I have to remind myself of that from time to time.
Recently I have tried to read some modern fantasy novels. In keeping with my policy of not saying anything if I can’t say something good, I won’t mention any of them by name. Maybe I’ve just hit a string of bad ones. Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m just not in the right frame of mind to appreciate them.
Whatever the reason, I find myself on the verge of being soured on the entire genre. So I made a deliberate effort today to think back and remember Fantasy novels that really moved me, books that I have reread again and again over a period of years. This isn’t any kind of attempt to compile a list of “best” Fantasy novels, these are just books that I loved.
I want to share the list I came up. Maybe some of your favorites are here, or maybe I can introduce you to some works that will be new to you. I personally recommend all of them highly.
In no particular order:
- A Wizard Of Earthsea Ursula K. Le Guin, 1968. The first book of the Earthsea trilogy, which continues with The Tombs Of Atuan and The Farthest Shore. The main character is compelling, and the world is very interesting. The story revolves around a young wizard, Sparrowhawk, and his learning about power, and the responsibility that comes with it.
- Stormbringer Michael Moorcock, 1963. Okay, so the cannon has been revised extensively since I was young, books have been retitled, they have been shifted around in order, but Stormbringer was the first one I remember reading. It made a huge impression on me, the world, the characters, the overall tone of doom and decay. Come to think of it, the Elric/Stormbringer dynamic is another inspiration for James/Catskinner.
- Moongather Jo Clayton, 1982. What I remember about this one is Serroi, the main character. She is an outsider, a “misborn”, or mutant, and cast out from her home tribe. She becomes an important piece in a duel between gods, used first by one, and then by another, with the two stories being told side by side. Another one of those books that mixes Fantasy and Science fiction, with magic and psionics existing side by side.
- The Magic Goes Away Larry Niven, 1978. Niven took the idea that magic once existed in the world and doesn’t exist now and decided to write about the time when magic started to disappear. A very interesting world in the midst of a crises that threatens civilization.
- Nifft The Lean Michael Shea, 1982. A really amazing book. The worlds (two of Nifft’s adventures take him into Hell) are drawn with a gut-wrenching vividness, and the main character’s voice is a spellbinding mix of insane confidence and bleak fatalism. There are images from this book that still haunt me.
- Night’s Master Tannith Lee, 1978. The sheer audacity of this series (it continues in Death’s Master and Delusion’s Master, which I have read, and I believe others which I have not) sets it apart. It is the story of Azhrarn, the King Of The Demons and it covers centuries, with nations rising and falling as Azhrarn toys with his human pets and puppets. In later books he is joined by Ulhume, who is Death, and Chuz, who is Madness. It’s a fairytale seen in a black mirror, timeless and epic.
- Tales Of The Black Company Glenn Cook, 1984. This was my first exposure to Military Fantasy, and in my opinion one of the best. The Black Company is a mercenary company that finds itself in a magical battle for control of the world. What makes this story shine for me is how it is told from the perspective of foot soldiers in the trenches, who don’t understand all the politics, they are just trying to keep their heads down and survive the war.
- The Drawing Of The Dark Tim Powers, 1979. I was hesitant to include this one, since it is set in 16th Century Europe, which isn’t quite “Epic Fantasy” territory. But Powers is so damned good I’ll let him slide. It’s another story about a mercenary, this one defending Vienna from the Emporer Suleiman. It’s also about beer, and King Arthur and lost Norsemen and why you should never let an insane muralist have too much ink and… just read it, okay?
- The Wicked Enchantment Margot Benary-Isbert, 1956. Wow, I just saw the paperback edition that I have for $188.10. Anyway, I guess you’d call this YA Fantasy. The main character is a young girl who finds out that her new step-mother and step-brother are not what they seem, and her struggle to discover who they really are and how to send them back where they came from. Set in medieval Germany, the town and its inhabitants are delightful and very real.
- Skeen’s Leap Jo Clayton, 1986. Another one that I wasn’t sure about including, because it starts off as science fiction, and may actually qualify as that. But that’s Jo Clayton, again, breaking down those pesky walls between genres. Skeen is a “rooner”, a theif of artifacts from fallen civilizations, who finds herself transported to a primitive world in which magic works. One of the interesting parts of this book is that the magical gate opens periodically in response to solar activity on one world, allowing people to escape the solar flares by entering the other world. Consequently, her “fantasy” world is inhabited by different groups who arrived in distinct waves, which gives the sociology of the world an interesting depth.
- The Face In The Frost, John Bellairs, 1955. Two good wizards, Prospero and Roger Bacon, must find and confront an evil wizard, who seems to have some connection with the two of them, although they can’t quite remember who he is. Very interesting magical world, and a story that sort of turns on itself in a couple of places, but keeps moving along nonetheless. This one always makes me smile.
- A Spell For Chameleon, Piers Anthony, 1977. The first of the interminable Xanth series (I believe that there are currently more Xanth novels than native speakers of Welsh worldwide) and still one of my favorites. The main character being an outcast because he isn’t magical was an interesting twist, and the puns and wordplay are delightful. Later in the series I lost interest, but the first three (A Spell For Chameleon, The Source Of Magic, and Castle Roogna) hold up well to repeated readings, I feel.
There! Just writing that out makes me want to reread the ones I have and see if I can hunt down the others.
See… it turns out I like Fantasy after all.