Thursday, 27 August 2009

My own 'Seven Essential Second-Step Fantasies' list...

I blogged previously about the list of fantasy novels suitable for genre newcomers, as put forward by The New Yorker. I had a number of issues with the list and so therefore decided to make my own.

What follows is a list of seven fantasy novels that I would recommend to people who want to dive into fantasy, having read only the likes of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or - dare I say it for fear of my tongue withering and falling off - Eragon. Note that this is not a list of the best fantasy novels out there, but those novels that I think would be a solid, accessible introduction to the genre for relative newcomers. I've also made my choices on the assumption that different newcomers will have different reading backgrounds, while some might even have more specific ideas as to what sort of book they want to read in the fantasy genre, so I've tried to make my list as versatile as possible.

So, here we go...

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

This is an absolute no-brainer as far as I'm concerned, and its absence from The New Yorker's list bordered on scandalous. This will always be the first book I'd recommend to anyone looking to dip their toes into epic fantasy. Why? Because - apart from being the gripping first instalment in the best epic fantasy series every written - it is not going to scare away readers unfamiliar with the genre, as the knights-and-castles setting is surely familiar to everyone. Plus it's not too slow at the start - after the terrific prologue, events quickly gain momentum.

Aside from its brilliance, A Game of Thrones is a very good example of the direction that epic fantasy has been heading in recent years - moving away from the cushy, conservative farmboys-on-quests premise and into darker, more realistic territory. I actually recommended A Game of Thrones to my brother, whose experience of fantasy was limited to Tolkien and a few David Gemmell novels. He loved it and devoured the rest of the A Song of Ice and Fire series very swiftly, which was pretty impressive given that he's not much of a reader. I therefore think that this is a very good starting place for newcomers. In fact, the only possible negative is that it might actually be too good an introduction, as afterwards other epic fantasy might not compare...

A Cavern of Black Ice by J. V. Jones

I was no fan of Jones's The Baker's Boy, but with her second series Jones consciously moved away from the more traditional fare of her debut trilogy. A Cavern of Black Ice - book one in the Sword of Shadows series - is right up there with the very best of epic fantasy. It's representative of epic fantasy's more recent trends in that it's often dark and brutal, but at the same time it retains a few ties to the sub-genre's traditional past, meaning that it achieves the difficult balance of catering for both those readers who fancy something a bit more hard and visceral, but also those who prefer not to venture too far from their comfort zones.

A genre newcomer picking this up will find an accessible, superbly written story in an absorbing world, full of well-drawn characters. I think A Game of Thrones is a better starting point for epic fantasy, but if the person in question perhaps wants a little more of a traditional flavour than you might find in A Game of Thrones, then this might be more to their tastes.

Magician by Raymond E. Feist

While not representative of epic fantasy's current trends, Magician nonetheless remains a classic of the subgenre. This is the 'safe' option, and the book I'd recommend if someone said to me "I really liked Lord of the Rings and would like to read more epic fantasy, but something more like Tolkien as opposed to all this blood-and-guts stuff."

Admittedly there's no shortage of options for the newcomer who hankers after something more conservative - Terry Brooks, Tad Williams, Robin Hobb and Robert Jordan are all possibilities - but personally I think Magician is the best bet. It owes a lot to Tolkien (it features elves, dwarves and so on) but at the same time it does veer off in a different direction - whereas the likes of Brooks, Jordan and Williams all wrote novels that featured some form of 'dark lord', Feist shied away from that. Instead, Magician focuses on the arrival of a civilisation of humans from another dimension, and the subsequent war that ensues between the inhabitants of Midkemia and the invaders from Kelewan.

Magician is suitably epic and engrossing, and should prove easily accessible for newcomers. I would warn said newcomers though that this novel is by far and away Feist's best work, and that his career - in terms of quality output - has been on the slide ever since (although he did write some other decent novels, such as the four books in the Serpentwar Saga).

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

This is one of my all-time genre favourites; I've read it twice and loved it both times. It was one of those few books that I actually tried to find time to read outside of my normal reading time. I'd recommend it to a genre newcomer for three reasons: firstly, it's a good indicator of the 'gritty' approach that many more recent authors have started taking in their work, secondly the setting of Camorr is very reminiscent of Venice, making it both familiar and accessible, and lastly because it's just a very, very entertaining read. On top of that, it's a stirling example of the urban fantasy genre, proving that fantasy is not just about dark lords, dragons and epic battles.

I would add the caveat that the follow-up, Red Seas Under Red Skies, is disappointing. The Republic of Thieves - when it's finally released - will hopefully prove which of the first two books in this series is representative of Scott Lynch's ability.

The Scar by China Miéville

This is a bit of a wildcard, since it is hard to classify - I don't even know what I'd call it. What is certain though, is that The Scar is an excellent example of what you can do with the fantasy genre. Miéville shies away from cliché, proving that you don't need to rely on well-trodden tropes to write a decent book. This novel really is a triumph for innovation and imagination over the conservatism and commercialism that often drags the genre down.

It's a book I'd recommend to genre newcomers with caution, as it's not as accessible as the other titles on this list. Nonetheless, I feel it's worth including because it's such a great example of the genre's potential...and also because it's a terrific story, with well-developed characters, impressive innovations and absolutely sublime prose.

Temeraire by Naomi Novik

This is my recommendation for anyone wanting to delve into historical fantasy, because it's a good example of someone getting the balance absolutely right: Napoleonic war + dragons = winning combination (and hundreds of thousands of books sold).

Temeraire isn't the best book in the series (that honour goes to the excellent Black Powder War) but it's an engaging enough start, and again has the all-important attribute of being very easy to get into. The style of prose may annoy some readers, but it's hard not to be charmed by Novik's dragons.

The Terror by Dan Simmons

I can already hear the dissenting voices - "What? But The Terror is horror, not fantasy!" Well, yes I suppose it technically is - it is after all an utterly horrific story. Yet - in addition to the fact that you can argue that horror is merely a subgenre of fantasy rather than a primary genre in its own right - the novel features a supernatural man-eating monster than may or may not be related to Eskimo mythology, so that counts as fantasy as far as I'm concerned.

Anyway, dubiousness of this novel's validity for this list aside, The Terror is a novel I'd recommend anyone coming to the genre from a historical reading background. For a start, it's very authentic - Simmons gets the 'feel' of the period absolutely right. On top of that, he really gets inside the minds of the main characters and it's engrossing to watch them slowly unravelling. Add to this some excellent prose - I love the way Crozier's chapters are all written in the present tense - and the ever-present threat of the beast on the ice, and it comes together to form one of the best novels I've ever read. A real masterpiece. The only negative I can think of in terms of its suitability for a newcomer is its sheer size - it's a real beast of a book.

So...that's my list. I think it's more representative of the genre than The New Yorker list, as I've included three epic fantasies (representing the opposite ends of the sub-genre, and the middle ground as well), an urban fantasy, two historical fantasies and a what-the-hell-do-you-call-this fantasy. Some good variety there, I think. Some fans will no doubt look at my list and think there are some glaring oversights, so here's some of the more obvious novels/authors missing from the list and my explanation for not including them.

The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie - like my fellow bloggers Aidan and Wert, I think Joe's material is more effective if you're already more familiar with the epic fantasy genre. Many of the trope inversions would be lost on someone unfamiliar with the genre's more traditional trappings.

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss - I've not read it, so can't recommend it!

Anything by David Gemmell - leaving Gemmell off my list caused me a bit of a headache, but I decided to leave him off as I couldn't think which of his books to best recommend to a genre newcomer. Legend? Great story but I'd be worried the often-clumsy prose might be a stumbling block. Waylander? Possibly the safest bet, but for some reason I remained unconvinced. Sword in the Storm? Better prose, but not up with the best of Gemmell's novels for me. Anyway, in the end I decided not to include him. Though if I was recommending ten rather than seven books, I think he'd make it on to the list.

Anything by Terry Brooks, Tad Williams, Robin Hobb - I don't think you need more than two traditional-ish fantasies on the list, and Feist and Jones are superior choices in my opinion.

Anything by Terry Goodkind - you're joking, aren't you? His books might be hugely popular (for a reason I don't think anyone has yet figured out) but I wouldn't recommend his books to anyone, especially a newcomer, in case they got the idea that every fantasy author was obsessed with rape and sex, and prone to spouting philosophical nonsense instead of actually telling a story...

Anything by Guy Gavriel Kay - again, not read any of Kay's work so can't recommend him.

Phew, that's it. Comments and criticisms welcome!


T.D. Newton said...

Wow, unlike the NY's list, I've actually read 3 of the books on here.

Personally, I don't know how comfortable I'd feel recommending Cavern of Black Ice to newcomers. I recently re-read it (amidst re-reading ASOIAF) and though I love the book, I would think a n00b would want something more simple and less deep. I enjoy the clan culture and intricacies of their society but, just like in A Game of Thrones, I think it is a lot to remember to tell them all apart.

Lies of Locke Lamora I'd recommend to anyone, hands down, period, because it is too exciting and accessible to pass up. Come to think of it, I might just re-read that one myself in short order while I wait for Republic of Thieves.

The rest of these, I'll have to put on the list (along with retrying Gardens of the Moon).

But... I can't believe you left off The Stormcaller... tsk tsk...

Anonymous said...

Good list, and much better than the original. I agree, it's a complete travesty they left off ASOIAF... but maybe the list-writer just wanted to avoid spoiling noobs with the best of the genre first. ;)

You really should read Rothfuss and Kay, as I'm sure you already know. I can't praise _Tigana_ highly enough.

logankstewart said...

I haven't read Lies of Locke Lamora, but I keep reading wonderful reviews of this. I'm going to have to get this soon.

But how does The Terror make this list? I recently reviewed this on my blog and I couldn't even bring myself to finish the novel. Maybe I'll have to read it instead of listen on audio, but I was not impressed.

Otherwise, I'd say this is a nice list. But where's Brandon Sanderson?

James said...

TD: I don't recall A Cavern of Black Ice being particularly overwhelming in terms of the size of the cast list or the intricacies of the clans and their relationships, though it has been a few years since I read it.

Yep, agreed on TLOLL. You might be interested to know that Lynch has posted the prologue to Republic of Thieves on his livejournal..

You know, keep meaning to give The Stormcaller another go...

Lianemerciel: Yeah, you could be right about why the original list left off ASOIAF, but I get the impression it was simply because the creator of that list didn't rate GRRM as highly as many others do. Yeah, heard good things about Tigana - will check it out.

Logan: Do check out Lamora and see if you like it. It's not for everyone - what book is? - but I think the majority of folks that dive in seem to enjoy it.

Well, taste is subjective. I thought The Terror was a work of sheer brilliance, others - like your good self - disagree. No problem with that.

As for Brandon Sanderson, I've only read Elantris and while I thought it was rather good, I felt the characters were a bit hit and miss overall and this would prevent me from recommending it to someone new to the genre.

Chris Baldwin said...

What about A Wizard of Earthsea? Now that is a great book. An epic story in 150 pages. The bit where they tell each other their true names... the journey at the end... Damn, fantasy books are full of epic journeys, but with Ursula Le Guin they actually mean something.

Mark C Newton said...

Hmm. Still not totally convinced. With the exception of a couple they're all still - in broad brushstrokes - the same general type of fantasies, and this doesn't necessarily celebrate the diversity of fantasy literature. I don't think it covers people with a background in literary fiction or contemporary fiction.

We mistake newcomers for "readers with absolute fear of strange stuff" and feed them fantasy-lite fiction. Lord of the Rings is NOT fantasy-lite. It's hugely complex and detailed and intense. Give them something with more meat, I say. (Apart from Miéville - that's got some meat already!)

Tom Weaver said...

Very interesting list.

The only one I definitely know I've read is Magician, which is one of my favorite novels (I actually like the entire series, though agree Magician is the best).

I have a vague memory of having read George RR Martin's book years back when it first came out, but remember nothing about it, which is rare for me. Will try again.

As for the rest - will definitely do some exploring!

Would now be interested to see what your all time recommendations are, as opposed to just accessible for newbies. I think that is a much harder challenge within fantasy if confined to single books rather than series!

James said...

Chris: I've only read A Wizard of Earthsea once, many years ago, and remember very little of it. Need to read it again some time.

Mark: Yes I agree that while my list is more diverse than The New Yorker one, the emphasis is still mainly on epic fantasy. I make no apologies for this, as this is by and large the sub-genre that I read the most. It's inevitable that my list will reflect this. Ultimately I can only recommend books that I've read, and so stuff like Robert Holdstock and Gene Wolf gets left out because they're still on my reading pile! I do wish I had a more diverse reading background to draw on, but I don't and so have had to make use of what I've got.

Tom: I'm envious of you, as you get to read GRRM without knowing what happens. Lovely position to be in. Prepare to be amazed and shocked and amazed again.

A list of my personal all-time fave novels...well, that's a post for another time. But I've already posted before on my favourite novel - A Storm of Swords by GRRM. You can find it in the articles section.

ediFanoB said...

I read 3 books of your list. One of the books has been Temeraire. I must admit that it absolutely did not work for me.
But I like to see Terror on your list. That is such an awesome book. It is no hardcore historical fantasy but I agree with you that it is a great choice for people with an historical reading background.

logankstewart said...

James, have you read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell? It's well worth the read if you're looking for historical fantasy fiction.

Mr. Cereal said...

Maybe it's because I didn't finish it (I threw it down in exasperation at around 100 pages) but personally 'Magician' didn't do it for me.

I found the stock characters and story tropes unconvincing and the prose simple... if I had read 'Magician' as an intro to fantasy (after LotR and HP), I think I would probably have stopped there.

But that's probably just me.

K.A. Denby said...

I'll have to check out A Game of Thrones. My experience with fantasy is very limited, and this has been recommended several times.

I will also check out the Magician.