Brooks is one of the old names in fantasy, having written one of the templates, “The Sword of Shannara,” back in 1977, one of the first (rather explicit) copies of Tolkien, complete with Sauron in the form of the “Warlock Lord” and Ringwraiths as “Skull Bearers.” Brooks improved with experience, and wrote “The Scions of Shannara,” the first of a much better four-book series (starring the descendants of the previous books), in 1990.
I’ve always thought that Terry Brooks doesn’t get the respect he deserves. Sure The Sword of Shannara was a bit of a rip-off of The Lord of the Rings, but it’s after that that things start to get really good. Personally, I would have put The Elfstones of Shannara on the list, rather than The Scions of Shannara.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
The main character, Kvothe, is already an infamous figure in semi-retirement at the beginning of the novel (known as the “King-killer”), and the book is centered on his telling the story of how he became who he is. It is well-executed and paced, and it has a section that takes place at a school – I always love a school setting.
Easily the newest novel on the list, it seems like Rothfuss continues on his destined path of becoming the next great name in Fantasy. The Name of the Wind was fantastic, so here’s hoping the two sequels maintain that quality. Rothfuss does an interesting job juggling both first-person writing with third-person perspective, which is difficult to pull off. All said, there’s a reason than fans are getting rabid and ravenous at the news of each further delay in the publication of the novel.
Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson
This book really isn’t for beginners, but if one reads the others and decides, like so many have before, that fantasy is where it’s at, then Erikson will be the reward. […] This book really isn’t for beginners, but if one reads the others and decides, like so many have before, that fantasy is where it’s at, then Erikson will be the reward.
Now, here’s a choice I disagree with. Erikson’s novels are dense, confusing and overwhelming – great if you’re willing to put the work in, but I can’t imagine a novel that would scare a fantasy-newbie off faster than Gardens of the Moon. If you want to go for the more complex, multi-layered Fantasy, go with A Game of Thrones George R.R. Martin.
In all, though, it’s nice to see a list like this from a publication like The New Yorker. When one considers that it’s not a list of the best Fantasy has to offer, but rather a good starting-off point for those wanting to jump into Epic Fantasy. With the exception of Erikson and Goodkind, I can’t really argue with much on the list, though it might have been nice to see it expanded to include the likes of Vance, Keyes and Abercrombie.
I’m sure this list will cause all sorts of uproarious commentary, so I’m curious to see who you all would include on your list?