Fantasy Bests

It’s a New Year, so I’m going to get back in gear on this blog, which I’ve had to leave a bit moribund for a while as I concentrated on some other things and did some travelling. Many entries to come.

I kept meaning to put my list of the six best fantasy novels into the comments thread at Crooked Timber but time got the better of me and before I knew it what was up at CT instead was a bizarrely contentious comments thread on Scott McLemee’s totally legitimate critique of Cornel West’s latest book.

So much later, here’s my list of the best six TEN fantasy novels it is!

But first a word on this sort of exercise as well. Some might poo-poo the idea of such a list as always hobbled by the mixing of apples and oranges, or by the impossibility of clearly defining the field from which a list is selected. The thread at Crooked Timber had a lot of that kind of discussion. But it also showed why the exercise is a good one, partly because it brings out into the open the range of assumptions that audiences make about a particular kind of culture. It’s also interesting to see how passionately felt these kinds of judgments can be, both about individual works that one puts (or does not put) on a list, and about what the principles of constructing such a list ought to be. For myself, when I make a list like this, I try to balance representing the diversity of a field with a nod to canonical works which I agree have great historical importance in shaping that field. Plus I like to throw in a few idiosyncratic judgments about work that I think is underrepresented or overlooked.

So here’s my list:

John Crowley, Little, Big. In the CT thread, there was a pretty sharp split between people that simply don’t like this book and those that love it. I can actually see both sides. It’s a very atmospheric work: you’re either drawn into the mood it creates or you’re not.

Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds. There isn’t a lot of fantasy out there that works with non-Western themes, stock narratives, and so on. Some of the few books that try to do so come off pretty badly because they’re built on a crudely Western perspective on non-Western folk cultures or mythologies. But I really like Hughart’s work with a fantasy China in his hard-to-find series.

Ursula Le Guin, The Farthest Shore. Earthsea seems another series that divides a lot of genre readers. For me, it was an important counterpoint to Tolkien when I first discovered it: quieter, more contemplative, intelligent in its thinking about magic. It’s such a commonplace in fantasy works that magic has a price or a cost, but rarely is that worked out as more than a slogan, given that readers are almost always meant to covet magic and identify with sensitive wielders of its power within a given setting.

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan. Another book to savor for mood rather than plot, but I think that’s often what defines fantasy best, as a setting and feeling. Plot-driven fantasy frequently struggles to be anything besides “innocent farm boy discovers he is secretly a prince, gets a magic sword and a wise mentor, meets girl, loses girl, defeats enemy, wins kingdom, gets girl.” I first read Titus Groan while living in a homely but pleasant bedsit in London while doing my dissertation research: it pretty much defined for me that sense of a fantasy work that generated a sense of being adrift in a world whose everyday rules and sensations were different from my own.

K.J. Bishop, The Etched City. Yet another book that’s about mood rather than story. (In fact, the plot misses a lot of opportunities for smart closure and clever connections.) I regard this book as my favorite example of the kind of fantasy that Mieville, Vandermeer, or Alan Campbell have written, of grim quasi-Victorian imaginary cities full of dark satanic mills of one sort or another.

Lloyd Alexander, The High King. Despite my slang above on the boy-becomes-king narrative, this is a really terrific example of that baseline story. What makes it work so well even now is partly the persuasive underlying morality of the story, that its protagonist is faced with such difficult choices and genuinely earns his kingship rather than by some innate nobility.

Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light. Right, I know, it’s also “science fiction”. A good book for pushing genre definitions in that respect, but it’s also just a great book, period. When I first read it as a teenager, I do remember getting a bit tripped up on the temporal framing of the story until I’d read it through twice, and even now that seems a bit rough to me. It has some of Zelazny’s typical schtick, but it’s in its most appealing and interesting form here.

T.H. White, The Once and Future King. Long a favorite, but I do sometimes wonder why when I re-read it. It has long stretches that are emotionally distant. The Lancelot-Guinevere material suffers some from White’s own remote and austerely tormented masculinity, his inability to really imagine Guinevere (or any other woman) in an even vaguely sympathetic way. When I was young, the material after Arthur’s childhood didn’t always work for me. But now at least some of it does: the regrets, the inability to break habits, the confinement of commitments made and codes adopted. The moral force of the first book is also still so very powerful, and the little asides about medieval life are also a kind of ground-floor realism about that backdrop that the routine sword-and-sorcery works in the genre still decline to take up.

Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon. Best read alongside White, but it’s also a smart critique of the entire genre, and opened the way for a lot of other inversions and deconstructions.

JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. Gotta have it, even if its many imitations are an affliction on fantasy as a whole.

What’s not on my top ten, and why.

George R.R. Martin. Partly because the series is unfinished (I suspect it will remain so) and partly because I think the pleasures of A Song of Fire and Ice are partly a matter of counterprogramming against a wretched brood of tolkienish imitators.

John Bellairs, The Face in the Frost. A bit too slight to make the top ten, but I do love this book.

Phillip Pullman, His Dark Materials. I like The Amber Spyglass better than most people do, but I’d agree the series falls down a bit in a number of ways in the third volume.

Samuel Delany, Neveryon. I tried to teach this book once in a course on historical memory. Unfortunately takes about 600 pages (and two books in the series) for the point to sink home, so it didn’t work very well. I think I’d include it as part of any master course in fantasy–it’s a great work of literary criticism disguised as a work of literature, really.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter. I really do like these books as a whole, but I don’t think of them as top ten material.

Guy Gavriel Kay. Again, almost. I just don’t think anything Kay has written quite cracks this list–yet. But I feel as if some future work might. Kay raises the same question for me that Susanna Clark (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) does: namely, what does making a work of fiction into a work of fantasy permit that writing a historical novel does not? I’m not always clear with Kay or Clark what writing in a speculative mode accomplishes.

Clive Barker, Imajica. The CT thread brought this up, and I was almost tempted to include it, as I remember it making a big impression on me when I read it. But there’s something about the book that doesn’t quite cross the threshold, though I’m hard-pressed to say why.

Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood. Too diagrammatic, which is sort of the point of the book, I know. Again, I’d include it in any master-class on fantasy, for sure.

Neil Gaiman. You may commence throwing things at me, but I think he’s a pleasant but unextraordinary fantasy writer who is also the writer of a very good comic-book series. None of his fantasy novels have wowed me, though none of them have bugged or annoyed me, either.

Madeline L’Engle, Wrinkle in Time and Wind in the Door. Still very good books, but re-reading them, I found them a bit preachy and very prone to declare rather than show when it comes to declaring things beautiful and wonderful and horrible.

Jorge Luis Borges. If I were to classify him as fantasy? Oh yes, we have a winner. I guess when all is said and done, I still think of fantasy as genre, which is not the same as fiction with elements of the fantastic. That list is a different list populated with Swift, Shelley, Borges and others. But I know full well that this is also a bad view in many respects, using genre as confinement, as a kind of fannish self-hatred, and so on. It sets up a wretched situation where the fan has to argue that their favorite works are “really” literature, or deserve favorable comparison with “mainstream” work. But genre is real, or at least the real product of histories of readership and circulation, and can’t just be abolished like that. I do think it would be profitable to ask which of the ten above I’d put into the same weight class as Swift or Borges and think they’d emerge creditably. On the flip side, ask me when the last time I read Swift for pleasure, and he might not come out so well. (Borges does pretty well in either context, on the other hand.)

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13 Responses to Fantasy Bests

  1. Western Dave says:

    Just reread the Lloyd Alexander books to my daughter, we never quite made it to High King before we ran out of steam. I loved them. They really were a nice contrast to the Rowling. Alexander writes better sentences, but Rowling has a much better overall plot. Her willingness to kill characters that weren’t just dying in noble sacrifice but for stupid and arbitrary reasons was admirable. I’m primarily a plot reader reader so move Rowling onto my top ten. And I’ve had two gos at the Titus Groan series with no success. So that’s off. And quite frankly, I liked the LOTR movies better than the books. Who knew Tolkien couldn’t write a battle sequence?

  2. withywindle says:

    Our lists overlap considerably. Typo alert: Jorge Luis Borges. Do Mary Stewart’s Merlin books not quite make it as fantasy for you, or do you just not care for them that much?

  3. Simon Shoedecker says:

    “The Lord of the Rings … even if its many imitations are an affliction on fantasy as a whole”?

    Why should Tolkien be held responsible for his bad imitations? Is Hemingway responsible for bad imitation Hemingway?

    Typo alert: should be Le Guin (with a space), Zelazny, Delany. Also you seem allergic to middle initials which in some cases (George R.R. Martin) are helpful to have.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Typos fixed! Thanks.

    I agree Tolkien isn’t responsible for bad imitators. But as I said, part of what I’d like to think about with a list like this is what comes of a work, not just the individual qualities of a work. I should read Stewart’s Merlin books again, it’s been ages, but they didn’t overwhelm me when I read them (a very long time ago).

  5. Brian Ulrich says:

    Have you ever read any Robin Hobb, particularly the Liveship Traders trilogy?

  6. benjamin says:

    Just started Name of the Wind on the recommendation of a friend. Any thoughts?

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    I like Name of the Wind a lot, though it could use some serious editing.

    I like Hobb, but as a very “core” genre writer, someone who isn’t stretching or challenging what mainstream commercial fantasy has become.

  8. Doug says:

    Have you read A Princess of Roumania? I like Park’s rejection of fantasy as warmed-over feudal England (he sinks England as part of his world-building, just to drive the point home), and the dramatic pacing is so different from what I’d expect from the genre. I wonder if the series as a whole isn’t too oblique, but I’m still thinking about it some months later.

    Ice and Fire may be better for being unfinished; everyone who’s interested can imagine their own resolution. Martin’s best book, I think, is The Armageddon Rag.

    I’ve had the same experience with Little, Big. People love it or can’t stand it, with very little in between.

  9. Those books on your lists which I’ve read, I agree with you about. With a quibble: I don’t know why you’d limit the LeGuin and Alexander entries to a single book, when both are parts of highly integrated series; in particular, I couldn’t imagine reading High King without reading Taran, Wanderer first.

    I could quibble about Gaiman, too, but I largely agree that — aside from Neverwhere — his fiction is excellent but not transcendental.

    I wonder if Haruki Murakami would make your cut for genre… probably not, if Borges didn’t.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, Alexander is really about the series. The Earthsea books seem to me to have more distinctive merit or not in comparison to each other.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, yeah, I’ve read Princess of Roumania too. I always find Park interesting, and there’s some smart counter-programming going on in the book in terms of the usual “protagonist crosses into fantasy realm, finds oneself a princess” narrative. The main highlight of the book for me though is Baronness Nicola Ceausescu, who is one of the absolute greatest antagonists I’ve ever seen in fiction. The complicated feeling I have about it is that by writing against the stock narrative, Park creates a work that you appreciate but can’t really love. It makes me feel uncomfortable about my own desires, about the extent to which I’ve almost come to expect and desire the usual tropes, in which people who are geeky misfits in our own world become people of power by crossing into a fantasy setting.

  12. Doug says:

    The Roumania set is the only Park I’ve read, so I can’t say how it compares. Ceausescu is very good as a character. Made me wish I knew a bit more Romanian history so I could see how closely her background and rise tracked that of our own N. Ceausescu.

    I wonder how much of the backstory Park actually has worked out; clearly more than he lets us in on, but I felt like the rules (or perhaps practices) of the hidden world weren’t all that consistent. By playing so explicitly with the arbitrariness of the world, he runs the risk of readers giving up on there being any fictional reality at the center of the work (maybe it’s just books by Aegypta, all the way down).

    I like your term, counter-programming. At many (most?) of the narrative branchings, Park takes one that runs against expectations. I was less concerned with the state of geeky misfits in the new world than I was with the way that time ran, or the casual way in which major characters meet their fate. I think there’s a lot to your “appreciate more than love” assessment, though I also know I’m far more likely to go back to Roumania than to tackle all of Ice and Fire again.

  13. G. Weaire says:

    Has James Branch Cabell completely disappeared from the modern fantasy consciousness? I haven’t read his books since I was a teenager, but loved them then. No idea how they’d hold up if I read them now, I suppose.

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