Monday, December 14, 2009

The Essential Fantasy List

As requested by David Isaak, the fantasy books you must read. Don't worry if you haven't read them all--neither have I! And in some cases I've not been able to finish them; but I don't need to eat my vegetables to tell you to eat yours...

The First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie
Abercrombie is the LC Tyler of fantasy fiction (with added gore). In the First Law series he takes the tropes of Tolkienesque fantasy and turns them around to produce a cycle of wit, drama and a grimly appropriate conclusion. Add in his deft control of voice and point of view, and you have probably the best writer working in the field today. At once affectionate towards and utterly deconstructive of the history of the genre.

Inversions, Iain M. Banks
Technically science-fiction, one of the things that appeals about Banks is the way that he manages to blur the lines between "sf" and "f". This novel influenced me hugely; with his trademark mixture of sassiness, wit and liberal outlook, Banks is a major figure in the field.

The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison
OK, so I never managed to get past about page 30 of this, but don't let that stop you trying. Alongside Lord Dunsany--another I struggle to finish--he illustrates that fantasy existed before Tolkien.

Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner
Less than 30 years old, Swordspoint is already almost forgotten. Such is often the fate of excellence. This is fantasy for grown-ups; no pyrotechnics, no flash worldbuilding, no magic, no elves or dwarves. Swordspoint is just a human story with quiet intrigues and plenty of swordfights. It's influenced me more than I realised, which probably doesn't say much for my commercial prospects.

The Earthsea cycle, Ursula K. LeGuin
LeGuin is sometimes a little "in your face" for my tastes, her politics often undigested in her fiction. But I can forgive her most things for Earthsea, perhaps the best of the "boy wizard grows up" genre. There's never been a better evocation of the cost of magical powers.

A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin
This is the novel that rescued epic fantasy from the cosy cliches of Tolkien-lite. Subsequent volumes have never matched the shock value of the gritty, bloody opener. His readiness to kill off viewpoint characters still astounds today. Martin launched fantasy noir with this one book.

Fevre Dream, George R.R. Martin
Long before the current vogue for vampires, Martin's tale of the undead in the 19th century Deep South showcased his ability to revitalise tired genre tropes. Altogether less epic in scope than his latest work, Fevre Dream nonetheless repays close attention.

The War Hound and the World's Pain, Michael Moorcock
I find Moorcock's output desperately uneven, but at his best he's hard to match. When I first read this tale of heaven and hell in my late teens, I thought it the most extraordinary book I had ever read, and even a quarter of a century later it remains a powerful presence. If fantasy has a Paradise Lost, this is it.

Gloriana, Michael Moorcock
Considering that I'm no great Moorcock fan, I find myself recommending him again. One of the most delicious historical fantasies, Gloriana shows us a sorcerous John Dee at large in an Elizabethan court unlike any representation of it you've ever seen. Strange but glorious.

The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
Another historical fantasy, Powers' romp through Egyptian mythology, werewolves, time-travel and the Romantic poets defies ready description. You really have to read it to understand, but that's no hardship.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
The novel that launched modern commercial fantasy. Tolkien is often criticised for not doing things he never set out to do in the first place, but this book is so influential that even if it were crap (it isn't), it would demand to be read. Tolkien is often unfairly maligned for the feeble imitators he has spawned--as if that's his fault.

The Lyonesse trilogy, Jack Vance
Vance's attempt to write a Big Commercial Fantasy succeeded on every level except the commercial one. It's been relegated to the role of neglected classic rather than the household name it should be. Vance answers all the lazy criticisms that he can't plot and that his series run out of energy as they unfold. The best of the best, but because so much of the charm lies in the voice, very difficult to imitate.

The Dying Earth cycle, Jack Vance
Written over 35 years, these four books are only loosely connected. The Dying Earth itself, while not sui generis (it owes a lot to Clark Ashton Smith) deserves better than to be remembered for its influence on Dungeons and Dragons; the two Cugel books are masterpieces of black comedic picaresque, and Rhialto the Marvelous is what fantasy would be like if P.G. Wodehouse had joined the field. Vance misses the mark with many readers but if you've not tried him you owe it to yourself to test him out

The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, Gene Wolfe
I have to be honest and say that I find Wolfe an easier writer to admire than enjoy. No-one does unreliable narrator games better, and if he wrote outside the genre he'd be much better known and respected. His work is has too many intellectual puzzles and not enough emotional engagement for my taste (but then I never got on with James Joyce either), but he's a major figure in the field.

The Chronicles of Amber, Roger Zelazny
This ten-volume cycle steadily wanes in interest, but the first few are gold dust. Stylistically innovative, this saga of family feuding, magical powers and parallel universes always reads to me like the ultimate 60s acid trip.

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Unknown said...

I gave up on Gene Wolfe, to be honest. But I love Moorcock. Particularly The History of the Runestaff.

Unknown said...

Forgot to say - great list.

Tim Stretton said...

I always feel a bit thick not liking Wolfe. All the action seems to be taking place over my head somewhere.

Definitely easier to admire than enjoy.

Unknown said...

Ditto on Wolfe and Moorcock. Nice list (I've not read half of them), but if you've got Iain M Banks, how about Gaiman's Sandman?

Tim Stretton said...

Gaiman has never made it to the top of my reading pile, Neil.

Am I missing out?

Unknown said...

Good God, yes. Yes, missing out. Definitely gotta read Sandman, I'd say. Yup.

David Isaak said...

Marvellous list--but I expected no less.

I'm odd man out here on Gene Wolfe; I think Book of the New Sun is superb, and I recently finished re-reading the whole tetrology. I could read him for the prose alone.

Zelazny's Amber series, as you rightly remark, was great at first. I suppose there was commercial pressure to stick with a winner, but when he wrapped up the problems of the initial 4-5 books, he should have left well-enough alone. I constantly fear that George RR Martin will make the same mistake of not quitting when he reaches The End.

I haven't managed to read Eddison, either, though I tried in my youth. I also have Peake's Ghormenghast trilogy sitting around, unread...(will someone here tell me if I ought to pick it up and get going?)

Anubis Gates is a great book, even though Powers sometimes writes some pretty distressing prose. His other books--The Drawing of the Dark, Declare, Earthquake Weather--are also among the most unexpected and original thinkgs I've run across.

I'm entirely in agreement about Moorcock. He's written some spectacualr stuff--and some other things I couldn't believe came from the same pen.

Thanks for the list, and for the leads. I haven't read Swordspoint, or any Abercrombie, or Inversions--so I'll go track them down.

I haven't read Swordspoint

Tim Stretton said...

David - Gormenghast is definitely worth a read, although the final volume, written when Peake was a sick man, is best set aside. The first two volumes are great, and strange: imagine Dickens on a really bad acid trip.

If you like vintage Martin, you'll surely like Abercrombie; although unlike Martin he can also bring a series to a timely and satisfying conclusion.

pecooper said...

This is an interesting list. It's nice of you to include The Worm Ouroboros, even though you couldn't finish it. If you have to struggle with Lord Dunsany, I don't think you ever will. It's all a matter of taste, though. For the record, Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter would be on list of essential fantasies.

Like you, I have been trying to get Gene Wolfe's books for 35 years now because a lot of people I respect love him. He just writes into my blind spot, though. I find that he writes ever paragraph as though the next one will reveal something marvelous, and he never delivers.

I have the same reaction to George R.R. Martin. He was a childhood friend of Howard Waldrop (whom I adore), so I have tried for years to appreciate him, but I find that he is the master of the idiot plot. One can almost picture his protagonist scratching his head and saying, "Now what's the absolute dumbest thing I could do next?"

Fortunately, there are enough good writers out there that we aren't obligated to spend our time with those that don't suit us.

While you mentioned pre-Tolkien fantasies, I'm surprised that you didn't recommend anything by William Morris, if only for historical grounding. For the same reason, I'd recommend George MacDonald's Phantastes or Lilith to show how to do something differently.

Was there a reason why you cut off your list with the 20th century?

Tim Stretton said...

Thanks for those interesting observations, Paul. As you say, some writers just don't work for us (Dunsany is a near miss for me - one day I think I'll get him...)

As for the lack of pre-Tolkien fantasy, for me Tolkien so comprehensively defined the post-war fantasy genre that, as a writer, anything older is archaeology. My tastes going back further than that tend not be fantasies (I've read a lot of and been influenced by Dickens, Wilkie Collins et al).

If I'd put a pre-Tolkien fantasist in I'd probably have gone with Clark Ashton Smith, but his output is so small and variable, and there's nothing he does which Vance doesn't do better.

Chuck said...

I agree that Neil Gaiman's Sandman is one of the great epic fantasies, but it's a series of IIRC eleven graphic novels, which are relatively expensive and not generally available at the library. And while for the most part individual books stand on their own, the whole is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts, and should be considered that way. If you'd like to get a sense of what he's about without that level of investment, I'd recommend his novel Stardust. It's a very nice one-volume story. But, be sure to get the illustrated version with Charles Vess' artwork. Although it was also published as an unillustrated mass-market paperback, the illustrations are, I think, integral parts of the story, and Vess is IMHO the greatest fantasy artist of his generation, and his style is perfectly suited to the story.

Anonymous said...

I think a few stories from the Conan-Cycle by Robert E. Howard wouldn't hurt that list. Gritty fantasy from the creator of the sword and sorcery genre.

Anonymous said...

Always loved Cugels Adventures and the Lyonesse-Cycle - it's a pity that Vance didn't wrote more fantasy.

Tim Stretton said...

Chuck - will definitely track down Stardust. Luckily I haven't seen the film so I can approach the book cold.

Anonymous 1 - Howard has certainly been a major influence on 20th century fantasy. I was never a big Conan fan myself, so he's not on my list - of that period, Clark Ashton Smith and CL Moore were more to my taste.

Anonymous 2 - I would have liked to see more Vance fantasy too. The Cugel and Lyonesse books were so dissimilar that it makes me think he could have reinvented the field. But wth Vance's lifetime output at nearly five million words it's churlish to complain there's not more of it!

Steve the pirate said...

If you're going to read Gaiman and don't want to invest in the whole of Sandman, or are embarrassed to be carrying around a "comic book" to read, then put American Gods, The Graveyard Book and Coraline in your hand. As for the later, please forgive and ignore the movie as it very much missed the feel of a book written by Gaiman and should be removed from one's memory entirely with the liberal application of large quantities of alcohol if at all possible.

Tim Stretton said...

Thanks Steve. I've no problem with carrying a "comic book" around - although I think American Gods might be the place I start.