Wednesday 19 August 2009

My thoughts on 'The New Yorker' essential fantasy list...

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 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.


Jessica Strider said...

The list is pretty poor in my opinion. I've read the Assassins trilogy by Hobb - and wouldn't recommend it. While I loved her beginnings and ending, the middles were all so boring I almost gave up on each one. And the end of the series was a total cop out.

Kay's a great writer. Not sure I'd suggest him as there's a lot more accessible fantasy out there.

I still like Terry Brooks as a recommendation, but would warn the reader that he's very 'traditional' in his fantasy forms (and such, a way to see where fantasy came from and what a lot of the tropes of the genre are).

I didn't think Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule was a stand alone. You CAN read it without going further (as I did), but you're left with a lot of questions that the rest of the series is meant to solve.

For great, introductory fantasy designed to keep the person interested in fantasy, I'd suggest some of these authors:

Maria Snyder - Poison Study
Carol Berg - Transformation
Lois McMaster Bujold - Paladin of Souls
Joe Abercrombie - Blade Itself (with the proviso that it's a lot bloodier and contains more swearing than all the rest of these books put together)
Barb & J.C. Hendee - Dhampir
Raymond E. Feist - Riftwar Saga (the first 4 books ONLY - everything after that ruins your happy memories of the extremely well written first 4)
Terry Pratchett - Mort

There's more of course, but I wouldn't start a new fantasy reader on a series that has so many LONG books to read they'd give up just by looking at the 'to read' pile.

Phil said...

I agree with you about Gardens of the Moon. I recommended it to new fantasy readers and it was a failure mainly because of its complexity and scale. I don't think it's a good starting point for a new epic fantasy reader.

Wizard's First Rule is a good choice. I hated the way the series went but the first book would almost be a perfect recommendation for a new reader.

The Name of the Wind really belongs to this list, especially if the genre newcomer read Harry Potter.

If we stay in the epic sub genre, I would add to the list The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone by Greg Keyes, its easy to get into but it's more "old school" epic fantasy.

Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn could be recommended, the storyline is slightly classic but set in a very original setting.

A Fantasy Reader

Unknown said...

I personally like Hobb. Ship of Magic was quite good, and a bit "different" than traditional fantasy (at least for me, and I've not read quite as much fantasy as others). I don't know anything about her other work, though, so I can't speak to the one mentioned above.

My problem with the list, and I've said it elsewhere, is similar to yours: it's sort of a safe list. It doesn't take any risks, which is something I would expect from a publication like The New Yorker. I want to know what they really think are great starting points in the genre. I don't think this list is genuine; they're just throwing us a bone. There's nothing challenging or controversial about the list, and there really should be.

kevin said...

I think it's a very good list. Something that I think is overlooked in a lot of the comments on various blogs that I've seen is that this is supposed to be a sort of "fantasy for beginners" (or perhaps "intermediate") level which IMO would exclude a lot of the other recs I've seen.

I by no means believe that quantity sold=quality but in terms of bringing people into the fantasy fold I think there is some evidence that a lot of these authors have had some success in that area. Personally, Tad Williams' "Dragonbone Chair" was my "gateway" book so its inclusion makes perfect sense to me.

Hobb is a particularly good choice because, with the first Assassin trilogy, she spends far more time on character than worrying about worldbuilding, magic, etc and I think such an approach might be very good for a lot of fantasy newcomers.

Really the only glaring flaw I think is that the absence of George RR Martin (who probably should take the place of Erikson on the list). I've known a lot of people whose first fantasy reading experience is ASoIaF and they were hooked.

Iain said...

Tigana, A Song for Arbonne and The Lions of Al-Rassan. Super, super books. Kay's writing is wonderful, the stories incredibly involving and very moving. They are the kind of books that leave you a better person for having read them. I hope that doesn't sound too overblown but in my opinion they really are that good.

Mm, I have read the first three of Steven Erikson's books, but it took me three attempts to read Gardens of the Moon. However, I am really glad that I stuck with it. The last two hundred pages of the novel are tremendous as all the disparate threads of the novel come together in a really satisfying conclusion. I know that you don't like the second book as much. However, the third is an absolute corker and picks up with all the characters from the first book and heads off on a truly epic adventure.

I read the Tad William's trilogy back in my uni days during the 90s. I found it to be an ok series but the sequence where the gnomes charge into combat on the back of sheep took some swallowing. Lots of crap songs and much, much time wasted in the caverns beneath the castle.

Never read Terry Goodkind, never will. Something to do with the utter awfulness of the names of his characters.

Shame on you. Get on with Pat Rothfuss. I tried Robin Hobb and quickly got fed up with Assassin's Apprentice. Tried the Liveship Traders and felt the same way.

I have just read Retribution Falls and as you said in your review, it was good fun.

logankstewart said...

Pat Rothfuss deserves to be read before practically anything else. I highly recommend you read it asap.

As for Brooks, he does seem a bit out-dated, but I loved his books growing up. Not really sure how I feel about the Genesis of Shannara series, but still worth reading in my opinion.

Kendall said...

You haven't read Kay?! I can't recommend the Fionavar Tapestry highly enough. :-) Seriously, read it. I think it'd be fine for beginners and, um, experts (?!); I read it as a non-newbie.

Unknown said...

Given this is a list meant to introduce new readers to the genre im surprised there is no David Gemmell or Robert Jordan book in there. Especially after the publicity surrounding the former's award and the latter's 12/13/14th book being released. Maybe these authors are too well known, but then why is Terry 'holier than thou' Goodkind in there?

I personally got introduced to fantasy with Ursula le Guin Earthsea trilogy (as it was known back then), this along with Roger Zelazny's Amber got me hooked for life. Though this might be a little 'hardcore' for the newbies.

balaji said...

i havent read a few of the ones on that list, so i can't comment on a couple, but the only one I think actually belongs in there is robin hobb- might not be to everyone's taste, but is pretty much the only epic fantasy i've read that does a first person view and fleshes out the characters so well. i actually read liveship traders before that series and that may have helped (the first couple of assassin's books are a bit simpler in prose) but it certainly stands out among genre books.

no GRRM/terry pratchett/gaiman is batshit crazy. asoiaf, small gods and good omens should all be required reading for fantasy fans.

and, my two cents, john marco does not get mentioned enough on these sorts of lists- his debut series was just astonishing, the prose may have been a bit dodgy in parts but the ideas in there were amazing- this may have been highly coloured by the fact that his was the first industrial/steampunkish type of fantasy i'd read.

James said...

Thanks for your posts everyone, some really good points there. I'm in the final stages of devising my own list and will post the results in the near future...

Tom Weaver said...

Interesting the debate even within a few comments about Robin Hobb's work. Personally, the first time I read the Assassin's trilogy, I couldn't put it down - literally staying up all night to read, which is rare for me - and have lent it to a wide range of "fantasy beginners" who invariably felt the same.

My list would include the Assassins trilogy, plus Magician/Riftwar/Serpentwar by Feist, Lion of Macedon / Dark Prince by Gemmell, The Elenium + The Tamuli by Eddings, the Wheel of Time by Jordan (but wait until the final ones get written/published). The Empire trilogy by Feist/Wurts. Small Gods by Pratchett.

I used to love Terry Brooks - Sword of Shannara being my intro to fantasy - but struggle to read it with interst now having experienced so much better.

James said...

I think I may be the only one who doesn't believe that Rothfuss should be on the list. Sure, the book is an easy read and more familiar for the folks just coming down of their Potter high. The problem, I feel, comes from the timing.

If the list had been published at a later time, perhaps after the release of the second novel, I would be all for it. However, only the first novel is out and it is far from a standalone and there is no telling whether the second book will be utter perfection or send the series tumbling down a fiery pit.

Though I guess if you are looking to introduce someone to the genre, you would do well to get them accustomed to the potential for lackluster sequels. Perhaps I am wrong in this matter, then, and it is a good recommendation for the list.

I'm more apt to say that Scott Lynch would be a better choice as an example of a newer author. It is still setting up a newer reader for a wait and possible disappointment, but at least the first novel can be read as a standalone.

Don't worry, you're not alone in not having read Kay or Hobb. I haven't either and though I may read Kay, I don't think Hobb will ever be on the to-read list.

Jackalwere said...

I think you have to tread a very fine line between books you like and books you think will hook readers (they may not be the same. Lists like this are so pointless, because how do you know what other people will like? I myself was originally hooked with Zelazny's Amber and Moorcock's Elric series, but of the three other people I introduced to Amber, one loved it, and two didn't take.

That's why these choices are "conservative" and "safe": they have historically done a good job of hooking newbies. Once people are hooked, their tastes will evolve beyond the standard fare, as the classic stuff becomes well-worn.

Are they Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter readers? Try Edding's Belgariad, Brooks' Shannara, Roberson's Cheysuli, Feist's Riftwar.

Do they like edgy, first-person narrative? Cook's Black Company and Zelazny's Amber area a good start.

Do they want epic and expansive? Martin's ASoIaF, Sanderson's Mistborn, and Campbell's Deepgate are top-notch.

I love Robin Hobb, but I don't believe these books are good hooks. They can sometimes drag a little.

Kay IS boring. Beautiful prose, but boring.

Williams is plodding and overblown.

Goodkind: I love the first two and Faith of the Fallen. The rest is trash. The whole series is too preachy, violent and graphic for newbies unless they like that sort of thing.

Jordan: I got tired of following characters that argue, stamp their feet and throw tantrums every chapter like a bunch of bratty kids.

I love the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant but they are not for everybody and can be downright depressing.