Sunday, September 10, 2006

Favorite Fantasy Books

A friend asked me for my list of Important SF Books. I posted one last week.

Which of course, means that I need to post a list of Important or just Favorite fantasy books.

To quote from the SF books post:

Note: this is a list that skips lots of things; this is my list, after all, and I may well have missed something in my scan of my bookshelves (I reserve the right to add things later!). While I think that all of these are Important, these are also ones I enjoy, so there are other Important books I did not include. Some of these were historically important but are dreadful to read now, or which I wouldn't want to re-read.

I'll leave the hair-splitting to others about what SF and Fantasy are, and where their boundaries lie. I include some Horror here, and put some "steampunk" (like China Miéville's stuff) here, but you should feel free to disagree with me on that one.

  • The Prydain books (The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, etc.) by Lloyd Alexander. Based on Welsh mythology, these are wonderful young adult fantasy novels.
  • The Vlad Taltos/Dragaera books (Jhereg, Yendi, Teckla, etc.) by Stephen Brust. Wonderful Zelazny-esque swashbuckling adventure; watch out for Teckla (book 3), though -- it's a real downer.
  • The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. Wonderful epic fantasy in a highly believable world.
  • Hart's Hope by Orson Scott Card. Highly original fantasy, one of his early books, before he went 'round the bend.
  • Little, Big by John Crowley. One of the best novels ever.
  • Magician (in two volumes, Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master) by Raymond E. Feist. Light epic fantasy set in a highly derivative world, but entertaining and well-executed.
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. His first prose novel, adapted from his BBC series. A bit rough but very entertaining.
  • Sandman by Neil Gaiman (and many artists). The classic 10-volume (plus) graphic novel. If you haven't read this, get your hands on a copy.
  • Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. Possibly the best standalone novel of epic fantasy ever. Realistic, poignant, and lyrical. Ignore the sequels.
  • Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly. One of the best vampire novels around. It's 1905 and someone is hunting the vampires of London; they recruit a human to help them.
  • The Thread Which Binds the Bones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Her wonderful debut novel of Powers and Principalities in a small community in the Oregon woods.
  • A Red Heart of Memories and Past the Size of Dreaming by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. A pair of entertaining novels about people finding magic in unexpected places.
  • The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. This one follows a number of characters through the Reconquista of an alternate-historical Moorish Spain.
  • The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay. Set the same world as Al-Rassan, but dealing with that world's Vikings and early Britons.
  • The Deryni books by Katherine Kurtz. The Deryni Chronicles trilogy and the Histories of King Kelson trilogy are the best; the (chronologically) earlier ones are quite depressing.
  • Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner. Billed as a "Melodrama of Manners", it includes no magic, but plenty of intrigue and buckling of swash.
  • Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner. A fine rendering of the classic ballad into novel form.
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin. This one is entertaining; the sequels I found boring. Your mileage may vary.
  • The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series by Fritz Leiber. Wonderful swashbuckling adventure. These vary from short stories to full novels. They are collected in various ways, but usually as six novel-length collections whose names start with Swords. (There is a seventh, but ignore it.)
  • The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip. A debut fantasy novel by a major talent, it has aged very well. Marketed as a young adult fantasy novel, but it's quite intense in places.
  • The Riddlemaster books (The Riddlemaster of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind) by Patricia A. McKillip. Truly fantastic books; I re-read these yearly.
  • The Sorceress and the Cygnet by Patricia A. McKillip. More elliptical and lyrical than the Riddlemaster books, but masterful world-weaving.
  • Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. A stunning, epic, sprawling, steampunk debut novel.
  • The Scar by China Miéville. A sequel of sorts to Perdido Street Station, it's more tightly plotted and just as fascinating.
  • The His Dark Materials books (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) by Phillip Pullman. Serious fantasy about (but arguably not for) young adults. The series title comes from Paradise Lost, which should give you a sense of where this is going.
  • The White Mists of Power by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A very fine debut novel by someone whose prolific output (in my opinion) has not lived up to her potential.
  • Song of Kali by Dan Simmons. Simmons' debut novel. It's scary and scarily well written.
  • Summer of Night by Dan Simmons. A horror novel in the Stephen King vein -- definitely not something to read alone in a dark house.
  • The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick. An fine example of "steampunk" fantasy about a human changeling child raised in a fantasy world where dragons are manufactured.
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Because it has to be here, and you can't see just how much dreck that gets published is ripping him off until you read it.
  • The Chronicles of Amber (Nine Princes in Amber, etc.) by Roger Zelazny. A classic in the field. (Skip the sequel series.)
  • A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny. His last novel (and one of his best). It is narrated by Snuff, the guard dog for a cursed man called Jack. They encounter Dracula, The Wolf Man, a witch, Dr. Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, and others, while competing for a mystical prize.

Anyone looking for good books to start on should look at the World Fantasy Awards or the Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards.

UPDATE: Edited the Prydain entry to be clearer. (Hi, Colorwheel. :-))
UPDATE: I'd like to add The Once and Future King by T.H. White, and The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. (Thanks go to someone who shall remain nameless, but who knows who he is.)


Anonymous said...


a) re. Prydain, why is "young adult" in quotation marks?

2) re. His Dark Materials: why "arguably not for" young adults?


rantingnerd said...

Colorwheel --

I put "young adult" in scare quotes because I think the categorization is silly. (Marketing == silly, in most cases, the way I see it.) The Prydain books are great. They're marketed as "YA".

And His Dark Materials is very intense and seriously disturbing in places, far more so than most YA-marketed stuff. (I'm thinking mostly of the first half of the Will plot in The Subtle Knife, which put my wife off her lunch for a good while -- and she reads "trapped in the mountain pass, have to eat each other to survive" books with great glee.)

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I'm not sure I can agree about the YA categorization being silly, not just because my field is based on it, but also because I believe the definition is about more than just marketing. I see silliness in categorization, but I also see value in it. But it is your list. :)

His Dark Materials is absolutely intense and disturbing. But plenty of YA lit is like that. I posit that HDM seems so intense not necessarily because it addresses deeper or darker things than other YA fare, but because Pullman is such a brilliant writer. He's a master of vivid storytelling and complexity. He's better than most writers.

The YA category doesn't have a solid formula, but it does have criteria. IMO, HDM is YA. *sits on hands not to start rambling about YA criteria* I hope you don't mind my spouting on your blog. You hit upon my soapbox. :)


rantingnerd said...

Oh, fine, be That Way (aka reasonable). The scare quotes are ambiguous, I admit it.

And in any case, re HDM, I said "arguably". Doesn't that get me off the hook? :-)

Anonymous said...

Ooop, I didn't mean to put you on a hook! I just find the topic interesting so I picked it up.

Jadelennox and I are often in the position of needing to defend the seriousness and complexity of children's books. If I ever sound ranty at you, that's why. But hey, you're a ranting nerd TOO, eh, so maybe it's okay? :)


rantingnerd said...

I used the scare quotes around "young adult" precisely because I think the marketing categorization is at least part of the problem with people taking YA fiction seriously. Clearly that came across so well. :-)