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November 30, 2009 9:09 PM   Subscribe

Lev Grossman (wiki) has picked the six greatest fantasy novels of all time to This Weeks "Best Books...chosen by" series. Grossman blogs that each one"absolute indisputable classic" that "completely changed the game."

The unordered list:
-- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
-- The Once and Future King by T.H. White
-- Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories
-- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
-- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
-- Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
posted by shothotbot (144 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite

 
Where's Edward Eager's Half Magic?
posted by orthogonality at 9:17 PM on November 30, 2009 [5 favorites]


It's not the list I'd have chosen, but I can mostly accept that as a reasonable list. Though I really think Magic for Beginners ought to be removed on account that it's not an "indisputable classic" and it hasn't (yet?) "completely changed the game" - if it were up to me, I'd swap that one out for either A Wizard of Earthsea or The Dying Earth.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:19 PM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


More favorite fantasy novel picks. (via mr)

see also: Recommended Fantasy Books
posted by kliuless at 9:21 PM on November 30, 2009


!Madeleine L'Engle = Fail.
posted by clarknova at 9:26 PM on November 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'd add LeGuin, and maybe Lloyd Alexander. I read most of the named books as a kid, and for me, LeGuin and Alexander were more meaningful.
posted by Forktine at 9:27 PM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Magic For Beginners was indeed a terrific book*, but fantasy? I wouldn't use that word to describe it. Magic realism, sure...

* nitpick; the list is of the best fantasy books, not novels...MFB is a collection of short stories
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:29 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nothing by Friedman there?
posted by Burhanistan at 9:29 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I haven't read any of them.
posted by oddman at 9:32 PM on November 30, 2009


Missing are such minor "game changers" as Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, Frankenstein, Jules Verne, HG Wells, Jonathan Swift, Hans Christian Andersen, Brothers Grimm.
posted by stbalbach at 9:32 PM on November 30, 2009 [5 favorites]


My rather longer list of F&SF favorites, if anyone cares. White, Tolkien, Leiber, and Link are on it.

Grossman's most flagrant omission, in my opinion: Little, Big by John Crowley.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 9:33 PM on November 30, 2009 [6 favorites]


Magic for Beginners was great and all, but I would easily swap it out for Journey to the West or the Odyssey.
posted by shii at 9:34 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


stbalbach: I think Grossman is thinking "the fantasy publishing category" rather than "the literature of the fantastic."
posted by doubtfulpalace at 9:35 PM on November 30, 2009


The first four? Absolutely. The last two? Meh. I loved Strange and Norrel, but a game changer? Really?
posted by rodgerd at 9:40 PM on November 30, 2009


I think Grossman is thinking "the fantasy publishing category" rather than "the literature of the fantastic."

I think Grossman listed 5 books that were game changers for him personally. Which is sort of interesting, I guess.
posted by stbalbach at 9:41 PM on November 30, 2009


Clarke's attempt to write Regency prose actually rang a little false for me. I was disappointed.
posted by chinston at 9:42 PM on November 30, 2009


Eh, I'd want to switch Lewis' entry with his Till We Have Faces, which I find unique as the most believably female of all his works, as well as my favorite specimen of his prose, or, if it must be Narnia, how about the elegiac Magician's Nephew instead? Narnia and the loud Christian apologetics (Screwtape, oi) overshadow so much of what the man wrote - epic poetry, genre criticism, and, of course, classical scholarship of great perspective:

This is the medieval synthesis itself, the whole organization of their theology, science, and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental Model of the Universe. The building of this model is conditioned by two factors I have already mentioned: the essentially bookish character of their culture, and their intense love of system.

They are bookish. They are indeed very credulous of books. They find it hard to believe that anything said by an old auctour is simply untrue. And they inherit a very heterogeneous collection of books: Judaic, Pagan, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoical, Primitive Christian, Patristic. [...] Obviously their auctours will contradict one another. They will seem to do so even more if you ignore the distinction in kinds and take your science impartially from the poets and philosophers... (from The Discarded Image)


But no Through the Looking Glass?
posted by kid ichorous at 9:48 PM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wait, no Dune? Is this a bizarro world advertisement for his own fiction (excluding the blog, of course)?
posted by shownomercy at 9:50 PM on November 30, 2009


Yeah, I keep flogging myself to move through the Clarke by tens of pages, and it is excruciating, largely because I find the manner false.

Also: no Moorcock?

Lewis, well, OK, maybe, but that should be Perelandra, for the love of Christ. Narnia is a freaking answer record, and in this instance we all know who the Real Roxane is. And on that basis maybe we should kick CSL to the kerb, after all: Perelandra was intended as SF, after all, was it not?

I have ne'er read the Link. LeGuin seems like a pretty important oversight.

So I say cut Lewis, cut Clarke, insert MM and LeGuin.

My work here is done.
posted by mwhybark at 9:53 PM on November 30, 2009


Exactly. "Fantasy" in this context means the publishing category.

It's still one strange list. I mean, you start out with Lewis and White so you're thinking, okay, it's the old standbys but fine. I mean, there's a reason they endure. The list will be boring and predictable but at least it won't suck. He'll list Tolkien next, right? Wait, what? He throws in Leiber instead and you get happy because you see he's got it going on what with not glossing over the influence of the great pulp tradition of sword&sorcery novels that had so much influence on the later field. Good show! So then he goes back to Tolkien which, of course, you knew he was going to do because, hey, TOLKIEN, motherfucker.

So now you're fully on board. This guy knows what he's talking about. What's next, Mervyn Peake? That's probably what he should put in next. Gormenghast. 'Nuff said. But maybe that's too gothic for the list. Maybe he won't consider it part of what we consider fantasy today and he'll go with Beagle instead or, if he's really rocking the casbah, he'll put in John Crowley. John Crowley in the house! That must be it. He's going to pick John Crowley!

But what's this? Fucking Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell? Jesus Christ. What? I mean, it's a good book and all. Maybe even a near-great one. But one of the six greatest fantasy novels of all time? My mistake, I thought this was the six greatest fantasy novels of all time list not the very good fantasy you might like to lend to your friend who is aware of Bradbury and sometimes even deigns to read something like Jonathan Carrol or Jonathan Lethem or one of those guys but wouldn't be caught dead reading the hard stuff. Hey, maybe we can put on Never Let Me Go or The Time Traveller's Wife next. What the fuck, man? You've really let us down with this pick. But maybe you just had to give a nod to the trendy cool-kid stuff so the other columnists on the bus won't make fun of you. Fine. But make it up to us on the last pick, okay? You were doing so well.

Kelly Link?

...

Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, Lev Grossman. You are dead to me.
posted by Justinian at 9:53 PM on November 30, 2009 [27 favorites]


Wait, no Dune?

pssst... fantasy. Not science fiction. This list is fantasy.
posted by Justinian at 9:54 PM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


ooh, needs editing. after all.
posted by mwhybark at 9:54 PM on November 30, 2009


I think Grossman listed 5 books that were game changers for him personally.

Well, except for the two where it's too soon to tell, all those books had a huge influence on what you see on the fantasy shelf at your local bookstore. It's not just him.

kid ichorous: Till We Choose Faces is my favorite Lewis fantasy by a large margin, but I'm not sure it changed any games.

A highly influential book that doesn't show up often enough in this sort of list is The Well Of The Unicorn by Fletcher Pratt. It predates LOTR, but in some ways is even more modern.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 9:56 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wait, no Dune? Is this a bizarro world advertisement for his own fiction (excluding the blog, of course)?

I assume you bring up Dune because, other than occurring in a nebulous future that has space travel, the idea anything that happens in Dune a scientific possibility is laughable, and thus it is not really science-fiction?

Also, Magic for Beginners was an interesting read, but it's not really fantasy, as such. It's more one of the surreal, interesting-language-as-the-goal, (collection of) plot-less pastiches that passes for literary these days.
posted by Caduceus at 10:01 PM on November 30, 2009


I assume you bring up Dune because, other than occurring in a nebulous future that has space travel, the idea anything that happens in Dune a scientific possibility is laughable, and thus it is not really science-fiction?

If we limited science fiction to novels that are scientifically possible we'd have Hal Clement sitting around a fire muttering to himself about being lonely. I mean, sure, Campbell used to pretend he believed that science fiction had to be scientifically accurate but he's the guy who pushed for more psionics. So there's that. You can keep fighting the good fight but your cause died along with David Potter (aka Gharlane of Eddore) on Usenet circa 2001. I hereby set followups to alt.dev.null in his memory.
posted by Justinian at 10:10 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wasn't really arguing that Dune isn't science-fiction. 'Twas but a roundabout way of pointing out that Dune would not, in fact, belong on that list.
posted by Caduceus at 10:14 PM on November 30, 2009


Yes that is a shitty shitty list. Where's Howard, Dunsany, Eddison, Zelazny, Wolfe, Ashton Smith, Le Guin, shit a dozen others?

T.H White and I grudgingly admit Tolkien are justified. Leiber is a great writer, but he could hardly be accused of changing the game, he was very much part of his milieu, not a progenitor.

C.S Lewis that is ridonkulous. Even his influence on children's lit is overstated. And Norrell and Link??? Get the fuck out of here. Firstly they were published like yesterday, and secondly, christ, merits or no (definitely no for Norrel, do not get the appeal there) they're about as unique as a melted snowflake.
posted by smoke at 10:15 PM on November 30, 2009


no Gormeghast. FAIL.
posted by The Whelk at 10:25 PM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yes that is a shitty shitty list. Where's Howard, Dunsany, Eddison, Zelazny, Wolfe, Ashton Smith, Le Guin, shit a dozen others?

I'm not sure any of those should be on the list with the possible exception of Le Guin's first Earthsea trilogy, and even there I'd really struggle with it. Some predate and don't really belong in the publishing category we're talking about (Eddison, Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, etc). You can't really put Howard on the same list as Leiber. I'd have to go and re-read Howard and Leiber to see who belongs. Zelazny and I are BFFs but he simply does not belong on the list. His greatest work (Lord of Light) isn't even fantasy. Sure, he belongs there before Kelly Link but Christ lets set the bar a little higher than that.

Wolfe belongs on the six greatest science fiction list not fantasy list. Unless you consider his Wizard Knight stuff, which I think of as relatively minor, superior to his magnum opus Book of the New Sun.

So, yeah, making a list like this isn't easy. I suspect the only thing that would even approach consensus is Tolkien. But when you put Kelly Link on your list you might as well just shut up and go eat burritos or something. Because you sure as hell have lost all credibility. (Note to Kelly Link: Don't be mad. You are a great writer.)
posted by Justinian at 10:26 PM on November 30, 2009


I feel a nerd rage coming on. Help.
posted by Justinian at 10:27 PM on November 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


Two 19th-century English sorcerers and their troubled frenemy-ship

They're wizards on the high seas who have a complicated relationship to some sort of sentient boat? Oh -- oh God -- that's not what he means at all. For fuck's sake, please don't make stupid portmanteaus stupider.
posted by Copronymus at 10:30 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


While we're raging about omissions, I'd like to be the first to point out that China Miéville's Perdido Street Station would certainly make MY list.

(Someone mentioned Scott Lynch; I don't know if he's epochal or game-changing but I sure enjoyed the fuck out of his books, I'll say that right now.)
posted by pts at 10:33 PM on November 30, 2009


Leiber is a great writer, but he could hardly be accused of changing the game, he was very much part of his milieu, not a progenitor.

So many writers have copied Leiber that I think people tend to forget that the first F&GM stories were published in Unknown beginning in 1939, and were very different from the other sword & sorcery of the period. If you wanted to consider Howard more fundamental, in the sense that F&GM wouldn't have existed without him, I wouldn't argue; but modern fantasy is more like Leiber than like Howard.

Also, Leiber is the best that S&S ever got, but of course that's just an opinion.

Link .... about as unique as a melted snowflake

Can you tell me who else is in that puddle? Because I'd sure like to read them. There's a slipstream/surreal subgenre, sure, much of it published (like Link) by Small Beer Press, but to me these writers seem less, rather than more, similar to each other than those in other fantasy subgenres.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 10:36 PM on November 30, 2009


Some predate and don't really belong in the publishing category we're talking about (Eddison, Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, etc).

On the other hand, if you look for those writers now, you'll find them on the fantasy shelf. One could argue that a genre needs, to some extent, to be defined in retrospect; otherwise Wells and Verne aren't science fiction because they predate Gernsback, which is a defensible position for certain narrow meanings of "SF" but not for the common one.

And then there's the other, older fantasy genre, epitomized by John Collier and Max Beerbohm. I wouldn't mind seeing them get their licks in.

And I might not be able to resist putting Jurgen in my top six, if I could ever even think about whittling my list down to six.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 10:47 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Gormenghast was also the first thing I looked for.
posted by chinston at 10:47 PM on November 30, 2009


I think Dune is filed under Sci Fi because its connections to Asimov's century-spanning Foundation (where the timelines and the big ideas dwarf the characters who usher them on stage, and all is glued together by a future-baroque aesthetic) are more clear than its connections to mythology like, say, the Mabinogion or the Niebelungenlied (like Tolkien), or Mallory's Death of Arthur (like T H White), or any other traditional folktales.

As far as I can tell, that's what the distinction between fantasy and sci fi seems to come down to. Vintage. Fantasy is folk. It is very often a re-synthesis of old, well-traversed mythological space, whereas science fiction is built on more modern anxieties and institutions; the classical gods squared off against the modern governments.

Of course this immediately starts to break down. Frankenstein is, well, the "modern Prometheus." And Lewis' Space Trilogy has a foot in both worlds, as it traverses the inner solar system as imagined by medieval cosmology, where each planet governs a sphere of moral principle, concentric and perfect like the inverse of Dante's rings of Hell. It is spacefaring church-punk.

All I can say for certain about genre is that "magical realism" rings like a terrible and elite descriptor mouthed by the critics who came late to the party. Forced to admit the worth of genre literature, but too proud to recant their former oaths to the school of realism, they dodge the question altogether: when genre succeeds as literature, it graduates into realism. Bam, magical.

Such people don't read comic books, either - because those are so very puerile - but they are known to enjoy a good Graphic Novel.
posted by kid ichorous at 10:47 PM on November 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


No Patricia McKillip makes Mizu sad. Fantasy heroines that don't just adopt masculine roles to save the day? That can't possibly mean anything to literature.
posted by Mizu at 10:49 PM on November 30, 2009


My problem with the list is that what I feel to be the "absolute classics" of fantasy usually completely failed to change the game. Which makes sense; one possible criterion of success in the genre is the creation of a world or vision that's extremely difficult to emulate. Grossman would have been on surer ground if he'd split the list into achievers and game changers.

When it comes achievement, hell yes to everything mentioned and linked above, and hell yes to every book in the splendidly curated Fantasy Masterworks series, and a very special hell yes to Avram Davidson, John Collier, R.A. Lafferty, Italo Calvino, J.L. Borges, Russell Hoban, J.S. Le Fanu, and Terry Pratchett.

When it comes to books that changed the game, Grossman neglected to mention the Dragonlance series, the main prototype for the franchise fantasies that occupy a third of an average bookstore's speculative fiction shelf space. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn showed the way for the "dark fantasy" (A Song of Ice and Fire, Malazan) that takes up most of the remaining room. And the Harry Potter and Twilight books as much won the game as changed it.
posted by Iridic at 11:04 PM on November 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


For Little, Big fans.
posted by stbalbach at 11:09 PM on November 30, 2009


When it comes to books that changed the game, Grossman neglected to mention the Dragonlance series, the main prototype for the franchise fantasies that occupy a third of an average bookstore's speculative fiction shelf space.

Not to mention The Sword Of Shannara, which changed the fantasy publishing model from "let's put out any kind of fantasy we can find and slap a Tolkien comparison blurb on it, and it might sell even if it's distinctive or well-written" to "let's extrude another log of non-dairy Tolkien food product."
posted by doubtfulpalace at 11:12 PM on November 30, 2009 [6 favorites]


I'm reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell right now and it is taking a very, very long time. The book is fascinating, definitely, but it is dense. It feels like getting lost in Wikipedia and going from topic to topic, following a very specific path full of fascinating information and the most engrossing details and minutiae....then realizing it's 5am and you need to get up for work soon. The footnotes are essential, and there are footnotes on practically every second page, and those footnotes can sometimes span multiple pages. I recall a few footnotes which took up 3/4 of the page itself. It is dense. I sometimes feel as though I will never finish reading it.
posted by nightchrome at 11:29 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not to mention The Sword Of Shannara, which changed the fantasy publishing model from "let's put out any kind of fantasy we can find and slap a Tolkien comparison blurb on it, and it might sell even if it's distinctive or well-written" to "let's extrude another log of non-dairy Tolkien food product."

Yes, Shannara is the prototype for franchise fantasy, not Dragonlance. The two authors that created the post Tolkien fantasy genre are Terry Brooks and Stephen Donaldson.
posted by Justinian at 12:11 AM on December 1, 2009


Definitely not the list I would've picked, but Grossman's book was such a searing turd that I can't really say I'm surprised. Worst novel I've read all year.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 1:02 AM on December 1, 2009


Since the list in question is entirely silly, I'm going to use this thread as a blatant excuse to recommend excellent fantasy authors who haven't yet been mentioned. Let's see ... no one's brought up Robin McKinley yet ... or P. C. Hodgell ... or Holly Black ... or Jacqueline Carey.
posted by kyrademon at 1:16 AM on December 1, 2009


I think Dune is filed under Sci Fi because its connections to Asimov's century-spanning Foundation (where the timelines and the big ideas dwarf the characters who usher them on stage, and all is glued together by a future-baroque aesthetic) are more clear than its connections to mythology like, say, the Mabinogion or the Niebelungenlied (like Tolkien), or Mallory's Death of Arthur (like T H White), or any other traditional folktales.

Or because it lavishes attention on terraforming informed by thinking current to the time it was written, treats religion as an interesting socio-political tool rather than a source of HEAVENLY FIRE, or because the author spent a bit of time and effort handwaving decent excuses for why current technologies (atomics, computers) might be constrained in a future universe, rather than going OOOOOOH MAGIC.
posted by rodgerd at 1:26 AM on December 1, 2009


If you wanted to consider Howard more fundamental, in the sense that F&GM wouldn't have existed without him, I wouldn't argue; but modern fantasy is more like Leiber than like Howard.

Yep, that's exactly what I meant. I loooooove Leiber (except for how bad the last F&GM books were, christ on a pogo stick), but the Howardian antecedents are undeniable. Having re-read all the Conan stories earlier in the year, I was genuinely shocked by how contemporaneous many of them felt, and I honestly feel that as a stylist his prose and way of dealing with themes is actually far more prevalent in modern fantasy than Tolkien (the eighties and early nineties would be the opposite, I contend).

Justinian you and I have hashed this one out before, and I think our differences are based more around a definition of fantasy than the merits of particular authors. We're in definite agreement, however, about what wouldn't be on our lists - ffs, he might as well have put David Eddings in there.
posted by smoke at 1:42 AM on December 1, 2009


Hah! Poor David Eddings. He had one idea for a series and had to write it over and over again to pay the bills. The weird thing is that as awful as the prose is (and it is awful) and as much of a hack as Eddings is, the first series (The Belgariad, as you know) had a strange kind of power over the minds of 12 year old boys, including myself. I have rarely been as engrossed and lost in a book as I was as a 12 year old reading Pawn of Prophecy on a warm summer afternoon. Does it even come close to belonging on a list like this? Hell no. Is it a good series? No it is not. Will I be eternally gratefull to David Eddings for helping to shape my childhood and my love of reading? Yes, I will.

So thank you, David Eddings, you lousy hack of a writer.
posted by Justinian at 2:13 AM on December 1, 2009 [6 favorites]


(except I just remembered you died a couple months ago and now I am sad. )

.
posted by Justinian at 2:14 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I admittedly haven't read a lot of fantasy--I'm more of a scifi kind of dude--but this is a timely post for me as I just finished the first volume of George R.R. Martin's Fire and Ice series, A Game of Thrones. If that's not one of the most fleshed-out, solid, compulsively readable books I've read in years, well, stick a feather in my butt and call me Sandy. (no, I don't know what that means, either).

I don't know if the series peters out after the first novel, but I had to fight the urge to stop off at the bookstore on the way home today and buy volume two. Great book.
posted by zardoz at 2:39 AM on December 1, 2009


Grossman would have been on surer ground if he'd split the list into achievers and game changers.

Iridic: yes. And furthermore, Grossman's text resembles dust jacket marketing more than solid explanations of why they are game changers. But then except for the price listing, this was clearly written between ipod tracks on the morning commute.

Is it the short format's fault? To be honest, Grossman's book reviews for Time don't really demonstrate any great depth of analysis. Instead of discussing qualities of the works themselves, his articles primarily feature authors, interviews, and summaries of plot.

In his article on Herta Müller, he reckons that Americans won't read about stories about living in a totalitarian society because "there is little in the lives of most Americans that resonates with" such stories. His review of Nabokov's "The Original of Laura" gives us the great insight that the unfinished work is like a "heap of shards" from an "old friend".

It may be the nature of Grossman's publications and editors which limit him. But it would be nice to know why he likes those fantasy books.
posted by honest knave at 3:53 AM on December 1, 2009


I think it probably IS too early to say for sure how much influence she'll have, and I'm not sure exactly how much she belongs in the category (Magic for Beginners is in the Fiction section at Barnes and Noble, not Science Fiction/Fantasy), but I for one will defend Kelly Link's inclusion--

Magic for Beginners made me excited about fantastic fiction again where even the best medieval-world fantasies (like George R.R. Martin's) couldn't. It's a reminder that fantasy is not about kings and wizards, it's about imagining the world as it isn't. And that fantasy can have stylish writing, too. I still go to the fantasy shelves in the book store and look on them with despair, and really, I think I'm just trying to find another Magic For Beginners.

Slipstream and surrealism are probably the most important thing to happen to the fantasy genre this decade, so on that basis, yes. She should be there.
posted by Jeanne at 4:05 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Poor David Eddings. He had one idea for a series and had to write it over and over again to pay the bills.

My understanding is that that is exactly what he did -- he deliberately chose to write genre fiction because it could sell, and once he found a working formula he stuck to it to great success. It was writing as blue collar work, not big-L-literature. I don't think there is anything "poor" about hiim -- the lack of intellect and creativity was all on the part of the marketplace; he simply wrote to it in a workmanlike fashion. It's not that he had no other ideas -- it's that he knew what would sell and wrote that.

I think Dune is filed under Sci Fi because its connections to Asimov's century-spanning Foundation (where the timelines and the big ideas dwarf the characters who usher them on stage, and all is glued together by a future-baroque aesthetic) are more clear than its connections to mythology like, say, the Mabinogion or the Niebelungenlied (like Tolkien), or Mallory's Death of Arthur (like T H White), or any other traditional folktales.

As far as I can tell, that's what the distinction between fantasy and sci fi seems to come down to. Vintage. Fantasy is folk. It is very often a re-synthesis of old, well-traversed mythological space, whereas science fiction is built on more modern anxieties and institutions; the classical gods squared off against the modern governments.


Dune is sci fi because people fly around in spaceships and colonize planets. Conan is fantasy because they use swords and magic, and the overall aesthetic is ye olde times. Any number of writers have blurred those classic genre divisions, sometimes to great effect. But I think the classic separation is more aesthetic (bright sparkly spaceships and urban blight vs smokey taverns and riding horses through the mountains) than thematic, honestly. Dune's aesthetic is firmly sci fi, for all that Lawrence of Dunia uses magic.
posted by Forktine at 4:09 AM on December 1, 2009


Any list of the best fantasy that doesn't include Gene Wolfe's epic page burner Book of the New Sun, is a little tiny bit suspect and worthy of perhaps a half a newt's head modicum of skepticism.
posted by Skygazer at 4:13 AM on December 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


Another vote for John Crowley.
posted by paddbear at 4:16 AM on December 1, 2009


I don't know if the series (ed: A Song of Ice and Fire) peters out after the first novel

No, it peters out after the third novel and then stops completely after the fourth. Which is a real shame.

Any list of the best fantasy that doesn't include Gene Wolfe's epic page burner Book of the New Sun, is a little tiny bit suspect and worthy of perhaps a half a newt's head modicum of skepticism.

I'd say any list of the best fantasy that does include Gene Wolfe's epic Book of the New Sun is more than a bit suspect since it is clearly and explicitly Science Fiction, not fantasy.
posted by Justinian at 4:25 AM on December 1, 2009


I'd say any list of the best fantasy that does include Gene Wolfe's epic Book of the New Sun is more than a bit suspect since it is clearly and explicitly Science Fiction, not fantasy.

Well, I'll defer to your vast fantasist knowledge, but I thought Book of the New SUn was pretty superb either way.
posted by Skygazer at 4:35 AM on December 1, 2009


A vote for Virconium by M. John Harrison. Not that I think it's a particularly amazing set of novels (now collected in a single book), but because it was a game changer. Or what else would you call the first set of novels book by an author who's a favorite of Iain Banks, Neil Gaiman and China Mieville?
posted by Hactar at 4:37 AM on December 1, 2009


Wait, no Dune?

pssst... fantasygreatest. Not science fictionmost boring.


FTFY
posted by DU at 4:46 AM on December 1, 2009


Any list of the best fantasy that doesn't include Gene Wolfe's epic page burner Book of the New Sun, is a little tiny bit suspect and worthy of perhaps a half a newt's head modicum of skepticism.

In my opinion, part of the game of The Book of the New Sun is figuring out that it's actually all far future sci-fi rather than the fantasy it initially appears to be. It epitomizes that old Arthur C. Clarke chestnut about "any sufficiently advanced technology" being indistinguishable from magic. Of course, this all depends on how you define the two genres.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 4:51 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's a reminder that fantasy is not about kings and wizards, it's about imagining the world as it isn't.

Tim Powers. Charles de Lint. Heck, we just had a FPP about Robert Holdstock. These authors and more besides (Barry Hughart, dammit!) have been imagining worlds "very much like our own, but then, following some mysterious alien geometry, they twist themselves into something fantastic" so I am unsure how groundbreaking she is. Or how able she is to stand the test of time. Will Magic for Beginners be read and re-read in 40 years the same way A Wizard of Earthsea is now? I know "greatest" is subjective, but I'm having trouble seeing Magic for Beginners book as one of the six greatest of all time. I would have trouble putting Powers on that list, and he''s one of my absolute favorites. There's just too much other stuff out there that eats up one of the half dozen slots.

Now, if we're looking at fantasy books that have impacted publishing, then sure, we can have Strange and Norrell. That book made it okay for adults to carry around a giant fantasy tome (and not look sheepish about the boy wizard on the cover), which undoubtedly caused publishers to sit up and notice the genre. But then again, where would that book be without the boy wizard? And what is the result? More Christopher Priest books sold? Awkward first books like The Lace Reader or The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane getting published?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:11 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


The two authors that created the post Tolkien fantasy genre are Terry Brooks and Stephen Donaldson.

Ah, how great to see someone else mention Stephen R. Donaldson.

I think it's a shame that he's viewed (by some) as a Tolkien ripoff artist. Sure, he had a magic ring in his first two series... but Donaldson is much more affected by Wagner than hobbits. The experience of The Land and its inhabitants are communicated with some of the most glorious prose I've ever read. And Covenant's own inner philosophical struggles, for some reason, really were a springboard for young me to start questioning his own reality.

I've remained a fan across the years. His SF series, The Gap, remains a singular achievement. I've never read anything more ambitious or IMO well-executed, and have never encountered a series of books wherein there are more really awful people doing really horrid things to each other and still been compelled to finish the story because it was just THAT good.

He's working on a third Covenant series now, it will be the last. It's some of the most complicated plotting I've ever read. Two volumes in, two more to go, and I'm chomping at the bit for the entire 3-4 years between books that it's taking him to write and publish them.

On a side note, Donaldson has been doing an online "gradual interview", which is a fully-searchable database of submitted questions and his answers. If you've ever wanted a fully three-dimensional, even holographic look inside an author's brain, this is a wonderful place to be. I've been reading it for years, and it just keeps deepening.

Also voting for Ghormenghast, which I hadn't even HEARD of until the BBC did a fairly good adaptation about 10 years ago and I ended up seeking out Peake's novels. The third is peculiar, but the first two are outstanding and should be a must-read for any serious fantasy reader.
posted by hippybear at 5:25 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Charles de Lint is a must. I don't like his books very much, and I haven't read one in a couple of decades, but he's the guy who more or less created the "urban fantasy" subgenre, so he gets points for impact.

Donaldson should be, most accurately, on a list of the "6 Fantasy Authors Who Should Never Be Allowed Near a Large Dictionary."
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:51 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thought The Once and Future King was pretty damn boring. I could not have cared less about Lancelot's angsty attempts to be a better person, and only perked up when Mordred started being a pest. Most of my reading is books written before 1960, so I don't think it's just a case of not enjoying older works. Did it have a huge impact on fantasy as a genre?
posted by harriet vane at 5:56 AM on December 1, 2009


Thanks for the reading recommendations. Heh.
posted by sciurus at 6:01 AM on December 1, 2009


Huh. And I just learned that Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides, a great fantasy novel about pirates fighting undead pirates that seemed to have been ripped off wholesale by Disney's Pirates of the Carribean has been optioned as the 4th movie in the series.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:28 AM on December 1, 2009


I thought the list was pretty reasonable, except for Link. Thanks for the recommendations, though, everyone!
posted by Kwine at 6:34 AM on December 1, 2009


And I might not be able to resist putting Jurgen in my top six

alas, james branch cabell has been too neglected to have changed the game

and although i think it's a flawed book, marion zimmer bradley's the mists of avalon did change the game

lovecraft's stories are part of the fantasy genre's dna, too
posted by pyramid termite at 6:34 AM on December 1, 2009


I would argue that while Donaldson and Brooks kept the genre alive, it was Robert Jordan who really changed the game. When the Wheel of Time started hitting the bestseller lists with every release (despite the terrible cover art in a genre dominated by terrible covers) that was when publishing houses started looking for epic multi-volume fantasy. It was a game changer. Martin, Lynch, Rothfuss, etc. all would not have gotten the deals they got without Jordan's success.

In regards to the person that started Game of Thrones. The next two are equally good but the fourth in the series is a holding action. Martin is still not finished with book 5 even though it has been 5 years. And I prefer to call the series by its proper name: Knights Who Say Fuck.
posted by Ber at 6:44 AM on December 1, 2009


At least Powers will get paid even a little for the wholesale looting that OST has had by the previous three movies. On the down-side, we'll get a Disnefied, re-chewed and pasteurized treatment of one of his best books.
posted by bonehead at 6:46 AM on December 1, 2009


and although i think it's a flawed book, marion zimmer bradley's the mists of avalon did change the game

I totally agree; it's not a book I'm planning to reread tomorrow, but I suspect it was incredibly influential.

From the link just posted by Ber:

I thought it was the sixties when people in books were allowed to use actual oaths, rather than just mighty ones. Did genre fiction lag behind?

My impression is that most genre fiction (of the sci fi/fantasy variety, at least) still lags behind. This has always been the thing that, much as I like it, keeps pushing me away from genre fiction. It's not that a good book can't be written without swearing and sex scenes -- but when they are needed, they are needed, and at this stage of my life I'm not interested in reading something written for repressed thirteen year olds.

(There's amazing modern sci fi/fantasy out there; I'm still reading my way through the suggestions in the AskMe I had on the subject a while back and have been taking notes of some of the books suggested in this thread. But the written-for-adults stuff sure seems, based on the bookshelves at the library and the bookstore, like it's in the minority, and most of it is still as limited as ever.)
posted by Forktine at 6:51 AM on December 1, 2009


Just five, eh?

Then T.H. White and C.S. Lewis are out. Fine books, but not game-changers. Let's also omit story collections, as they are not the same as novels - so no Robert E. Howard or Fritz Lieber.

So, let's begin with two slim tomes - otherwise there's no order to the list. It's hard enough just to winnow it down, nevermind rank these.

1) A Wizard of Urthsea - how can such a slim novel change absolutely everything like that?
2) Elric of Melniboné - Scathing, searing social commentary wrapped in an immensely imaginative package.
3) The Hobbit - Has everything LOTR has, only in a tight, approachable tale that fits in one book.
4) Guards! Guards! - NOT the best of Pratchett's Discworld novels (that would be Small Gods), but this is the best stand-alone example of his entire Discworld work, one of the more complete and complex satires in literary history, and a fine jumping-on point for same.
5) Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone - Any novel that gets eight year olds and their grandmas both reading the same 800-page novels as a matter of course deserves some heavy respect. Tight, approachable writing and a carefully cultivated plot that doesn't underestimate the reader overcomes second-rate world-building.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:58 AM on December 1, 2009


What on earth does Grossman mean by "changed the game when it was published"? Which game? The publishing industry? The way writers approach fantasy? The audience's idea of what constitutes fantasy? I don't understand Grossman's context here.


Also, since others are mentioning their favorites: no The Night Land by William Hope Hodgsdon? Blasphemy!
posted by magstheaxe at 7:05 AM on December 1, 2009


I just wanted to thank everyone for posting the wealth of suggestions here. Keep it coming, don't bother telling me why one of the ones on his list suck, but make sure you tell me if OMG YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK IT IS THE BEST EVER because I definitely want to know that.
posted by haveanicesummer at 7:08 AM on December 1, 2009


I liked Magic for Beginners just fine, but its inclusion on the list made me wonder if Grossman was just trying to flatter the hell out of Link for personal reasons. Then I realized that he writes for Time, and it all made sense; the newsweeklies will make a point of putting something relatively new in their lists of all-time greats in any category, just to let you know that they're not a bunch of old fuddy-duddies and that they're hip to whatever the youth of today are reading/watching/playing/listening to.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:08 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


OMG YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK IT IS THE BEST EVER

Bridge of Birds. Hilarious and heartbreaking.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:17 AM on December 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


When Lev was trolling for suggestions I mentioned Lewis Carroll (who I still think deserves a spot.) A lot of the other books mentioned above were suggested as well, so their exclusion was not the result of oversight.

Ultimately, six seems a needlessly small number.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:41 AM on December 1, 2009


Yes, Shannara is the prototype for franchise fantasy, not Dragonlance. The two authors that created the post Tolkien fantasy genre are Terry Brooks and Stephen Donaldson.

I'm a little late to the party here, but I think Thieves World deserves some credit as well. 1978 for Sword of Shannara, 1979 for Thieves' World and then 1984 for the first Dragonlance book.

Though I suppose the Thieves World model, with a shared universe mostly fleshed out by short stories from many different authors is a bit of a different beast than the standard, single author franchise.
posted by Barmecide at 7:44 AM on December 1, 2009


The first Xanth book was in 1977 and there are now over thirty of the suckers.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:49 AM on December 1, 2009


Two books I found at a remaindered books store really added to my reading list:

James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock wrote something called Fantasy: The 100 Best Books which came out in 1988. It would be nice to see an update of this and see what and how the different selections were reassessed. (there are also one for SF, Horror, and Crime and Mystery but I've never seen these but would like to).

A collection called The Book of Fantasy edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo and A. Bioy Casares is a slew of short stories and excerpts from all over the world and time. Wonderful stuff which shows just how big a genre "fantasy" really is.

Other lists of fantasy works I've benefited from:

At the back of Gygax and Arneson's Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Adventure Game Basic Rule Set (1980) is a list of fiction and nonfiction which influenced them. It's an expansion of the list in Appendix N of Gygax's 1979 Dungeon Masters Guide

Eric Walker's Great Science Fiction and Fantasy reviews Walker's favorite authors and books and explains his aesthetic preferences. He has a whole framework worked out for this, which I find interesting because I can calibrate my own personal preferences against it. It helps me choose from books I haven't read, the one's I may better enjoy.
posted by wobh at 7:49 AM on December 1, 2009


Several years ago, I started making my own list with capsule reviews, which I was going to put online, but I keep reading cool stuff, and adding to it. Alas, I'll probably never finish.
posted by wobh at 7:52 AM on December 1, 2009


God yes robocop.

Also Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains. Too new to be a "classic" in any sense, but brilliant and a fantastic read (like all of his work) and, incidentally, the only gay fantasy action hero I'm aware of in modern fantasy outside of slash-fiction--at least the only one whose sexuality is a major part of the work. (Okay, folks, pile on with the obvious gay fantasy action heroes I've overlooked, I don't purport to be an expert.)
posted by The Bellman at 7:54 AM on December 1, 2009


Ah, Dragonlance. My lord did I ever love the first two trilogies in that series back in the day. I'd be afraid to go back and read them now, though.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:55 AM on December 1, 2009


And I don't mean to be bleak* about the Xanth books. I did my time there before moving on to Pratchett. Heck, I suspect were not for Perv Anthony laying the groundwork for light fantasy with Xanth, Discworld would have not been as widely published as it originally was.

* Yes I do. The synopisis of the most recent book: Jumper Spider, a distant descendant of Jumper in Xanth #3 Castle Roogna is caught by a Narrative Hook which hauls him into the foreign realm of Xanth Proper, which differs not in locale so much as scale: now he is the size of a pony. He rescues Wenda Woodwife, who is about to be molested by a village lout, and she becomes his closest friend. Wenda is a lush nymph from the front, but hollow from the back; she's actually a shaped shell formed of wood, magically animated. They decide to make common cause, going to see the Good Magician, who can tell Jumper how to return to his realm, and Wenda how to become a real woman with a backside. YOU CANNOT UNREAD THAT. Along the way they gather an assortment of other maidens and a harpy, and by the time they reach the Good Magician's castle they are a party of six, all with their special problems. Humfrey gives them an assignment: locate and fix the cable that once connected Xanth to Mundania, something only Jumper can do, with the right help. And he adds two members to the group: the twin lovely nineteen year old princesses/sorceresses Dawn & Eve, who are on probation for quarreling over the same man.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:57 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


wobh: That greatsfandf site seems pretty interesting so far but seriously, is the web design and color scheme INTENTIONALLY terrible? It's really unspeakably awful.
posted by haveanicesummer at 8:01 AM on December 1, 2009


Very, very glad to see Leiber on the list. (See username.) I understand The Once and Future King, and I think that putting both it and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – the inferior work by a wide margin – on the list is a mistake, in that it prejudices it far too much to the Young Adult category that fantasy spent a lot of the 20th century getting away from. I'm very uncomfortable with the amount of smug Britishness in general.

The Lord of the Rings is a very predictable choice, and I'm sure it would elicit howls of rage if Tolkien were not on the list. From a publishing standpoint, though, the key turning point was not LotR but The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. It was a terrible, derivative work of fantasy, but it was the sea change where the average fantasy book went from a slim softcover (probably with a risque picture on it) to a massive tome with heavy backstory and countless sequels. (Heck, I'd argue that Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the first Dragonlance novel, was also very important in forming the modern fantasy genre.) Personally, I think the recently published Children of Hurin is a better story than Lord of the Rings and would pick it over the rest of Tolkien's oeuvre.

R.E. Howard's Conan stories were much more influential than Leiber's F&GM stuff, although Leiber was by far the more refined and witty author. (Also a bit later chronologically, but still both in the short story oriented sword & sorcery vein.) In terms of influence it's also missing pioneers of the genre, particularly the long respected Lord Dunsany (King of Elfland's Daughter) and E.R. Eddison (The Worm Orouborous). You're skipping the '60s and early '70s if you don't include Moorcock.

I appreciate that he tried to put women on the list, but he did it wrong. Both are much too recent to be "game-changers," and have no noticeable influence at all. Two women really did have a lasting impact on fantasy, and both get overlooked. Ursula K. Le Guin is the obvious one, and A Wizard of Earthsea is a great read. So are the first two sequels. The less obvious is Emma Bull, whose War for the Oaks is an interesting story in itself, and had a major role in creating modern urban fantasy.

Has anything really changed the face of fantasy since A Game of Thrones? I think it's way too early to pick Clarke's book, and honestly I haven't even heard of Kelly Link. Maybe the first Harry Potter put YA fantasy in its own, but its relationship to fantasy as a genre is tenuous.
posted by graymouser at 8:06 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


All I can see in that list is Lev Grossman saying 'LOOK EVERYONE HARRY POTTER REALLY ISN'T THAT IMPORTANT STOP COMPARING MY BOOK TO HARRY POTTER BECAUSE HARRY POTTER MEANS NOTHING please please please someone buy my book.'
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:27 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


haveanicesummer, I'm sure he's doing the best he can.

Speaking of influencial women in Fantasy, what about C.L. Moore? She was a contemporary of R.E. Howard and he was a fan of hers. He wrote a great story called The Sword Woman based on the Jirel of Joiry stories she had been writing. Jirel is probably the archetype of all the badass babes we see all around us now.
posted by wobh at 8:30 AM on December 1, 2009


Thanks for all the great suggestions for reading guys. I am trying to think of some things I would add, but I don't know if the things I like can be seen as game changers in any sense, and most of the big stuff has been mentioned already. I never read those Gormenghast books mentioned above so i checked them out a bit on wikipedia, found something worth noting:
"The story begins with the birth of the eponymous Titus, as the heir to the throne of the House of Groan, and finishes just over a year later with his 'Earling' or formal investiture as the seventy seventh Earl of Groan, after the untimely death of his father Sepulchrave. As Titus is only an infant in this novel, he plays a minor role. The main plot therefore follows the somewhat bizarre inhabitants of Gormenghast Castle, and in particular chronicles the rise to power of Steerpike, a scheming kitchen boy."
You know, I don't know if we can blame the Arthurian Gareth (Sir Beaumains) for this kitchen boy trope...but honestly if I was a good king and my lands faced some sort of perilous peril, or if I was an evil king and I was worried about my master plan being foiled, the kitchen is the first place I'd go. Then I'd send patrols out to all my lands villager looking for three friends who are boys and the one girl who loves the leader of the boys and kill/recruit them all them, too.

That way no need to keep a standing army or anything, just group of a few guys to patrol, and one eye on the kitchen.
posted by ServSci at 8:30 AM on December 1, 2009


The problem with including Le Guin on a "fantasy" list (as the narrowly defined publishing category) is that her game-changing work, most probably The Lathe of Heaven, was classified "science fiction". The Earthsea books, great as they were, were solid in-gendre when they were published, and I don't think changed the playing field hugely. For the same reason, I agree with your choice of Howard over Leiber, even though the Swords against ...! books were (IMO) much better reads than the Conan shorts.

Honestly, Ann Rice had more effect on the "fantasy" bookshelves than Le Guin, creating the fantasy-romance product, just as Terry Brooks created the extruded fantasy product that preceded it.
posted by bonehead at 8:31 AM on December 1, 2009


No Harold Shea?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:46 AM on December 1, 2009


>Honestly, Ann Rice had more effect on the "fantasy" bookshelves than Le Guin, creating the fantasy-romance product...

Rice created Gothic Fiction?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:49 AM on December 1, 2009


All I can say for certain about genre is that "magical realism" rings like a terrible and elite descriptor mouthed by the critics who came late to the party.

That's an easy charge to make, but I don't believe it's accurate. There's a distinct difference between fantasy and magical realism, and it's not just "magical realism is fantasy that elitists like." To put it succinctly (if oversimplifying a bit), in fantasy, someone or something controls the magic; in magical realism, the magic just happens, like the weather.

Such people don't read comic books, either - because those are so very puerile - but they are known to enjoy a good Graphic Novel.

This is even more clearly wrong. "Graphic novel" refers to a format, not to the quality of the content.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:55 AM on December 1, 2009


Allow me to nth any hate for Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, what a borefest. I grew up on fantasy in the 70's, and yes, this list is typical of lists of this sort, it misses some greats (Gene Wolfe, Stephen R. Donaldson, Anne McAffrey) and gives credit to some whose merit is questionable; but JS is unquestionabley awful. It took me less time to read both Gravity's Rainbow and The Recognitions than it did to slog through Clarke's attempt to mashup the fantasy genre with DFW. Creating a fantasy that no one will ever read twice is hardly a game changing move.
I'll just add a little love right here for the Deryni series by Katherine Kurtz, hardly a masterpiece, but my favorite in the day.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:59 AM on December 1, 2009


You know, I don't know if we can blame the Arthurian Gareth (Sir Beaumains) for this kitchen boy trope...but honestly if I was a good king and my lands faced some sort of perilous peril, or if I was an evil king and I was worried about my master plan being foiled, the kitchen is the first place I'd go. Then I'd send patrols out to all my lands villager looking for three friends who are boys and the one girl who loves the leader of the boys and kill/recruit them all them, too.


Just once I would like to see a fantasy novel that begins with a kindly old wizard explaining to a young farm boy how he is the hope of the world and the bane of the Dark Lord. And then a servant of the Dark Lord shows up and kills them both.
posted by Ber at 9:00 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


No love for His Dark Materials? I'm disappointed in you MetaFilter!
posted by diogenes at 9:26 AM on December 1, 2009


Just once I would like to see a fantasy novel that begins with a kindly old wizard explaining to a young farm boy how he is the hope of the world and the bane of the Dark Lord. And then a servant of the Dark Lord shows up and kills them both.

That didn't work out too well for Voldemort or Herod, though.

It would be neat to see more fantasy settings where, sure the Emperor is the ultimate evil, but his contributions far outweigh the yearly tithe of virgins. Glen Cook's Black Company books do that to some degree - jerks tend to be in power because only jerks are willing to do what it takes to stay in power, and that sometimes means making sure there is a vibrant economy and relative peace.

I mean, if Sauron had taken over, after the initial bloody transitional phase, what would be so bad? He seemed to do okay with the orcs and goblins - they were thriving at the same time the elves were fading away from the world. That's positive results right there. Plus, Sauron showed he was willing to reach out and form a coalition world-government with other major powers like Saruman and Theoden.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:27 AM on December 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


Guys, he's picking a list of six, not fifty. Tons of deserving stuff is going to left off. I think it's interesting to react to the books on the list (e.g., is Magic for Beginners really fantasy? Is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell really that good?) but what's the point in being outraged by the absence of scores of authors ("Where's Howard, Dunsany, Eddison, Zelazny, Wolfe, Ashton Smith, Le Guin, shit a dozen others?") in a six-item list? Especially when everyone's "I can't believe you left this one out" book is different.
posted by dfan at 9:28 AM on December 1, 2009


(P.S. I don't think the list was that good either.)
posted by dfan at 9:30 AM on December 1, 2009


In the YA category, I would like to see some love for Tamora Pierce, particularly the older ones like the Song of the Lionness quartet. I think her strong females helped to sow the seeds of the modern kickass YA heroine.
posted by WidgetAlley at 9:33 AM on December 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


what's the point in being outraged

What's the point? What's the point! That's the whole point!
posted by diogenes at 9:33 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I admittedly haven't read a lot of fantasy--I'm more of a scifi kind of dude--but this is a timely post for me as I just finished the first volume of George R.R. Martin's Fire and Ice series, A Game of Thrones. If that's not one of the most fleshed-out, solid, compulsively readable books I've read in years, well, stick a feather in my butt and call me Sandy. (no, I don't know what that means, either).

The third book is the best one, but I think all of them are great. Yes, even the much-maligned fourth, which is essentially half a book, but it's well done nonetheless. But it would necessarily pale in comparison to A Storm of Swords.

I'd personally be inclined to include this series on a best fantasy list, but as it isn't finished yet, I wouldn't jump the gun.

Someone mentioned His Dark Materials and I think that's a good choice, though I wouldn't necessarily see it as a real "game changer". I love that series though.

What I would add to this list is Harry Potter.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:38 AM on December 1, 2009


It is so great to discover that I am not the only person who disliked Strange & Norrell. I'm slogging my way through it slowly for the second time because I kept thinking I must have missed something the first time through and actually it's great. No. It is not great. It is affected as hell and if I wanted to read "regency prose" I'd go and do just that: hello, Lord Dunsany. If he's just looking for difficult reading, well, Gormenghast features impenetrable dated prose and still is about seven bazillion times better and more influential by far (China Mieville wouldn't exist without it; neither would Cecilia Dart-Thornton, who I am liking these days, just to name two.)

I can see the argument for the Sword of Shannara as a publishing groundbreaker (although, my GOD, those books are so awful I couldn't even get through them at age 12, when I read everything I could get my hands on) but what about Anne McCaffrey? She's not a good writer either but the Pern books came out about the same time as S of S, were multi volume epics and, more groundbreaking by far, featured female heroes who actually did something besides swoon around looking elegant or occasionally break a pot over somebody's head. Or Andre Norton - yes, there are always two moons, but the rest of it is pure fantasy.

Haven't read Link, can't weigh in on that, love the rest of the list, but for my money either Crowley or Powers or Peake or McKillip or Beagle or DeLint should be in there.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:40 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


This sparked a conversation among the fellow nerds I work with and two titles surfaced immediately that should have been on the list:

Madeleine L’Engle, “A Wrinkle in Time”
Neil Gaiman, "Sandman" (try to argue that it doesn't count, go ahead and try).
posted by Ber at 9:44 AM on December 1, 2009


What I would add to this list is Harry Potter.

That is present in its absence. Grossman has a book out which is as much about Harry Potter as The Wide Sargasso Sea is about Jane Eyre.

Magic is mostly misdirection.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:46 AM on December 1, 2009


Put me in the camp with everybody who was underwhelmed by Strange & Norrell. I didn't hate it, but I won't be reading it again.

I enjoyed A Game of Thrones as individual scenes, but the plot often made me angry. It moves so slowly! I realize that's typical of epic fantasy, but in one of the books he introduces an awesome monster that you don't see again for like 800 pages.
posted by diogenes at 9:48 AM on December 1, 2009


what's the point in being outraged by the absence of scores of authors ("Where's Howard, Dunsany, Eddison, Zelazny, Wolfe, Ashton Smith, Le Guin, shit a dozen others?") in a six-item list?

Well, here's the thing. The list was presented as a bunch of books that were both great and changed the fantasy genre as a whole. Even putting personal taste aside, the latter criteria is neither true nor particularly well served by the bunch of books he picked. The point isn't "how dare you forget X" but rather "A, B, C, X, Y, Z, and a host of others are also deeply influential."

I guess this list was just profoundly shallow and displayed very little insight into the history of fantasy as a genre, so people are reacting by discussing works that did in fact contribute to that history.
posted by graymouser at 9:51 AM on December 1, 2009


Glen Cook's Black Company books do that to some degree - jerks tend to be in power because only jerks are willing to do what it takes to stay in power, and that sometimes means making sure there is a vibrant economy and relative peace.
Well, if by "in power" you're referring to the rulers of the cities/nations, then Cook doesn't offer much insight into anyone's reign beyond contrasting inherited social power in the aristocracy to the violatility of polities held together by sorcerous might.

If you look at Croaker's struggle to lead the Company, and the difference between his personal internal perspective an the glimpses we get of other's beginning to see him as "The Captain" a slightly different story about what is required to stay "in power" is told, i think. That story does focus, primarily on the tension between the practicalities of survival, and how far you can compromise to those practicalities before you change the thing you were trying to preserve.

I just bean-plated the Black Company... sorry.
posted by ServSci at 9:56 AM on December 1, 2009


I was thinking more of Lady's rulership in the first series. The Dominion seems fairly prosperous, the Dominator is being kept out of play, and despite their scheming, the Taken are supportive agents of the status quo. The Rebels' motivations seem particularly vague - something about a savior to lead them all or something - and their generals do tend to get Taken with disturbing regularity. In the glimpses we see of post-Lady Dominion, it doesn't feel like much has changed.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:08 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just once I would like to see a fantasy novel that begins with a kindly old wizard explaining to a young farm boy how he is the hope of the world and the bane of the Dark Lord. And then a servant of the Dark Lord shows up and kills them both.
posted by Ber at 9:00 AM on December 1 [+] [!]


Where were you at the start of November? Where?!
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:10 AM on December 1, 2009


I would argue that while Donaldson and Brooks kept the genre alive, it was Robert Jordan who really changed the game. When the Wheel of Time started hitting the bestseller lists with every release (despite the terrible cover art in a genre dominated by terrible covers) that was when publishing houses started looking for epic multi-volume fantasy.

Hmmm, I'm not sure that's supportable. Shannara was the first fantasy to make the NYT bestseller list in 1977. It quite literally launched the publishing house of Del Rey. Jordan was truly massive but TOR books was already a SF&F behemoth in 1990. And there were an awful lot of multi-volume fantasies between 1977 and 1990. Far too many, in my opinion, for Jordan to be considered as having launched the modern genre. If Robert Jordan was the guy who made it happen, what the heck was I reading so much of between 1977 and 1990?
posted by Justinian at 10:16 AM on December 1, 2009


I mean, if Sauron had taken over, after the initial bloody transitional phase, what would be so bad?

I like the cut of your jib! Sauron would make the trains run on time (or the carts anyway). So what if the tracks are made of the bones of hobbits and humans!
posted by diogenes at 10:22 AM on December 1, 2009


From the Robert Jordan school of character development:

If a female character has a bad temper, have her twist her braid when she gets angry. After the first time, you don't even have to explain that she's angry. Simply have her twist her braid! You're done developing that character. Let's move on...
posted by diogenes at 10:25 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Rebels' motivations seem particularly vague - something about a savior to lead them all or something -
Well, you're right that it's never clear that the Rebels are trying to redress any particular evil in regard to the Dominion. I think it's just the extent & spread of the Lady's power that justifies resistance. The fact that her lieutenants are all pretty terrifying doesn't help. But we see the "image over substance" principal over and over in those books.

Even with the issue of the rebellion, the idea that the most harmless individual (my "kitchen boy" above) is actually the key to the entire situation still holds... even if the White Rose ended up not being any better than the Lady.
posted by ServSci at 10:25 AM on December 1, 2009


There's lots of stuff here that I want to respond to, but I'm at work. So I'll just say that I'm pretty sure that the most important book yet to be mentioned in this thread is The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson. Elric, as Moorcock is the first to admit, was directly inspired by it.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 10:45 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


doubtfulpalace:

The Broken Sword is, simply, the best fantasy book about elves. Particularly because it's so damn good at breaking stereotypical notions about elves in the most beautiful ways. Anderson's relatively small fantasy output has had a great deal of impact, between The Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions.
posted by graymouser at 10:50 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure elf stereotypes had really hardened in those pre-LOTR days, but, yes, its treatment of elves is outstanding. I re-read it recently, and it holds up extremely well.

Anderson was famous for his SF, but I like his fantasy much better. Even later entries like The Merman's Children are highly worthwhile.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 10:57 AM on December 1, 2009


I read The Broken Sword recently and I have to add as a caveat for other first time readers, it helps to know something about Wagner's Ring Cycle first. Fortunately for me, I happened upon Radiolab's The Ring and I while reading and a bunch of inside stuff, I was missing suddenly became clear.
posted by wobh at 11:02 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wait, no Dune?

pssst... fantasy greatest. Not science fiction most boring.

FTFY
posted by DU at 6:46 AM on December 1 [+] [!]


Flagged as blow it out your ass.

I am also sad that this thread has over 100 comments, and not a single person has mentioned R. Scott Bakker.
posted by adamdschneider at 12:26 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


That is present in its absence. Grossman has a book out which is as much about Harry Potter as The Wide Sargasso Sea is about Jane Eyre.

Magic is mostly misdirection.
posted by Sidhedevil


Holy god DAMN is that NYT reviewer (Michael Agger) from the Grossman review a raging idiot.

"Perhaps a fantasy novel meant for adults can’t help being a strange mess of effects. It’s similar to inviting everyone to a rave for your 40th-birthday party. Sounds like fun, but aren’t we a little old for this?"

Seriously, regardless of whether his book is good or not, who thinks it's a good idea to give the review a guy with such immature notions of what constitutes things adults are allowed to like? I know it's a mainstream publication and all, but the NYT should be embarrassed by this crap.
posted by haveanicesummer at 12:41 PM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Well if we're going to toss out name without them being "game changers" so much, if you like the harry potter type stuff, a slightly more adult version of it (only slightly) is Sergei Lukyanenko's, Night Watch series.

Torrented the movies, too... not bad.
posted by ServSci at 12:52 PM on December 1, 2009


On the Strange and Norrell tangent, I've read it twice and quite enjoyed it, particularly the second time. I think the first reading is so difficult because you spend most of your time trying to figure out what in the world the book is. To be honest, it reminds me most of Dickens and I just enjoy it as a cool story with a satirical sense of humor.
posted by threeturtles at 12:55 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


So, having started and ultimately not finished Little, Big, who wants to tell me what the hell happens at the end?

I'm curious as to the conclusion, but not curious enough to wade through hundreds of pages of wandering prose and turgid descriptions.

Feel free to message me if you don't want to post a spoiler.
posted by madajb at 1:14 PM on December 1, 2009


ServSci: oh, but that Wikipedia article you quote from does not even begin to cover the true atmosphere of the Ghormenghast novels. Steerpike's manipulations of the royal family are deep and long and utterly devastating, but it is the castle itself, and its inhabitants... THAT is the real genius of Peake's work. It's a complete creation in and of itself, totally standing alone, very gothic and dark and wond'rous in its mysteries.

If you don't want to invest the time to read the novels, I really really really recommend the fabulous BBC mini-series of the first two books. It's made with such a great attention to detail, it does full justice to Peake's strange and mysterious (and very very ancient) castle and world.

It's also one of those stories where you feel there is likely deep symbolic subtext, but trying to discover a 1:1 reading of the characters and incidents always leave one feeling short. I really cannot rave enough about these books. I discovered them in my 30s, and they are one of the few times as an adult I've felt as though I had crawled into a world of new discovery and was reduced to my teenage fantasy-lover wonderment.
posted by hippybear at 1:17 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


cool, hippybear, don't worry I'll be checking them out, once i get through KJ Parker's engineer series and can justify a trip to the bookstore.
posted by ServSci at 1:22 PM on December 1, 2009


If this thread has convinced another person to pick up the Gormenghast novels, it was not in vain.

ServSci, when you do get around to it, I recommend getting the Overlook Press onmibus instead of the individual volumes--the omnibus also has about a dozen academic essays, many of which are both accessible and pretty strong. Also, keep in mind that the third book was posthumously published, and has a questionable editing history. Honestly, as much as I liked the first two books of the trilogy, I have to say that if you stopped at the end of the second, you'd be okay.
posted by Prospero at 1:41 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


No, it peters out after the third novel and then stops completely after the fourth. Which is a real shame.

Hopefully the Ice and Fire HBO miniseries will get Martin writing a bit faster. (I just want to read the end before he dies!)
posted by longdaysjourney at 2:02 PM on December 1, 2009


I think Titus Alone gets a bad rap. It's a mess, but there are great sequences in it. "Boy In Darkness" is a separate novella starring Titus that's fully as good as, and even weirder than, the first two books. I don't remember if the Overlook omnibus includes it.

many of which are both accessible and pretty strong

And one of which is devoted to proving that the trilogy is "phallocentric." It's not that this is wrong, necessarily, but "pre-feminist novel is pre-feminist" doesn't seem like news worth devoting an entire paper to, especially when there are plenty of worse offenders out there (James Branch Cabell, I'm looking at you, albeit with love in my eyes).
posted by doubtfulpalace at 2:06 PM on December 1, 2009


Hopefully the Ice and Fire HBO miniseries will get Martin writing a bit faster.

Yeaaaaah, no. I can't see any realistic way in which the HBO miniseries could possibly do anything except drag it out even further. It's dead, Jim.
posted by Justinian at 2:19 PM on December 1, 2009


Here's my Shoulda Been On There List (especially if he's including Kelly Link):

1. Italo Calvno (any - pick one.)
2. Gabriel Garcia Marquez - One Hundred Years of Solitude
3. Jorge Luis Borges - Labyrinths
4. Jonathan Carroll - (any - but Outside The Dog Museum, definitely....)
5. Jonathan Lethem - Gun, With Occasional Music
6. Thomas Pynchon - Against The Day
7. Richard Brautigan - (any, but In Watermelon Sugar, defintely...)
8. John Crowley - Little, Big and possibly Engine Summer
9. Mark Helprin - A Winter's Tale
10. Norton Juster - Phantom Tollbooth (this book should be on every list regardless of subject, as should Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.)
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 2:43 PM on December 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


Yeaaaaah, no. I can't see any realistic way in which the HBO miniseries could possibly do anything except drag it out even further. It's dead, Jim.

Do you think he just doesn't know how to wrap things up or...?
posted by longdaysjourney at 3:43 PM on December 1, 2009


Well, I have read and enjoyed everything on that (short!) list. And you know, I would pick Lieber over Howard, just for the sheer glory of his parodying a genre he was helping to create in the Swords books. But no Little, Big? C'mon. Kelly Link? Awesome, but not fantasy.

My personal favorites list includes P.C. Hodgell, as someone mentioned above, but she is too obscure and too much a Lieber rip-off to be that influential. As for Susanna Clarke, I do feel her regency meets Dickens vibe is right on target, but I also thought Strange and Norrell got boring. However, her book of follow-up short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, was excellent. This made me wonder if she was just establishing a world with the first book and would follow up with some shorter and punchier works featuring her characters. However, it seems not.

And you know, I love Zelazny with the fire of a thousand suns, but his best work was really sf, wasn't it? Chronicles of Amber kindof sucked.
posted by Malla at 3:59 PM on December 1, 2009


Do you think he just doesn't know how to wrap things up or...?

I think he's lost control of his story and has come down with a weird form of writer's block. Instead of not being able to put pen to paper, he writes and writes and writes but it doesn't actually go anywhere. So every page he finishes actually brings him further away from his goal.
posted by Justinian at 3:59 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


LeGuin definitely should have been on there.

I may have to try the Ghormanghast books again, since people love them so. I hated the main character so much I quit after the first book.

Other good fantasy /fantasy authors, though not sure they shook things up:

Robin McKinley (mentioned previously)
Guy Gavriel Kay
Evangeline Walton's version of the Mabinogion (just a retelling of the myth, so maybe doesn't count)
Paula Volsky's Illusion
Dunsany certainly, previous debate notwithstanding.
C.S. Lewis's Til We Had Faces. (Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe doesn't do it for me.)

Winter's Tale might be decently written (at least til part of the way through), but the overlying message is repugnant as hell. I did enjoy Soldier of the Great War, though.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:15 PM on December 1, 2009


Yesterday's Robert Holdstock obituary thread reminded me how high Mythago Wood is on my own top-ten fantasy list. Many days it's #1, even though it's what you might call strange-and-unusual fantasy rather than sword'n'sorcery fantasy. Not that I have anything against the latter; on days when Mythago is #1, Tolkien is #2. ("Tolkien" is a placeholder cheat that allows me to squeeze The Hobbit and LOTR and The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin all into the top 10 and still only take up one space. "J. K. Rowland" serves the same purpose.)

It struck me not long ago that the very first and for a while only entry on my top 10 list (Lewis) has now gotten squeezed entirely off the top shelf. He still occupies a very high shelf, but one a half-notch or so down from the tippy top. He shares it with Philip Pullman; they stand there squeezed between the same pair of bookends and glare at each other.

I confess to two blind spots. Ghormenghast--I can see that it's very great without, somehow, enjoying it very much. In fact corners of the house, though not the characters, crop up in my darker dreams. And Fritz Leiber--too much writing forsoothly. (Any is too much.)
posted by jfuller at 4:33 PM on December 1, 2009


Do you think he just doesn't know how to wrap things up or...?

The novels are carefully, yet thickly plotted and little things suddenly become important or are referred to later. This richness and care is one of the things that kept me glued to these novels. I'm sure Martin has an overall outline and copious notes. It seems to be the small things holding him up. Partly necessary because A Feast For Crows became half a book. So by rearranging books four and five essentially by geography and to make them run at a roughly parallel timeframe, it was necessary to do some rewrites and make some adjustments.

He's also in the early stages of planning six and has already said certain characters will not make an appearance again until that book.

However, I don't think that Justinian is wrong, in that there may be a pinch of that. Could also be a dash of perfectionism. I know that, as a writer, sometimes something just doesn't ever feel right.
posted by cmgonzalez at 7:29 PM on December 1, 2009


So by rearranging books four and five essentially by geography and to make them run at a roughly parallel timeframe, it was necessary to do some rewrites and make some adjustments.

I think this explanation ceased being sufficient or even necessary quite a few years ago. A Storm of Swords was published over nine years ago. Nine years! That is how long he's been working on the material he wants to publish in A Dance with Dragons. And much of Dance was supposedly finished at least in draft form by mid-2005. That's well over four years ago.

For comparison:

AGoT: Aug. 1996
ACoK: Nov. 1998
ASoS: Aug. 2000

Books 2 and 3 were published at approximately two year intervals. Then we have a five year gap and a bunch of cobbled together bits are published as A Feast for Crows, at which time it is claimed that the next book is mostly finished since the material was simply split in half geographically and it should just be a year or so while some stuff is cleaned up to make the split work and to make the publishing schedule come out properly and so forth. That quick fix up of an almost finished novel has now taken four years with absolutely no indication that the end is even on the same continent much less in sight.

I half hope he just gives up. Feast wasn't up to the same standard as the previous volumes but it didn't tarnish the series. Which is exactly what will happen when Dance gets shoveled out in whatever form a couple years from now.
posted by Justinian at 8:28 PM on December 1, 2009


It obviously isn't a quick fix-up of a completed novel anymore. It's mostly been rewritten, a few pieces moved to book six. Sometimes you can underestimate the process. However, I would count from 2005, and four years isn't an eternity. Plenty of creative people, writers, musicians, others take several years between releases. Just to turn it to music for a moment, I'm waiting for an album scheduled for release next year. The artist's previous release was in 2006. So it goes.

I don't begrudge Martin that. But then again, I'm not as cynical by half.

Book four is a bridge now as it exists, and doesn't contain as much to move things forward, but would it have felt that way if we had Jon, Tyrion, Daenerys, and Bran, among others? I don't think it's bad or as disappointing as many feel. I like the look at characters and places previously unseen (Dorne, Cersei), but it could've been better if less of a lull in the action. But the previous three were so feverishly paced that it definitely feels like a letting up. Because of this, I definitely expect more in the next book.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:37 PM on December 1, 2009


Malla -- I'll grant that P.C. Hodgell is sadly obscure, but I would argue that her homage to Fritz Lieber really stopped around halfway through her second book, so I wouldn't really call her work considered as a whole at this point a rip-off of him.
posted by kyrademon at 10:13 PM on December 1, 2009


But the previous three were so feverishly paced that it definitely feels like a letting up. Because of this, I definitely expect more in the next book.

For a great many reasons I hope you are correct. It's just that I don't expect more or less in the next book because I don't expect a next book and I'm not sure why anyone does.
posted by Justinian at 10:28 PM on December 1, 2009


Martin has also been revisiting his Wildcards days recently, which is to me, a mixed blessing. I'm for it because Wildcards were essentially my introduction to superheroes (rather than comics), but I also want him to finish Song of Ice and Fire before the Wall crumbles to dust.

Also, if you are looking for a semi-standard fantasy adventure series of the 'plucky stablehand makes good' variety, check out Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series. It just wrapped up and was a pretty fun read.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:47 AM on December 2, 2009


R. Scott Bakker!
posted by adamdschneider at 12:42 PM on December 2, 2009


I like Bakker okay but I have a hard time accepting him as a serious contender for having written one of the six greatest fantasies ever.
posted by Justinian at 1:32 PM on December 2, 2009


... incidentally, the only gay fantasy action hero I'm aware of in modern fantasy outside of slash-fiction--at least the only one whose sexuality is a major part of the work. (Okay, folks, pile on with the obvious gay fantasy action heroes I've overlooked, I don't purport to be an expert.)

I can't think of a huge list either, The Bellman, but one that I've always remembered is the main character from Delaney's Tales of Neveryon; he's a bit like Conan with a penchant for young boys. Also, check out Jim Grimsley's Kirith Kirin.

Anyway ... you all have excellent taste and reading this thread warmed my nerdy heart to its core. Seriously.

That is all.

Chronicles of Amber kind of sucked.

*sputters*

Whu ... what? Sucked? I ... no. Nu-uh.

I'll grant the last five books aren't great, but the first five? Awesome. But maybe I'm just a sucker for a fantasy-noir about a backstabbing family of reality-hopping immortals and shape-shifters who travel through tarot card gates, all told through an unreliable narrator. No, wait, it's actually just awesome.
posted by Amanojaku at 2:16 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, I wasn't exactly putting Bakker forward as having written one of the big six, just tossing his name out there as so few seem to know of him. Prince of Nothing is my favorite, though I admit I haven't come close to reading everything there is to read in the fantasy realm, even amng just those things said to be essential. I haven't read more than a few pages of Elric, for example, and I didn't finish the Books of the North. I was a big early Song of Ice and Fire
proponent, but my enthusiasm has cooled significantly. It just doesn't have the zazz that PoN does.
posted by adamdschneider at 3:47 PM on December 2, 2009


I feel a nerd rage coming on. Help.
posted by Justinian at 1:27 AM on December 1 [4 favorites -] Favorite added! [!]


Wow, Justinian after reading most of this thread I realize this was absolutely not a joke...

It would be the mother of all nerd rages (and I mean that in the nicest way possible).
posted by Skygazer at 5:19 PM on December 2, 2009


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