Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Fantasy Top 10

Because I saw some other random guy on the internet make a list of Top 25 fantasy novels/series, I thought I'd try my hand at it. I'm not going to do 25, though, I'm going to only do 10. There's no point unless you're a little but selective, after all.

Also, I'm letting myself take on a fairly broad definition of fantasy. That primarily will be apparent in three of my picks, that are arguably not fantasy, but which I think are close enough that it's quibbling and nitpicking to not accept them. I'm also going to include a shorter list of very popular books/series that I did not include and why. And, of course, my own personal experience is not comprehensive. There's a lot of fantasy that is very highly regarded, but which I simply haven't gotten around to reading. Naturally, I can only pick stuff with which I'm familiar.

10. Myth Adventures, by Robert Asprin. A rather long-running series of fantasy parody books, starting with Another Fine Myth and continuing on ad nauseum. Asprin somewhat lost his way after a while, but there's a least half a dozen really good books before it starts getting stale. Fantasy does have a tendency to take itself too seriously; these books are great because not only do they parody a lot of fantasy riffs, but they are qualitatively good stories in their own right; they're not just silly parodies. A relatively high tolerance for puns is required to read these, though, and a thorough knowledge of history, literature and pop culture will help in getting some of the jokes and references.

9. The Dragonlance Chronicles, by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. I'm as likely as anybody to belittle and deride game-related fiction. Most of it isn't very good. Most of it, in fact, is downright terrible. This three-book series, though, is the exception to the rule. In fact, it's probably fair to say that this is the series that kicked off game fiction as a viable genre. Without Weis and Hickman's trailblazing work, there wouldn't even be any such category in the market today. But don't hold that against them; this features compelling characters, a charming plot, and some interesting scenarios. Despite being a branded product, it still managed to create an interesting setting to feature it all in as well.

8. The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath, by H. P. Lovecraft. This is actually merely a single novella, but it features an awful lot of ties to the infamous "Cthulhu Mythos." Despite being part of his Lord Dunsany inspired "dream cycle", in my opinion, it's actually one of the best "mythos" cycle stories as well, featuring as it does a visit to the far side of the moon with the terrible froggy weirdos that live there, and a visit to Azathoth's own blasphemous court deep in outer space. When it's not showcasing some of the better horror that Lovecraft ever wrote, it reads a bit like a slightly more intellectual sword & sorcery fantasy, with a lot of atypical and very intriguing ideas. Also, because it's relatively short, it's an easy breezy read.

7. The Face in the Frost, by John Bellairs. This is another rather short work, that's actually somewhat difficult to find nowadays, which is suprising. I love it. It's purportedly at best semi-serious and somewhat humorous, and certainly the rather silly old wizard and his buddy who make up the main characters are faintly comical. However, Bellairs slips in between this cozy pseudo-comedy and actually terrifying writing with a facility that surprises me. The Face in the Frost also manages to be a great "horror fantasy" novel at the same time that it's a great "traditional fantasy" novel. Highly recommended.

6. The Warlord Trilogy, by Bernard Cornwell. I really enjoy this series, but some might take exception to it being called a fantasy. It very neatly straddles the line between fantasy and historical fiction. It includes a number of fantastic characters (including Merlin and Nimue) who do work magic… but at every turn you have to wonder if the "magic" isn't just a lot of luck, coincidence and con artistry. Be that as it may, any story that features King Arthur, the quest for the Holy Grail (here an ancient cauldron important to the druidic tradition rather than a Christian artifact) and Merlin will appeal to fantasy fans. I consider this a gritty, realistic fantasy set in Dark Ages Britain (and Armorica) with well drawn characters, fascinating plots, intrigues, betrayals and an ending of tragedy and pathos as the native Celts, despite their successes, eventually give way, allowing Britain to be Saxonized and themselves to be thoroughly Christianized. This theme of the "Golden Age" which ends is an important one in fantasy as well, which makes it feel even more like an exemplar of that genre, for those who still quibble about its inclusion here.

5. Conan, by Robert E. Howard. Del Rey recently put all of Howards seminal Conan stories together into three trade paperback volumes and put them back on shelves after years and years of expurgated neglect. Although Howard as a writer has some notable weaknesses (his prose is sometimes clunky, Conan is too good to be believed in many cases, he can tend to offend modern sensibilities here and there) it also has some remarkable strengths. It's really alive in a way few writers have ever managed to get their prose. It jumps out at you, grabs you by the throat and throttles you. The rather amoral, realistic nature of his setting is also fascinating; unlike much of the post-Tolkien fantasy, Howard completely ignores issues of good and evil, and while in many ways Conan himself is a relatively honorable chap, in many others he's an execreble and frightening fellow as well. He feels very much like a larger than life historical character in a historical version of our world… that just happened to never exist, and which happens to have all kinds of weird and frightening demons, monsters and sorcerers hiding in its darker corners. The Conan stories are one of the two pillars on which the modern fantasy genre is built, so they really can't afford to be missed.

4. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond Feist. Feist has tons of books set mostly on his world of Midkemia. I think there's something like twenty five or thiry. I've only read about the first half dozen or so, but they are really good books. Oddly enough, although not technically a game related fiction like the Dragonlance books, Midkemia was created for the college group of Dungeons & Dragons players to which Feist belonged in the early to mid 1970s, and in a lot of ways, it starts off with a very D&D-like "Tolk-clone" manner. I gotta give Feist credit, not for being really all that innovative, but for his really good execution. He's the writer who proves the axiom that even cliches can be absolutely fine if the story's well written, the characters engaging and the plot dramatic. Of course, at the time he wrote the first book or two, the cliches weren't yet so thoroughly ingrained anyway. To some extent, it looks more cliched in retrospect than it would have when it was new.

3. Star Wars, by various authors. Granted, this is a multimedia extravaganza. They are primarily movies, though, with attendent novelizations of the movies. And lots of people really quibble with this as a fantasy. But think about it. Although it takes place in space, has spaceships, blasters, and all of the trappings of a decidedly non-fantasy type setting, Star Wars is absolutely fantasy. The Force is just another word for magic, and the Jedi are just an order of wizards (Obiwan is specifically called a wizard by some characters in the first movie.) The lightsaber dynamic makes the Jedi also analogous to knights-errant. In addition, there's the much-touted correllation between the grand story of Star Wars and the "heroic mythological cycle" as described by Joseph Cambell. To be honest with you, I'm a bit sceptical of this myself; I'm not that impressed with Joseph Campbells thesis (he genericizes so much that it's difficult to find any story that doesn't follow his heroic journey outline. Is that a case of him finding the key to the human psyche, or simply the fact that he removed so many details that he's not saying all that much?) and I'm also skeptical that Lucas ever meant to create a "modern mythology" (his early interviews never mention it; they talk about him making a modern serial a la Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. Personally, I think Lucas latched onto Campbell's theories after the fact because it lent his story some artistic credibility and Campbell latched onto Star Wars because it fueled the popularization of his name and his theories… and thereby drove up his book sales.) Be that as it may, when the setting, the characters AND the plot all feel like classic fantasy with a twist, I'm calling it fantasy.

2. John Carter of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Barsoom series of short books, starting with A Princess of Mars are probably going to get me a little bit of grief too, since they bear a passing resemblance to science fiction. However, c'mon. A guy travels to Mars by some kind of mystical means and hits it off with a princess. The stories and the setting itself are very classic fantasy fare. Heck; more fantasies would be improved by looking at what old ERB did years ago. Long before Tolkien did it, ERB was creating coherent geographies (well, more or less) and laying the groundworks for fictional languages. Not only that, some of the early Barsoom stories are some of the funnest stories ever written. That said, the series went on longer than it probably should have. Later volumes are very retreaded and some of them even read like parodies of his own earlier work.

1. Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien. This shouldn't be a surprise. Tolkien is the other pillar on which the modern genre is founded, and frankly, his shadow and influence can be a daunting thing. Most modern fantasy imitates Tolkien to a greater or lesser degree which is unfortunate. I would want to de-emphasize my own similarities to Tolkien if I were a published writer, because the comparison can only make me look poorer by comparison. Despite the fact that the pacing and style clearly aren't for everyone, Tolkien was a true master of his form of prose. Every single word is carefully chosen and placed in a really remarkable way, and the setting itself is lovingly developed far beyond what is explored in the books themselves. I've probably read the three books of LotR more often than I've read anything else ever written. I think it's a true masterpiece, and without it, the fantasy genre either wouldn't even exist at all today, or it would look tremendously different than it does.

A few books didn't quite make my list, but I want to mention them. Lloyd Alexander's five book Prydain Chronicles are excellent, classic high fantasy built on a real world mythological basis. Glen Cook's Black Company novels kicked off an entire little subgenre and he has many imitators. The Dresden Files novels are another interesting series; a fusion of Raymond Chandler and Harry Potter; hard-boiled fantasy detectives in modern day Chicago.

A few notable series did not make my list, and astute, clued-in fantasy readers may wonder where they are. Robert Jordan's sprawling Wheel of Time novels had a great start, but bogged down so badly near the end that it's no surprise really that the author died before finishing them. That series is at least three times as long as it should be, and it still didn't finish. George R. R. Martin is similarly overwritten, but at least it seems to avoid being too soap opera-ish. Steven Erikson is a relative newcomer, but with seven (or is it eight now?) books in his rapidly growing Malazan Book of the Fallen series, he's hard to ignore. So far, I've only read (most of) his first book, and I don't think it's all that good. However, word on the street is (nearly) unanimous that he improves very rapidly from a weak start. If I redo this list in a year, who knows? Maybe he'll be on it.

I'm not a fan of Terry Brooks, David Eddings or R. A. Salvatore. To me, their plots and characterizations are pretty thin, and their settings aren't very interesting. I know they sell an awful lot of books, though. Eddings in particular has openly admitted that he writes formulaic drivel on purpose because he thinks that's what the market wants. Based on his sales figures, sadly, he's probably right. I also really struggled with Phillip Pullman and China Mieville; two authors that get a lot of attention. I didn't find their books engagingly written. The best thing that could be said about either is that their settings were at least unusual. The Narnia books are considered classics of the genre, but they're not quite my cup of tea, so to speak. Children from our world mysteriously becoming heroes in another is a little too Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan for my taste.

A few other authors are starting to make waves (actually some of them made waves years ago), but I haven't yet read them, so I can't comment. Guy Gavriel Kay is one. Ursula LeGuin. Brandon Sanderson (in fact, I'm intently curious in him, in part because it occurred to me that there's a small chance we could be related---my mother's maiden name is Sanderson, and there's a few other correspondences as well. I need to dig into some family history and see if we coincide somewhere.)

Lots more. The fantasy genre has really exploded over the last few decades, and it's well beyond the capabilities of most readers to stay in the loop about everything going on anymore.

As an aside, you may also notice that quite a fair number of books I picked are books that were also on the list I posted below. Only one of them (Face in the Frost) did I discover because of that list, though. Obviously Mr. Rateliff and I simply think very similarly in terms of what's good fantasy and what isn't.

1 comment:

The Evil DM said...

I would like to recommend the works of the late David Gemmell. In particular the Drenai series beginning with the book-Legend.
I consider Legend a signature piece of heroic fiction.