Monday, 27 October 2008

The best fantasy novel I've ever read...

On the basis that recently I discussed the worst fantasy novel I've ever read, I thought I might as well discuss the best fantasy novel I've ever read as well (actually, the truth is it's Monday, I'm tired and I can't be arsed to write the book review that I've been meaning to write for the last four days).

So, to the best fantasy book I've ever read. If you asked me who my favourite band is, or my all-time favourite album or film, I'd struggle. The truth is, I have no such problem with novels - when it comes to books, I have a clear favourite.

There are plenty of possible contenders: Lord of the Rings, Magician, The Scar, The Terror (strictly a horror novel, but given the paranormal and folkloric elements I think I can get away with calling it fantasy), Legend, The Elfstones of Shannara, Gardens of the Moon, The Lies of Locke Lamora...

But there's one novel that - in my personal estimation - stands head and shoulders above all of those I just mentioned.

That novel is George R. R. Martin's A Storm of Swords.

So, the burning question - why? The answer is quite simple. This book (and I include both parts one and two, as it was originally written as a single novel) is a masterclass in plotting and characterisation. Martin handles the various plots and storylines with remarkable skill, injecting the novel with a terrific pace that barely lets up. Time and time again the reader is hammered with revelations as the plot twists and turns. Not only that, but the novel contains some of the most brilliant scenes in epic fantasy. I won't say anything as I don't want to give anything away, but those of you who have read A Storm of Swords will know exactly what I mean when I say the following: Red Wedding, Fist of the First Men and - most of all - the shocking climax of the duel in King's Landing. That last scene in particular is just unbelievable, I think I actually squealed when I read it. Well, maybe. My mouth was certainly hanging open.

The characterisation is equally excellent. Martin lends such depth to his characters, such vitality and colour, and it's fascinating to see them change and develop as the story progresses. Two of the Lannister brood - I won't say who - experience such traumatic events, and it's simply wonderful to see how they react. No one working in epic fantasy can create characters quite like George R.R. Martin. I mean, these are people you care about. You share their problems and revel in their achievements - and this sort of genuine involvement is what reading should always be about, but rarely is.

So that's why I humbly consider A Storm of Swords to be the best fantasy novel I've ever read.


Anyone like to share their own all-time favourite?


Iain said...

The three instances you mention in your post about a Storm of Swords are so spot on. The events are somemorable and show just how good fantasy writing in the hands of a master can be. Each one of them had my eyes popping out of my head. If I had to choose one it would have to be the Red Wedding. An absolute stonker of a plot development and until the masterful revelation you just do not see it coming. All the recent bull about George RR Martin has been so unfair after what he has given us in this book and all the others, even the maligned last installment. I cannot wait for him to release the next volume and if it takes two, three more years I don't care. It just gives me more opportunity to re-read this superb book.

Iain said...

Ah! I should have said what my favourite fantady novel is. If I was to look at it from a 'comfort-eating' point of view I would go for Legend by David Gemmell. I read the book back in the mid-eighties when it first came out and was totally blown away by the story. All that heroism, honour and sacrifice, plus the detailed battle scenes struck a cord in that 13 year old mind. I have re-read it countless times in the intervening years (scary how many there are!) and still find it intensely moving when Druss meets his end at the gate alongside the young soldier Gilad. What a book. Recently, Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon, The Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice form, in my opinion, one magnificent novel in three epic parts. I haven't gone further with the series but intend to go back to it soon.

Just last month, Paul Kearney's The Ten Thousand also went into my list of all time favourites. Having studied ancinet history at university it was refreshing to see how he took the traditional medieval setting for fantasy, turned it on his head and set a novel in a classically-influenced fantasy world. Plus, it has some stonking battle scenes that get the
heart racing alongside the wonderful characterisation of the main players. So, there you go. I can't give you one favourite book but hey five narrows it down quite well.

Jebus said...

Storm is certainly the best Martin has ever produced and I absolutely love the novel - that Red Wedding scene was astonishing - my favourite though? Hmmm, comes close I suppose.

Unlike you I can't pick just one but here are the main contenders:

Feist/Wurts - Daughter of the Empire - the novel that started my love affair with Mara of the Acoma and a trilogy that stood as my favourite series of novels until along came ASoIaF and then Malazan. Truly an awesome novel that I still re-read every few years.

Erikson - Memories of Ice - I love the Malazan series but MoI holds a special place in my heart. Itkovian's journey as well as that of Whiskeyjack and Rake just make this almost the most perfect novel ever, stained only by the Mhybe's storyline - blergh! A beautiful and tragic read nonetheless.

Brooks - Elfstones of Shannara, McCaffrey - Drgaonsdawn, Pratchett - Night Watch, Gaiman/Pratchett - Good Omens.

Favourite SF - le Guin - The Dispossessed - pretty much the perfect Sci-Fi novel.

Mimouille said...

I would say:

Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
Magician by Feist
Dark Elf Trilogy by Salvatore
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe
Prince of Nothing by Scott Bakker

Swainson said...

If we're doing five then:-

The Steel Remains Richard Morgan
The Blade Itself triology Joe Abercrombie
The Genesis Machine Paul Hogan
Gemmell for comfort reading
The Amber cycle Roger Zelazny good old retro sff

Swainson said...

How could I have forgotten Donaldson?
The Gap Series

Now I really have to stop or the list might get a bit too long!

Adam Whitehead said...

It is difficult to argue with A Storm of Swords. Literally the only book in fantasy that can really stand up to it is Lord of the Rings.

In SF there are a few contenders, such as Stars My Destination, the Helliconia Trilogy, Childhood's End and Dune, but for me it comes down to Peter F. Hamilton's Reality Dysfunction, which is just a magnificent, fiendishly readable story packed with interesting characters and those jaw-dropping audacious moments which leave you fearing for the author's sanity.

James said...

Iain: Agree totally re Martin. Also agree heartily on Gemmell and Kearney. While I loved Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates was a huge disappointment to me. Have to see how I get on with Memories of Ice.

Jebus: I've heard many good things about that Empire trilogy by Feist and Wurts. Probably ought to check it out.

Michael: Ah, The Eye of the World. Cracking novel, though weak ending from what I remember.

Swainson: Not read any Donaldson or Hogan, but agree with your other nominations.

Adam: As I said, I don't think ASOS just stands up to LOTR, I think it rises above it. Let's be hoenst, LOTR - as wonderful as it is - is flawed in several ways. ASOS is as close to perfection in a novel as I've ever seen.

Unknown said...

For the Malaz world I have to say that MoI is that almost perfect book (minus the Mhybe storyline). A better balanced book that doesn't quite hit the emotional highs of MoI is Midnight Tides. To me, that is Erikson's best so far. That being said, I've been really impressed with RotCG by Esslemont so far. It is definitely worthy of Erikson's work in a way that Night of Knives was not quite.

I have to applaud for the choice of Storm of Swords - amazing book.

My absolute favourite falls outside of my normal genre though - Trainspotting. It was so good that I don't want to read any more Irvine Welsh for fear that he won't live up to my expectations.

Adam Whitehead said...

I think that in the LotR - ASoS debate, LotR is elevated by being a single work (albeit a sequel) and having a transformative effect on the genre, whilst ASoS is hamstrung slightly by being the third book in a series and whilst being anlandmark evolutionary work which changed the perception of fantasy fiction, didn't shift the course of the entire genre as LotR did.

But you could split hairs on the qualitative difference. There are very few other books I'd even put on the same level as those two. Book of the New Sun loses out because, whilst a work of genius, it is somewhat remote and cold. Maybe some of Pratchett's best work (Small Gods, probably), Prince of Nothing and perhaps Sandman.

Dennis said...

Sorry to say I'm not so enthusiastic about George R.R. Martins' books. They surely are better than most, but the annoying use of intricate prose and dragging out of the story at times prevent the saga from keeping me locked in the story and, for me, from being top-notch. Quite the same as Tad Williams' Dragonbone Chair saga.

For me the ultimate fantasy book would be Waylander. David Gemmell has written a LOT of great fantasy books, but Waylander is what he cpatured me with, and I must've read it about 10 times now.
Gemmell combined fast-paced heroic fantasy with an amount of character development not often found in that genre.