With the online genre scene being as passionate as it is, it was no surprise that not long after The New Yorker published a list of fantasy books recommended for genre newbies, the merits of said list were already being discussed across the blogosphere. I thought I might as well weigh in with my two cents.
I'll go through the list book by book below, but first my overall thoughts: while it's good that such a publication is even bothering to feature an article on fantasy, the list itself is one-dimensional (all the listed novels - save perhaps for Kay? - are epic fantasy), conservative (Williams, Brooks, Hobb and Goodkind are rather middle-of-the-road) and not particularly representative of the current epic fantasy climate, let alone fantasy as a whole (unsurprising given that five of the novels were published in the nineties).
Here's my thoughts on each novel in terms of its merits as a starting point for genre newcomers.
1) The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams
Not a good starting point for a fantasy newbie as far as I'm concerned. It's plodding, overblown and the prose is marred by pointless similes. The endless songs are also annoying (songs in epic fantasy novels are invariably crap, unless you're GRRM or J. R. R. Tolkien). Still, the book (and series) does have its fans, although its only redeeming quality in my eyes is the fact that it inspired GRRM to write ASOIAF. Still, I guess a genre newcomer could do worse...
2) Anything by Guy Gavriel Kay
Ah, we come to a glaring gap in my genre reading. I've never read a single Kay novel, so can't comment on his suitability as a starting point for newcomers. However, I've heard many good things about his work and suspect that he might well be a decent starting point, especially as he's allegedly written a number of stand-alone books that won't require a big commitment.
3) Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind
I've read three of Goodkind's Sword of Truth novels (I was young and foolish, you understand) and didn't think an awful lot of them, but never actually read the first book in the series, Wizard's First Rule. To put it bluntly, I wouldn't recommend Terry Goodkind's books to anyone, let alone a person new to fantasy. The article goes on to say: "Sadly, Goodkind did so well on this completely self-contained fantasy that he wrote ten sequels, each one worse than the one before and more prone to excruciatingly long Ayn Randian monologues from the main characters (needless to say, I read them all). Read this book, and then pretend the others don’t exist." Enough said, I think.
4) Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb
I've never read any of Hobb's novels and have not really felt the urge to do so. From what I gather, her earlier work is quite traditional (although meant to be rather good). Subsequently, I can't really say whether this would be a good starting point - anyone care to enlighten me?
5) The Scions of Shannara by Terry Brooks
Admittedly Terry Brooks was my first taste of epic fantasy, yet I wouldn't recommend this book as a starting point in the genre. Why? Firstly, The Scions of Shannara - in my opinion - is not as good as his first three novels in the Shannara sequence. If you want to read Brooks, start with the excellent Elfstones of Shannara. Secondly, epic fantasy has moved on a bit since Terry Brooks was first published. By today's standards, his earlier books come across as conservative and rather cushy, so I don't think - despite reading and enjoying many of his books - that I'd recommend them to someone who wanted to see what epic fantasy is all about.
6) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
This remains a glaring gap in my genre reading, which I intend to remedy soon. Still, based on the fact that it's been probably the biggest success story in the genre in the last few years - and received plenty of accolades in the process - I imagine it's a decent starting point for genre newcomers, though again it's perhaps not representative of the direction the genre is taking...
7) Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson
Now, this is a difficult one. Personally I love this novel, but my main concern is that even seasoned fantasy fans have struggled with it, such is its chaotic nature. I rather suspect that giving this book to someone who has never read epic fantasy might be the literary equivalent of stripping someone down, smearing them in blood and throwing them into shark-infested waters. Then again, I guess it depends entirely on what sort of reading background the genre newcomer has - if they've read some historical novels with large casts, then perhaps they might be able to handle Erikson. I certainly think Gardens of the Moon is a far better example of the genre than many of the other suggestions.
Anyway, those are my opinions...as always, feel more than welcome to give your own thoughts. I might post my own list of suggestions for genre newbies in the next few days...
In the meantime, check out the thoughts of other bloggers/commentators here, here, here and here.
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