The Fantasy List, Part One

Ok, a couple of things up top. If you’re feeling lost and confused about what’s going on here, fear not! You can catch up quickly and easily by reading this post. And maybe this one.

Good. Now that we’re all on the same page, there is one big, fat disclaimer thing I need to say about this part of the Great Listy Experiment of 2012: I do not read nearly as much fantasy as I do scifi. I never have. I am much more likely to fuck up here and miss something important (which is not to be confused with missing something you love). Let’s not all tell me how dumb I am all at once, ok? Maybe just be positive about telling me about a cool book I might like to read instead. And then maybe, just maybe, I’ll read it and we can talk about it and all will be right with the world.

Once more, into the breach:

The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss (2007)

This one’s awfully new for me to think that it’s important, but hear me out. Besides the fact that it’s tremendously well-written, I think what Rothfuss brings to the table here is a kind of fanboy synthesis. Not that his work is derivative, not at all, but in his worldbuilding one can see the glimmer of someone so steeped in fantasy, so dedicated to the conventions of the genre, that he can break those rules with confidence. And while you may not know where he’s going, you become willing to follow no matter what. That’s just damn fine writing and to hell with genre labels.

Others to try by Patrick Rothfuss:
The Wise Man’s Fear
The Princess and Mr. Whiffle

The Magicians – Lev Grossman (2009)

Magic is one of the key elements in a lot of fantasy writing, but it brings with it a sort of onus of meaning. You hear “magic” and you think robes and hats and wands and bippity boppity boo nonsense, right? The Magicians blows all that shit right up. Which is why it made the list. Defying stereotype and doing something truly new and exciting is difficult in any sort of genre fiction. I once described this book as: “If Harry Potter had been raised by Hunter S. Thompson and Sid Vicious and then set loose on the world.” Plus, there’s a really cool aspect of book/story obsession that I think drives the characters in a super-interesting way. And it’s got a gritty, modern feel that’s a refreshing change from all that high castle tower crap that gets so boring so fast.

Others to try by Lev Grossman:
The Magician King

The Dark Tower (series) – Stephen King (1982-2004)

Shall we use the term magnum opus? Oh, why not? Let’s. Stephen King is pretty badass at anything he sets his hand to, but this series of (seven) books is truly a masterpiece of fantasy. The thing about King is that you have to trust him. The first two books are terribly odd, but if you stick with it, the world he drags you into is so beautifully intricate, so mind-bending and horrifying, that by the end of the seventh book you’re pissed that it’s over. I threw my copy across the room (and then slapped myself for almost breaking the spine on a first edition, first printing). There’s a really interesting layering of realities, as well, that’s unlike any other kind of fantasy writing that I’ve come across (although Clive Barker does come pretty close). And it’s Stephen King so there’s plenty of fun blood and guts and gore.

Others to try by Stephen King:
Eyes of the Dragon
The Wind Through the Keyhole
(both related to the Dark Tower in some way)

Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin (1996)

Straight off the top: I have not read the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire series or seen the TV show. Do not give me any spoilers! I’ll be so mad. This book made the list alone, without its series mates, because it’s pretty much everything I think of when I think of fantasy. Politics, deceit, stupid names that are impossible to pronounce, maidens in distress, battles, fucking dragons. Come on. “Quintessential” is not a word that I use lightly, folks, but I’m going to pull it out here. I just have to. And Martin is a fantasy writer’s fantasy writer. He uses every clichéd trope you could possibly use but with such aplomb, and in such a gritty, dirty context, that I totally forgot that I don’t even really like castle intrigue-type novels. And it’s got a really cool changing-viewpoint structure that I enjoy quite a bit. I’m going to read the rest of the series as we get closer to the last book’s release date so I don’t have to be agonized by the wait. Seriously, don’t tell me what happens. For real.

Others to try by George R.R. Martin:
Fevre Dream
Dying of the Light

The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-1955 – 1937, if you count The Hobbit)

This one’s the big daddy of epic fantasy and y’all would have my head if I didn’t put it on here. However, I must say that I’m really not a huge Tolkien fan. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the series, and they’re absolute must-reads, but I’ve read them twice and I think I’m probably done with them. But as far as fantasy goes, as a genre, everything that has come after has been affected by Tolkien’s work. It’s the nuclear fallout of the genre, basically, the one that all others are held up to for comparison. The touchstone. Doesn’t get more important than this. Also, I think I may have accidentally married Tom Bombadil. Score.

Others to try by Tolkien:
The Silmarillion
The Children of Hurin

To be concluded next week…

4 thoughts on “The Fantasy List, Part One


    David Mitchell, on SF and Fantasy:
    “As an adult, I read less fantasy (aside from bedtime-story duties), but perhaps nomenclature plays a role here, too: both fantasy and S.F. have made inroads into literary fiction and influences even those novels whose imprint logo is reassuringly conservative. Murakami’s “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” isn’t regarded as a fantasy novel, but the plot is propelled by occult magic. Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterly “Never Let Me Go” is old-money dystopian S.F., as is Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Philip K. Dick would recognize both Michael Chabon’s “Yiddish Policemen’s Union” and Philip Roth’s “Plot Against America” as alternate-history S.F. in the grandest, proudest tradition. We imbibe more S.F. and fantasy than we notice.”

    1. I absolutely agree. His book included. Which I would put in the same category as something like Infinite Jest, as well, and then say that IJ has zero scifi element (besides being set in the near future).

  2. As this is one of my favorite categories to read from, may I suggest The Sword of Truth Series by Terry Goodkind? “The Wizard’s First Rule” is the first of the series. The imagery for me throughout this series sticks with me. There was a terrible tv series adaptation as well, named Legend of the Seeker that was from 2008-2010.

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