What to Read #2 – Pillars of Fantasy

Last time in What to Read I covered some of my favourite authors across Fantasy and Science Fiction. This time, after taking a brief, informal poll, I will write about some Fantasy. As always, these are merely my opinions about things and not meant to approach anything comprehensive or objective.

Pillars of the Genre
I was going to start off discussing children’s fantasy but quickly realized that deserves its own section, so we’ll instead start with the pillars of the genre. These are heavily weighted toward classic sword and sorcery fantasy, mostly to make this entry more wieldy, since the term ‘fantasy’ now encompasses an enormous raft of books that would otherwise be difficult to categorize. (Note: This means I’m leaving out some awesome stuff like Neil Gaiman and many others, but I’ll come back to them soon.)

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (1954-55) – JRR Tolkein
Obv. The writing might feel a bit archaic and wordy at times, but Tolkein deserves at least partial credit for basically founding modern fantasy writing (and probably Dungeons and Dragons as well). I’ll spare you the additional superfluous detail here and send you to the Wikipedia page if you want to know more.

The Wizard of Earthsea(1968) – Ursula K. LeGuin
To me, this series and the Belgariad represent the perfect transition from childhood fantasy stories to more adult stuff (LeGuin won a number of awards for the series, including the Newberry and the Nebula). It starts with the usual coming of age trope, but moves on to some interesting morality discussions. Earthsea is quirky and easy to read, but touches on topics with some depth to them.

I actually think some of LeGuin’s science fiction work is some of the best the genre has ever seen, but Earthsea is excellent and a timeless classic.

The Chronicles of Amber (1970) – Robert Zelazny
This series begins with Nine Princes in Amber(1970) and runs in two five-book arcs through the Prince of Chaos (1991). I remember reading these in college and thinking they were really, fascinatingly different than pretty much anything that I had read up to that time. In fact, having read hundreds of books since then, I still think that. Elements of the Amber series were woven into the MUD that I played with my friends at the time, so it seemed like useful and interesting reading, even if I had never heard of the books before. And it was.

Even to this day, these books are criminally underrated for how good they are and how many derivative ideas they spawned for future writers. I don’t want to go into much detail except to say that the first five (at a minimum) are outstanding adventures and you should read them if you haven’t.

The Belgariad (1982) – David Eddings
It’s rather simplistic by today’s standards of epic fantasy, but in 1982 this was hot stuff. It starts with a farm boy and ends with him saving the world, with a fun journey, spiffy companions, swords, and magic along the way. As I grew older, I gradually tired of Eddings’ style, which is one of the reasons why I think of this as young adult fantasy instead of more high fantasy like many of the other books listed here, but The Belgariad (and to a lesser extent The Mallorean) are worth reading and have had a huge impact on future generations of readers and writers both.

The Wheel of Time(1990) – Robert Jordan (and now Brandon Sanderson)
You know the jokes about fantasy authors starting a great series and then dying before they finish them, thus causing legions of fans to despair that hours of their lives and thousands of pages of reading will go to waste because the idiot never finished the fucking books?

It’s Robert Jordan’s fault.

Not just because what supposedly started as a six-book series has apparently turned in to a fourteen-book monster (so sayeth Wikipedia), but because Jordan actually died.

It’s tempting to knock this series off the pedestal because the later books in the series (depending on who you are, are usually from book six or seven on) range from inconsistent to worthless, but you can’t deny that a) the first five books are pretty freaking awesome and b) The Wheel of Time series is incredibly popular. Even in the later books, the parts with Rand and Mat are still a joy to read (though anything with Sansa, er Perrin is probably not – oh well).

I actually stopped at book 10, pledging to finish reading the damned things once Sanderson finishes writing them, but I have to say I really enjoyed the early stages before Jordan had to juggle so many characters that he forgot to move the plot along.

The Song of Ice and Fire (1996) – George R.R. Martin
Probably the most currently popular adult fantasy stories around, Martin’s books are masterful at creating interesting, brilliant, deeply flawed characters[spoiler coming]… and then killing them. I’m not going to elaborate much here outside of saying Martin is awesome and this series is fantastic (assuming that he doesn’t die before he finishes and that the series finishes well, anyway). At this point, many of his fans have started wondering if there will be anyone alive at the end of the book or if Martin will wind things up by just offing the whole lot and maybe all of humanity in the process.

Hey, it would make for a clean ending, right?

The Shannara Series (started in 1977) – Terry Brooks
I personally found The Sword of Shannara (the first book in the series) to be a bit boring, but a big part of that was Brooks finding his feet as a writer. Thankfully, I was desperate enough for interesting fantasy at the time, that I happily plowed through it and quickly started on book two. Also to be fair, that book was the first fantasy novel ever to appear on the New York Times bestseller list, so it represents one of the first real breakthroughs of fantasy into the popular mainstream.

The next two books in the series (Elfstones of Shannara and Wishsong of Shannara) are written at a more brisk pace and the quality of prose improves as well.  There are now scads of books in this universe, most of which are pretty good (and popular – Brooks has 23 NYT bestsellers). I also found Brooks’ Landover series to be fun, though considerably more light-hearted, so if you find yourself enjoying the writing in Shannara, check those out as well.

Elric of Melnibone (1961) – Michael Moorcock 
This series is dark and weird and kinda cool and really funkily counter-culturey, but still fantasy and alternate Earth at the same time. Fifteen years after having read it the first time, I’m still not really sure what to think of it, except that it is definitely a classic of the fantasy genre and should be read so that people can make up their own minds about it. Here’s the wiki summary

“Elric was the last emperor of the stagnating island civilization of  Melniboné. Physically weak and frail, the albino Elric must take drugs — later retconned to mean special herbs — in order to maintain his health. In addition to herb lore, his character becomes an accomplishedsorcerer and  summoner, able to summon powerful, supernatural allies by dint of his royal Melnibonéan bloodline. Unlike most others of his race, Elric possesses something of a conscience; he sees the decadence of his culture, and worries about the rise of the Young Kingdoms, populated by humans (as Melniboneans do not consider themselves such) and the threat they pose to his empire. Because of his introspective self-loathing of Melnibonéan traditions, his subjects find him odd and unfathomable, and his cousin Yyrkoon (next in the line of succession, as Elric has no heirs) interprets his behavior as weakness and plots Elric’s death.

[…]

Elric’s finding of the sword Stormbringer serves as both his greatest asset and greatest disadvantage. The sword confers upon Elric strength, health and fighting prowess but must be fed the souls of those struck with the black blade…”

I know one of the things I didn’t particularly like about the ‘series’ is that many of the books are constructed of loosely connected short stories and novellas, which is probably more a product of how things were published at that time (via magazines and journals), and less a product of planning. Otherwise I found it worth a read and some thought, even if it’s not one of my personal favourites.

Tomorrow – The Best Stuff (Fantasy)

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2 responses to “What to Read #2 – Pillars of Fantasy

  1. George R.R. Martin signed up for Twitter so he could kill 140 characters.

    Looks like a solid list. Chronicles of Amber has always seemed to me like the best-kept secret in fantasy. Minor correction: the author’s name is Roger, not Robert.

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