Fantasy Novels  

Posted by Devin Parker

Okay.

I have come to think of myself as a bit of a snob when it comes to fantasy novels. At least, that's what I tell myself; it's entirely possible that I just have odd tastes. Nevertheless, I've had people recommend books to me that they just loved, and I tried them, shrugged, and said "ehh." I cut my teeth on pretty much the same sorts of things that most fantasy-loving people in my generation did, I daresay - Piers Anthony's Xanth novels (which I cringe even now to admit), Weis and Hickman's Dragonlance series, Tolkien and Lewis... I read a fair amount of game-based fiction, and liked some of it (Jack Yeovil's Beasts in Velvet, the Felix and Gotrek series, Drachenfels; The Book of Atrus by the Millers and Wingrove; the Earthdawn books by Chris Kubasik, a couple of the Shadowrun novels), but I've also read a great deal that soured me on the concept, for the most part.

(The sad thing that I must confess is that, as much as I enjoy writing original material, I know I would really enjoy writing game-based fiction. There's something to be said for being provided with a complex, detailed imaginary world and being able to draw upon it to tell stories about the people in it...)

Thus, I thought it might be fun to list some of the books and authors that I do enjoy, and maybe get a few recommendations in return from those of you who poke around here. Mostly I'm reading comics these days, but I always have spare moments to carry around a novel...

For the record, right now I'm reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman, listening to Foundation by Isaac Asimov on tape, and have borrowed Dune: The Butlerian Jihad to listen to after that. It's nice to be able to listen to books on tape while working on artwork...

My hero, C.S. Lewis, wrote in his essay collection "Of Other Worlds" about the idea of children's books being only for children. He argued that this is a false notion, that children's books should be just as good as those written for adults. I've found a couple of books which I think help to prove his point. I went back and re-read a couple of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, a fantasy series set in a world based heavily on Welsh and Celtic myth. I quite enjoyed them; fairly simple and straightforward stories, but entertaining nonetheless. Another series I went back to re-read from my childhood was Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea. I haven't read the entire series, but I really liked the first book; I had to put the second one down for some reason long ago, but I've been wanting to pick it up again.

It was pointed out to me that Lewis's Narnia stories are almost entirely plot; he doesn't devote very many words to extensive description of the history of his world or material aside from what's happening right this moment, and I think in many ways it really works. In writing comics, that's one of the disciplines I'm trying to develop, so I can admire that. His Space Trilogy, of which I've read one and a half books, go into a little more detail on the setting, but having been written before computers took on the role that they have, it takes a bit of reorientation to get into. I would recommend reading Of Other Worlds before starting Out of the Silent Planet.

For general fantasy stories, I like Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories, which are kind of gritty and dark, pulp-style stuff. Similarly, Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane stories are also good; I haven't tried any Conan yet, but I prefer the Grim Puritan Monster-Hunter over the Cimmerian Barbarian Rogue as a protagonist. David Gemmell also writes some good generic fantasy fiction. His books aren't so much wildly original as they are written in such a way that he makes the everyday details interesting. I have a hard time describing this, but I find his fight scenes engaging in a way that other fantasy novelists haven't really captured for me. Try Legend, which has a bit of a cheesy opening but is otherwise quite good; the story is primarily about a siege. Morningstar was my first Gemmell novel, about a Robin Hood-type character.

Speaking of Robin Hood, Parke Godwin writes historical fantasy, and did a couple of books on Robin set in the days following the Norman Invasion, Sherwood and Robin and the King. The book that hooked me on Godwin was The Tower of Beowulf.

If you've never read any of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, you really need to read at least one to count yourself as a true fantasy geek. Very funny, with a surprisingly cinematic sense of description and drama. The first books in the series, The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic, aren't quite as funny as those that follow, and his later books seem to transform the main setting of Ankh-Morpork from a stereotypical fantasy setting to more of a Victorian setting. I would recommend any of the books that cover the characters in the City Watch (Corporal Vimes, Carrot, Angua, Nobby, Detritus the Troll, etc.) or Rincewind and the wizards of the Unseen University. The books are generally ensemble cast affairs, and most of the characters in the stories show up at one point or another in nearly every book.

Stephen King is known mostly for horror, of course, but I quite like his non-horror material. I read his fairy tale The Eyes of the Dragon long ago, and quite liked it (especially since the villain in the story is a fellow named Flagg...hmmmm...). I also love The Dark Tower series, though I'm still only in Wizard and Glass, the fourth book. Weird, surreal, mixing genres like western and post-apocalypse with fantasy...I like it.

Speaking of surreal, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels are wonderful character studies, very odd in a sort of Terry Gilliam-meets-David Lynch sort of way. For some reason, I'm very drawn to the idea of the setting: an incredibly vast castle, populated by a handful of eccentrics who apparently run a country and yet at the same time seem to be completely isolated from it, consumed with their own bizarre personal rituals. [no commentary from the peanut gallery, I can hear your snickering already; this isn't that kind of post].

Finally, though it can be argued that it is science fiction, not fantasy, I'll still list Frank Herbert's Dune, because I like it quite a lot, and would recommend it to anyone who hasn't yet read it. I find the setting interesting, a sci-fi setting with competing noble houses, no computers, and very advanced psychological technology, for lack of a better term.

Okay, I've wasted far too much time on this, and need to get back to work. Give me some recommendations, won't you?

This entry was posted on Saturday, February 18, 2006 at Saturday, February 18, 2006 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

17 comments

Kham  

Kind of a fun topic for a Sunday. My problem with the fantasy genre is that I've become such a Tolkien fanatic that I rarely enjoy anything similar, as it generally pales in comparison (to me anyway). But the first Conan book is an entertaining read, and I highly recommend it (I lost interest quickly after the first book). The first Tarzan book is good too, believe it or not (very different from the greasy dork portrayed in film and TV). Edgar Rice Burroughs is good stuff--Pellucidar series (At the Earth's Core)

For the heck of it, here are some other areas of fiction that I dabbled into and was not let down:

Science Fiction
I imagine you have read the robot series by Isaac Asimov, but it's worth mentioning.

Horror
Steven King's "Everything's Eventual" has short stories, more creepy than gory, and very enjoyable.
"The Legend of Sleep Hollow" by Washington Irving--yeah I know, sounds lame, but the story is much better than any film version I've seen.

Mystery
I broke down and read the Sherlock Holmes series, never having read mysteries before, and I loved them.

1:15 PM

Loved, loved, loved 'American Gods'. I made the mistake of bringing that on vacation last year, and spent way too much time sitting on a deck chair, drinking fruity alcoholic beverages and reading Gaiman, tripical breezes fluffing my hair. It was a bit surreal.

Orson Scott Card's 'Worthing Saga' is a good read. Also the first four books of the 'Ender' cycle (starting with 'Ender's Game') are good, but they get a little dull after that. Lastly, Card's 'Homecoming' series (I think it starts with 'Memory of Earth') is excellent. He also has a book of short stories called 'Folk of the Fringe', which is a good read.

Orson Scott Card, in general, is an excellent author - I will say I like his early stuff. His newer stuff just seems a bit tired.

I'm reading a fun series by Doris Egan - it's available in an omibus edition called 'The Complete Ivory'. It's a character-driven sci-fi/fantasy trilogy that is charmingly written. She does an excellent job in giving voice to the characters.

Although not fantasy/scifi, any of Sharon Kay Pennman's historical novels are WELL worth a read. She writes about Medieval England and Wales from a variety of points of view - Eleanor of Aquataine, King John, Richard III, the civil war between Queen Maude and King Stephen... they are VERY well written, impeccably researched, and totally draw you in.

OK - back to homework. :) Enjoy!

8:18 PM

After a long period of not reading any fantasy (for some of the same reasons as Kham) I've gotten hooked of late on the Robert Jordan series. There's currently 11 books in the series, with a 12th and final one due out in a few years.

I'm on number 4... They're all in the neighborhood of 700 pages.

Amazingly though, I'm not bored with the world or the story. He has done a really great job of making a world with a huge history and with shades of grey. There's not just good and bad people - there's all sorts of folks who are in between, which makes for a very believable world.

Good stuff.

11:43 AM
Dan  

The past half-dozen years have found me more hooked on sci-fi than fantasy. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading the first four books in the Elrich of Melnibone series by Michael Moorcock--Very dark, pulpy stuff that. They were also short, and easy to read. The main character is dark, even detestable in some ways, but is troubled enough by his own conscience to make you feel compassionate, even sympathetic toward him. I guess in that way he reminds me a bit of Roland from the Dark Tower. I really was intrigued by Elrich and his story, and if I could find the other books to the series in a bookstore, I'd finish it.

Mike suggested I read "Mythago Wood" by Robert Holdstock, and I wasn't disappointed. In fact, I'd have to say Mythago Wood is now one of my top 10 favorite books of all time, maybe my top five. It's that good. One of the things I enjoyed most about Mythago Wood was that it was so original, not like the typical predictable high fantasy that's become so common. If you haven't read it, I suggest you do so.

It's been a while, but I did enjoy some of the other books mentioned here. Like Kham, I really enjoyed the first Tarzan book. In fact, I read the first three and two others in the series (including the one where he travelled to Pellucidar). I enjoyed them all for different reasons, but the original was best.

I read the first two books in the Earthsea series. The first was fantastic, but I didn't get into the second as much (which is why I didn't move onto the third).

Hm... What else?

Though they were filled with cliches and very predictable, I enjoyed the Shanarra books. The characters Terry Brooks created were fun and very likable for me. It's been a long time, though. Perhaps I wouldn't care so much for the books now.

Of course, Tolkein was king, and the Lord of the Rings books were so much a part of my growing-up experience, I can't say enough for them. Beside the detailed, rich world he'd created, Tolkein also had a sense of the little things. It was the small details of the book that fascinated me most--The little conversations and such. The over-arching plot wasn't as interesting to me. That's why I didn't care as much for the movie--So many of the little details were changed.

With Narnia: I only read the first book (a dozen or so years ago), and I haven't seen the movie yet. I enjoyed the first book, though, and it was easy enough to read, so I'll have to get on the ball and finish up that series.

As for sci-fi:

I've read 4 novels and over 30 short-stories in recent years. It was a collection of sci-fi short stories that got me back into reading after a long departure from it (I'm a slow reader, and it was satisfying to be able to finish short stories somewhat quickly).

After the short stories, I read "Timeline" by Michael Chrichton (recommended by you Devin). It was pretty fun. Very cinematic-- like a movie.

The older books I read were much better, though. The prose were stronger, the characters more interesting, the plots more original and compelling. "A Canticle for Leibowitz" was simply one of my very favorite books of all time. "The Demolished" was also quite good. "Ringworld" I didn't care for as much.

I'm interested in reading some of Orson Scott Card's stuff. The recommendation of Silverstah, and others, has me leaning toward "The Ender's Game" as a possibilty for my next read, in the near future (or far future, in this case).

I've rambled on way more than enough.

Dan out

1:42 PM

I find it amusing that of the books listed as "the sorts of things that most fantasy-loving people in my generation" were exposed to, I had only read the Xanth novels, Tolkien, Lewis, and The Book of Atrus--and if my exposure to other fantasy readers is any indication, a sadly large constituency of fantasy fans of our age have never read Tolkien or Lewis...

The two other Myst books, by the way, are pretty good.

I read about 1/4 of American Gods standing in the bookstore but never picked it up; I started re-reading it again the other day because of this post and found it to be just as fabulous as I remembered.

On my blog I mentioned The Princess Bride, which I enjoyed even more than the movie. Fans of the movie--even those who can quote every line--will find a lot of new and terrific stuff in the novel.

I stand well by my recommendation of Mythago Wood, and though the sequels (Lavondyss and The Hollowing) aren't quite as startling, they are still quite good. I began reading Celtika, the first book of his Merlin Codex trilogy but didn't find it nearly as good--strange and with interesting details, yes, but more pedestrian.

I can't say anything about Orson Scott Card's science fiction, but I did give his Alvin Maker books a try and found them dull. Sorry, all.

I know you tried out The Innkeeper's Song, which I rank right up there with Tolkien in many ways; those who want a taste of the world and Peter Beagle's writing should check out Giant Bones, a collection of short stories set in the same world (that one's for you, Dan). His latest collection, The Rhinocerous Who Quoted Nietzsche has some magical realism which is fun.

It's well worth getting through the other Earthsea books. The Tombs of Atuan does drag a bit, especially in the beginning, but The Farthest Shore was quite good. I'm reading Tehanu now, the fourth book, and I'm engrossed in it all over again. There are a couple of books after that, including Tales from Earthsea, another short story collection.

Pratchett is always delightful, and I'll mention again that I highly recommend the Wee Free Men novels (Wee Free Men and Hat Full of Sky). Monstrous Regiment is a good recent one; I'm working my way through Going Postal at the moment. And I just got a copy of the first three Lankhmar novels--I've never read Lieber, but I always remember how cool you guys thought the name "The Gray Mouser" was, so I'm looking forward to reading about him.

I realize I'm not adding much new to this discussion, simply because I've not had a lot of free reading time for a while. Beowulf, of course, is always high on my list, and the new Seamus Heaney translation is good. Other fragmentary Old English works (like "The Battle of Maldon" and the poems) always put me in that fantasy mood. As well, if you're in the medieval mindset, The Song of Roland is great. There are a lot of very cool works out there, but they're often quite hard to find since they're not being printed any longer (like "The Tale of Ralph the Collier" and a personal favorite, "The Battle of Milan," featuring Turpin, the Fighting Archbishop! That's my secret sobriquet, by the way--feel free to call me "The Fighting Archbishop" any time you'd like).

I have to disagree and challenge Chris to a duel over The Wheel of Time. I tossed the first book down in disgust at how much Jordan wanted to be Tolkien but wasn't. All the place names, the characters... everything seemed like a pale Tolkien shadow. Feel free to try to convince me otherwise, Mr. Slater. Otherwise, I'm consigning Jordan to the same heap as the Dragonlance series and books about renegade Drow based on D&D worlds...

I kind of enjoyed David Eddings and read through all the Belgariad and the Malloreon series, but the whole time I knew that the writing wasn't that stellar and the characters often cliched. He had a good sense of narrative, though, and some interesting world details. I can't actually recommend them, but they're not bad.

I was impressed with Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books in my youth, though they, too, don't seem as compelling now but are still pretty good. Donaldson's got a flair for new ideas (avoiding those Tolkienish models to some extent), and the man has a terrific flair for names.

I'll go away now. This should keep you busy for a bit.

6:17 PM

Oooh! Oooh!

Forgot one. I was completely enthralled with Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer, probably one of the best fantasies I've read in a few years. She's got some other books out that are supposedly fairly different, most famously Swordspoint and The Fall of Kings.

Go read Thomas and thank me later.

6:55 PM

Mike,

Not sure I want to duel...

Yeah I guess he has nasty creatures called Trollocs - and they are controlled by things called fades that wear dark cloaks.

There aren't any other races, so there's really no similarity there. Magic is completely different (and way way cool). Hm... Yeah the only thing I can think of is that you were put off by him calling the baddies "Trollocs". Not that Tolkein invented the word Troll of course.

All I know is that I haven't found any fantasy that interested me in years (save the Earthsea books and rereading Tolkein) and I have gotten hooked on this series.

There's an amazing and complex history, interesting people, and - most importantly - a lot of shades of grey. You can't peg people as "good guys" and "bad guys". A lot of the people and groups are somewhere in the middle, which gives the world a real sense of authenticity.

Anyhow, I'm enjoying it.

11:19 AM

Eh - I enjoyed the first three or four Robert Jordan books, after that they got a bit tiring for my tastes. I think I'll wait for him to finish the series and then re-read it all in one fell swoop.

Stephen Donaldson is a great writer - I read his Gap series a few years ago. The writing was incredible, however the books got so intense I simply couldn't finish the series. For those keeping score, the Gap series is sci-fi, not fantasy.

I'll agree - the Alvin Maker series by Card was a bit dry. the 'Enders Game' books are much better, and he has some interesting ideas in his short sci-fi fiction.

I'm not sure how I forgot it in the first round of reccomendations, but George RR Martin's Fire and Ice series is incredible. High fantasy with just a *touch* of magic to keep things interesting. Lots of politics and intrigue, and some amazing character development. There are a few classic good/evil characters, but lots and lots of grey characters - which are my favorites. :)

11:46 AM
Kham  

Mike, I really enjoy the Old English works as well. The Battle of Maldon gives you a glimpse into "Dark Ages" Viking warfare you can't get anywhere else. I had a college class in Old English where we had to translate it--it was like finding some ancient scroll accounting the last stand of a group of warriors (like the tome found in Balin's Tomb in LOTR). Good stuff for fantasy geeks.

Gilgamesh is an excellent Beowulf type myth. I recommend the version translated by author Stephen Mitchell. It's a wild story full of monstrous friends and foes, and you get a glimpse into the bizarre cultural traditions and world view of ancient peoples. I was inspired to write a guitar bass line after reading it (to which Dan added an awesome lead!).

8:39 AM
Haleanna  

Ever tried Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart?... I quite enjoyed it. Oh, and I would put Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials into the children's section...

Now, I don't really know how I arrived here, so I'm going to wander back out again.... bye!

9:26 PM

I really did enjoy Peter S. Beagle, and I would like the opportunity to read some more of his material. Now that I've gotten over the shock of that scene in The Innkeeper's Song, I really should go back to it and finish it...

8:18 AM

Has anyone read The Sparrow and Children of God? Those were assigned texts in my wife's Sci-Fi class in college and were laying around for the last several years - wow! I haven't cared about a character in any book ever the way I cared about Emilio in that book. It's good sci-fi stuff about a Jesuit missionary sent to an alien world. I can't recomend those books enough.

I think I woudl agree with Slater and Slusser on the Wheel of Time. For the first couple hundred pages I thought the same as Mike - this is just a poor LOTR rip-off. But I was bored and gave it enough time to find it's own feet and it eventually did. Not my favorite series but complex and worth exploring...at least the first four books before I flamed out and wanted strangle Rand.

Myhago Wood - excellent. In my top ten list as well.

American Gods - fascinating idea, but I couldn't get past the huge elephant in the room. Here's Odin cruising around the country supposedly because people's old-school beliefs sort of created this avatar, but where's Jesus? He get's this casual aside about how He's left hitchhiking in Afghastan but is appearantly totally absent from the United States. It just seemed silly to gloss over somebody who should have been a major character by the book's own internal logic.

BTW - I recently tried to read A Spell For Chameleon to my wife becasue it was a good book in my memory, from when I was like 14, and I found myself totally embarassed. The man can speak of nothing but boobies...come to think of it...maybe that's why it made such an impression on a 14 year old boy...

10:11 AM

American Gods. Devin brought it home from the Library recently. I don't think either one of us read it. I personally couldn't get past the first page. Something about how it was written just gave me the impression that Gaiman jacks off to it. What's the delicate word that Devin uses... masterbatory. That was it, I found it pretenious and masterbatory. Same impression I had when we watched "Sin City."

I do really like his Neverwhere comic. There are only about six issues so far I think.

I tried reading "Once and Future King" but couldn't make it past the first book. I only read the first one because it reminded me of the old Disney animation.

I really enjoyed Stephen Lawhead's "Taliesin" and "Merlin" which are part of his Pendragon cycle I think. I read "Arthur" too but only because I had read the first two. There have been subsequent editions but I've never gone back. I think the reason "Taliesin" was so enjoyable was because it featured a strong female character who was a bull dancer and kicked butt.

1:06 PM

Marilyn,

Man. From this and a few of your last posts, I'm forming a new opinion of you. You have a more vigorous and robust vocabulary than I would have suspected.

I still like American Gods, though I wouldn't attest to its doctrinal soundness. I'm wondering what it was about the writing that you felt was... ahem... self-indulgent.

4:40 PM

Michael,

Liked the visual? It's one of my new favorite phrases and I find it a good way to describe a lot of things I come across in modern creative works. I was just talking to Devin last night about my lack of female friends. He had said something to me along the lines of "do you know how hard it is to find a geek girl who isn't annoying?" And I said that must be why I don't have more female friends. I'm just not a girly girl and I have a hard time connecting with those who are. I don't know what exactly this has to do with my vocabulary but I spend a lot of time here with comic guys and not a lot of girls. Maybe that's had an influence on me but I think I was this way before....

Devin returned the book to the library earlier this week so I can't get really specific. Also, like I said I couldn't get past the first page. While I'm sure it's entirely plausible that I was in a general funk when I picked it up I'm sure it would have been balanced out by my having liked Neverwhere and having heard so many people's positive opinions of the book.

So, anyway, the one detail I remember specifically was the use of the f-bomb in like the third sentence of the entire book. I tend to think such a tactic means the author isn't trying hard enough and is only writing for self-gratification. Now, admittedly, if the author had been previously unknown to me I might have kept reading. However, since it was Gaiman, I assumed the rest of the book would be just as self-indulgent so I put it down. I didn't think I would actually get anything out of the book; and, that I would most likely end up being angry at someone I don't even know for one small and mildly irritating(at least to me)book. I felt I had better things to do with my time then suffer through it just to say I've read it.

I should say that Devin has read furter than I and that he wants to finish the book. He just has too much homework and had to return it. But I'll be watching him closely when he does read it ;p

12:57 PM

I got halfway through American Gods, so I'm not really qualified to critique it overall (I'm intrigued by Skaggs's comment about Jesus in the book, but I didn't get that far). Perhaps I prefer Gaiman in comics format? I don't know, I guess I just got to a part where I was starting to lose interest, though I'll grant that may have to do with all of the other demands on my time right now. I'll probably pick it up again after the end of the semester.

One science fiction story I found to be a very enjoyable read was Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. It's set in a kind of cyberpunk near-future America, but it's also rather tongue-in-cheek. For example, the main character's name is Hiro Protagonist, and he begins the story as a pizza delivery ninja working for the Mafia. Definitely a fun read.

11:34 AM

Hi Devin!

Conan himself is dull, but what's interesting in Howard's Conan stories is all the strange junk he comes across -- weird monsters, strange cultures, sinister villains. (Kind of like boring Alice in neat-o Wonderland.) Worth checking out.

A favorite fantasy novel of mine is Gregory Maguire's Wicked. The prose is uncluttered but rich with detail, and Maguire's grasp of character leaves most fantasy authors far behind. It's like if Steinbeck had written The Wizard of Oz. The book is decidedly not Christian, but I guess that goes for most fantasy stuff (Conan included).

Oh, and while I'm commenting: the author of the Christian Thinktank is Glenn Miller, not Reynolds. : >

12:39 AM

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