My Ten Favourite Fantasy Novels

by Don ~ November 12th, 2009. Filed under: Interesting, Musings.

Over at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, editor and author Phil Athans has made a weekly habit of posting interesting and insightful articles on the writer’s (and occasionally the editor’s) craft. In this week’s post, he listed his Ten Favourite Fantasy Novels. It’s an enjoyable list — a little summary of each books with an explanation of why the books is his favourite. There are books on there that I enjoyed as well (Elric of Melniboné, The Hobbit), books that I keep meaning to read (The Lost World, A Princess of Mars), and books I hadn’t really considered before (Pages of Pain, a Planescape novel by Troy Dennning).

Phil also invites readers to submit their own list of favourites. Never one to resist a challenge (and almost easy because I keep all my favourite books in a privileged position by my desk), this is mine — the short form will get posted over in the comments of Phil’s blog. I’d encourage anyone else who wants to add a list to post over there as well. So here they are, as Phil and Tom Bergeron say, in no particular order:

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Strong and honest Number Ten Ox sets out to save the children of his village from a mysterious illness. He finds aid in Master Li Kao, an elderly scholar “with a slight flaw in his character,” and embarks on a wondrous quest that dips into Chinese history and folklore.

Subtitled “A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was” and winner of the World Fantasy and Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards, Bridge of Birds is stuffed with elements I enjoy in a book: it’s exotic, it’s witty, it has engaging characters, and it tells a great story. Let me focus in on that exotic for a moment. I’m not a stickler for historical accuracy, but I really enjoy a book that can bring a distant time or place to life. Hughart does that not just in the details of the setting but in the allusions he makes to Chinese legends, yet it’s all so light and effortless that it glides right over you. I dipped into the book just now and got shivers. I couldn’t tell you when I last read it but I still remember certain scenes vividly.

I was also pleased to find Bridge of Birds listed on Amazon because it and its sequels–The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen–can be hard to find.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

The lives and fortunes of noble families follow the sweep of epic events.

Okay, I’m treading close to cliche with this one (and how about that short summary, eh?), but A Game of Thrones was really a genre changing book for me. It was so completely absorbing, not just once but every time I read it. Martin captures the scope of epic events so well, but still brings them to life on a personal level. You really care about his characters, their plots and betrayals–and their deaths. It might be de rigeur now, but when A Game of Thrones came out, the idea of killing off beloved characters in the middle of the book was astounding (at least to me, anyway).

The series might be suffering a bit in the middle, but this still stands up as a brilliant introduction.

The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

A boy discovers the secret to travelling between worlds, witnesses the death of one, and the birth of another.

Most people go gah-gah over The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It’s okay, but for me, the best of the Narnia series is The Magician’s Nephew. It might be because it’s a little more wondrous and magical. I mean, we see the creation of Narnia, the dying world of Charn, and Victorian London. It might be because, unlike the other books, the children aren’t forced home at the end — Digory leaves Narnia because he wants to go back to London to cure his mother. There’s also the promise of so many other wonderful adventures as well (did you remember that the wardrobe was built out of wood from the tree grown from an apple brought out of Narnia by Digory?). And what can I say — Jadis of Charn is bad-ass.

Close seconds in the Narnia series: The Horse and His Boy (as the only adventure set entirely in Narnia and again back to the exotic) and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (particularly for the redemption of Eustace sequence and the memorable line “You haven’t been as bad as I was on my first trip to Narnia. You were only an ass, but I was a traitor.”)

Trollslayer by William King

Disgraced scholar-with-a-sword chronicles his adventures with a crazed dwarf berserker in search of his own death.

Trollslayer, the first book in William King’s Gotrek and Felix novels (BTW, I’m cheating slightly on the link above since it appears Trollslayer is currently only available in an omnibus with the equally good Skavenslayer and Daemonslayer) and one of the books I hold up to people as an example of really good game fiction writing. King brings the world of Games Workshop’s Warhammer to life, but setting takes backseat to a great adventure story with a generous hit of creepy. Or maybe I should say that the story is so successfully embedded in the world that you forget where you are and the books just rolls from thrill to thrill.

The Swords of Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber

Leiber’s legendary heroes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser travel across the world and beneath it as they take on a secret society of rats determined to rule Lankhmar.

Okay, to be fair, all of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books belong on my list. Choosing The Swords of Lankhmar is easy, partly because it does stand out as my favourite of the series and partly because it is actually the only novel (as opposed to more or less loosely braided short stories) of the bunch. I’ve loved it since I first read it many, many years ago for the sweep of its adventure and for Leiber’s world of Nehwon, which always strikes me as a setting that bears only the loosest trappings of the medieval Europe fantasy world and hearkens back to an even older age. More recently, I’ve read it again and discovered what a wonderful, spare writer Leiber was. He doesn’t need to go over board on description or explanation to tell a great story in a fantastic world.

BTW, I’ve just noticed a striking bit in the Author’s Note that may explain a bit more why I enjoy the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books: “It strikes me … that Fahrd and the Gray Mouser are almost at the opposite extreme from the heroes of Tolkien. My stuff is at least equally as fantastic as his, but it’s an earthier sort of fantasy with a strong seasoning of “black fantasy”–or of black humor to use the current phrase …”

Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings

Surrounded by archetype companions, a boy discovers his destiny as a sorcerer and the descendant of kings and begins an epic quest.

Some people will pooh-pooh this choice, and yes, Pawn of Prophecy isn’t exactly challenging fantasy, but it’s great comfort food. It’s the Kraft Dinner (Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to Americans who may not be familiar with the Canadian cult of KD) of fantasy: filling and easy with just enough flavour to keep you coming back. And yes, Edding’s later books may be repetitive, but this is the mould that made them. Pawn of Prophecy is essentially a coming-of-age story, everything that teenagers could want (and comforting adults to revisit), taken with a grain of salt to counter some pretty ham-handed cultural characterizations. Come to think of it, maybe those cultural characterizations are why, in spite of a recent rush to repackage fantasy novels in young adult editions, no one has done the same for Eddings.

As much as I have a soft spot for the Belgariad series, it is also the source of my personal dictum that no fantasy characters (particularly all-wise ancient sorceresses) shall ever be seen drinking tea beside the fire.

Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen by Michael Moorcock

In an alternate version of the court of Elizabeth I, Queen Gloriana presides over a fantastic empire, contends with insidious plots, and tries to reach orgasm.

Whaa? Yes, you read it correctly. Gloriana’s quest for sexual fulfillment plays a major role in this novel–which I note on the back is described as a satire and farcical, something I didn’t quite pick up on when I read the book back in high school (yes, Eddings and Moorcock — one of these things is not like the other…). With due respect to Phil’s choice of Elric of Melniboné as one of his ten favourites and an admission that Elric is a superior, more sustained character, Gloriana works for me as a complete, engaging story. Great language and intriguing themes (I wrote my grade 13 English paper on Gloriana, which probably wasn’t entirely appropriate) combine with one of the most elegant alternative realities I’ve ever read. Tops my list of “I really need to read that again some day.”

Night’s Master by Tanith Lee

In those days the Earth was not a sphere and the demons dwelled in vast magical caverns beneath its surface. Supreme among those mighty demons was Azhrarn, Night’s Master…

I freely admit that I cheated and borrowed cover copy to use for that tagline, but Night’s Master, first in Lee’s Tales from the Flat Earth series, defies easy description. It’s the highest of high fantasy, a very loosely Arabian world (certainly inspired by the Thousand and One Nights) where cruel and whimsical demons plague mankind and where the chiefest demon becomes too involved in the world’s affairs for his own good. The segments of the book read almost like braided short stories, but they’re so intimately connected, flowing from one into the next, that they are a novel. Beautiful, lyrical, intoxicating–honestly, this is fantasy from another era. It would be difficult to imagine finding this on the shelf today, although I am pleased to discover that it’s being reissued (see the link above).

Memorable moment: demons love snakes but humans don’t, so to share their favour with mankind, demons give Snake fur, legs, and ears… and create the first cat.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits by Paul Kidd

Lolth stretched her long, lithe body, and then wrinkled her nose. “What is that ghastly stench?”

The high priestess kept her head bowed. “Open air, your Magnificence. A miasma made from grass, pollens, cow flatulence, and the nests of animals.”

“Well, it’s horrid. We should burn something to keep the smell away.” Lolth turned, paused, then threw a spell at one of her slaves. The creature burst into flame. “There! That’s so much nicer!”

This isn’t your Daddy’s D&D tie-in! In a short-lived series of three books, Paul Kidd took the standard D&D adventure and turned it inside-out in some of the most hilarious books you’ll never read–unfortunately, all three are out of print. Of the three, Queen of the Demonweb Pits is probably the funniest, no doubt due to the presence of Lolth (“I feel like a little girl! Have catering send one up.”) herself, but the real heroes are the grimly lethal and otherwise nameless Justicar and the madcap fairy Escalla. And the Justicar’s semi-animate hell hound cloak, Cinders. And the money-grubbing Polk the Teamster. And there’s a magic sword in there somewhere. Gamers will get the true whackiness of the book, but anybody will be able to enjoy the humour.  One of the things I like best about it is the way Kidd puts a completely fresh and unexpected spin on something that might otherwise be too familiar.

For the record, if you can find them, the other books are White Plume Mountain and Descent into the Depths of the Earth.

The Book of Three and The High King by Lloyd Alexander

Surrounded by companions, a boy begins an epic quest and discovers his destiny as a king — hey, why does this sound familiar?

Kiddings aside, I was struck as I wrote this by the broad similarities and the radical differences between Eddings’s Belgariad and Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. Both deal, superficially with a boy who rises from humble farm beginnings and through the course of an epic quest (with companions) becomes the high king of his land. But where Eddings’s world is vast, Alexander’s Prydain feels much smaller and more contained. Eddings’s hero, Garion is constantly surrounded by his companions; Alexander’s hero, Taran, achieves some of his greatest growth (in the book Taran Wanderer) when he’s on his own. Eddings’s prophecy is powerful and immutable; Alexander’s prophecy is vaguer and driven by the characters more than it drives them. Of course, the Prydain Chronicles are meant for a younger audience–so why do I sit here in the end feeling that these are richer books?

Either way, I’m listing two books here because I’m torn as to which is my favourite. I was going to say The Book of Three, which opens the series with Taran thrust into adventure as he pursues the lost oracular pig, Hen Wen, and which my adult self says is a great example of a beautifully subtle start to a story. As I pulled out my omnibus edition, however, I realized how much I also like The High King, which ends the series with the defeat of the menacing evil in a great showstopping, cinematic confrontation of hero vs. villain and the raising of Taran to High King. It’s a fantastic adventure, but it’s also important because it shows a great bittersweet way to end the series (this may have been the first book I read where everything didn’t end totally happy ever after as some of the heroes depart and other give something up to remain behind).

So there you go, my ten favourite fantasy novels (and a reminder to myself that I really should read Gloriana and maybe the Prydain Chronicles again sometime soon). Remember that if you want to put in your ten novels’ worth, you should do it at Phil Athan’s Fantasy Author’s Handbook.

5 Responses to My Ten Favourite Fantasy Novels

  1. Matt Forbeck

    Excellent list, Don. I’m glad to see Bill King’s work on the list. The Felix & Gotrek stories are fantastic fun, and if you know Bill’s very twisted sense of humor you can find a hilarious subtext in many of them too.

  2. Don

    Thanks Matt! Hey, is Bill King up to anything these days? I had a look around for recent news while I was writing this and couldn’t find anything.

  3. Kristen chew

    Bridge of Birds is on my all-time best list too; I own the hardcovers of all three Master Li and Number Ten Ox books, too! I read it when I’m low, and need the joy of the ending to lift me up again.

    You remind me that I need to reread the Fafherd and Grey Mouser books (at my mom’s house, boo), and dig up Gloriana (which I bought, but never read).

    And the end of The High King, with Achren, always broke my heart, and when Elionwy chose to stay. I am counting the days to when I can share those books with Jamie and Liam. Even now, they affect and influence me.

  4. Matt Forbeck

    He’s back to living in Prague again and is writing his own fantasy novels. Oddly, he’s sold them in all sorts of other languages, in which the Felix and Gotrek stories are bestsellers, but none of them have come out in English. Those sales all add up to more than he would get for the books in English, though, so he’s doing fine. Last I heard, he was wintering in Singapore again.

  5. Matthew Simensen

    Based on your criteria, I would like to recommend The Orphan’s Tales by Catherynne M Valente. Exotic, brings a distant time and / or place vividly to life, reminiscent of the 1001 Nights but with russian and african folktales equally represented… and, all told, one of the greatest reading experiences of my life. I enjoy your books immensely, but the Orphan’s Tales absolutely blew me away.

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