Yoknapatawpha Crossing

Fantasy

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A friend of mine was recently reading the first book in the Wheel of Time fantasy series by Robert Jordan. I am snobbish about many things, and the subject of books is one of them, so of course I had to give her a hard time about reading what was, in my mind, a “pulp” fantasy series. Being the good-natured person that she is, she smirked at me and asked for some suggestions for more worthwhile reading. Naturally, I couldn’t come up with anything off the top of my head, and ended up looking like the bumbling fool I am. Since then, however, I’ve had some time to collect my thoughts, and put together a list of books I enjoyed.

Now, ya’ll have got to take everything here with a grain of salt. This is all just my opinion. Obviously, this is true of everything I write on this site, but people can get a little more excited than usual if someone starts criticizing their favorite author (I know I do). If you see something here with which you take strong issue, remember: I’m not trying to present it as some kind of absolute truth. It’s just what I think. With that said, let me lay out for you my theory of books.

I’ve got this idea that good books and good writers fall into two broad categories. The first category is for books that are awesome. They have great stories, great language, great ideas, and are entertaining. They are just all-around solid books, books that I was happy to have read and would read again. They do not make it into the second category, though. There are a great many authors working today who fit in this category. In the sci-fi/fantasy genres, I place authors like Neil Gaiman (the Sandman series, American Gods, Coraline), Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) and Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, The Diamond Age) in this category.

The second category is for writing that has all of the aforementioned qualities and more. These are works that have a focus and perfection of construction, that are complete, moving, and beautiful; they stand above other writing to achieve true and lasting worth, and are art. Shakespeare goes here. So do the Lord of the Rings and Dune.

I do not intend with the above descriptions to belittle those works which I place in the first category. There is a place for them, and they fill a vital role. The difference between the two is that books from the first category are transitory; there are always excellent writers working to produce excellent fiction, and as time goes on, the excellent writing of today will surrender to the excellent writing of tomorrow. Those books that stand above, however, are something unique. They will not be supplanted.

What follows is a spotty list of books that generally fall into the fantasy (/sci-fi) genre which I believe are worthwhile. Although I consider these to be a bit more interesting than Robert Jordan, the ultimate test of any art is whether or not you enjoy it. Here, then, are books I enjoyed. The first entries are those books which I believe will stand; the rest are merely outstanding.

  • Lord of the Rings and Dune certainly top the list. Their status as classics is well earned, and I won’t spend too long talking about why they’re so amazing. Suffice it to say that these books are considered the granddaddies of fantasy and science fiction for good reason.
  • The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe, is a tetrology that is justifiably on par with the Lord of the Rings. That is a popular statement to make about a work of fantasy, and everyone has their own opinion of a book’s merit; however, this is the only work I have ever read to which I would unhesitatingly offer that praise. It has not had, and will not have, the kind of societal impact that Tolkien did, but it is nonetheless a classic. Wolfe, like Tolkien, also has a keen interest in the stories and myths of antiquity, and as in the Lord of the Rings, Wolfe puts this knowledge to good use in his writing, fleshing out a world that has been flung far into the future but is still based unmistakably on the past. Although Wolfe took inspiration from many sources when he wrote these, what he created is something that is completely unique. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how wonderful these books are; everyone should read them. Wolfe has continued to write, and, while all his writing is very good, very interesting, and very literarily informed, I have not been as impressed by any of his later work as I was by the Book of the New Sun.
  • The Princess Bride, by William Goldman, is probably better known for the movie adaptation (which Goldman also wrote the screenplay for). Both the book and the movie are so whimsically charming, clever, and fun that you would be doing yourself a tremendous disservice if you didn’t check them out. A classic fairy tale, updated for our modern lifestyle.
  • Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin, is a book I just recently finished, and it’s been fantastic. Helprin has a list of credentials a mile long, has published fiction, non fiction, and written for many publications, but this is apparently the only fantasy novel he’s ever produced. Although the plot does not hang together well enough for this to be everything it could have been, his language is so inventive and rich that you keep reading just to see what he can come up with next. A great deal of fun to read. It’s about New York City.
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, is also quite a lot of fun to read. It stands out for Clarke’s rich reimagination of English history and amusing characters. It is dark and brooding, but the very seriousness with which the story is treated lends a (deliberately) comic undercurrent to many parts. For its use of the flowery language of Jane Austen, this book is frequently likened to an Austen work with a fantasy twist, but I find that comparison less than apt. For one thing, Strange & Norrell isn’t boring as hell. For another, Clarke’s use of that characteristic diction becomes less prevalent as the book nears the end and the action picks up; it struck me as being more of a comedic device than anything else. Either way, the book is very engaging and highly recommended.
  • The Gormenghast series, by Mervyn Peake, is a very surreal set of books. I have only read the first one (Titus Groan), and it was very good. It centers around the events at Gormenghast castle, which is a sprawling, decaying monstrosity that is peopled by a number of very odd characters. It’s kind of hard to say anything definitive about the book; although I enjoyed reading it, Titus Groan is not exactly entertaining. Like the castle itself, the book feels very large and very musty. Still, very interesting and worth the time.
  • Coraline, by Neil Gaiman, is a children’s story, but damn if it isn’t creepy. Short, well-constructed, and disturbing as only English children’s stories can be. Also, though they’re not traditional fiction, Gaiman was the writer for the long-running Sandman series of graphic novels. Although I was not a fan of most of the art, the writing was quite good.
  • Snow Crash and the Diamond Age are the two books by Neal Stephenson that I’ve read, and they were great. As I understand it, basically everything he writes is interesting and fun. More sci-fi than fantasy, but who cares, right?
  • The Golden Compass, by Phillip Pullman, is the first volume in a trilogy he wrote called His Dark Materials. The series is aimed towards a young adult audience, but I read the Golden Compass just a few years ago and thought it was excellent. What impressed me about it was the extremely rich world Pullman created without leaning at all on the crutch of traditional fantasy archetypes, as well as his willingness to expect the reader to discover the conventions of his world without being held by the hand. The second two books were not, in my humble opinion, worthy followups; they lost much of that creativity and devolved into what I saw as little more than morality stories with a predictably sappy happy ending. Judging from popular reaction, however, I believe I’m alone in that assessment. Also, it looks as though they’re going to be making some movies based on this trilogy (expected January 2007), which could have gone either way if they hadn’t gotten Tom Stoppard on board as a writer.
  • The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett and the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy by Douglas Adams. These two venerable series stand as counterparts in my mind; both are primarily comedic, the former with a fantasy flavor and the latter science fiction. Pratchett’s series is much longer running; I think there are something like 30 books now, and although I feel that the overall quality is not quite as high as when he first started, they are still quite entertaining. The earlier ones are definitely better, though. As far as Adams goes, the first two books of the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy are outstanding, but they worsen severely after that point. These books are on the list because everyone talks about them, they’re a ton of fun to read, and it will take you all of a day or two to get through one.

That’s it. Hope you found at least one book that piqued your interest.

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Written by Daniel Grady

December 1, 2005 at 11:57

Posted in Books

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