Ta Da! The Fantasy List!
= Outstanding! Strong characters and involving plot told with style. Worth buying and keeping on your book shelf and recommending to others--even give as a gift. I'd read other books by this author - these might make good introductions to the genre.
= Exceeds Expectations. Likable characters, interesting plot, readable style with aspects that make this book stand out within the genre - a good, fun read.
- Acceptable. Mostly enjoyable. I made it through the entire book and didn't consider it a waste of time or money, though it's not getting shelf space and I can't see ever rereading it nor does this make me want to read more of the author. Worth a try if you like fantasy novels.
- Not terrible, but it didn't hold me and I stopped reading--or I finished it wanting to hurl the book against the wall. Someone else might find it more appealing.
= Dreadful - I don't get how this tripe got published or on a recommendation list. Or how anyone could like it.
Adams, Richard, Watership Down - I know one friend who refuses to read it because it's "about rabbits." Well, there's nothing cutesy about these creatures. Adams creates a religion, mythology and language for his rabbit culture and distinct personalities--particularly the hero Hazel and his visionary brother, Fiver. The book delivers a thrilling adventure as they move through terrible dangers to find a home as well as a moving tale of friendship--at the end I was tearing up. Not to be missed. One of those few works written as a children's book that it is fully possible to read and reread as an adult with pleasure. On the strength of this book I've tried other works by Adams--The Plague Dogs and The Girl in a Swing. Both are good novels--but Watership Down is special. There is a sequel of sorts, the short story anthology, Tales from Watership Down, but it's not as impressive. (Carnegie Medal - 1972)
Asaro, Catherine, The Charmed Sphere - The cover claimed Asaro was a Nebula Award winner and her biography that she was a physicist. Given that, I had high expectations for this book--I hoped for great writing and a fresh take on fantasy. I was disappointed. The characters, plot and style came across to me as pure romance aisle. Even the names of the female protagonist and her love were eye-rolling: Chime Headwind and Muller Startower Heptacorn Dawnfield (Yes, really). The prose and dialogue runs from banal to purple. As a fantasy the book falls into cliche as well: the setting is fantasy standard pseudo-European medieval without any touches making it distinctive other than the shape-magery. The magical system of "shape-mages" who power their spells based on geometric designs was original--even unique--but came across as eccentric rather than clever to me and never developed in a way I could buy into her world. Just nothing here that would make me want to read further in the series or more by the author.
Beagle, Peter S., The Last Unicorn - This is told simply enough and with no material that would be unsuitable for younger readers, but written so beautifully and evocatively it can fully hold an adult interest. In form it's a classic quest story, but unlike so many in fantasy one that feels unique and not some Tolkien retread. There's a mix here of the mythical and the whimsical. Set in a created world not ours but with echoes of legends of Robin Hood and King Arthur and with seeming anachronisms that somehow never seem jarring or throw you out of the world the author created. The unicorn herself in the short novel is a marvel, likable, but alien and apart. She touches the characters around her and the reader with wonder, and I'm not going to soon forget her or Schmendrick the Magician or Molly Grue.
Bradley, Marion Zimmer, The Mists of Avalon - I have a friend who'd count this one of her favorite novels--a lot see this as groundbreaking among Arthurian works for giving us a sympathetic Morgaine and giving a female, even feminist, as well as pagan, perspective on the legend. Isaac Asimov called it "the best retelling of the Arthurian Saga" he'd ever read. However, I had early imprinted on T.H. White and Mary Stewart's visions (See, below) and found this unimpressive in comparison--not as strong stylistically and at 876 pages suffering from bloat. I hated the depiction of Gwenivere as this timid bigot, part of a anti-Christian thread of this book I found heavy-handed. (Although I'll admit, one of the most moving parts of the book involves a reconciliation of sorts between Paganism and Christianity.) I also didn't like this as a MZB fan--I prefer her Darkover science fantasies about a lost colony a la Pern--I thought the feminist themes among others more gracefully handled there. In the series Bradley featured sympathetic gay characters and strong female heroines years before it became fashionable. Darkover is inhabited by feudal lords with psychic powers who clash with a advanced technological space-faring federation a la Star Trek. I particularly recommend Forbidden Tower, The Shattered Chain and The Heritage of Hastur. The Darkover books were written out of chronological order and are stand alones, so you could start with any of them, but her early and late ones aren't all that good. The early ones because she was still coming into her own as a writer and the later ones because they were ghostwritten by others after her stroke in 1989. (All but the first in the Avalon series were post-stroke and so really written by Diana L. Paxson.) The best Darkover books in my opinion were written between 1975 and 1985. So yes, I am an admirer of MZB's novels--just not this one. (Locus Award - Best Fantasy Novel 1984)
Brooks, Terry, The Sword of Shannara - I've heard this book compared to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. It's comparable all right, and it's not in Sword of Shannara's favor. We have a quest, a Dark Lord and a group of heroes traveling together in almost a one to one correspondence with the Fellowship of the Ring including a wizard, a dwarf, more than one elf and more than one Prince of the blood. It's far too easy to match up the Tolkien characters with their Brooks counterparts and even places and matters of plot can be matched point for point. I can't recall ever reading such a blatant rip-off, with a shoddy omniscient point of view and a style that hits every branch on the clunker tree out of guides of how not to write. I only stayed beyond page 50 of this because I wanted to give what I know some see as a beloved book a fair chance. Then I pushed beyond 200 pages out of curiosity if a female would get a speaking part--because at that point, were it not for a brief scene with a female monster that almost traps one character and a mention by another character he had a sweetie at home (and that the central character once had a mother), I might have thought they only had one gender in this fantasy world. Even Tolkien, who I thought slighted female characters, did much, much better than that. (Even books set on ships at sea and monasteries tend to do better than that). Finally, a female character did show up--on page 456 of 726--naturally to be rescued. I gave up. I will not be reading more Terry Brooks.
Bujold, Lois, The Curse of Chalion - Bujold's an exceptional writer and I was pulled in at once; there was never a moment I wanted to put the book down. The protagonist, Cazaril, immediately gained my sympathies--a broken man, he goes to a noblewoman asking for any place in her household and winds up tutor to her granddaughter, Princess Iselle, and through her is thrown back into court intrigues. Bujold creates an interesting blend of Pagan and Christian mythologies for her religious system in this novel--complete with a curse on Cazaril. I don't know what it is exactly at times that lifts a book from just a good read to one where at the end the characters feel like friends and the world one you want to enter again and again--but the book has it in spades. I loved the sequel Paladin of Souls just as much--both were nominated for Hugos. This was my first Bujold book--afterward I hunted down everything of hers I could find and was never disappointed. After the books set in this world, you might want to look up her Sharing Knife series, which could be seen as science fiction. I love her science fiction Vor series as well--there's even one book in it, A Civil Campaign, that was written as a Heyer homage. (Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature)
Dayton, Gail, The Compass Rose - I thought the world Dayton created was intriguing: Adara, a matriarchal society, practices group marriage requiring at least four members. The protagonist, Kallista, a practitioner of martial magic, must marry five others whose magic she can tap to defeat the forces arrayed against her nation: her bodyguard, with whom she's been partnered a long time, two prisoners of war, a female refugee and a foreign merchant. I initially liked this work involving polyamory more than most with that theme for several reasons. Unlike say L.K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series, I didn't feel this was some piled-on harem--each character had their own conflicts and brought something into the mix and Kallista and the others really had to work to form themselves into a family. Together with the matriarchal culture and the magical system I thought this brought an interesting dimension to the plot. However, besides romance novel sex scenes, the conflicts and tension weren't sustained and the resolution felt weak. The book didn't impress me enough to seek out the other two parts to the trilogy or more of the author.
Drake, David, Lord of the Isles - I gave up after about two hundred pages. The style was pleasant enough and there were interesting magical concepts, but the world and the characters never came into focus for me. Other authors have done the cliched riff of ordinary small village boy has special destiny/royal blood etc, which is a fantasy standard, yet kept me glued to the page. I think it was hard to care about the central figure, Garric; there's nothing in his life pushing him--revenge, love, ambition, curiosity, a wish for personal freedom. That pretty much can be said for all the other characters, so I didn't want to continue the book or series. Never read any other Drake books and after this one don't want to.
Eddings, David, Pawn of Prophecy - Start to five book series The Belgariad. This Young Adult novel is reminiscent of many other fantasy tales without bringing anything really original to the mix. It's no ripoff like Sword of Shannara, but there is this ordinary young lad, Garion, on a farm with a destiny(tm) who picks up companions on a quest involving a dark object coveted by a dark lord. Like Garion, I also find hard to credit that two characters are thousands of years old--maybe because the author just doesn't make them wise or strange enough to set them apart--you don't feel the weight of those ages. I also got exactly who Garion is from about page one, and even though the book does give reasons why he'd be in the dark (his Aunt Pol raised him on an isolated farm and he was never taught to read) I felt impatient for him to catch up with me, the reader. On the other hand, the style, while not lovely, was serviceable, and this really zipped past. I did like Polgara who for me was the standout character--all the more so for being a strong female character in the testosterone-laden high fantasy genre and, unlike Garion, not one of a type I feel I've read hundreds of times before. I'm told the series does get better, so I do intend to try the next book someday.
Feist, Raymond, Talon of the Silver Hawk - Like the other Feist book I've read, Magician: Apprentice, also set in the Riftwar universe, this was a pleasant ride but I don't feel compelled to pick up the next book in the series. The setting is fairly routine in fantasy--reminiscent of medieval/renaissance Europe, although there are hints of a science-fiction gloss and even mentions of other worlds and alien beings. This particular book is built around the classic revenge plot--the book opens as Talon's people are destroyed. I did like Talon. Nevertheless, I was left feeling distanced from him. Maybe it's a girl thing. Women are pretty much only bed-warmers in this novel. Even in terms of just friendship, with Talon's family all gone from the beginning, he never really relates to anyone with deep emotion. Pretty much everyone around him, even the "good guys" (as they keep insisting they are) just uses Talon, ruthlessly honing him into a weapon. So there's no leavening romance or friendship or comradeship here--not really. I don't find myself compelled to read the next book in the series or more of Feist.
Fforde, Jasper, The Eyre Affair - The book has a fantastic core premise: fictional characters can drop into the real world and intervene in lives; real people can drop into works of fiction and refashion the story. The book should be a bibliophile's dream with a wealth of literary allusion and word play: a blurb from The Wall Street Journal on the cover calls it a blend of "Monty Python, Harry Potter, Stephen Hawkings and Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Maybe that's the problem for me. It's too manic--too many disparate elements thrown at me even if a great deal of the threads come together at the end. Maybe it's just that I find too hard to credit a world where literature is cared about with such zeal as in this story. (People play Shakespeare soliloquies like records, go to performances of Richard III a la Rocky Horror Picture Show and there are door to door missionaries trying to convince people Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays.) I also don't feel the book is well-written. Almost all of The Eyre Affair is written in first person, but with spots of third person that aren't transitioned well and other parts of the narrative seem clumsy. It's an imaginative story, well-plotted, with an intriguing alternate history and I liked Thursday Next, a literary detective and the main narrator of the story. Yet somehow, I found too much of this novel a chore to read to recommend enthusiastically nor do I want to follow more of Thursday's adventures. (The IAFA William L. Crawford Fantasy Award - 2002)
Gaiman, Neil, Neverwhere - I loved this: the ultimate urban fantasy. In our modern society, when a person falls below the social net and becomes a streetperson, we talk of them "falling through the cracks." In the London of Neverwhere, when people "fall through the cracks" they reach the "underside" of "London Below." The kind of place where Knightsbridge becomes Night's Bridge, where crossing into nightmare takes a toll beyond price. Where the "Floating Market", a bizarre bazaar, might take place in a closed Harrods after dark or the docked HMS Belfast. I liked how Gaiman uses the London's layers of history. As a New Yorker, it wasn't hard to translate it into the terms of my city and imagine, as the novel mentions at one point, that there really are alligators in our sewers. And a floating market might by found at Macy's after dark or the USS Intrepid. It was easy to relate to the protagonist, Richard Mayhew, an everyman urban dweller; a nice guy who slips into a world out of our modern urban fears and reacts in ways I can identify with. I've heard this novel described as a "dark fantasy" and it certainly fits, some parts come across as Stephen King-like horror. The novel is populated with unforgettable characters such as Door, Hunter (both strong female characters), Islington the Angel, the Marquis de Carabas--and Croup and Vandemar, two of the creepiest villains in fiction. Well, paced, with a great flow, this made for a great read. My first Gaiman, but emphatically not my last.
Goldman, William, The Princess Bride - This is a mostly omniscient narrative of the fairy tale sort, laced with zany humor, and framed and interspersed with first person asides by the author. His conceit is that the novel is an abridgment of a story read to him by his father when he was a boy. And this isn't just any first person voice, but one purporting to be Goldman himself, screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It took some getting used to. Just as it took a while to warm to the heroine, Buttercup, who came across to me as insipid--but then what do I expect of a send up of tales of rescues of princesses? One that while filled with pirates, a giant, miracles and fencing somehow manages to be utterly unique? It's filled with unforgettable lines and characters: Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die! The subtitle declares it to be a "tale of true love and high adventure." It has a rather sharp satiric edge towards both.
Jacques, Brian, Redwall - This was the first published book in the bestselling series numbering 21 books to date. I stuck this out as far as the end of "Book One" at page 97 before deciding this one wasn't for me for two reasons. The first being the style seemed clunky to me and the dialogue cheesy. (Please, someone, swipe the exclamation point key from this man.) It's an omniscient narrative but without humor or charm. Granted, this novel was written to be a children's book. But so was The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Watership Down, The Last Unicorn and The Sword in the Stone, and that doesn't keep them from being compelling reads for an adult. The other reason is this is one of those books where the characters are animals who wear clothing and act like people. The rabbits of Adams, the unicorn of Beagle and the dragons of McCaffrey, Lackey and Novik feel just alien enough to not strike me as humans in oddly shaped bodies. The mice, badgers and otters of Redwall Abbey and their rat foes are a different matter. It's not even clear whether the characters are animal-shaped people of human size or talking animals in a human world. The central character, Matthias the mouse, a novice at the Abbey, is the kind of hero that stumbles over his own sandals but then miraculously becomes a skilled warrior when need arises. I found what I read of the book tedious and lacking in striking lines, original ideas or memorable characters. I suspect I might have loved this book when I was ten years old. Problem is that was decades ago...
Jordan, Robert, The Eye of the World - This starts the Wheel of Time series. Doorstopper length, maps, a prologue, glossary at the end, told in omniscient with a pseudo Medieval European setting. Epic high fantasy ho! Mentally I was counting off in the first chapter all the parallels to Lord of the Rings: Rand as Frodo, Mat as Merry, Perrin as Pippin, Emond's Field as the Shire, a party where there will be fireworks--and especially the mysterious and ominous figure robed in black reminsicent of a Ringwraith. I worried this would be another Tolkien clone. And yes, it is, even if it feels less derivative and more its own book as you go along. Not quite as blatant a ripoff as Brooks and better written, but just way too close for my comfort down to the names of places and characters. There are also allusions to the Arthurian legends, which might have felt less intrusive without the Tolkien overtones. It made me wonder if elements I found original were just lifted from books I don't know. Social roles and even the system of magic were strictly separated by gender in this novel, but I have to give Jordan credit for giving women a part to play almost as prominent as the men in this novel--quite in contrast to Brooks (and even Tolkien). That and the less painful writing earns it one star higher than Sword of Shannara, but the problem is I still found this novel bloated, tedious, eminently skimmable, and without one character I cared about--particularly the main point of view character, Rand. (Oh, and the dream sequences. The pain! The pain!) Will not be reading more. Jordan recently died and the last two volumes of the series are being completed by Brandon Sanderson from Jordan's partial manuscript and outline, which will bring the series of doorstopper books to a baker's dozen.
Lackey, Mercedes, Joust - I'm generally a fan of Lackey's Valdemar books but felt she was suffering from tired blood around the time Joust came out, so I didn't pick it up when it was first published. Recently I went on a nostalgic binge of rereading her books, and finding a lot of my old favorites like Magic's Pawn and Oathbreakers still stood up. (And if you've never read Lackey, those two still might be the best place to start. Magic's Pawn was groundbreaking and still unusual in having a gay protagonist. Oathbreakers is notable for having two strong female heroines.) So then I went back and tried Joust. I was pleasantly surprised--this book and the three that follow in the series, Alta, Sanctuary and Aerie are very enjoyable. The story begins in a vein very familiar to Lackey readers, with a seemingly orphaned boy, Vetch, in intolerable circumstances who only in leaving home finds his destiny. What separates Vetch from most Lackey heroes though is his anger and bitterness, and it makes it all the more interesting to see him grow and change in this book. Besides that, instead of the usual pseudo-medieval European setting you get in most fantasy, including Lackey, these books are set in a land reminiscent of Ancient Egypt. And with dragons! Dragons just as winning in their way (but very different) than those of McCaffrey's Pern. I enjoyed how Lackey developed her dragon lore, the magical touches, the societies akin to Egypt and legends of Atlantis.
Lawhead, Stephen, Byzantium - This is a door-stopper of a book, a first person narrative of a 10th Century Irish monk, Aidan, and his pilgrimage to Byzantium in the course of which he'll become "a slave, a spy, a sailor" going from a monk's robes to a slave's rags and collar to "the silken robes of a Sarazen prince." This book is on a fantasy rec list, is found in the fantasy section in the store and is by a fantasy writer--but I wouldn't call it fantasy despite a few prophetic dreams. Rather it's a work of pure historical fiction based on a real historical figure. I felt it got to a slow start; it became a page-turner about a hundred pages in, and it grew more and more engrossing as it went on--both adventure and mystery with a dollop of romance featuring memorable characters and an interesting insight into the appeal of Christianity. (But not in a preachy way, I promise, even though a crisis of faith is at the center of the book.) My first Lawhead book--enjoyable but doesn't make me want to try more by him. However he has both an Arthurian series and one based on the legends of Robin Hood--both themes to my liking--so someday I may give Lawhead another try.
Lee, Tanith, Biting the Sun - This is an omnibus edition of two novels, Don't Bite the Sun and its sequel, Drinking Sapphire Wine. I love these novels and have since my teens, but they don't belong on a fantasy list--they're science fiction. Tanith Lee writes lyrically and evocatively of a doomed city, Four-Bee, in a far away post-apocalyptic future. What do you do in a hedonistic world where everything can be and is done for you by android servants? You can even change bodies and genders. Eternal vacation--or eternal childhood. The (mostly) female unnamed protagonist of this first person coming of age narrative bumps into social walls in her search for a purpose to her life beyond the pursuit of pleasure. If that sounds ponderous, well the book isn't. This is told with a lot of wit and humor--Lee even creates her own slang. It's a blast to read and ultimately moving and thought-provoking. But as I said--NOT fantasy. And Lee has written some absolutely wonderful fantasies that are favorites of mine: The Birthgrave and Night's Master (start to her "Flat-Earth Cycle" which influenced Gaiman's Sandman series.) Both out of print, sadly, which might be why Biting the Sun made the list instead.
Le Guin, Ursula, A Wizard of Earthsea - The first of a young adult series by a writer mostly celebrated for her science fiction--and I've read and loved a lot of those by her--The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction classic and a favorite. I remember loving the Earthsea trilogy in my teens. (It's now a "cycle" because it's grown to five books.) I reread this first book to see if it still holds up, and it emphatically does. I've read that this is in its way a Taoist allegory the way Narnia is Christian, although it doesn't feel preachy to me. Beautifully written omniscient narrative, with a lyrical prose style and a lot of memorable lines; it's a short, fast-paced read. The novel features a vivid archipelago setting and imaginative system of name magic that is more that just a device but a theme. And there be dragons in this one! And Ged--a young wizard certainly as memorable as Harry Potter. (And not white--a notable rarity for a protagonist in fantasy.) I liked how Le Guin ties in his growth of character to the events and themes of the story. In that regard the quiet resolution is masterful. If I have any complaint, it's that at times the narrative felt just a bit too sketchy and spare--too tell, not show--even if that fits the book's mythic feel. The Earthsea novels have won various awards including a Nebula and a Newberry Medal.
Lewis, CS, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - This book, published in 1950, was the first of the seven book Narnia series, among the most beloved children's books of all time. This book is a well-written, quick read and imaginative. However, C.S. Lewis is an unabashed Christian apologist, and I'm afraid I found the Christian allegory aspect of the book off-putting. (Just as I found Pullman's atheistic themes in his anti-Narnia His Dark Materials--I'm not a fan by and large of polemic works.) I also think I just read this too late--that this is one children's series best read by children given the style and themes. As a child a lot of those Christian themes would have probably gone over my head, but reading as an adult I found them just too, too blatant: girls are "daughters of Eve" and boys are "sons of Adam;" Emperor = God the Father; Aslan the Lion = Christ; White Witch, child of Lilith = Satan; Edmund = Judas; Turkish Delight = Apple; Father Christmas coming at the entrance of Aslan represents the birth of Christ; the "ransacking of the witch's fortress" is the harrowing of Hell. (Stone Table maybe the stone tablets of Moses?) I felt preached at. I gave this three stars because I did think so many scenes were striking and creative--like Aslan breathing on the statues to bring them back to life. I also think Susan and Lucy are strong female characters--every bit as brave, smart and capable as the boys. And I did enjoy the film based on this novel--seeing the film versions might be the better way to Narnia as an adult. I do love Lewis' take on the myth of Psyche and Cupid--Till We Have Faces. I haven't read his Perelandra Trilogy: science fiction with an Arthurian aspect I've heard. I'm more likely to try those than more of Narnia.
Maguire, Gregory, Wicked - This is based on the Wizard of Oz series by Baum and in the best fan fiction tradition lets us see the story anew by championing a maligned character--the Wicked Witch of the West. I found the writing style pretty graceless, and I didn't like the Rabelaisian touches. (This book is...er...NOT for children. There is sex, and kinks, and flatulence and bodily fluids...) However, after getting through a repugnant beginning, I was enjoying how subversive it all was in giving us Elphaba--born green and with sharp finger-amputating teeth--who becomes friends with that vain, social-climbing Glinda in college. At the end of Part Two with Elphaba the rebel going off determined to oppose the Wizard of Oz (and by then Maguire showed us good reasons to see him as a tyrant), I thought this might develop into a story I'd love. (Despite a sex club scene that was a crass HUH???) However, the story only deteriorates from there. Elphaba's characterization is wildly inconsistent. I didn't feel the attempts to make the story fit with the character and events in Oz worked. Characters and elements you'd think are important are dropped or barely heard from again. The politics got increasingly intrusive and preachy and the anti-religion thread heavy handed. Much of the narrative manages to be both choppy and tedious. I'd add I've never seen the musical based on this, but if you're expecting from that anything light-hearted, you're going to be disappointed; this book is joyless, ponderous and crude. Such a great concept--such a poor execution. I closed the book determined to never read anything else by Maguire.
Martin, George R.R., A Game of Thrones - Doorstopper? Check. Prologue? Check. Maps and Appendix. Check. Part of a series of doorstoppers? Check. Epic High Fantasy? Yes. Tolkien clone? No. A Slog? Hell, no! I read this series is inspired by the English War of the Roses and you can certainly see it in the Stark family, patterned after the House of York, six of whose members carry the rotating narrative. I'd read this before and on reread it all came back. How much I loved these characters: Ned Stark and his wife and children--especially his daughter Arya and her brother, Ned's bastard son, Jon. And Tyrion--a member of the rival Lannisters close to the crown. And Dany, a princess in exile. I came to love these characters and that doesn't make things easy given the author's way with them. Like Robin Hobb, Martin is one of those authors that has no problem with being cruel to his characters. The novel is gritty, dark, at times disturbing, even depressing. It's one reason I never sought to read the other books. There is another concern about investing in this series. Every other book on this post is either a standalone, part of a completed series, or part of a series very close to complete and being published at a good clip. There are seven books planned in Martin's series with the first book published back in 1996. Only three more books have been published since, the last, in 2005. You might be left in limbo for a long, long time waiting for Martin to bring this series to a conclusion. But that first novel really is terrific--wonderful world-building, done with a deft style through story and not massive infodump or as-you-know-Bobs. The story just zips along despite its weight like a huge but limber athlete. The ending is gasp-inducing. This book got a higher rating from readers on GoodReads and Librarything than any book on this post, and I've encountered several reviewers and fans of fantasy that place Martin higher than Tolkien, that would say Song of Fire and Ice series is the epic fantasy of our age. (Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel - 1997)
McCaffrey, Anne, Dragonsong - This Young Adult novel that begins the "Harper Hall Trilogy" technically isn't fantasy but science-fiction with fantasy trappings. It's part of a series set on Pern, which like Bradley's Darkover, is a "lost colony" of Earth. Though this does feel more like fantasy than others in the series, I think Dragonflight, the first Pern novel, is the best introduction to the series, especially since Dragonsong acts as a spoiler to later novels. This was my introduction to Pern though, and an enchanting one. A great coming of age tale about a girl, Menolly, whose dream is to become a Harper (think Bard) on a world where that profession is dominated by men--and who gains nine dragonette companions along the way. I love the first three Dragonrider books and the Harper Hall trilogy, the stand alone Moreta and the book that tells of Pern's colonization, Dragonsdawn. I didn't find McCaffrey's later Pern books as strong however. McCaffrey has other books set in other universes I love--particularly The Ship Who Sang and Crystal Singer.
Moorcock, Michael, Elric of Melniboné - This is the first of the six Elric books; the series is supposed to the be the quintessential dark fantasy and ground-breaking when published in the 60s and 70s for its anti-hero protagonist. Neil Gaiman is a fan. A blurb on the cover by Michael Chabon called the author "the greatest writer of post-Tolkien British fantasy." I can't say this book lives up to that kind of praise. The imagery is lush, the prose lyrical and the imagination prodigious no question. I'm not about to forget the description of the "Dreaming City" of Imrryr with scintillating towers of "a thousand soft colours" or their "battle-barges armoured in gold." Or the court filled with the sounds of singer-slaves "specially trained and surgically operated upon to sing but one perfect note each." Or the Ship Which Sails Over Land and Sea. Then there's the title character, Emperor Elric, the occupier of the Ruby Throne: a sorcerer and warrior, a sickly albino troubled by a conscience alien to his people, gloomy and brooding (and at times too stupid to live). The Melnibonéans are never called elves, but remind me of them in their beauty, power and alien feel. I like the idea of Elric's character--not exactly your typical hulking hero or orphan boy of destiny(tm). However, he and the other characters still come across as sketchy to me, the style pulp. (There is "yonder" and "thus" and "thee" and very few contractions in the dialogue.) The only female character, Elric's love, is the kind that faints and must-be-rescued. The ending felt abrupt to me. It's a quick, light short read though--only 180 pages. I hear the Elric novels became more disturbing as they went along--based on the first I'm not inclined to seek out the others. However, they were made into graphic novels--now that I might want to look up--somehow I think that would suit this material.
Novik, Naomi, His Majesty's Dragon - I'm a fan of Jane Austen's novels, of C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower books and of Anne McCaffrey's Pern, and this book (and series) has elements of all those works plus the delightfully unique. They feature an alternate history of the Napoleonic Wars, with dragons forming an aerial corps. Unlike McCaffrey's or Lackey's dragons these can match or surpass the intellect of their riders--they're fully formed individuals, not anything akin to beasts or pets--yet they come across as just alien enough to feel like a different species and can evoke a reader's sympathy as much as any human character. And Temeraire, the central dragon in this tale, is adorable. In fact, I'll confess that at a certain point in this book, I cried, and that's not a common experience for me reading a book. And what evoked that emotion wasn't anything that happened to a human, but one of the dragons. Novik's style is clean, unobtrusive, with a voice and diction that is often Austen-esque in tone, and the book completely sucked me in. The most enjoyable read I've had in a fantasy in ages, and I've loved the other five books in the series to date. (Locus Award - First Novel 2007)
Pratchett, Terry, Small Gods - I know many on my f-list adore Terry Pratchett; he defines the "comic fantasy" sub-genre the way Tolkien does high fantasy. I had tried him more than once on friends' recommendations but just didn't get far. I decided to give this book 100 pages to see if it could hook me. I think it does take time to warm to this loopy flat world held up by four elephants standing on a turtle that swims in space. A world where Death talks in all caps. And the Ultimate Library has an orangutan librarian. This novel is part of the Discworld universe that has 37 books to date, which A.S. Byatt called "more complicated and satisfying than Oz." I read this novel right after Wicked and have to say: Pratchett could have brought it off brilliantly, because he has what Maguire lacked (besides talent). An ability to be satirical without being bitter. To rub ideas together without being dry, tedious or preachy. As you might guess from the title, Small Gods deals with religion in an irreverent way, but unlike other books on this list with religious themes never in a small-minded or heavy-handed way. Brutha, a young novice, encounters his god Om in the form of a tortoise. This book is one of the strongest coming of age stories on this post--I grew to love Brutha. There's a large cast of other unforgettable characters, including Vorbis, one of the best villains I've ever read. There were lots of great, quotable lines suitable for framing. In its eclectic zany imagination, historical and literary allusions and word play the writing reminded me of Fforde--only Pratchett's the stronger writer, with a much better flow and a distinctive omniscient voice that is engaging despite no chapters and frequent footnotes. I wouldn't say I now worship at the shrine of Pratchett--it did take me almost all that hundred pages I was allowing to get into it, which is why I deducted a star. But I did love the book by the end--and that ending was absolute awesomeness. I will be trying Guards! Guards! next (introduces Vimes, his most famous character). Or maybe Hogfather (Death as Father Christmas). Or Carpe Jugulum (skewers vampires!). Or Monstrous Regiment (women soldiers). One of those. After I read Good Omens, his collaboration with Neil Gaiman.
Putney, Mary Jo, Stolen Magic - Putney was on the Romance list I read through for One Perfect Rose. Among romance novelists, I found her one of the better ones, but placed against fantasy novels, I didn't have high expectations. There was certainly nothing original in the magical system or plot or the way she used the setting in Georgian England. The prose style is decent with just a tinge of purple. I did like the hero, Simon, who first meets Meg, the heroine, when he's trapped in a unicorn's body. I liked Meg too, even if she's a bit Mary Sue. I did fast get tired of the harping on how precious her virginity was, and Simon reverting to a unicorn when getting hot and heavy with Meg brought out "the beast" in him. It was one such transformation on page 251, where something so eye-rolling happened, I just gave up. Definitely not an author I'll be trying again. (Romantic Times Award Nominee)
Rowling, JK, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (original and British title, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone) - You didn't think I'd give this less than five stars? It was actually djinn_fic — who urged me to read it--who told me these novels weren't just for children or over-hyped. I loved Rowling's whimsy, how she made us feel magic was one step away if only we could get through Platform 9 and 3/4s and to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The book had lots of memorable lines--particularly from Dumbledore; I found myself dog-earing his speeches. And I loved Harry and Hermione from the first. Snape took somewhat longer... I also do love the series as a whole, even if some of the seven books are stronger than others, and the conclusion arguably the weakest book. But this is a book you can read knowing you're going to enjoy the rest of the journey. (National Book Award - 1997)
Sinclair, Linnea, An Accidental Goddess - The book on the list, Wintertide, is out of print, so I tried the sequel instead, set in the far future and in setting Space Opera, although with a lot of fantasy elements. Sinclair writes "paranormal romance" - in other words you're more likely to find her on the romance aisle than in the science fiction section. Unfortunately, this book reads that way. The heroine, Gillaine, has eyes that are described as--honest to God--"green, yet lavender" and her hair "like moonlight and starlight." The novel reads like a mash up of Star Trek and Harlequin Romance. I gave it 98 pages till the end of Chapter Seven before pulling out. There's just a lot better books out there to read. (Sapphire Award; P.E.A.R.L. Award)
Spencer, Wen, Wolf Who Rules - The sequel to Tinker, which I hadn't read, and may be one reason it didn't click with me. The style is decent, but nothing sets it apart. (Other than dropping the f-bomb early and often.) Set in a future Pittsburgh transported to the planet Elfhome, the heroine, Tinker, once human, was made into an elf by her lover, Wolf-Who-Rules, to be his queen. (Tinker is both Mary Sue and TSTL--amazing how often those traits go together in fictional characters.) Oh, and there be Significant Dreams(tm) based on Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz. But you know the real deal-breaker with me? Dear Wolf, our hero, is planning genocide for an evil race that breeds like vermin ("like mice.") What does that remind you of? Yes, I know, it's fantasy. Maybe the "oni" really are evil. This is also fiction though, where the author makes it so. And given human history that was a choice I found repellent.
Stewart, Mary, The Crystal Cave - I highly recommend the entire Merlin Trilogy of which this is the first part; this novel takes the reader from Merlin's childhood to the conception of Arthur. The Crystal Cave was assigned to me in high school, as was Mary Renault's story about Theseus, The King Must Die. What Renault did for Ancient Greece, Mary Stewart did for Dark Age Britain--bring it alive for me. Though on the fantasy list, much of Merlin's magic is rationalized--this is more historical fiction than fantasy, and as such made a big impression on me and felt all the more magical than many fantasy-laden versions, because it made me feel, maybe it is real. For me this became the gold standard for historically-based Arthurian books, as T.H. White is for the fantasy-based. So when I read Whyte's or Bradley's versions of the Arthurian legends, these are the books I measured them against--and against which other versions seem wanting. The other thing is, compared to so many of the other versions, Stewart is just a fantastic storyteller with a beautiful evocative prose style, wonderful pacing, characterizations and sense of place; the first person narrative sucks you into Merlin's world. I only recently discovered Stewart's works of "romantic suspense" such as Nine Coaches Waiting--she seems incapable of writing a mediocre book. (Mythopoeic Fantasy Award 1971)
Tolkien, JRR, The Hobbit - The Hobbit is Tolkien's first book; it introduced Middle Earth but could stand on its own. The thing is though, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings really are two very different kinds of works. Of those that like Tolkien at all, I've known quite a few who love The Hobbit but not The Lord of the Rings and vice versa, who, having read and fallen in love with one work, find themselves disappointed in the other. It's rather like the difference between Johann Strauss and Richard Wagner. The Hobbit was written to be a children's tale and is light and effervescent--a friend of mine and a fan of The Lord of the Rings calls it "goofy." The tone, the style, the themes are very different than the epic high fantasy trilogy that followed, and the hero, Bilbo Baggins, quite different from his nephew Frodo. The Hobbit is an imaginative fairy tale like adventure with fantastic creatures (including evil wolves, talking heroic eagles and a dragon!), riddles (and a certain mysterious ring) and told in the kind of style that sounds tailored to read to children and on those terms is a charmer, full of humor and sunny--just don't expect The Lord of the Rings. (Which you should at least try so you can recognize the many, many, many imitations out there in the fantasy genre.) Incidentally, there are no female characters in The Hobbit; there are few memorable ones in Lord of the Rings--though Éowyn is a kick-ass heroine. (Carnegie Medal Nominee 1937)
White, T.H., The Once and Future King - The Once and Future King has the most complex depictions of Arthur, Lancelot and Guenivere I've read, and I think no matter what version of them I read afterward, these are the ones I imprinted on--this is my Arthur, my Guinevere and my Lancelot. The first three parts weren't originally written as part of the integrated novel but published separately. The best known of those was the first part, The Sword in the Stone, a great coming of age tale that was turned into a film by Disney. I loved that first part of the book especially--full of wit and whimsy as Merlyn--who lives backward in time--turns the young Arthur into different animals in order to help him gain wisdom. The characters are truly endearing and the story full of humor that makes that part stand alone as a classic children's book. The next parts are very much adult and much darker, particularly the final and poignant fourth part, "The Candle in the Wind," dealing with the fall of Camelot. After White's death a connected novel called The Book of Merlyn was published, but I don't find it as engaging.
Williams, Tad, The Dragonbone Chair - This is highly thought of by fantasy authors. Tamora Pierce rates it five stars on GoodReads and this was the series that inspired George RR Martin to try his hand at epic fantasy. The first volume of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn consists of 766 pages of such tiny print I feared for my eyesight. It's the kind of book with maps up front and an appendix and glossary in the back, written in omniscient point of view, populated with elves, giants, dragons and trolls, and studded with songs and poems. It took a long time to get into--for 170 pages we pretty much just follow, Simon, the 14-year old orphan scullion, dodge his duties about the castle before Something Happens. He acts fourteen--a flighty, whiny annoying pain--but does grow in the book. My favorite secondary character was the Yoda-like Binobik and his wolf--once he shows up on page 252 the book was a lot less of a slog. The prose wasn't lovely imo--convoluted sentence structure, overdescriptive, overuse of italics and bold. The only other place I can ever recall seeing bold used for emphasis is bad fan fiction. Moreover, the book could and should have been half the length; a great deal of the material was repetitive and unnecessary for world-building or character development. (And I would have appreciated far fewer dream sequences.) I looked on my bookshelves for my fat fantasy books: Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart is 912 pages; George RR Martin's A Game of Thrones is 835 pages; Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule is 820 pages; Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is 734 pages. Did I feel the weight with those books? No. But Dragonbone Chair definitely needs a diet. With Carey and Goodkind the length of the first books and those that followed didn't daunt me--I eagerly pounced on their next books. But I look at the equally fat Stone of Farewell and then at the conclusion To Green Angel Tower--split into two books and each still over 700 pages--and I whimper. Don't know when or if I'll get the nerve up to finish this four book "trilogy," despite Dragonbone Chair ending on a cliff-hanger.
Two books on the list I've never read and aren't available in stores or the library: Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle (nor any of his other stories set on Majipoor) and Andre Norton's Witch World anthology Wizards' Worlds (nor any of her Witch World works). From what I can gather, both books are really more science fiction than fantasy anyway--set on "lost colonies" of Earth a la Pern or Darkover.
As I said, Fantasy is my favorite genre--there are certainly authors in it I've read I consider noteworthy and/or favorites not listed above. Authors like Poul Anderson, Piers Anthony, Kelley Armstrong, Anne Bishop, Ray Bradbury, Gillian Bradshaw, Rachel Caine, Orson Scott Card, Jacqueline Carey, Jonathan Carroll, Kristen Cashore, David Duncan, Jane Gaskell, Terry Goodkind (before he jumps the shark), H. Rider Haggard, Barbara Hambly, L.K. Hamilton (before she jumps the shark), Charlaine Harris, Robin Hobb, Tanya Huff, Guy Gavriel Kay, Stephen King, Katherine Kurtz, Fritz Leiber, Melissa Marr, Robin McKinley, Elizabeth Moon, Tamora Pierce, Philip Pullman, Richard Purtill, Anne Rice, Jennifer Roberson, Joel Rosenberg, Sharon Shinn, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro...on my to-read list are Madeleine L'Engle, Patricia McKillip, China Miéville, Christopher Paolini, Mervyn Peake and Rick Riordan. Any others I should add? (Don't tell me Stephenie Meyer--I read the Twilight Saga only to point and laugh.)