Best Fantasy? Ever?

Round about the end of last year I came across this article on someone’s Top 20 Fantasy novels over the last 20 years. I looked through it and was immediately struck by how much I disagreed. He was just plain wrong. So I thought I would make my own to correct the record.

Huh. Well that was easier said than done. What constituted best? Was something written first (Lord of the Rings) always better because it was ground breaking? Was a most excellent series best because, while no one book stood out, the whole was a magnificent feat? What actually constituted a fantasy book anyway? I’ve read through all the  pseudo-scholarly crap of high fantasy and low fantasy and ridiculous sub genres of sub genres etc. ad nauseum, but frankly I don’t think that way and don’t agree with most of it anyway and besides, I had my own system.

It turns out I don’t — not really.

So given that I was finding it so hard to decide based on genre, literary value, etc., I therefore focussed on the most read, most remembered and most influential fantasy books that I have read. I am generally a read and move-on kinda guy, so I figure that if I either a) remember it in detail, b) have read it many, many times, or c) remember the title and author as making me want to read more, then they must have been among the best. Sound right?

I was loathe to unpack my books from their boxes for this little exercise (yes, they are still packed. No, I haven’t finished the shelving yet. I know… I know…), so I did this from memory and using my Google-fu. So I might have missed a few. If (or when) I get around to trying this with SF, I will have to unpack them. My memory just ain’t that good.

One last note. I am not a real avid reader of fantasy. While I have read a lot of it over the years, I think it gets a bit too precious sometimes and I generally want something original or uniquely interesting before I will pick up a new title or author. Or, as you will see, assassins. I like assassins.

My ‘Best’ 25

Jhereg Steven Brust  (1983) Vlad Taltos Series
This was the first Brust I read. I have read  all in the series multiple times and I love the character, love the world and love the writing. And I love all of his other stuff. And he’s a socialist so Leslie likes him too — hard core marxist… really. And really, what could be cooler than an assassin with his own ‘mini-dragon’ (sorry Loish).

Assassin’s Apprentice Robin Hobb (1995) The Farseer Trilogy
Again, the first Robin Hobb book I read and I have followed along as she has built out her world in many different series. A rich place with lots of room to explore and one of the better orphan-makes-good tales. And I have to say, I have a real soft spot for Assassins with a conscience.

The Shadow of the Torturer Gene Wolfe (1980) Book of the New Sun (4 books)
Weird, wonderful and awesome in the real sense of making me full of awe. I read these many years ago as a young man and while I have not reread them all that many times —in fact don’t even own them — they stand as an example of all fantasy can aspire too. And no, a torturer isn’t the same thing as an assassin, but still…

The Warlock in Spite of Himself Christopher Stasheff (1969)
I wasn’t prepared to accept this as fantasy, but a lot of online lists did so I thought I would put it in as one of my first split genre experiences. Magic and science: they are a lot alike aren’t they?

Her Majesty’s Wizard Christopher Stasheff (1986)
Mr. Stasheff is the only author on my list twice. Not because he is a particular favourite, although I read quite a lot of his stuff, but because he checks off two of my favourite themes. The Warlock in Spite of Himself covers the intersection of magic and technology and Her Majesty’s Wizard covers the blend christianity and fantasy. A good tale, and my first real introduction to the explicit mixing up of a dose of Catholic guilt, devils and classic fantasy.

The Lord Of The Rings J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
Really? You want to know more? How about this: the movies suck. Just read the damn books already and discover the joy of Tom Bombadil. And don’t think of the movies while you do.

Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever Series Stephen R. Donaldson (1977)
Apparently this series is on quite a few people’s most hated list. My first real anti-hero, Thomas Covenant was someone you spent the entire series wanting to dive into the book after, grab by the ears and boot him in the ass until he smartened up. Every time you thought he might, he managed to sink back into his stupid depression again. Would probably have been a different read if Wikipedia had been around to do some research on leprosy, but the picture of society’s  rejection that Donaldson paints is pretty horrific.

Apprentice Adept Series  Piers Anthony (1980)
There were 7 books in this series but frankly only first 3 were that good. This definitely falls into the ‘not such good individual books’ category, but I enjoyed the introduction to the world crossover genre and they inspired me into a real Anthony kick for quite a few years before I tired of him.

The Dragon and the George Gordon R. Dickson (1976) Dragon Knight series
I didn’t know this was a series; just found out today. Gordon R. Dickson was a hard military Sci-Fi writer to me (the Dorsai books) and he was probably the first writer I ever read to hop genres like that. I still love this book for its characters and playful interactions, but I am unsure if I will go back and ruin that pleasant memory by reading the rest of the series; it might just not be as good as I remember.

The Belgariad David Eddings (1982) Series of 5
Another series on some people ‘worst ever’ list. I read it in late high school around the time we were discovering D & D and the like. Likely my first epic fantasy series and I fuzzily remember Mitch and I naming our PCs after  the books’ characters. I think. Or something. But it made a long-lasting impression anyway.

Another Fine Myth Robert Asprin  (1978) Myth Adventures series
Comedy and fantasy, who’d a thunk? I think Asprin invented the genre; he certainly did for me. There was another series I read about the same time by Craig Shaw Gardener, but that is dated 1987. Fun stuff and I was really sad when Robert Asprin died. And even sadder when I learned all about his tax troubles. The bloody state should just keep its nose out of my favourite author’s businesses: it screws with the output.

Sheepfarmer’s Daughter Elizabeth Moon (1988) Deeds of Paksenarrion
The blurb on this compares it to Lord of the Rings. Pah. A bit of fluff says I in my most offended tone. Yet as I read through the first book I was hooked and have gobbled up the whole multi-series collection of Paks books. It just grows on you. seriously. I just think the blurb writer was on bad drugs is all.

Liavek edited by Emma Bull and Will Shetterly (1985)
Not my first Shared World anthology (I had dabbled in Asprin’s Thieves’ World earlier) but it showed me what the new genre(?) was capable of. Actually this is probably a tie with Cherryh’s Merovingen Nights in the Shared World category, but I really preferred Cherryh’s stand alone introductory novel Angel With the Sword (1985) over the later anthologies, so Liavek wins.

Lord Valentine’s Castle  Robert Silverberg (1980) ‘The Majipoor Cycle’ (3 books)
What a world. SF? Fantasy? Who the hell cares! An epic journey, a loveable character, a seemingly simple device like juggling and a broad sweeping new world combine to make these some of my favourite books. And another great SF writer struts his stuff in the fantasy genre.

The Once and Future King T.H. White (1958)
Actually a series of 4 books, I encountered the omnibus long before I saw Disney’s Sword in the Stone. This was my first initiation into Arthurian fantasy and still one of the best of the genre in my opinion. It was also a catalyst to learning and reading much, much more about the  mysterious King Arthur. At the end of the day though, I still tend to think of T.H. White as the original Arthurian source and all others as deviations.

The Book of Swords’ Trilogy Fred Saberhagen (1983)
I have a love/hate relationship with this trilogy. Saberhagen obviously knew more than me about the trap of trying to sustain a 12 book story and so didn’t bother. The gods forged 12 powerful swords and the series starts out like it will trace the interwoven history of each sword, one per book. Then he wraps the story up in three books. Sure, sure he adds another series (Books of Lost Swords) to highlight 8 other swords’ tales, but still.  Not what I wanted. But he didn’t ask me and I still love the original three.

Kushiel’s Dart Jacqueline Carey (2001) Kushiel’s Legacy Trilogy
I read this book  based on a recommendation by Steven Brust on his blog. The post isn’t there any more, but it went something like this: “I don’t often recommend books but this one’s premise is super cool.” I’m pretty sure it sounded much more Steven Brust-y though. Since I don’t often take recommendations but like a super cool premise, I thought it was a good fit. It was. A book that builds on generations of fantasy tropes and worlds, it builds something new, exciting and oh so interesting to read.

A Companion to Wolves Elizabeth Bear with Sarah Monette (2007) The Iskryne series (3 books)
I just discovered the existence of the 3rd book, although the pub date of 2013 seems to be in error, because I can’t find the book for sale anywhere. A lot of the reviews of the second book were along the lines of ‘disappointing’ and ‘placeholder’ and I can’t disagree. But this was less because the sequel was bad than because the first was tremendous. Mind-blowingly original, full of adventure and excitement but at the core, a look at relationships, fear and acceptance. Read A Companion to Wolves. All of you.

Imager Portfolio L E Modesitt Jr (2009) 3 book series with 5 more featuring new characters
Another really cool, cool premise that makes a great read. This one reminds me very much of David Brin’s Practice Effect, which, come to think of it, should be on this list. One of my favourite things about SF and Fantasy is the practice of taking a unique or fantastical idea and then running with it wherever it may take you. Oh and wrapping it in a good tale at the same time. Both Brin and Modesitt do that extremely well.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms N. K. Jemisin (2010) First in a series of 3
Jemesin is one of my latest pleasant discoveries. Again I read this based on a recommendation and since I really like the super-cool cover and the word shape of the author’s name I read it. What? You have a better system for choosing titles to read? I am a visual guy, so give me break. Great first novel. Great novel period, and it is going to hold high place in my reread pile as the years pass (the count’s at 2 so far).

Assassin of Gor John Norman  (1970) #5 of the Gor series
Don’t read this one. Seriously. I can’t think of a single (current) friend or potential reader of this blog that could find any redeeming value in this trite, misogynistic and philosophically brutal series of books. But it was formative and I read the first 10 or so novels in the series before I finally gave up. I owned #5 in my poor days so it was on my reread pile for a long, long time.

Watership Down Richard Adams (1972)
These next three are additions that I hadn’t originally contemplated. It was what got me starting to question my definitions of fantasy, because none of the  three are/were really on my list of what I would shelve as fantasy novels. I was given the tale of  Fiver and Hazel in one of those books sets along with Shardik and Plague Dogs. I never read those other two (the danger of giving Bruce books he didn’t ask for), but for some reason Watership Down made it to my read pile—I actually think it was because I was expecting some sort of 20,000 Leagues thing, you know, a water ship. One of my first non-North American English books, I admit to being very confused with the language at times. I never really did get what a down was until years afterwards. Still, to this day I hold the tale very dear to my heart and would recommend it to anyone, anytime.

Tarzan of the Apes Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)
Any questions? 1914 people… 1914… and Tarzan. Ahhh-eyahhhhh!

The Screwtape Letters C S Lewis (1942)
I read this  because it was lent to me by a dear friend and teacher who happened to be a fairly devout Christian. I don’t remember if it was a result of a discussion we had been having or if he was trying to get me to see the error of my agnostic ways or if he just thought it was well worth the read. Well it was. A brilliant idea and a clever and absorbing look at Christianity’s tenants and the nature of humankind.

The Curse of Chalion Lois McMaster Bujold (2001)
And lastly my favourite. Best Ever. It doesn’t make many other people’s top list, it was nominated for, but never won, a Hugo and a Locus and the general online buzz is that Paladin of Souls, the semi-sequel follow up, was the better book (It got the awards which I think was nothing more than guilt on the judges part at having missed Curse). But I think that’s all idiotic, asinine, misguided and fallacious bullshit. The Curse of Chalion is only slightly older than a decade and it tops my all-time reread stats. I have both a much-bedraggled paperback copy and an epub version and both have been read and reread and reread again.

I love the beginning. I adore the end, and I am astonished every time by the development in between. I have to say, that of all the heroes and protagonists I have encountered over the years of reading all the schlock I can get my hands on, Caz is hands down my favourite. And I hope Lois never writes a sequel for Caz, because frankly he’s tired. And he’s earned a quiet peaceful life. So leave him alone… do you hear me!

***

And so now, after this exercise in opinion, I find I can forgive my mysterious friend Dominick his choices and wish him well for another 20 happy years of fantasy reading. Best, it turns out, is such a slippery thing to define — even for one as opinionated as me. I found a few new books I think I will look into and learned a few things about some much-loved titles. And for the next 20 years, I  will be here, plowing through my Space Operas and laser pistol schlock, waiting for the next great fantasy title to wink in my direction. And I will relish it when it comes.