Aidan at A Dribble of Ink directed me to this largely unremarkable list of jumping-on points for the fantasy genre. I said that this was unimaginative, ironically, for such an imaginative genre. I’m not saying individually the selections are bad (apart from one, and I very much like a couple) but that this smacks of nothing more than wiki research. Fantasy is a vast and diverse genre – but you wouldn’t think so from this.
And as an aside, I didn’t think Goodkind wrote fantasy anyway… 😉
Aidan said: dude, where’s your list? – and here it is. I’ve probably gone on about these books before, so apologies if I’m repeating myself.
The Scar by China Miéville.
Let’s get things clear from the start: this book made me want to write fantasy. Nothing beforehand was inspirational enough. This book clears the deck of everything you knew before, and says: yes, secondary worlds don’t have to be bland, cod-medieval dramas. You can do stuff that’s, quite frankly, bat-shit crazy and make it work. It’s grungy, alive, intense, vivid and varied and dripping in brine. Reading this is a bit like having the best sex of your life; when you’re inhaling on that post-coitus cigarillo, you realise sadly that anything afterwards just won’t hit the spot.
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
A meditation on the nature fantasy itself – set in an ancient English woodland. Fucking brilliant book, digging deep into Celtic mythology, and written with such a gentle grace too. It’s real-world setting also makes it very easy for that first step across…
The Book of the New Sun sequence by Gene Wolfe
Okay, some books are slow reads. And you know what? THAT’S OKAY. Reading books isn’t a race. If you stuff a meal down your gob, you taste nothing. If you take your time, chew slowly, you’ll marvel at the flavours within. This is what this book is: Michelin quality cuisine for the literary palate. Take your time, and be amazed at the depth, the symbolism, the beautiful, heady descriptions.
The Book Of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges
It’s a bestiary, not a fiction book. There are monsters in it. Lots of them. Dear readers, please remind yourself there are more than the usual two or three done-to-death creatures out there for use in fantasy books. You need to know this early on.
Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson
Fantasy doesn’t really get more ambitious in scope than this series, and with my workload it could be years before I get around to finishing it off, but hey, it’s vast, complex, engaging, and hugely divisive. Whether you love of hate his writing, he’s a fantasy writer that tries to do things, and do things differently.
The Fortress Of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
Letham is an amazing writer, and has that cool factor. His writing is Miles Davis cool. More than a hint of the DeLillo to the prose, this charming tale of a New York youth covers a vast swathe of pop culture and racial observations. It’s easily accessible fantasy-cool. With a magic ring.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
If you want to write or read about a fantastic city, you must read this book first. Calvino is a brilliant stylist, and uncovers the psycho-geography of urban spaces like no other writer. This is the starting point.
Hmm. Interesting..sounds like I need to get a copy of The Scar.
And some tissues.
Hm. Much as I love Mythago Wood I suspect it would cause a lot of people to run screaming if it was their first introduction to the genre. I agree completely about The Scar though – a friend who knows nothing about fantasy read it recently and was hooked.
I’ve also rather sneakily used Jack Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy to lure people into fantasy. It’s reasonably epic, which is what people seem to expect, and doesn’t do anything too startling language/structure-wise that might scare people off. Yet it’s still Vance.
(I realise I’m speaking of people who aren’t fantasy readers as if they were wild animals. Move slowly, do not startle them, speak in quiet, soothing voice. Oops).
I feel a little underqualified but have (nearly) also read 3 of the 7… The first 3 in fact, almost as if the list was guiding me, subconsciously, in the past. The “other” list does seem to confuse quintessential with cliche at times… But ROBIN HOBB, in contemporary parlance, “pawns ass” (even though she misspelt her own pseudonym!) With believable magic, it’s an insanely gripping and tense trilogy full of feuding/scheming corrupt princes, dying monarchs, telepathic wolves, ageing mentors. And doomed love with a candlemaker girl. A grand entry point and an illustration of what can be done within a quasi-medieval kingoms setting. And yes, it has a few dragons near the end, but in a good (and novel) way. Long live the Farseers!
I thought exactly the same thing when I saw the list. It sparked some rather interesting comments on Twitter, just as it did here, about what constitutes a good introduction to the genre and what’s likely to put people off. One thing that it made me think about was this: there’s no such thing as the average prospective reader. Everyone comes to it from a different perspective. I think that when making blind recommendations (rather than for instance recommending a book to a friend whose literary tastes you know well) all you can really do is name the books you personally like the most.
Like your list a lot btw, a lot more than the one that inspired it although I did used to have a lot of time for Robin Hobb many years ago. I woulda said Perdido Street Station rather than The Scar though, but then you probably knew I was going to say that… ;D
I’ll write a list later, except mine will be a bit different (although I agree with each and every one of yours being great reads).
As Larry pointed out, and similar to what I’ve said in the emails we’ve been trading, I think you’ve got an interesting list there (despite the fact that I’ve read very little on it), but it doesn’t really fit in the spirit of the original article posted at The New Yorker.
Considering my tastes, which while getting into Fantasy, skewed very mainstream/Epic/Secondary World, the NY list hit all the right buttons for me. As a youth, I discovered Fantasy with Tolkien (shock!) and then moved on to Brooks and Salvatore then from there it was onto Hobb, Williams and Kay. Needless to say, this parallels the NY list pretty closely.
One also has to consider that the list was put together for someone who had read Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and Narnia and was now looking to expand past the ultra-mainstream and see a bit more of what Fantasy has to offer. Dumping someone straight from Narnia to Erikson’s Malazan (which was on choice on the NY list I disagreed with), Mievill’e New Crobuzon or Wolfe’s world wouldn’t exactly mirror the progression most avid Fantasy readers made. Hell, even as a well-read Fantasy reader, Gardens of the Moon almost scared me off the genre for a few months.
Where I see a list like this being helpful is as a third step, for someone who has more than dipped their toe in the Fantasy waters and is starting to realize that there’s so much else out there that Fantasy can accomplish. Of course, for the folk who look down on Fantasy, denounce it all for Lord of the Rings rip-offs, I wouldn’t send them anywhere near Williams, Goodkind, Brooks or Hobb, and those are the type of people who would benefit from your list and, when he writes it, Larry’s list. For folks like this, my list would include the likes of Neil Gaiman, Tim Powers and Jonathan Carroll.
In the end, though, there’s no accounting for taste. I think the most important thing about this list is the discussion it will evoke and the lists that will pour out of it. Everyone’s list will be different, and certainly they have a chance of opening the eyes of even the most jaded, well-read enthusiast.
A Dribble of Ink
Mark: yes, and yes! (You tone lowerer, you… 🙂 )
Aishwarya: I would have thought MW quite a gentle intro – it’s a real world fantasy, after all. Good call on the Vance though (to my shame, I’ve not read enough, but I keep getting recommendations for more)
Graham! I admit, previously I had a not-great experience reading Hobb (first in the Fool’s trilogy, where the main dude didn’t leave his house for a hundred pages – wtf?). She wasn’t the “bad one” I mentioned though…
Alex: agreed! That was what made me write this list really – so that we get an appreciation of diversity. (I considered Perdido, but it’s more scary for newcomers, I suspect…)
Larry: very interesting list. More than one book I’ll have to add to my reading pile (after my current fad with Historical novels).
Aidan: I think I wanted to stomp on the spirit of the New Yorker list, because it did one dangerous thing: assume that fantasy is only one type of sub-genre. That sort of attitude does nothing to encourage diversity; it supports bestselling authors (who really aren’t scraping sidewalks for cash) and means that people might actually walk away rather than be awed. If you went to a museum of natural history and saw only T-rex bones, you’d have a massively skewed appreciation of time.
I also think, as Alex said, that there is no typical reader. And this list forces people’s tastes into a homogeneous one. The sooner people get around to reading some of these books, I really think they’ll also appreciate the diversity – and yeah, some aren’t easy reads. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be an introduction – read slowly, take time, or just throw yourself in the deep end. If they’re used to reading complex historical novels like Umberto Eco and think – Hmm, what’s this genre stuff, eh? – then they’re likely to get on with Gene Wolfe much more than Goodkind. Not everyone is the same. We need to stop encouraging homogenous lists at the start of people’s love affair with genre, else it becomes stale.
I considered Carroll actually – good call. And yeah, I can see more lists coming. That’s a good thing. And if they agree with mine, even better. 🙂
But seriously – if I’ve made just one person order something they wouldn’t normally have read, and it changes the way they consider genre… job done.
I’m used to “jumping on point” as a phrase for joining a TV/comic series from a point that is not the begining. Maybe the Erikson/Mieville books aren’t series debuts but books like “Name of the wind” are merely the start of a series.
I think a far more useful list would be to do a “what’s next” list where we take for granted that someone has got into fantasy via, Tolkien, CS lewis,Rowling, Meyer etc and then offer books that fit the genre but expand it. eg give “Name of the wind” to a Harry Potter fan. That kind of stuff as, god knows, we need to educate those who come through some of the entry-point authors. I don’t begrudge the bestsellers as they get people – even kids in bookstores and good bookstores know how to keep them.
I’m so glad I found this site…Keep up the good work