Saturday, June 9, 2012

Suggested Readings in Fantasy

Into the Green by John Howe
As I have sometimes been heard to remark, I'm fond of the fantasy genre. As such, I am often asked by friends and followers of my reviews which fantasy books I would suggest they read, but I am wary of making such suggestions lightly. There are books I adore which are extremely long, complex, and idiomatic--not a good fit for everyone. It also seems my definition of 'fantasy' is considered aberrant by many fans. But to meet the demand, here is the list of my favorite fantasy books with brief explanations of why I liked them, and who I think might enjoy them, along with other books that disappointed me. There will be some difficult, complicated works, as well as some wild pulp adventures, which list I shall continually update as I digest new books. You might also check out my fantasy shelf on Goodreads.

Highly Recommended: 

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

Sketch by Mervyn Peake
This series is my favorite work of fantasy, yet it is also a difficult read, and not one I would casually recommend. As Peake was a professional illustrator, his work is full of long, complex, in-depth descriptions which are some of the most beautiful and surpassing in the English language. People often talk of authors 'painting a scene', but Peake is the only author I know of who lives up to the phrase. He manages to create a truly alien and fantastical world without resorting to magic, dragons, swords, or barbarians; but as I've said, it's not a breezy read. I often found myself closing the book, overwhelmed with awe, needing to sit and ruminate before I could return to it. His are not books which can simply be rushed through.

Full Reviews: Book I, Book III

The King of Elfland's Daughter and The Sword of Welleran and Others

by Lord Dunsany

Art by Bernard Sleigh
The authors of the late Victorian period in England marked a high point for sophistication and inventiveness in fantasy. It is this gestational period from which all modern fantasy, consciously or unconsciously, draws. These were the magnificent dream visions that Lewis and Tolkien tried to recapture in their more stolid works. Dunsany is one of the masters of the British fairy tale, able to use tone to create a pervasive world of strange enchantment that grasps at the reader's soul. His magic is a living thing, possessing its own will and unfathomable laws, twisting pervasively through the warp the story, leaving nothing untouched. The plot of The King of Elfland's Daughter is fairly straightforward, a recognizable British fairy tale, but dreamlike and hallucinogenic, the very inspiration for Lovecraft's brand of alienated horror. The Sword of Welleran and Others is a collection of some of his best short stories. Any author of fantasy should read him so they can learn that a book can only be as magical as it is strange, only as fantastical as it is unpredictable. 

Read The Sword of Welleran and Others for free on Project Gutenberg

Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

La Belle Sans Nom by Manuel Orazi

The maddening intricacies of faerie courts have fascinated European fantasists for centuries, and many of the greatest have explored them, from Dunsany to Anderson to Clarke, but Warner is not to be outdone by any of them in this work. Sinister, strange, and sensual, her exploration of the wiles of the fey is an infectious sort of insanity, drawing in the reader while in the same breath disturbing them. Her prose is lovely, and perfectly controlled. Written late in her life, this is a work by a master of the form, and not a comma is out of place. Despite its title, she concentrates much more on the perfidies of Titania than the machinations of Oberon.

The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

Art by Arthur Rackham
Anderson's great fantasy work was published the same year as the first volume of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, but has gone sadly unrecognized by many readers of fantasy. Since Anderson and Tolkien were both taking inspiration from the Eddas, there are many similarities between the books: the titular 'broken sword' which must be reforged, noble elves, deep-delving dwarves, an odd amalgam of Pagan and Christian morality, a war between the forces of good and evil, and a central character caught between. For many, Tolkien's is the greater work, but there are certain fantasy aficionados--like Michael Moorcock--who maintain that Anderson's vision is the more vivid, less condescending, and a more unified exploration of man's fate, and I join him in holding this book in that high respect. 



Puck of Pook's Hill and Tales of Horror and Fantasy

by Rudyard Kipling

Art by H.R. Millar
Kipling is highly influential for all authors of fantastical or speculative genres, even if some don't realize it. Many of his short stories laid out prototypes for the myths and adventures familiar to us today. The stories of battle, politics, and cultural clashes in these collections were picked up by authors like Leiber, Howard, Moorcock, and Gaiman in their tales, and several whole subgenres are owed to blueprints laid out in his writings.

Full Reviews Here and Here
Read Puck of Pook's Hill for free on Project Gutenberg

Gloriana by Michael Moorcock

Image From Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Moorcock is an inventive and ever-changing fantasy author who was contemporary with Tolkien, and who is still writing today. His Elric saga has been very influential, combining a mythic fantasy based upon quantum mechanics with an antiheroic protagonist. However, I found the magic in the Elric books somewhat more interesting than the plot or characters. Moorcock is very creative, but sometimes his pen moves faster than his mind. In his own words:
"I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I'd rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas."
While the Elric books are competent and interesting fantasies, Gloriana is his real masterpiece. It takes much of its theme and tone from Peake's Gormenghast, but Moorcock filters this through his own style and purview. While Gormenghast is the story of a man from growth to adulthood, Gloriana is about the sensual coming-of-age of a great queen. However, the sexuality is psychological, not pornographic. Otherwise it is a very unusual book, and better to read than to describe. His SF series The Dancers at the End of Time is also quite unusual, and more character-driven than his other work, if not as complex as Gloriana.

Full reviews Here and Here


Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu

by Susanna Clarke

Art by Charles Vess
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a full-length novel set in Napoleonic England, a piece of historical fiction in a world of real magic and wizards. It is a lengthy and sometimes ponderous book, full of wry wit and social intrigues, reminiscent of that style much beloved of students of the Victorian Novel. Yet it also has its fair share of excitement, humor, war, and high stakes. The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a collection of short stories from the same setting, but spread across many periods. It is more light-hearted and lilting. Both books take cue from the British fairy tale tradition, and are much more faithful to it than C.S. Lewis or Tolkien (with their awkwardly pasted-on, stolid theology). Clarke's depiction of the period is masterful and well-researched, and her magic is not merely some system of rules the characters use to solve problems, but mysterious and unpredictable.

Full Reviews Here and Here

Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series

Art by Mike Mignola
Most 80s Sword and Sorcery is cheesy and cliche, whether on film or in print; The sensitivity and wit of Leiber's writing, on the other hand, shows the depth and complexity of inspiration he took in writing his fantasies. The concept of the thieves' guild, now entrenched in the Fantasy genre, is based on a work of Cervantes' which Leiber drew up from obscurity. Like R.E. Howard, Fritz takes inspiration from many a mythic and historical source to create an in-depth, unique world. The stories are fast-paced, funny, and easy to digest, but the characters are hardly shallow. Unfortunately, the quality of the writing falls off by the fifth book, so I wouldn't suggest reading past that. Luckily, each collection stands on its own and can be enjoyed by itself--unlike some fantasy series where everything depends on some big conclusion at the end.


Orlando by Virginia Woolf

A unique, transformative book that prefigures so much about modern writing, from 'Mannerpunk' and Stream-of-Consciousness to Slipstream and Magical Realism. Though over the past century it's been focused on as a 'Lesbian book' (or more recently, a 'trans book'), it's so much more than that, and to treat it in such simple terms is to limit it artificially. It is a book about the art of self-creation, beyond any limit of prescriptive social definitions of gender, or sexuality, or art. It is one of those books which, like Gormenghast or Moby Dick, commits wholly to freedom, never limiting direction or possibility in the text.

Conan The Barbarian by Robert E. Howard

Covers of the Superior Del Rey Editions
Sometimes the classics don't live up to their reputation--many books do not age well, and many influential works are influential because they were so raw--which is why I was surprised when I first read the Conan stories as an adult and found that they were as good as or better than most fantasy. Unfortunately, many later writers interfered with Howard's reputation: most collections of Conan stories contain not only his originals, but the inferior work of other authors. Worse than that, even his original stories have often been altered by less competent writers and pulp magazine editors, so that you cannot be sure--even if Howard's name is on the cover--whether they are really his words you are reading, or some later editor's interpretation. For this reason, I suggest the Del Rey collections pictured above, the only place one can read the original manuscripts of all Howard's stories unadulterated by lesser pens. As befits pulp, his stories are exciting and full of personality, but I was also surprised at the complexity and sensitivity he sometimes demonstrates, despite some impolitic treatment of women and other races. Modern fantasy fans should read his works not merely because they are influential classics, but as enjoyable adventures in their own right.

Reviews: Vol I, Vol II, Vol III


M. John Harrison's Viriconium Series

Illustration for Faust by Harry Clarke
Perhaps more than any other author on this list, Harrison committed himself to realizing a world that was truly fantastical, a world that cannot be tied down by rules and expectations, a world just as shifting and playful as the imagination. His style and voice are expertly deployed, and the balance he strikes between the small, real, feeling characters and the large, uncompromising, often incomprehensible world is certainly a feat. The first book in the series is much more grounded--a more literary take on Lieber or Moorcock--the second a bit too disjointed, but by the third, Harrison finds the right balance, blazing a trail for fresh voices like those of Gaiman and Mieville.


The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison

Art by Ivan Bilibin
Eddison was another inspirations for Tolkien and Lewis, one of the progenitors of the 'created world' story. Like them, he was a linguist and a translator, familiar with historical myths and epics, but unlike them, he was no sentimental romanticist. Though his adventure seems to be, on the surface, one of chivalry, nobility, and honor, there are wry threads of irony throughout. He approaches the story with the excitement and vivacity of a child, and his love of the wondrous and strange is apparent, yet his writing is a poetic recreation of the Jacobean form which gives the book a pervasive sense of strange archaism. Because his language is sometimes complex and unusual, I am hesitant to recommend this book to every reader. Yet, even if some of the words don't come across as more than beautiful poetry, the story itself is not oblique. The further one gets into the series, the more one comes to recognize the way the stories are structured around systems of rebirth, of unending, recurring cycles of moral, magical, amicable, and romantic relationships.


Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic

Art by Arsenije Jovanovic
Experimental modern fantasy, in the vein of Borges and Calvino. Pavic tells his story trough a series of interrelated encyclopedic entries, each one giving a different view of the tale, which the reader gradually pieces together. Pavic encouragesyou to skip around, seeking out whichever entries sound most interesting, creating a unique reading experience each time. The details and characters of his impossible history are vivid and strange, the product of a wildly creative and idiomatic vision, and by inviting you, the reader, to select their own path through that vision, he shows what fantasy stories are fundamentally about: showing you a new path, yet allowing you to choose how you progress along that path.

Jack Vance's Lyonesse

From Arthur Rackham's Illustrations for Undine
Though I found his much-loved Dying Earth stories a bit disappointing, Vance's more lyrical and mystical approach in the first Lyonesse book won me over. Though it begins as a tale of young love, a trapped princess and an exiled prince in a land on the brink of war, it does not unfold so simply or predictably as a chivalric romance. The cast of strange characters--particularly the ever-changing and incestuous sorcerers who try to rule the realms from behind the curtains--help to produce a queerly dark and alluring web of intrigue that drives the action like a stiff wind. I did not enjoy the later books quite as much as the first--like Dying Earth, the story ends up too disjointed, and is missing the deep melancholies which afforded the first book its emotional power.


Ursula K. Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea and Orsinian Tales

Coercion by Diterlizi
While I felt the first book in Earthsea falls a bit flat because the plot is delivered by narration instead of revealing things through the characters' actions, the later volumes are increasingly good--with the subtle, introspective characterization for which Le Guin is renowned, as well as much more focused, personal stories than the general fantasy milieu. Orsinian Tales is a fascinating collection of stories set in an imaginary Eastern European country and taking place in various periods between the Middle Ages and the Cold War. They are all very moving, and the magical elements tend to be rather light.

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirlees

Goblin Market by Arthur Rackham
Takes the brief but powerful vision of Rosetti's Goblin Market and runs with it. Written in lovely, transfixing language, lilting into little paradoxes and touching upon those strange moments in life which are so hard to capture in words. I've said before that there are no other writers I can compare to Peake, but there are bits in this story that evoke some of Peake's strangeness. The descriptions and asides scintillate--but the characters, dialogue, and plot are more usual, and less wondrous. As it transforms more into a procedural mystery story, it loses much of its impetus, but as a whole, the tone is charming and queer.


Perdido Street Station and The Scar by China Mieville

Art by Gordillo
Most modern fantasy is content to keep combining The Lord of The Rings and Conan the Barbarian over and over in duovigintilogies of five-hundred-page books which either have no climax, or a convenient one tacked on as an afterthought. There are others, however, doing something more original. China Mieville takes his inspirations from much further afield, as his list of suggested sci fi and fantasy books demonstrates. He combines elements of Lovecraft, Moorcock, Jules Verne, and socioeconomic theory to create a truly unusual and remarkable world. Yet his books are hardly dull, for all that. They are fast-paced, wild, and full of strange characters. He's definitely worth a look for anyone who wants to branch out from monomythic doorstops that keep topping the bestseller lists.

American Gods and Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Odin the Wanderer by Georg von Rosen
Though the quality of his books varies, the way Gaiman plays with myth and the traditions of storytelling is always interesting. He often deals with dark and strange themes, yet sometimes, I fault him for not being mad enough to carry them off. There is occasionally a very British propriety to his writing that undermines its rawness. Yet in American Gods , he finds a way to unleash that darker psychology, which raises this works above his others. The sequel, Anansi Boys, is also worth a look, particularly the audiobook, performed brilliantly by Lenny Henry. Sandman used to be on this list, but I've since moved it to my Suggestions in Comics.


The Classics

I also think it's important for fantasy fans to look to classic works of literature, not only because of their influence, but because there are some really great bits of magic, myth, and adventure amongst them, and if we only read stuff by modern authors, we're missing out on a lot--especially because a lot of modern stories are just dumbed-down copies of these great books. Here are some examples, with reviews linked, when I have reviewed them, plus links to the Amazon pages where my preferred translations may be purchased as well as older translations available for free from Project Gutenberg:
I've also found that real histories and adventures are often more fantastical than fiction, particularly when those histories are about different times and cultures. Some examples:

Also Read

These are fantasy books I enjoyed but which do not quite measure up to the indispensable works above (full reviews linked):
  • Peter S. Beagle: The Last Unicorn (deeper, darker, and more complex than the animated film version)
  • K.J. Bishop: The Etched City (intelligent, pulpy Sword & Sorcery, but fails to reach the strange heights of Harrison or Mieville)
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley: Mists of Avalon (passable rehash of Arthurian myth as written by your zany wiccan Women's Studies professor)
  • Jorge Luis Borges: Dreamtigers (many curious ideas and promising contradictions)
  • Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities (a bit uneven, but the high points are solid)
  • Neil Gaiman: Neverwhere (fun, but pretty standard modern fantasy stuff)
  • Mercedes Lackey: the Valdemar series (fairly tame, but not insulting or vapid)
  • China Mieville: Kraken (madcap, but without much depth or originality)
  • Michael Moorcock: the Elric and Corum series (very imaginative and influential, but uneven and less skilled than his later work)
  • C.L. Moore: Jirel of Joiry (one of the earliest modern fantasy heroines, but the stories are repetitive, and tend to normalize emotionally abusive relationships)
  • Edith Nesbit: Five Children and It (A classic British fairy story full of wit and humor)
  • Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials Trilogy (not quite fun enough to be a romp, not quite deep enough to be intriguing)
  • John Ruskin: King of Golden River (not bad, but didn't really stand out compared to contemporaries like Dunsany or Kipling) (read it for free online)
  • Joanna Russ: Adventures of Alyx (the best bits were more SF than fantasy, doesn't really capture the Sword & Sorcery style)
  • Charles R. Saunders: Imaro (an interesting afro-centric take on Conan-style Sword & Sorcery adventures, but a bit too modern and superficial in its politics)
  • Clarke Ashton Smith: Hyperborea (as ever, Smith has a curious style, but the stories and characters don't quite come together) and Zothique (grand-daddy of all Orientalist sword & sorcery, though the flat characters can't match the grand setting)  (read them for free online)
  • Jack Vance: Tales of the Dying Earth (conceptually interesting, but often scattered and silly)
  • Diana Wynne-Jones: Howl's Moving Castle (vastly different from the popular anime loosely-based on it, highly imaginative but somewhat anti-climactic)


These are books which I hoped would be better than they turned out to be. (full reviews linked)
  • Piers Anthony: the Xanth series (adolescent, goofy, and weirdly pedophilic)
  • Eoin Colfer: Artemis Fowl (unfunny, overextended, cliche)
  • Terry Goodkind: the Sword of Truth series (some fun ideas, mostly cliche and full of obsessive bondage sex and political rants about Ayn Rand)
  • Robert Jordan: Wheel of Time (aimless, bland rewrite of Tolkien)
  • C.S. Lewis: the Narnia series (erratic, condescending, flat characters) 
  • Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams (repetitive, watered-down, no change in tone)
  • George Macdonald: The Wise Woman and Others (lacks wonder, feels like reading a sermon)
  • George R.R. Martin: Game of Thrones (lackluster writing, poorly-structured, full of unimportant characters, never goes anywhere) 
  • Patricia McKillip: The Riddle-Master of Hed (inoffensively bland and cliche)
  • John Norman: the Gor series (can't really call this a 'disappointment'--indeed, it was slightly better than the awfulness I was expecting from its reputation)
  • Christopher Paolini: Eragon (The plot of Star Wars with dragons, laughable prose)
  • Tim Powers: Anubis Gates (One of the early works of Steampunk, I found the writing too awkward to get very far)
  • Terry Pratchett: the Discworld series and Good Omens (I found myself groaning and rolling my eyes at all his jokes)
  • J.K. Rowling: the Harry Potter series (some interesting characters, but the plotting is needlessly drawn out and chaotic, author uses magic to cover plot holes, the world doesn't make sense, the conclusion is sudden and convenient)
  • J.R.R. Tolkien: Lord of the Rings (an impressive intellectual exercise, but overall stodgy, unromantic, and convoluted) 
  • Jeff VanderMeer: City of Saints and Madmen (ambitious, but over-explained, obsessively metafictional without much payoff)
  • Karl Edward Wagner: the Kane series (Wagner's less heroic Conan-analogue lacks personality, style generally overwrought and lacking in tension)
  • Gene Wolfe: Book of the New Sun (the few interesting ideas present are not explored, story centers on a narrator who is both unpleasant and dull, arbitrary magic solves plot conflicts)

Other Suggestions

These are some books which, through a combination of suggestions from reader friends and various reviews, I've decided are worth checking out, with occasional notes on what I've heard about them and Amazon links:
  • Daniel Abraham, A Shadow in Summer
  • Jedediah Berry, The Manual of Detection
  • Emma Bull, War for the Oaks
  • Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion and The Sharing Knife series
  • Jim Butcher, Dresden Files
  • A.S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye
  • Jonathan Carroll, The Land of Laughs
  • Brian Catling, The Vorrh (Alan Moore's Introduction)
  • G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who Was Thursday 
  • John Crowley, Little, Big and The Deep (Non-standard fantasy, like Gormenghast) 
  • James Branch Cabell, Jurgen (Gutenberg)
  • Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
  • Jeffrey Ford, Physiognomy
  • Mary Gentle, Ash: A Secret History
  • William Goldman, The Princess Bride
  • Alasdair Gray, Lanark
  • Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant
  • N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season
  • Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and Children of Earth and Sky 
  • G.I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson
  • Alfred Kubin, The Other Side
  • Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels
  • Michael De Larrabeiti, Borrible Trilogy
  • Tanith Lee, White as Snow, Night's Master (Flat Earth Series)
  • Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora (Series of adventures, like Lankhmar) 
  • George Macdonald, Phantastes
  • Julian May, the Boreal Moon series
  • Walter Moer, The City of Dreaming Books
  • Michael Moorcock, the Von Bek series
  • Andre Norton, Witchworld
  • Victor Pelevin, Sacred Book of the Werewolf
  • Fletcher Pratt, The Well of the Unicorn
  • Andrzej Sapkowski, the Witcher series
  • Robert Silverberg, Dying Inside
  • Mary Stewart, the Arthurian Saga
  • James Stoddard, The High House
  • Sheri S. Tepper, Grass
  • A.E. van Vogt, The Book of Ptath
  • T.H. White, The Once and Future King
  • Jack Williamson, Darker Than You Think
  • Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind

To Avoid

These are authors who often come up in discussion, but who seem like they would be best avoided, based on what I've read and heard--and often what the authors themselves have said about their work.

  • Joe Abercrombie, The Blade Itself is repetitive, and mostly serves as an exposition dump to setup later books.
  • R. Scott Bakker, After reading interviews and chatting with him on the topic, I didn't come away feeling he had a very interesting approach to fantasy.
  • Terry Brooks, The original 'kill off random characters' author, and one of the first to lift Tolkien's plot whole cloth without bothering to hide it.
  • Susan Cooper, Another fantasy author with a shopping list plot that has nothing to do with the personalities or motivations of the characters.
  • Stephen R. Donaldson, Lord Foul's Bane, which kicked off the grim fantasy movement, is full of bad writing and fetch plots.
  • Steven EriksonMalazan Book of the Fallen spends so much time throwing new ideas at you it forgets about things like character or dialogue.
  • Patrick Rothfuss, the Name of the Wind is lackluster, juvenile escapism.
  • Brandon Sanderson, His writing and talks on fantasy make it seem like he's missed the point on how stories work.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this list, you may also like my Suggested Readings in Comics.


  1. Nice to see you have your own blog up and running.

    Yes, I know your argument about Herbert's Dune; I think it merits inclusion :D.

    Did you ever read anything of Julian May? Saga of the Pliocene Exiles and the follow-on books? I would be curious as to your thoughts.

    And even more curious to know how you would have liked each (or take just one) of the books that were recommended and disappointed to have been written ie what you have written or done/set out differently?


  2. Well, I don't know about 'up and running', since it took me two months to notice someone had posted. I mostly set this up because I always get requests for Fantasy book suggestions. I do have some other ideas for posts which I should probably get to--explain certain concepts I use a lot in my reviews, but I haven't gotten to them yet.

    I could stick Dune in this list, but I'd probably put it in my 'sci fi suggestions', instead, if I ever read enough sci fi to merit such a list. Never read Julian May, no--otherwise she'd be on the list, somewhere. I'll have to take a look.

    As for the disappointments, yeah, I often think of things I would have done differently. That's one of the great parts about disappointing books: every one gives you a new lesson on something to avoid doing.

    For a lot of them, I'd just try to do more editing. Things like Game of Thrones. Harry Potter, and Wheel of Time just get so long, but not to any real purpose. The length doesn't make the books better or deeper, it's mostly just authors twaddling in the worlds of their creation, which I don't think is worth committing to paper. It's like watching a jam band just go on and on noodling the same scales.

    I mean, there are people who like to listen to that, and people who like to get into overblown fantasy, but I haven't met anyone who could explain why it was a useful or interesting choice on the author's part. That's actually one of the topics for an article I've outlined for this blog: the obsessive microcosm worlds that fandoms obsess about.

    A lot of books I was disappointed in just tried to do way too much. It's really hard to write a complex, multifaceted work, and I respect an author who knows their own limits and sticks to them. A simple, straightforward story is great. Any complexity an author wants to add after that point needs to have a good reason to be there. Then again, most disappointments leap right to the overly-complex without every establishing a good story in the first place. That's a big problem in priority.

  3. Great suggestions. All of these books I've either read and loved or already intended to read and love before I looked at this list. With the exception of Neil Gaiman. I absolutely can't stand Gaiman's writing style. I wish I loved it, but I don't. I really feel cursed for disliking him - it's like I miss out on that many more hours of enjoyment.

    I was pretty worried when I started Good Omens, because Pratchett's my favorite fantasy author alive, and Gaiman, well, I've already dispersed my thoughts on him, and so I wasn't sure which way the book would go. In my opinon it was great in the beginning, and quality slowly depreciated until it became unbearable.

    I've heard so much praise about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, to the point that I'm afraid of starting it, for fear that I'll be disappointed. I have a copy - someone gave it to me many years ago. Whenever I look at it, all I can think of is the sheer intimidating size of it, and the sheer number of jubilant critics ringing bells on the back cover. And I think, "Do I want to start this? Because I'll be obliged to finish it whether I like it or not."

    Speaking of size, I quite like Game of Thrones, but that might just because I haven't read enough to get tired of it yet (I'm almost finished book 1). The writing's fine - it's workman's style, which means it's not trying to impress anyone, it's just trying to get a story across. I also loved Harry Potter, but that might be because I was the right age for it when it came out.

    There's just so many things George R. R. Martin and J. K. Rowling are doing *right*, and I'm no longer that picky about my fantasy.

    Which brings me to Terry Pratchett. I highly suggest you pick him up again, because Discworld is probably the best series still going on today. It might be a problem of which books you've read. Have you taken a look at Small Gods or Night Watch? Or Eric - well, you might not enjoy Eric, but I did. How about Making Money and Going Postal? Even if you don't find them funny, the books still hold up as plain-old fantasy novels, the writing style is spectacular (especially for fantasy).

    Lastly, have you ever taken a look at Andre Norton's Witch World? I only mention it because you put Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, and RE Howard on your suggestions, and Norton's like the fourth brother in the band.

    1. Well, even if my list didn't tell you anything new, I'm glad that it accords with what you generally feel to be worthwhile in the genre. There is a part of me that sympathizes with your feelings on Gaiman. I think he's a strong writer, and I'll read any book of his I happen to get my hands on, but I often wish those books were a bit better than they are.

      His style is so polite and deliberate and well, British, yet his themes are often otherworldly, horrid things, and I rarely feel that meshes. I think if he were a bit more crazed and intense, a bit more Alan Moore about it, that would really set it off. As it is, I tend to find his portrayals of madness a bit silly and singsong.

      Though there are a few of his stories that manage to get it absolutely right, such as the short story Snow, Glass, Apples and the early to mid issues of Sandman.

      I appreciate your apprehension about Strange and Norrell, as it does have quite the reputation amongst discerning fantasy readers. I hope that when you do get to it, it doesn't disappoint you.

      As for Game of Thrones, I grew tired of it before even finishing the first book, then had my impressions confirmed by others who had continued on with the series. I came to feel that both he and Rowling did so many things absolutely wrong that the few things they did passably did not make up for it .However, I still have quite a few intelligent friends who enjoyed much of both series, so I wouldn't begrudge you that.

      Same thing with Pratchett, actually: most of my fantasy-reading friends adore him, but I've never liked anything of his that I've read. I haven't looked at the books you suggest, and I sometimes think about going back and trying another one of his books. However, I don't like reading books I don't like, so I generally avoid authors if I've already read some of their material and found nothing enjoyable in it. But with so many people insisting, it's only a matter of time before I try at least one more time.

      I haven't read Norton yet, but I have heard his work mentioned, so be sure: it's definitely in the running. I'll add him to this list, too.

      Thanks so much for the comment.

    2. Her work. Alice Norton changed her name since there weren't many female/fantasy writers in the 40s and 50s, and mostly males made up the reading audience.

  4. Great list...
    Of course, I agree with some and disagree with others.

    I just want to argue about some books.

    1. Harry Potter. It is an OK book for kids reading, even thought I put so much hope on it after reading the first one, which I find engaging. It opened an opportunity for a great series. Unfortunately, I felt behind, loosing steam, teeming to much on the unnecessary story of live of Potter and the gang. It picked up the steam a bit on the Goblet of Fire, and then lost the steam entirely until the series finished. Instead of a book of the struggle of the wizard world, it becomes just a battle of Hogwarts.

    2.Game of Thrones.
    I cannot feel bored on this one. The most boring part will be the waiting for the next installment to come up, it has been a long delay. Yes, there are a lot of (unnecessary) characters, that's why we need the index (and the Westeros website). Even Martin some time loose track with the character and have to refer to the website. But the reason I like this series is that it deals with real human characters, put into fantastic realms. You can feel their struggle, and sympathize with. The world building is just so complex and mind blowing, not to mention the setting of the conflict which is at par with the world building. But I think what the reader like the most, is that they can relate with the character, especially the Starks children, and Tyrion Lannister.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, I'm glad you enjoyed the list.

  5. Hapaxion,

    Thanks for this excellent review of the literature. Your tastes dovetail with mine to a remarkable degree, so of course I think it's an excellent list. ;)

    Among the things I like about your analysis is your emphasis on both the quality of writing and the depth of the story and characters. Most fantasy is constrained by a relentless exposition of plot. Your choices favor nuance, subtlety, and ambiguity over plot-directed clarity.

    I've read most of the books listed on all your lists, and agree with most of the choices you've listed as your favorites and disappointments. I particularly agree with your inclusions of Peake, Clarke, and Leiber -- all highly underrated -- and your exclusion of Rowling, whose works I find to be entertaining as a children's series but deeply flawed as literature.

    I do have a few points of disagreement. Considering your tastes, I think Wolfe might be worth another look. He's doing something quite different from other authors, in-genre or without. His narrators are exceptionally unreliable and he uses their unreliability to frame and re-frame the reader's understanding of identity and history. His stories are dour and ponderous, to be sure, but they also have an unequalled power to disconcert. They also reveal subtle explorations of character, myth, and what it means to be human. But perhaps we differ in what we look for in our narrators. To me, the presence of an unlikeable main character is never a cause for criticism. Rather, it is the presence of an unnuanced main character that troubles me. Whatever one thinks of Wolfe, his narrators are rarely less than wildly complicated.

    I am not as impressed by Mieville or Gaiman. For example, I found Perdido Street Station to be evocatively written, but it failed to explore its more interesting labor-related strains, becoming little more than a derivative horror story by the end.

    I note that you've listed Lanark as a book to try. I think it might fit well with your tastes. Another book worth considering adding to your list is David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus. Its intensity of vision is remarkable.

    While I've read much of what you've listed, thank you for drawing my attention to Howard. The pulp associations of his works scared me away, but if he's similar to Leiber, I'll definitely have to take another look.

    Also, since I find your tastes so appealing, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on Roger Zelazny's (First) Chronicles of Amber. I dearly loved these as a child, but do not have an adult's perspective as to their continued value. Are they worth re-reading with an older perspective?

    Thanks again for your thoughtful post.

    1. I agree that an unpleasant character isn't generally a reason to criticize a book, but then, it depends on what makes him unpleasant. After all, I enjoyed Flashman and Death in Venice, despite the agonists being in no ways sympathetic or pleasant.

      As for Wolfe, I found his main character unpleasant in addition to being dull and cliche. I do not know what nuance you discovered there, but I didn't see it. There were some Vancian elements in the story that were intriguing and subtle, but as you say of Mieville, I never felt that Wolfe let these ideas play out in what was otherwise a generic fantasy monomyth. I go into more detail in my review, which is linked from the list above.

      As for Mieville and Gaiman, I agree that many of their works are derivative, though a few reach beyond that to something more unusual and interesting. For example, the cosmology in Perdido Street Station and its bridging of Moorcock's speculative quantum magic and Lovecraft's unknowable meta-technological horror.

      As for Horawd, it's true that some of his stories were written when he need money, and are suitably full of titillation, but there are others marked by a surprising depth and exploration of psychology.

      Thanks for the suggestions about Lanark and Zelazny, though I hear Lord of Light is his superior work. As for Voyage to Arcturus, I kept that off this list as I've categorized it under sci fi, though there is often a thin line. Thanks for the comment. glad you found the list roughly agreeable.

  6. Thanks for putting this list together--it's encouraging to know that there is still quality fantasy I haven't read yet, and can look forward to.

    I was surprised by the absense of Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, as that is generally a staple of this sort of listing and seems like something you would appreciate (well-written, well-structured, psychologically believable characters). Have you read them?

    1. I have not read them, and looking at GR, few of my fantasy-reading friends have, either. I'll have to add them to the list. Thank you. Glad you liked the list, hope you find something worth reading.

  7. Hey! I look foward to read some of the books in the list. I just hope that I can digest it. Since I'm a young reader, I'm quite afraid to approach books like these. If the language is too hard for me, I'll just give up or continue to read with zero understanding. But I genuinely love fantasy books so I'll give it a shot. I just want to say thanks! It's uplifting to know that there are so many good fantasy books to read. Thank you again.

    1. Yeah, I understand that. Sometimes I start a book and it's just not working. But, while there are some difficult books on the list, there are some that could be enjoyed by a person of any reading level, so if you're worried, I'd say start with the more straightforward ones, for now. Thanks for the comment.

  8. Hi there,
    I noticed your list tends to focus on pre-1980/TSR pulps.

    I just wanted to throw in the Oz series is wildly creative and worth a read. Of your top books I think my fav is the Broken Sword.

    The Elric and Conan stories are all things I like pieces of but the whole body of work is just ok. The early Lankhmar stuff holds up well, but the later stuff is terrible.

    Gaiman and Mieville have some interesting ideas.

    Based on your recommendations, I think the best pre-1976 fantasy stories not on the list are Oz, the Black Cauldron series for young adults, pieces of Clark Ashton Smith, and The Face in the Frost.

    The stories I most feel influenced swashbuckling fantasy are Harold Lamb historical adventures (excellent) and Tarzan (good).

    Other things you may be interested in are Michael Shea (he wrote a Dying Earth pastiche) and Nifft the Lean and In Yana (both vivid and weird). Dilvish the Damned by Roger Zelazny.

    1. I never liked the Oz books but then, I haven't read them since I was younger. My impression then is that they were zany, episodic allegories with rather flat characterization--but then, I also never liked the film. At the time, I preferred Alice in Wonderland, as it seemed to promise much more depth and possibility; however, I haven't given Oz a glance since then, so I couldn't really say. What is it about that series that you would say makes it worthwhile?

      I agree that both the Elric and Conan stories have their highs and lows, as I did mention some of the problems with them, as well as the fact that past the fifth book, the Lankhmar series is not worth reading.

      As for Ashton Smith, I suppose I tended to group him in with the rather uneven group of Lovecraft collaborators like Derleth, De Camp, and Carter, but having read some of Joshi's praise of him above the others, I'll no doubt give him a closer look at some point. As for the Black Cauldron, I've heard that it's a bit simplistic, particularly for a reader who already has some experience with experimental fantasy and history.

      I have heard of Lamb's work, though haven't gotten to it yet. After reading the first Tarzan book and finding it terribly lacking, I did not go on with the series.

      I don't think I've had Shea's work suggested to me before, and looking at Goodreads, none of my other literary fantasy friends have reviewed him. I'll have to look up some opinions on his work.

      I've heard more of Zelazny's sci fi work than his fantasies, but certainly something to keep in mind. I'll probably end up hitting 'Lord of Light' first.

      thank you for the suggestions.

    2. I just finished rereading the Eddison books again and I wanted to mention how much they remind me of a vampire story. A collection of people living in decay. I've got more thoughts I should try to put down at a later date.

      Other than that, there is a good documentary that combines cyberpunk and Northrop Frye I think you would enjoy:

      It should have more than 429 views.

      Also, I've had a chance to read a few books by Marina Warner and all of them were worth the read.

      As far as Oz, the strength is in the oral retelling. Fantasy has moved into large tomes and 10 book epics, but there is a strength in fantasy stories that can be retold to children at bedtime.

    3. "the pastoral is secretly dangerous"

    4. "A collection of people living in decay."

      Huh, yeah I can see that--makes me wonder if a meaningful close comparison might be made between it and more recent postmodern fantasy like M. John Harrison's.

      "I've had a chance to read a few books by Marina Warner and all of them were worth the read."

      Huh, haven't heard of her, I'll have to look her up.

      "As far as Oz, the strength is in the oral retelling."

      But what makes it worth retelling? I mean, there are loads of great books out there we can read to children at bedtime, so I'm curious why you think Oz should be chosen over those other options. Plus, you're complaining about ten book series, but Oz stretched to 14.

  9. Hey!

    I've discovered your comments on goodreads and found that blog and marvelous list. I have to say that i'm not really in the "fantasy" literature just because the topics that you criticized... basically too much "cliches" as badass heros, sex-object women, "cartoonish" depictions... i'm an amateur ilustrator by myself and sometimes it's really hard to understand that lack of imagination, and well, i have been all my life thinking that i dislike fantasy when the fact was that, probably, i dislike BAD fantasy. Right now i have the feeling that i have a starting point (your list) to re-discover the fantasy that charmed me when i was a little child.

    just to mention... have your read the book Mythago Wood? it's my actual lecture and it's a little bit different fantasy, it would be interesting to know your opinion about it.

    by the way, i have to say about gaiman that he really gets better in short histories. My favourite, october in the chair, which i think is really good.

    Well, thank you for everything, i will read a lot of the books you listed here, and i have to beg you sorry for my english, i'm from Barcelona and i have to improve it!

    1. Oh, I'm glad my list seems interesting to you. I definitely know what you mean about all the unpleasant fantasy out there--unimaginative, lacking vision, just ugly and crude. It often seems as if the whole genre is made up of books like that, but it's mostly just the bestsellers. There are much deeper and more interesting veins of fantasy for those willing to look. I hope my little lest helps you to find something that inspires you.

      I'm also an illustrator, but I guess I tend to think that there's also a lot of bad, dull fantasy art out there, alongside the bad fantasy writing. It's up to us to seek out something better, and to make something better. Well, something like that.

      I haven't read Mythago Wood, but it looks interesting. I'll add it to the pile. I also haven't read that Gaiman story, but I agree that his short pieces are often better than his longer works.

      Thanks for the comment.

  10. I have to say, this list was interesting. Unfortunately, I haven't read most of the books on it, so I can't voice an opinion on the list overall (although several were already on my to-read list and I think I will comb your list for other books that I might enjoy). But, from what I have read, I agree with most of your reviews.

    Artemis Fowl - I was captivated with this series in my early teens, but in recent years, they haven't really held much interest for me.

    Eragon - This is about the same as Artemis Fowl. I loved the first two books, but I barely made it through the third, and I haven't even been able to finish the first hundred pages of the last. I'm sure I'll finish it one day (just for the sake of completeness), but I'm not expecting it to be wonderful.

    Narnia - I was never really fond of these books. They were good enough for one read through, but I'm sure that I'll never pick one up again.

    Game of Thrones - I got through the first book and actually liked it, but somewhere in the first few chapters of the second, it just lost me. It just seemed so... forced to me. I never got back into it.

    Lord of the Rings - I've never been able to get through any of the books. I might have more success if it wasn't written in 1940's speak, but it was and it remains forever on my to-finish list.

    Sword of Truth - I agree with you completely on The Sword of Truth. I made it a little bit farther than you (a little bit into book 8) and I did actually like Faith of the Fallen (not my favorite of the series, and not really sure why I liked it though). Somewhere along the line, this series changed from a moderately promising fantasy series to a preachy, anti-socialistic, repetitive work that made me lose all respect for the series.

    His Dark Materials - I never really liked these books. I don't know what put me off of them, I just don't like them.

    Harry Potter - I tacitly disagree with you on this. I admit, it's not the most in depth, stunning series out there, but it's decent, and enjoyable.

    Mists of Avalon - I could never get into this book. I'll probably try it again someday, because most of what I hear about it is good, but it's certainly not on the top of my to-read list.

    Wheel of Time - This is the only series that I really disagree with you. I love the Wheel of Time. With a passion. I love it's complexity, I love it's scope, I love that it's romantic without being sappy. It's not perfect, but I it is by far my favorite fantasy series ever.

    I'm kind of hesitant about reccomending books to you, because I don't feel like I've read enough of the books you like to have a clear sense of what to suggest. However, I like The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V.S. Redick and it's sequels. I am also a huge fan of Brandon Sanderson. He's a masterful and creative storyteller.

    1. Hey, thanks for the comment. I'm glad you found my list interesting, and I hope it helps you to find some good books, whether they are books I liked or not.

      I have heard of Sanderson before, but most of my reviewing friends seem to think that he's pretty cliche, but fun. I've heard the same thing about Redick's book, actually. But then, that's also how I feel about Wheel of Time, so perhaps that's just a difference in how you and I approach books and what we're looking for.

      Anyways, thanks for the comment, for sharing your thoughts, and for weighing in with some suggestions of your own. It's always nice to hear from other people who are on the same journey, looking for new and interesting fantasy books to read.

  11. I don't think I'm as widely read as you in fantasy, but I do agree with you on Gaiman, Peake, and Mieville. Johnathan Strange and Moorcock are on my to-read list. I've read a bit of Poul Anderson's science fiction, thought it was decent, might approach his fantasy at some point, and I've been meaning to tackle Moorcock for a while.

    A fairly recent author you might appreciate is Catherynne M. Valente. I've a few of her books and recommend her often. In terms of language and style, she's very talented, and I like her approach to world-building and characterization. "The Orphan's Tales" is probably a good place to start, though it's split into 2 volumes and kinda lengthy. I liked "Palimpsest" as well, but its appeal seems more limited.

    I don't see Tanith Lee listed either. I like her, but she's insanely prolific and my experience of her work is pretty limited. I do like "The Secret Books of Paradys," but it's more a collection of short stories and novellas set in the same world and tends to be spotty as a result. I've been meaning to read the Flat Earth series for a while.

    I've also had Zelazny recommended to me a lot. I've read one short story, which I liked, and one novella, which I was lukewarm on. Apparently "Lord of Light" is considered one of his best.

    1. Well, make sure you read the right Moorcock--a lot of his stuff is kind of half-formed, whereas he got a better grip on his ideas later. Elric, for example, has a lot of weak elements, despite being interesting overall, while Gloriana is a much stronger, more unified work.

      Valente's work looks interesting, I've added her to my 'to-read' pile. As for Tanith Lee, I've certainly heard her name before, but only as a kind of cliche, fun fantasy, I don't know anyone who would consider themselves a devoted reader of hers.

      I've heard the same thing about 'Lord of Light', I hope it turns out to be as good as its reputation suggests. Thanks for the comment and suggestions.

    2. Yeah, I can see that with Tanith Lee. She a good stylist, has a few interesting ideas, but isn't as deep or original as some. The Paradys stories do appeal to my love of 19th century decadent and Symbolist art/lit, so if that sort of thing appeals to you, you may at least find them entertaining.

      Glad Valente is of interest, hope you enjoy her stuff. I still haven't caught up on her more recent work. She's published so much in the last 5 years, kinda hard to keep up with.

    3. I love Tanith Lee and I wouldn't say she is cliché fun fantasy. Her books are dark, poetic, arabesque,she writes with beautiful prose and weaves dramatic and inspiring stories...

  12. Poor Narnia, apparently as unsophisticated as the day is long, but these books were what got me started in reading fantasy so I love them, but my sentimental attachment aside, I still think the Magician's Nephew is pretty great.

    1. Well, most of the books that got me into fantasy were stuff like Piers Anthony and Dragonlance books, and I must say that I hardly look back on them with any fond sentiment. But then, there are always those rare books that are just as good when you read them as a child as they are when you reread them in adulthood--a lot of great fantasy works on both levels.

  13. Great lists! I'm currently plowing through them now, with only Perdido Street Station completed at the moment. What I looking forward most of your review is The Witcher Series. Do you have any opinion on them?

    1. Haven't read them yet, myself, but I've had them suggested to me and hear they are interesting.

    2. From what I see in the game at least, the grittiness there is sort like Perdido Street Station, not much like in those GoT. The whole thing on Witcher itself is already an interesting.

      But yeah, game itself is a whole different thing. Plansescape Torment probably wouldn't wok as good in form of novel.

    3. Yeah, Torment is one of the few games that really explores the sort of story you can tell in a game that you couldn't tell in a book, taking advantage of the possibilities of the medium. Certainly, you could tackle the ideas presented in Torment in a book, but it would require a very different approach, and wouldn't provide the same experience as the game.

      As for The Witcher, I hope it does have a more sophisticated approach than the grimdark melodrama of something like Game of Thrones.

  14. I've just finished The King of Elfland's Daughter and I must said that it was a wonderful experience, thank you for enlighten me with recommendation of such book. From the back of the book and some commendation in it, I've realized that there are any other Dunsanny's work:

    Have you checked about it?

    1. I'm very glad that you enjoyed Elfland's Daughter, and also that I was able to help you find a book that you liked. I haven't read Charwoman's Shadow yet, but I do want to read more Dunsany when I have some time. Right now I'm only reading stuff that relates to the novel I'm trying to write, but once I'm done with that I'll be reading a lot of fantasy again.

    2. I'm very glad that you enjoyed Elfland's Daughter, and also that I was able to help you find a book that you liked. I haven't read Charwoman's Shadow yet, but I do want to read more Dunsany when I have some time. Right now I'm only reading stuff that relates to the novel I'm trying to write, but once I'm done with that I'll be reading a lot of fantasy again.

  15. I just discovered your list, and really agree with the vast majority of it... I've read almost all that you listed (good, bad , and ugly) and have often recommended the same. Sadly, there is not much post 1980's that I really consider good. Too many rip-off Tolkein clones- all in the obligatory large size, multivolumes. Goodkind, Weiss&Hickman, Jordan, just to rattle off some of the more visible ones.

    Jack Vance is probably my single favorite author (if I had to choose just one) and his Lyonesse story is probably his finest work. I really like the Dying Earth collection, and its been incredibly influential, but its definitely not for everyone. His other works often straddle the line between fantasy and sci-fi, so they are hard to classify. One of the few living real grandmasters, and absolutely NOT a clone of anyone.

    Fritz Leiber is another whose other works are well worth the effort. While the Lankhmar stories are what he's most famous for, he has plenty of other stuff.

    The R.E.H. stuff is another of my favorites- not just the Conan stories, but Solomon Kane and others. These might be more fairly classified as "adventure" rather than fantasy, but they are great rousing tales with no hidden messages.

    Dunsany is another classic author that influenced so many later- his stuff feels familiar because its been copied so many times. King and Charwoman's are both top of the line.

    Like another reader suggested, give Gene Wolfe another try- half the enjoyment is figuring out what "twist" is going on at the time. I do agree the later parts do almost preach, but I could tune it out a lot better than with Narnia.

    Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood is another that I believe is a true classic, and well worth the time.

    I didn't care for Mr Norell, it seemed to try to hard to be dry and witty.

    Gaiman's stuff I do enjoy, but didn't think any of it is destined to be truly classic.

    I enjoyed Moorcock in my teens (long ago) but it did not age well for me. Reads fine as purely an pulp style adventure level, but the writing style and cardboard characters just... meh. This includes Elric, Hawkmoon, Corum, Cornelius, Eternal Champion, and his non-multiverse stuff. Hate to say it, but I put him with the Piers Anthony and Dragonlance type stuff.

    Most of Guy Gavriel Kay's stuff is very readable, but I feel he sometimes gets too pretentious.

    For the record, Zelazny's Lord of Light is his best work by far, but its definitely science fiction. Its one that has been so trimmed and tightened, you wish there was more filler. Theres a reason it won both Hugo and Nebula awards. I liked his other stuff also, Amber, etc but they were not that exceptional. Mostly a product of their time, with no real competition.

    Dan Simmons' Illium (and Olympos, the sequel) are tough to like, IMO. Definitely also in the speculative sci-fi vein, as opposed to traditional fantasy. His historical fiction book "The Terror" is probably the best horror novel I've read, and certainly the most unnerving. With all of his works, the amount of research he does is amazing, and it shows.

    Of all the current (last few years), I did like "Lies of Locke Lamora" (sequel was a let down), I found Rothfuss enjoyable but not deep, and just didn't care for Sanderson.

    Depending your tastes, HP Lovecraft's dream cycle stories (very distinct from his Cthulhu Mythos) feel like first cousins to Lord Dunsany. Worth reading, and most are public domain and free on the net.

    1. Yeah, I've been planning to read more Vance after I finish my current writing project, as my next one will be in the Sword & Sorcery genre and I'll be looking for inspiration. I'm also planning to read Gavriel Kay's stuff, Ilium, Lovecraft, Ashton Smith, more Dunsany, and some others.

      "give Gene Wolfe another try- half the enjoyment is figuring out what "twist" is going on at the time"

      Well, that was part of my problem with him: the whole book seemed to be about the twists and metaplots rather than the actual plot or characters, which made the book more of a word-search puzzle than a novel, which didn't particularly interest me. I mean, I enjoy a good subtext, but there also needs to be some quality text laid on top of it.

  16. Your scathingly delicious review of Goodkind is what brought me here, but I'm a little surprised there was no Erikson on your list. You may want to give him a try.

    1. I have heard of him, but only really in negative terms from friends who found his work dull and cliche, so I haven't given much thought to seeking him out.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Oh-My-God! You have really not read him. A ten book series, it is one which throws fantasy on its head and shatters all its conventions. The world is pretty grand, and not one of its ideas could be found anywhere else. You MUST check the individual reviews on goodreads out (some good links have been given below), and you shall understand the points upon which any negative comments could be made are invalid. His writing is very descriptive, the action is gripping and ripping, and at times subtly moving (and very deeply moving). The main series is over and no one could ever accuse Erikson of getting lost in his world so much as to lose the track of his characters. His characters are deeply engaging, and at times, we laugh and cry with them. Maybe I'm making a big deal, but being a follower of yours and a writer-to-be, I must say that this series totally changed my view on fantasy and literature. A weaver of a masterpiece, Steven Erikson always makes us bask in the depth of his story (being a former archaeologist himself), and then shatters all our guesses (the books are confusing and one needs attention to grasp them) with even better storylines. They are just grand. No description can convey what I mean to say here. The problem is with the first book, where many of the readers abandon the book, due to its monstrosity. When he wrote the first one, Erikson was not very mature in writing. He spent a lot of years crafting the grand multiverse of the rest of this series and then placed them carefully, weaving each layer under the next, until the series was wrapped up carefully in awesomeness. You'd understand that only by a re-read, as the plot twists in many of the latter books are already found in the epigraphs of the former. And the series just gets better after the second. Though the books after the second deserve no less than five stars, the first is worth four. And the peculiar style (which is relatively underdeveloped in the first book) is unfamiliar to the readers. Being a follower of your reviews which are very helpful, and up to the point, I beg of you to check out the reviews of Malazan books individually on Goodreads (here are the links of some good ones:
      Book 1-,

      Book 2-,

      Book 3-

      Overall rating by Goodreads- 4.77

      You can yourself see the points on which most of the reader have given it 5 stars and then you may understand that the points on which the few have underrated the book are simply invalid. I first discovered the grand scope after I was left confused by the end of the first book and utterly curious by the second, and read some of the major overall plot details of the series and some spoilers on the wikia. I was simply blown away. The third book shall leave you hopelessly addicted. And I was shocked to find out that many of the details are given in the first book itself, but I'd failed to see that suspense through, so engrossed I was in reading it. If you call him dull, you cannot be more wrong. PLEASE try it out, I request you as a fellow reader and one who appreciates your work.
      P.S. The name is Brandon Sanderson, not Brian. And the first book by Patrick Rothfuss isn't so bad as to be avoided.

  17. I really appreciate your efforts with formulating this list. It has given me some really fantastic reading. The only thing Since I don't know you the only thing I would safely recommend would be Lud-In-the-Mist by Hope Mirrless, Little, Big by John Crowley, as well as his AEgypt series has been praised by famous literary critic, Harold Bloom. Perhaps the Lyonesse books by Jack Vances.

    I'd stay away from the Dresden Files. I guarantee you would not like it. I seem more hesitant on authors such as Daniel Abraham or Guy Gaveral Kay as they will probably be a misses with you. This is just a really rough guess on my part.

    1. Yeah, I've heard those are good, I'm definitely looking forward to them.

      I'm hopeful about Kay because I've read some reviews that make his work sound interesting--war and intrigue and interesting cultures--all that. Abraham I've heard compared to George R.R. Martin, and since I didn't like Martin, I don't know if I'd like Abraham.

  18. Sorry, I made some bad typos in my last post. Also, I'm curios to know if you what your thoughts are regarding other books by authors on this list. Such as Poul Anderson. I came across a review of Three Hearts and Three Lions that the reviewer didn't like though he liked The Broken Sword.

    1. Well, this list has pretty much everything I've read by these authors, so I can't really say what their other books are like. Of course, if I read an author and enjoy their work, it does make me more likely to read more of it in the future, and Anderson is definitely an author I'd like to read more of.

  19. Sadly, I just found out that Jack Vance passed away last week, at the age of 96.

  20. While I realize this is a fantasy list, just had to comment about another book...The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Its usually classified as historical fiction, as its set in the 1300's, but I've discovered that its popular with many fantasy fans.

    Having just re-read it after almost 20 years since the first time, my opinion has jumped up even more about it.

    Its not an easy read if you can't puzzle out any Latin, and if you have no interest in medieval European history.

    It IS a clever murder mystery, with lots of symbolism and associated mysticism- this book makes DaVinci Code look like kid's reading.

    So again, not traditional fantasy, its close enough for many.

    1. Yeah, I've heard of the book--seems like it could be interesting. I used to have quite competent Latin, but that was years ago. Perhaps I shall have to brush up on it. In any case, thanks for the suggestion.

  21. Hi there.
    I really enjoy your reviews, I just would like to suggest that it could be possible to follow your blog by email... and if I could see your profile without having a Google+ account, that would be great too...
    Your blog is too good for Blogger, you should move to wordpress ;) :P

    1. Ah, the demands of a voracious public--I'll think about it. Glad you enjoyed my reviews and posts.

  22. Oh that's too bad you got rid of Sandman (understandably, I'm guessing you don't really count comics among your fantasy repertoire), but I like that new photo of Odin the Wanderer, it's perfect for American Gods.

    1. One of my readers asked me to make a list of fantasy suggestions, so while I've been drafting that, I removed Sandman from this list.

  23. I enjoy your blog. I've been going over your suggestions seeing as I loved Clarke, Moorcock, Mieville, and Gaiman but have never really touched the pre-1950's fantasy. I'm still wary of Swords and Sorcery, since the image in my head is juvenile power fantasy with barely dressed women at the feet of over-muscled white men but I think that might be unjustified.

    I think you'd at least be interested in R. Scott Bakker's Second Apocolypse series.

    If I were to describe it, it fulfills the promise of what Martin could have accomplished. Rakker develops psychologically complex characters within a morally-grey setting, surrounding a sweeping war. A Holy War, in this instance. Although the war itself is less relevant than the interplay of politics underneath it and the vague threat of a supernatural force returning and dooming them all.

    It asks the reader what is right, when all the characters' motivations are laid naked before you. From their most noble aspects to their most pathetic and monstrous.

    1. "I'm still wary of Swords and Sorcery, since the image in my head is juvenile power fantasy"

      Yeah, a lot of it is that, and I had a similar disinclination for the subgenre. Yet, I've found there are some quite subtle and intriguing writers out there, particularly Leiber and Howard's better work. You may not find them to be so, but I do think they're worth giving a try.

      "I think you'd at least be interested in R. Scott Bakker's Second Apocolypse series."

      Thanks for the suggestion--I've added him to the list. His blog certainly looks interesting. I also like to hear that his plot is about a holy war, since far too many Medieval-esque political fantasies eschew the Church, which is like writing about American politics without talking about corporations. Thanks for the comment, I'm glad you feel you've gotten something out of the blog, and good luck on finding some interesting books to read.

  24. Great list and good taste! I agree almost completely with you here (except Neil Gaiman).

  25. Oh-My-God! You have really not read Erikson yet. And you've mentioned that Malazan book of the fallen was referred to you as dull & cliche. A ten book series, it is one which throws fantasy on its head and shatters all its conventions. The world is pretty grand, and not one of its ideas could be found anywhere else. You MUST check the individual reviews on goodreads out (some good links have been given below), and you shall understand the points upon which any negative comments could be made are invalid. His writing is very descriptive, the action is gripping and ripping, and at times subtly moving (and very deeply moving). The main series is over and no one could ever accuse Erikson of getting lost in his world so much as to lose the track of his characters. His characters are deeply engaging, and at times, we laugh and cry with them. Maybe I'm making a big deal, but being a follower of yours and a writer-to-be, I must say that this series totally changed my view on fantasy and literature. A weaver of a masterpiece, Steven Erikson always makes us bask in the depth of his story (being a former archaeologist himself), and then shatters all our guesses (the books are confusing and one needs attention to grasp them) with even better storylines. They are just grand. No description can convey what I mean to say here. The problem is with the first book, where many of the readers abandon the book, due to its monstrosity. When he wrote the first one, Erikson was not very mature in writing. He spent a lot of years crafting the grand multiverse of the rest of this series and then placed them carefully, weaving each layer under the next, until the series was wrapped up carefully in awesomeness. You'd understand that only by a re-read, as the plot twists in many of the latter books are already found in the epigraphs of the former. And the series just gets better after the second. Though the books after the second deserve no less than five stars, the first is worth four. And the peculiar style (which is relatively underdeveloped in the first book) is unfamiliar to the readers. Being a follower of your reviews which are very helpful, and up to the point, I beg of you to check out the reviews of Malazan books individually on Goodreads (here are the links of some good ones:
    Book 1-,

    Book 2-,

    Book 3-

    Overall rating by Goodreads- 4.77

    You can yourself see the points on which most of the reader have given it 5 stars and then you may understand that the points on which the few have underrated the book are simply invalid. I first discovered the grand scope after I was left confused by the end of the first book and utterly curious by the second, and read some of the major overall plot details of the series and some spoilers on the wikia. I was simply blown away. The third book shall leave you hopelessly addicted. And I was shocked to find out that many of the details are given in the first book itself, but I'd failed to see that suspense through, so engrossed I was in reading it. If you call him dull, you cannot be more wrong. PLEASE try it out, I request you as a fellow reader and one who appreciates your work.
    P.S. The name is Brandon Sanderson, not Brian. And the first book by Patrick Rothfuss isn't so bad as to be avoided.
    P.P.S. I needed to post this reply as a comment, and I'd be glad if you replied.

    1. Oh, I have read reviews of it on Goodreads--that's part of what convinced me not to read it. Not only the negative reviews, mind you, but also the positive ones. For example, in the reviews you link to, they talk about needing to reread it to understand it, that the real plot under the surface is the interesting part, praising Erikson for 'worldbuilding', and for 'unexpected deaths'. To me, this sounds like the same sort of metagame that authors like Wolfe, Martin, and Jordan play, where the structure of the book is needlessly complex and poorly-structured so that the reader has to sort through reams of lackluster prose and endless secondary characters looking for puzzles to solve.

      I've read complex texts like Paradise Lost and the Illuminatus! trilogy, and I've never felt I had to reread them over and over just to understand what's going on. I don't consider that to be a good quality in a book. Sure, rereading lets you get deeper into a book, but it isn't strictly necessary to have some understanding of it.

      This is because good books work on various levels--they are effective on the surface, and they are effective deeper down. I am not interested in rereading a bit of cliche and poorly-structured fantasy in order to get to the 'better story' underneath--I'd rather just read a story that was good both on the surface and deep.

      While the reviews you link do seem enthusiastic about the book, they don't talk about the things I would associate with a 'groundbreaking' or original fantasy work: the way the prose is structured, the way themes are explored, the way the author separates himself from the herd. Sure, they seem to appreciate that he doesn't explain everything to the reader, but that doesn't mean the things he refuses to explain are actually worth reading about. If I'm going to change my mind about this, I'll need to see a review that explains just what exactly makes this book interesting or worth reading.

    2. I do understand your point, and was afraid of the same before I started it. I wouldn't really like the series if it were such as you mention. But friend, we don't really need to read it twice to understand it. It means that the book is so engrossing that most of us fail to notice the details within the details. I'm not really able enough to write a good review about it, but I shall try to post you a link of such a review. The story is one of the deepest and the most original that I've ever read. And as the plot deepens, we really realize what's going on. But on the surface, the plot is thoroughly captivating, and that's what makes us want to delve so deep in the book. I was afraid to start the series for another reason- I'm unabble to keep a book down until I finish it. The experience of proceeding with reading the book was rewarding. The secondary characters in the books (except the first, which is the least good) are all very interesting. Also, we rarely get to actually know who is the major character, for all form a tiny (or in cases of some characters, major) part of the superb world. It just has so much detail (and it is actually interesting, unlike the others like Jordan & Martin- I don't like them enough to continue their series) and beautifully descriptive prose. Some may have difficulty carrying on but most dedicated readers understand the talent, effort and research Erikson has put to the book so properly that they don't mind the size of the series. And the structure may seem unfamiliar in the first book, but as we progress through the series, we understand the sheer genius of it. And that's what has made me decide to read all of the books related to this awesomely crafted and realistic world. And as for unexpected deaths, this is nothing like Martin. Anyone may die, which the prose suggests, if he messes things up on an inter-dimensional scale. Gods conflict, major battles take place and civilizations rise and fall, beneath all of which are the tales of the people and events that cause this. And the beauty beneath the magnificence is never dull and it makes us think deeply upon the lives we live. But to reach that understanding, one must be dedicated enough to get through the first book. Please check it out yourself, at least when you're free. As it seems to me, you'll definitely agree.

  26. I absolutely love love love Gormenghast!! The story was great, the characters fascinating and the writing so lush. I just discovered it last year and savoured it as I read it, not rushing as I can end up doing sometimes. The illustrations he did were also excellent. Thanks for this great list of books, some I've read and some not. Never seem to make thru many of Neil Gaiman's novels though I love The Sandman comix dearly. Also I liked some of his work for youth like The Graveyard Book.

    1. Yeah, I find Gaiman to be hit-or-miss, too, but he's a skilled author, and some of his stuff is quite good. Glad you liked my list. Hope it helps you to you find something worth reading.

  27. Gormenghast is just masterful fantasy. Peake masters fantastical characterications i find, same way Tolkien masters myths and history.
    Your asoiaf review left my staring though. You posts lackluster writing and too many unimportant characters.
    Martins characters certainly does not the best the world or something like that, but every one of them enriches the story, moves the plot and are developed, beyond what i would expect. Also i see you only read about half GoT. I can see you calling that one book lacking, because it is quite the infant of the series. But Martin complexifes profoundly and somehow i managed to figure out several unreliable narrators in later books. UNDERLYING PLOTLINES, to write large. Most people was bored by book 4&5, but i think you would love them. More subtle and thrilling fantastical fiction there isnt.

    You sure have classy taste, thats true.

    1. Thanks, that's kind of you to say.

      As for Martin, I just didn't find anything in his first book to be interesting. The characters, writing, plot, and structure all seemed lackluster. It just felt like a soap opera from an author obsessed with being grim and gritty. In order to reconsider him, I'd have to see an in-depth critical analysis of his finer points, demonstrating how he builds characters, why his plots are more than just an unending soap opera, what is original or effective in his work--things like that. So far, all I've gotten from people are insistences he's good followed by plot summaries, which are not going to convince anyone.

      Thanks for the comment.

    2. Thanks, that's kind of you to say.

      As for Martin, I just didn't find anything in his first book to be interesting. The characters, writing, plot, and structure all seemed lackluster. It just felt like a soap opera from an author obsessed with being grim and gritty. In order to reconsider him, I'd have to see an in-depth critical analysis of his finer points, demonstrating how he builds characters, why his plots are more than just an unending soap opera, what is original or effective in his work--things like that. So far, all I've gotten from people are insistences he's good followed by plot summaries, which are not going to convince anyone.

      Thanks for the comment.

    3. Thanks for fast reply!
      You can surely find other posts which delve into Martins rich writing. If i can come up with my best advice, i think you are biased.
      Martin began writing his story as SF, the he turned to fantasy. Actually, i think asoiaf is his first fantasy. So therefore i think you should view asoiaf as more of a multi-genre. Expecting to read the new Peake, Howard or Vance would diminish the experince of be served a relatively un-fantasy. Actually asoiaf is an character epic, with fantastical elements layered on top. So for me, which read lots of other genres, and mediums, would especially enjoy how Martin twitches the new Tolkien direction fantasy is taking. The most legitimate complaint i can make is that he rides of the Lord of the rings wave. Martin took the most popular fantasy, and wrote a story that was seemingly an imitation.
      But Martin, shrewd as he is, decided to make a fantasy satire.
      His great recurring theme is fantasy vs reality. So Martin used Tolkiens style as the fantasy backdrop, and developed out-of-this-genre characters as the contradict. Well, the story starts out as a cliche, intendedly. The honorable lord, the spirited princess, the noble bastard, the greedy dwarf, the corrupt knight, he took these fantasy tropes and developed a strong, shining character ensemble over the course of the story.
      The plot and world, is gratiotius and ruthless. Martin tok the appeal of erotic fiction, and integrated it into characters and yes, the plot. It is fantasy, so can you complain for having an adult fantasy, whereas adolescence is lacking? I think sex life actually is important to several characters. Most notably Tyrion, Jon, Dany, Robb, Cersei, Jaime and several whores we meet. It plays a role, it defines relationship, lust and weaknesses. It is unfortunate if readers find these scenes to be unecessary detailed, but so is rest of the world. Violence, world building, plots and most importantly character development are ever inbounding.
      The result is almost a living thing. Martin creates such diversily developed charaters, both mentally, psychologicaly and physically, it becomes very bonding. It is a all about them, but in the end, plot wins always over. As the story go on, Martin becomes increasingly subtle. A note to you, is that several blogs should be at hand to analyse what is literary happening, in heavy serialised chapters. It becomes arguably more dull as the story goes on. Actually its Martin writing more mature and professional.

      To end my post i would like to summarise the style of each book.
      A game of thrones- Introduction, fast paced, simple written, unsophisticated and tropy.
      A clash of kings - expansion, hard written and explosive, stylistic and more revealing, actually gritty and horrorific, foreshadowing, messy and thrilling.
      A storm of swords - starts calmly, then climax, morally conflicting, epic. emotional, long, rushing, intelligent, more viewpoints, end of the first act.
      A feast for crows - New beginnings, new viewpoints, narrative is splitted, aftermath, world-building reaches an ultimatum, new character development, detailed, challenging, outstandingly written chapters.
      A dance with dragons - everyones favorite characters are back, other part of splitted narrative, nearing 20 viewpoints, character development and plots more subtle than ever, unreliable narrators, sprawling, sophisticated, world becomes weirder, very relatable characters and all streams are beginning to join again.
      Winds of winter - not yet released, winter has come, excerpts are very well written.
      Thanks for reading my observation!

    4. Just to add, if you just don't want to read this series, i highly recommend the TV show Game of Thrones. It is far more tightly plotted, great acted and not to mention spectacularly produced. It motivated me to read this looong series, which i usually are not interested in.
      The first season, i would say, are better than the book. The second are equal to the source, but deviates. Even more so in season three, but that is when the show really picks up.
      Probably the only great fantasy adaption other than lotr.
      And the criminally unknown Gormenghast of BBC.

    5. Yeah, I wouldn't be surprised if the TV series is better, since you would have actors interpreting each role, screenwriters streamlining things, all that sort of stuff. One of the biggest problems successful authors have is a lack of good editing. As the old adage goes, in the beginning of your career, you won't be published, no matter how good you are, while at the end of your career, your work will be published, no matter how bad it is. However, based on what I've heard about it, it still doesn't sound good enough to bother watching.

      "Probably the only great fantasy adaption other than lotr."

      Oh, I don't know--there's the first Conan the Barbarian, 13th Warrior, Solomon Kane, John Carter, Neverwhere--and the Harry Potter films aren't bad, either.

      "And the criminally unknown Gormenghast of BBC."

      Oh, I didn't care for the miniseries at all. I don't think it captured the tone or depth of the books. It felt like they were trying to turn Peake's work into a pretty cartoon. I did like the casting of Christopher Lee, though.

    6. I was a Potter super-fan for 13 years. Yeah, the movies are really good, but compared to the videogames 1-4, they pale. If you are interested in gaming, you should check them out, they are classics.

      About Martins book editing, you really nailed it.
      But as a defense, ive got to say it wasn't exactly the editing skills either.
      His original manuscripts tend to be 1500, finished 1100. If manuscripts exceed that point, they are splitted, into separate novels.
      It is crazy to know then that the first three novels was intended as one.
      Martins doom and glory, definitely is his ever growing narrative.
      It is like The Wire on steroids, more viewpoints every book!
      But Martin definitely has grip on himself. The last book has had a longing effect on me, it grabbed my attention, and i had to analyze and search blog after blog on it.
      Urrgh, it is more work than entertaining honestly! Not cool Martin.

  28. Nice lists. I suggest Moorcock's Pyat quartet. Not fantasy, but historical fiction and some of the best books I've read...ever.

    1. Cool, thanks for the heads up. I do like Moorcock's work.

  29. Just discovered this site and apparently I agree with you on 3/4 as to what constitutes good fantasy. I'm curious as to your thoughts on the following, as I didn't find any mention of them:

    The Brothers Grimm
    Charles Perrault
    Dante's Divine Comedy
    William Hope Hodgson's THE NIGHT LAND
    The RIVERWORLD series
    David Gemmell's Drenai series
    Karl Edward Wagner's KANE series

    1. I read Grimm and Perrault back in college, but unfortunately, the class I took didn't focus on the origins and meanings of those stories, but on awful modern retellings by middling fantasy authors. I'll have to get back to them at some point for proper study, but I haven't yet.

      I also haven't read the Comedia yet, though it's certainly something I'm planning to read when I have a chance.

      I recently got a copy of Hodgson's Night Land, and I'm interested to see what it's like, after what I've heard about it, and having read some other pieces of Hodgson's writing.

      I wouldn't put Riverworld on this list, because I think of it more as sci fi than fantasy--though of course, that's often a thin distinction to make. I read the first two books in the series and didn't think very much of them.

      I've never heard of Gemmell or Wagner, and looking around at reviews, I'm not seeing anything that would set them apart from the type of generic soap opera fantasy that's been popularized by Martin, Jordan, Goodkind, et al.

    2. Wouldn't have called Gemmell soap opera fantasy. He rarely reuses characters (most of the Drenaii books are decades apart in setting), doesn't have many scenes superfluous to the plot and does actually terminate character and plot arcs once they've run their distance. He does reuse the same ideas over and over (the grizzled veteran with the heart of gold stands on a wall to oppose an overwhelming enemy), and his language use is a real weakness, so for those reasons I don't expect you'd like him much. I would describe them as stirring entry level fantasy for teens. I read basically everything he wrote when I was aged 11-14 and loved it.

  30. I somehow forgot these last time:

    In terms of "real histories and adventures" that could be considered fantastic in spots, have you ever read any medieval travelogues of mysterious and far-flung lands like Marco Polo's chronicles or THE TRAVELS OF SIR JOHN MAUNDEVILLE? On a related note, the CODEX SERAPHINIANUS by Luigi Serafini might be of interest, as it's basically an encyclopedia of an alien world (complete with indecipherable script). Not strictly fantasy, but quite a feat of imagination.

    With epic stories/poems, how about SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT, EL CID, THE SONG OF ROLAND, or any other medieval chivalric romance-type tales?

    This one's a bit of an oddball, but William Beckford's VATHEK might be of interest. It's one of those decadent "Orientalist" type tales, and more or less ARABIAN NIGHTS-inspired fanfic. Byron, Keats, and Lovecraft (among others) took significant influence from it.

  31. *Rothfuss* is best avoided? Sanderson is slavered over far more than he deserves, but neither he nor Rothfuss ought to be *avoided*.

    That is, if you love storytelling. Two great books can have very different, even fundamentally incompatible, values. That's why there are lots of books, instead of just one. To my delight.

    Anyways, try J M McDermott. He's still finding his feet, I think, but already deserves more attention than he's being paid.

  32. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Woops, I deleted my own comment trying to fix it up.

      I saw that you had read Caesar and I was wondering what you thought of Sun Tzu's Art of War, I think both present profound visions of warfare and the enemy which is both external and internal. Obviously they are two very different texts, and they also have very different objectives, but I am interested to find out your opinion.

      I have a very limited background in literature and the classics; I delved into it briefly in high school through English Literature and Latin classes, which introduced me to the likes of Blake, Elliot, Voltaire and Juvenal, but since then I have found little time and willpower to take on anything of their intellectual calibre. I do hope to find sometime to re-enter their works and many others between university and what not.

      Alas, I should scuttle back to my medical textbooks, bye!

  33. Where have you been all my reading life? I found your "Jonathan Strange" review on Goodreads and had to click through to see your list. And when you led with Gormenghast and Perdido Street Station, you had me as a new subscriber. Though Mieville's "The Scar" is even better. Nobody reads Peake, and nobody understands how his work as an artist and set designer is so evident in his descriptions of setting and landscape, which are unparalleled.

    Two suggestions:

    Fast track John Crowley's "Little, Big" to the top of your heap o' reading. It is my favorite book and has remained so for decades. Very, very worthy. HIs "Aegypt" cycle is also well done, though not every book is consistent -- and no, it doesn't take place in the Middle East but in Upstate NY, the premise being what if you there were another history of the world -- and it's seen through the eyes of dilettante scholar Pierce Moffett.

    Also, if you love Peake, read M. John Harrison's Viriconium series. Get the omnibus edition that contains all the work. "The Pastel City," the first novella, is good but conventional fantasy, but "A Storm of Wings" feels like Peake resurrected. It's insanely brilliant, but again, hard to read for nearly everyone who thinks they like fantasy. "A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium" reminds me of TItus searching for Gormenghast and the bittersweet ending of "Titus Alone."

    Also worth a look is "Palimpsest" by Catherynne Valenti. I liked it, and I wanted to like it much more because it's quite unique and inventive and reminds me of Viriconium, but something about it is a spectacular near miss.

    Thanks for the blog and for the serious approach to fantasy. Most people roll their eyes when I tell them my favorite genre, but a few standouts make up for all the Robert Jordans and Terry Eddingses.

    1. Yes, I'm actually quite fond of Harrison, though I only know him through his essays about fantasy, not his fiction. I have been planning to check out Viriconium for some time.

      Thanks for the suggestions, glad you found my list to your liking.

  34. Neil Gaiman's newest work, The Ocean At The End of Lane is very good, and dark in its own way. I've just read two of his book, but due how he portray the fantastical element in the book, I would recommended it to anybody that have the same veins as these books.

    1. Yeah, I usually pick up Gaiman's work if I see it in a used bookstore. Thanks for the suggestion.

  35. Great article and excellent choices, though I would question your opinion (and you are free to hold to it) of Lord of the Rings. It is a monumental work of fantasy and the writing sets the highest bar on English literature. It's the hamlet of fantasy so even though it is stale at times, remember that it was quite influential at the time.

    As for Gaiman, he overly melodramatic and I can't stand him. I would suggest Rothfuss to you only because his work is new and tries it's best to avoid fantasy cliches.
    His writing might not meet your standards but I believe his story might. Try him out.

    1. I don't think Tolkien's writing sets a particularly high bar for literature at all. His tone is stodgy, sanctimonious, and condescending. He has a tin ear for poetry. His characters are conservative political props. In my opinion, his worst sin as a writer is the immense amount of filler in his books, all the references and details he crams into every page which do not actually contribute to the meaning or themes of his story, or his characters.

      I'm well aware that it's a highly-influential book, but I don't consider that to be a point in Tolkien's favor. Indeed, looking at fantasy before Tolkien, it is much more varied, unusual, and indeed fantastical than the works he's inspired. If anything, his great influence has resulted in a modern fantasy genre that is stagnant, cliche, and highly injurious to trees.

      I'm curious what you mean when you say you find Gaiman to be 'melodramatic'.

      As for Rothfuss, I've never heard any description of his writing, plot, and characters that didn't sound just like every other cliche fantasy series out there.

    2. Have you tried reading Tolkien's Unfinished Tales, The Book of Lost Tales, and the poetry of The Lays of Beleriand?

      The Book of Lost Tales are his earliest writings, and are said to have a different voice from his later work, more similar in style to Clark Ashton Smith; inventive language; ancient, "weird" feel; clever, ironic humour.

    3. Haven't read those ones, no. Interesting to hear about the difference in voice--then again, it definitely changed between the Hobbit and LOTR, and between LOTR and The Silmarillion.

  36. I've already posted this on GR before remembering you aren't as active there as you used to be, so I figured I'd copy it here to increase the odds of a response.

    I've been trying to look into getting access to the Del Rey editions through the library or a used bookstore. It didn't work out, so instead I picked up a copy of Conan the Adventurer because it claimed to hold mostly stories that were written by Howard as opposed to being tampered with by Sprauge. That said... jesus, I don't even know if it's worth continuing to read. The first story in and Conan is out of nowhere spanking a woman he is holding captive. I was already somewhat raising my eyebrows over how quickly she gets over being kidnapped and starts getting aroused by him, but this... I mean, is this in the original text, or is this LS screwing with the text?

    1. Not having read that specific edition, I can't say to what degree it has been changed or edited. I assume you're referring to 'The People of the Black Circle', which is a classic Conan story. Howard's work does include a great deal of frank sexuality and violence, and Conan himself is depicted as a Barbarian, not a refined, conscientious gentleman. The scenes in the stories can be quite rough, it's true, but these are stories of battle, death, dark urges, and revenge, after all. Sometimes, Howard was sometimes coaxed by his editors into writing stories with more overt (and extraneous) sexual titillation--as these tended to sell well. These are rarely his best moments, as a writer.

      As for the girl coming to find herself attracted to Conan, that is part of the socio-sexual politics that Howard explores in his stories. Most of his heroines are women from strict class systems, women who are controlled and always under expectation. When they find themselves out in the wild with Conan, even though it may be a somewhat dangerous and frightful situation, it is often the first time that they experience something like actual freedom. Conan, not being of the city, does hold them to the same expectations as they are used to, but is interested in them for who they are, not as property. This is usually what draws the women out of their shell with Conan--that he is very up-front about how he feels, and that he actually invited the women to make their own decision about him, instead of trying to cajole or force them.

      Remember that, just because a relationship is not ideal--is rough and somewhat shocking--that doesn't mean the author isn't using it to explore social mores in subtler ways.

    2. It is the People of the Black Circle; my apologies for not making that clearer from the outset. As for my problem with the story, it's less that the relationship or or Donan's behavior is not ideal and more that I just don't buy the relationship, more specifically the actions and emotions of the Devi in light of what has happened to her.

      After being kidnapped by Conan, the Devi starts out furious and hurling death threats at Conan, but during the same night becomes compliant to the point that she "snuggles" against Conan in his arms "in spite of herself" before going to sleep. Even if one is to assume that the ordeal had tired her out due to the endorphin rush dying down or something, it still seems a little far fetched, albeit not out of the realm of possibility. What happens later adds to the unbelievability of the scenario.

      The next day, Conan feeds her, reiterates his demands that the 7 captives be free, then rides out with her when things go tits-up due to Khemsa turning the village against Conan; at no point in the intervening time between then and the spanking does Conan interact with her in any way beyond her being a captive, yet the text goes out of its way to mention how she finds touching his skin to be pleasant. Then the spanking happens, and the Devi is described as recognizing it is "merely another expression of admiration" and establishing that she "did not feel outraged"; the only thing that preceded the spanking was Conan mentioning how hot she looked in her new clothes that he had bought off of a local girl.

      Point being, after less than 24 hours of being kidnapped, with Conan doing nothing aside from feeding the Devi and keeping her alive as a bargaining chip, she is getting hot for him; one compliment about her looks later and a resounding spanking is taken in the most understanding way possible. I can get Conan spanking the Devi (he's a barbarian, so it's not exactly that far out of character for him, and expecting otherwise is just ridiculous), but not her reaction. I might see that kind of reaction if the Devi were explicitly trying to play along in order to get on Conan's good side to get him to go after the Black Circle, or maybe if this had happened over a longer period of time for plausible Stockholm syndrome to set in, but as it stands it feels like Howard was trying to titillate while contorting the characters to make it clear that all parties involved didn't mind. Maybe there's some subtext to Conan's interactions with the Devi that I missed, or maybe LS cut it out, but I was left scratching my head as to why being spanked resulted in anything other than outrage (if only internally) after less than a day in captivity and only minimal interactions (at least as far as I can tell) with the captor.

      But hey, even if this is one of the instances of Howard kowtowing to editorial mandate and including titillation at the cost of believability, I'm liking the rest of the story thus far, especially since I continued reading. It's an all around well done story, even if every now and then it becomes obvious he was being paid by the word, and the low-magic nature of the setting is refreshing. I had almost forgotten what it felt like for magic to actually has some sense of mystique, as opposed to so many works of fantasy where magic has been made dull, common-place, and soiled by the mob of people that have tromped through it to the point that magic is not something to be feared or held in awe nearly as much as it is where magic is rare.

  37. I appreciate you taking the time to put this up!

  38. Any plans to update this list? It's very much appreciated; most of the 'best of' lists I've come across online for fantasy sadly consist of thinly repainted Tolkien regurgitations, or are little more than cheap marketing gimmicks by publishers. I would love to see what other great new fantasy you've come across since you wrote this post.

    Incidentally, have you happened across this list as yet? A lot of the books you've listed here are on it, which sets me thinking about the others it has on it.

    1. Yeah, I'll probably be updating at some point in the not-too-distant future, I have recently read a few fantasy works recently that deserve inclusion. I am familiar with Gollancz publishing and the Fantasy Masterworks line--it's great that they're making some of these books available, though there are quite a few on that list I don't think are very good.

    2. Great! I'll be sure to check back.

      I know as much, I remembered your review of Powers's Anubis Gates in particular. I've read 4 of them so far, I think, and of those 4, 2 were far from impressive (The Drawing of the Dark and Fevre Dream). But there is also a lot that you've recommended, which makes me keep an eye on where Gollancz is taking it each year.

      Incidentally, some thoughts on other books you've listed:

      1. Dresden Files
      I've only read Storm Front so far, but based on that, some friends whose reviews I trust and what I've read of the rest of the series, you're almost certainly going to eviscerate it. The only impetus to continue is Butcher's authorial voice; it's extremely engaging. The worldbuilding is absurdly standard, the characterisation inconsistent and cheesy, and the sequence of events is a predictable template of the most basic mystery tale you've ever read. I very much enjoyed it, but it's so riddled with flaws it's amusing. And that's before we get to the consistent repetitiveness that apparently makes up the following 14 books.

      2. The Lies of Locke Lamora
      Easily one of the best fantasies released in the last decade. And then came the sequel, which was terrible even if you don't compare it to the first, and the third in the series, which I have yet to read but have been told it's no better than the second.

      3. Malazan Book of the Fallen
      Based on the comments here and your review, I'm certain you've tired of hearing of this at this point. Just thought you may find it interesting that many folks warned me to begin from the 2nd book in the series, Deadhouse Gates, as the first is not only extremely badly written, but it was also intentionally released as nothing more than a primer for the 'true' series which begins in the second book. I'm on Deadhouse Gates at the moment, and all I'll say is that it's the first epic fantasy I've read in recent years for something beyond mindless entertainment.

  39. Just a suggestion, could you make link clicks open up a new tab? I go to check out a book on amazon from your site and bam, the blog is gone, interrupting my reading.


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  41. "Clark Ashton Smith: Hyperborea (as ever, Smith has a curious style, but the stories and characters don't quite come together)"

    The best tales/poetry of Clark Ashton makes him my favorite writer and master, he's like the sum of all the things I'm looking for in books. I generally see the place as the true character, and the story almost as an excuse : it's all about love of the word and atmosphere, we cannot judge each book like common ones (same with buddy Lovecraft : the rarity of characterization and dialogue is in fact a good choice, when you're speaking of an indifferent universe). Lord Dunsany is the other one I can read and reread.

    1. I like Smith, he's a strong writer--it's easy to see how his evocative, unusual world influenced authors like Howard, Leiber, and Vance. However, when looking at the best stories of those authors, as well as Dunsany, I see examples where the same richness of world is combined with strong characters and precise, meaningful structure. Compared to them, I found the Hyperborea stories fell a little flat of what they could have been,

  42. Smith and Dunsany didn't need big plots and characters to write their best stuff, sometimes we must take it for what it is, more like paintings or prose poems (reading Smith's prose poems, you wonder what his first fantastic "tales" really are). Idle days on the Yann is seen as the lord's very best, it's imagery after imagery. Maybe you agree. Of course some texts are just rushed, that's why I said "best".

    1. I guess I felt that the Hyperborea stories were really character- and plot-centered, unlike Idle Days on the Yann--it was just that the plots were unfocused and the characters a bit flat. They felt something like fairy stories, or tales from the 1,001 Nights, but without the structure and personal touch that make those stories effective. I do feel that his world and sense of tone were the strongest aspects of his writing, but they weren't taking central stage in these stories, as they might in a prose poem.

    2. Yeah, can't convince you there's excellent Hyp stories (Smith liked the "unpredictable", I do think he's not always as unfocused as it seems). Whatever, I'm gonna try Gormenghast now or soon, I doubt it could replace my very faves (matter of taste), but some of the prose, descriptions sound very good indeed.

    3. Oh, some were much better than others, certainly. I do like Smith--if I were judging based purely one the tone and feel of his world, he easily tops Lovecraft or Howard--it was the other elements that let down. Currently reading Zothique and finding the stories there to be rather better structured. Glad to hear you'll be checking out Gormenghast--it's a work that certainly deserves to be better-read.

  43. Glad to see the list has been updated! Any of these I haven't read have been on my radar for some time, and a few (the first two Earthsea books, the third Del Rey Conan collection) have been on my bookshelf awaiting the completion of other stuff. Gloriana arrived just a week or so ago, and may have to be moved higher on my list of reading priorities.

    A few things: after reading an introduction that China Mieville wrote for Mervyn Peake's trilogy, I read a sample of the introduction to the second book, Gormenghast. Without hyperbole, it sucked the breath out of me. Glorious darkness in the loveliest shades of purple I've ever read. I can't procrastinate any longer; next time I buy books off the Internet, those are included.

    Second: "Neil" Gaiman.

    Last: have you read any of the work of Jonathan Carroll or John Crowley? Those are a couple of guys who really know what they're doing. Not as well known as some speculative fiction authors, but they've rightfully been praised by fans of the field and writers in- and outside of it.

    1. "Glad to see the list has been updated!"

      Yeah, every time I come across something new that sounds interesting, or finish one of the books already on the list, I try to make an update. In fact, this whole blog is very much 'alive' in that way--if I come across a link, or an article, or example, I'll go back through and add it in, along with the occasional clarification, rewording--just little things, here and there, but always growing.

      "I read a sample of ... Gormenghast ... it sucked the breath out of me."

      Yeah, I definitely struggled in my reviews to represent the effect that Peake's work has--it's difficult to overstate how powerful it is, and yet, if you say that, it's just going to come off as gushing. Every time someone messages me to tell me they found Peake because of me, and how it changed them, it makes me feel like this blog, all my reviews and the lot of it have been worth writing.

      "have you read any of the work of Jonathan Carroll or John Crowley?"

      If I had, they'd be on here. Crowley's stuff's on the 'to-read', but I'm not familiar with Carroll--I'll have to look him up.

    2. You won't regret it! It's a welcome and uncommon case in which I can recommend an author's (Carroll's, in this case) debut novel as a good starting point for his work: 'The Land of Laughs."

      On an unrelated note, I stumbled upon a fun piece on Tolkien by the last author I would have expected, I thought you'd be interested; written by China Mieville for Amazon a few years ago, around the time "The City & the City" was published:

    3. Yeah, I recall reading that some time ago--and of course, there's a strong urge to read Mieville's essay as a bit sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek, especially comparing it to his earlier 'wen on the arse of fantasy' screed--especially as some of his positive points parallel his earlier criticisms without contradicting them. Indeed, the main reason he criticizes Tolkien is the long shadow he casts, which is also one of the positive points he cites in this later article.

  44. Does it ever annoy you that people recommend the Malazan books? I apologize in advance if you answered this question before, but how come you won't read them? I'm not a fan nor have I read those books. Thus I won't get irrationally offended by what you type.

    It would actually be interesting to see how you'd eviscerate them in a review, though I don't think it would be worth the headache dealing with irrate fanboys and fangirls.

    How would you criticize the use of deus ex machina in an intelligent manner?

    1. "Does it ever annoy you that people recommend the Malazan books? ... how come you won't read them?"

      It doesn't bother me that people would suggest it--I'm always looking for new books to check out, so I appreciate recommendations. I mean, if someone comes along and says 'you should reconsider reading it' without giving me any reasons why, that's certainly annoying.

      The reason I've decided not to read it is that, after looking at various reviews, I saw nothing that made it look like it would be worth reading. I don't just mean well-written negative reviews, like Kelly's or Mark's--the positive reviews also made the book sound unpleasant, comparing it to Game of Thrones, talking about how it's chock full of worldbuilding, and that the plot often hinges on the reader recalling some random detail from two books ago.

      "I don't think it would be worth the headache dealing with irrate fanboys"

      I'm more concerned about the headache of having to read the stupid thing in the first place.

      "How would you criticize the use of deus ex machina in an intelligent manner?"

      I'm not sure exactly what you're asking here, do you mean how would I intelligently criticize deus ex machina, or how I would criticize intelligent deus ex machina?

    2. This is the same person that you replied too. I suppose both would work if you wouldn't mind answering.

      What if a deus ex machina was explained retroactively in a later book, though never foreshadowed, does that make it any less of deus ex machina?

      What if it was impossible to explain the d.e.s. in the first place because it would have conflicted with the writing itself? Does that excuse the use of a d.e.s. Such as, a book is written in third-person limited. Then the writing would have to have shifted style in order to deliver some kind of information to sustain the d.e.s. happening.

    3. "I suppose both would work if you wouldn't mind answering."

      Hmm, I guess I'm not sure what 'intelligent deus ex' would look like. In order for it to be an example of deus ex machina, that means it wasn't set up, that the climax comes out of nowhere and sweeps everything away cleanly. That's a structural problem, where the author isn't setting up their climax, they aren't working to produce a conclusion that makes sense, they're just setting up the pieces, then sweeping them all off the table. I'm not sure how one can have an intelligent structural problem.

      As to how to critique it, I'd say that deus ex machina goes against everything an author should be trying to achieve. Authors use all the means at their disposal, including characters, themes, scenes, and the plot to produce a story that is meaningful and interesting. If they spend hundreds of pages creating a setup, only to sweep it all away at the end, then what was the point? Why do all the careful work of setting up a scenario if you're just going to ignore it and tack an arbitrary ending onto it? It renders everything that came before it meaningless.

      "What if a deus ex machina was explained retroactively in a later book, though never foreshadowed, does that make it any less of deus ex machina?"

      Eh, I don't think any kind of retroactive 'fixing' ever really works. The book has to be good the first time through, on its own merits--otherwise no amount of later correction is going to improve it. Certainly, later additions can affect our understanding, and change how we see the earlier parts, but those earlier parts still need to work on their own, without reference to anything else. A good writer works on various levels, so that the book is good both on the surface and beneath it--if either part doesn't work, it doesn't really matter how good the other half is.

      "What if it was impossible to explain ... because it would have conflicted with the writing ... a book is written in third-person limited. Then the writing would have to have shifted style in order to deliver some kind of information"

      Well, then why write it in third person limited? As an author, you have to make sure that all your various parts work in harmony. If your conflict (and its resolution) don't work in third person limited, then why write it that way? It's possible to write a conflict and resolution that make perfect sense in third person limited, after all, so why write in a voice that is opposed to your climax? Doesn't that just mean you're avoiding the structure of your own book?

      It's like how, if you want to present a certain idea in your book, then you have to sit down and choose characters and scenes that will help you to explore that idea--you don't just select random characters and then try to make them fit it as an afterthought. If you want to explore the struggles of lower class minority women, then it probably won't work to have all your main characters be upper class majority men.

  45. Just one disapointingly quick question: Have you read the Sagas and Eddur? I read them before I read Tolkien's 'reimaginings', so I find it interesting to compare and find similarities between them. I have not only read Tolkien's middle-earth books, but his other works.

    The allure for me of LOTR, and middle-earth as a whole is the... vastness of it - which is a good thing in my opinion. He manages to drop tantalising hints throughout LOTR about the greater world, that leaves me yearning for more - whereas when other writers try to do this, it often seems clumsy.

    It is a good idea to realise that Tolkien wrote his books often as a direct imitation of the style of the sagas (LOTR and the Hobbit being slightly different). This is why his books can sometimes feel like it is just 'this happened, then this happened, then it was over'.

    1. "Have you read the Sagas and Eddur?"

      I've read and studied bits of them--I really should go back through and read them completely, but haven't yet.

      "He manages to drop tantalising hints throughout LOTR about the greater world, that leaves me yearning for more - whereas when other writers try to do this, it often seems clumsy."

      I guess part of what didn't work for me in Tolkien's work was that, much of the time, instead of tantalizing hints, he's instead giving us long-winded explanations--and I tend to prefer nods and hints to that kind of digressing exposition.

      "realise that Tolkien wrote his books often as a direct imitation of ... sagas ... This is why his books can sometimes feel like it is just 'this happened, then this happened, then it was over'."

      Yeah, if you follow the link in the article which leads to my full review, you'll find I talk quite a bit about Tolkien's deliberate imitation of the style of epics. However, just because we can see the reason behind why he chose to write that way, this doesn't excuse his writing, or mean that the choice was a good one. I don't think that his copying of those aspects of earlier works was a good fit for his narrative, or the story he was trying to tell--and I think there are better ways he could have captured that tone and voice beyond simple imitation.

      If you look at the progression of Western epics, from Homer to Virgil to Tasso to Milton, it's clear that while the later authors took great inspiration from the earlier ones, including reproducing structures and scenes, they also reinterpreted and repurposed those earlier elements to serve their new story. They weren't merely saying 'the earlier story had X, so mine shall, too', they were altering those earlier symbols (often through subversion and irony) to better fit their own voice and point of view.

      Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of Tolkien was how his inclusion of these earlier, Pagan elements (Tom Bombadil being the most obvious example) are directly at odds with the Catholic theological and moral structure around which LOTR is written. Unlike with other fantasists like Dunsany and Poul Anderson who presented a thoughtful and deliberate conflict between Pagan and Christian worldviews, Tolkien's seems to be the result of an inability to combine the two into a coherent whole.

  46. I'm a few years late to this party, but I'd like to recommend Steven Brust's Dragaeran books as something worth trying.

    I like the perspective and insight you have in your reviews. To pick one point on the page to argue with, I guess I'd go with your classification of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman as inferior to American Gods or Anansi Boys. I thought the book had a lot of routine fantasy elements, but enough unique flavor to stand with Gaiman's other books.


    1. "I'd like to recommend Steven Brust's Dragaeran books"

      Hmm, what makes them worth reading, to you? Looking at friends' reviews on GR, the impression I get is that they are fairly generic fantasy, a quick and simple read with not a lot going on, and also that they don't really have a fantastical 'voice'--all the characters talk like modern people, and the Mafia-style crime setting is also very modern day. So, what makes the series worth picking up?

    2. You get just enough of a backstory to understand the current book so you can mostly read them in any order without getting bogged down in history of the protagonist or the world.

      As a backdrop you have a fantasy world where magic like teleporting, telepathic communication, and resurrection are routine for the upper class and the impact that has on politics and economics.

      The main character gets involved in both epic world-saving adventures and little mysteries and even struggle with family problems. He also experiences a believable amount of character growth from certain events, and has enough hypocrisy throughout to be believably human.

      Your taste may vary, of course. But I'd put 'Mafia but with witches, dragons, and teleporting elves' pretty far off the beaten path of generic fantasy and it wanders farther from there.

  47. Keely, thank you for your insightful reviews, and wonderful recommendations. Most fantasy books I have read, albeit enjoying them, I never found them fantastical--actually owning to the word "fantasy". From George R.R. Martin's 'gritty', works, to J.R.R Tolkien's Middle-Earth. Most fantasy is just not fantasy. They don't create this world to be invested in, that is otherworldly and magical, but instead drench it in 'realism' and 'epic'. Then, having opened works by Le Guin and Dunsany, I found something worth reading in the fantasy genre. I found stories that have interesting worlds, worlds not brought down by the author's aim to achieve something massive. Also, the whole series thing, containing ten thousand books. I have read A Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, and it was okay. It wasn't well-written and was too long; the second one even longer. And apparently, it is planned for a ten part series. At this point one can only shake one's head.

    "Most modern fantasy is content to keep combining The Lord of The Rings and Conan the Barbarian over and over in duovigintilogies of five-hundred-page books..."

    I have not read Conan, but plan to. Mervyn Peake, E.R. Eddison, China Mieville, and others are all authors who I would love to read, because their work sounds interesting.

    Your reviews, this blog, has opened up a new world for me in fantasy. For that I say: thank you!

    I can't recommend anything, sorry. Only my gratitude for your knowledge of fantasy and kindness of sharing it with others, steer your way. Again, Thank You, Keely!

    1. "I have not read Conan, but plan to."

      Well, it is pulp, so there are some problems with it, but it has excellent verve, and can be surprisingly subtle about its characters. Like most pulp writers, I find the earliest stories are better than the later ones.

      Hope you find some interesting and engaging stuff amongst my recommendations. Thanks for the kind comment, glad you've found the list useful.

    2. Utter bollocks, Legoman! Howard's best yarns are later ones, the early ones are often dross. If you think Phoenix on the Sword or Scarlet Citadel are better than Red Nails or Beyond the Black River you need to have your head checked!

  48. Revisiting the blog in the hopes of an update, I've noticed a startling omission from the "other suggestions" section and from the list proper. I've been reading aloud to a friend Peter S. Beagle's "The Last Unicorn" for over a week (at an average rate of one chapter a night), and I'm enchanted. I don't often enshrine a book as a personal favorite until it's accumulated some time in my head, being picked over or mostly forgotten. In this book, however, I've found a beautiful source of professional jealousy. Beagle's prose is excellent by any standard. I can't go more than a page without thinking, "How? How did he do that? What does he know that we don't?"
    You will, of course, take my recommendation wwith a grain of salt; I have appreciated what I've read of Tolkien, and I'm perhaps even more enthusiastic about Jackson's adaptations, and the TV Game of Thrones is a favorite show of mine. Yet this book isn't at all like those, or many books at all, fantasy or otherwise. It's elegiac, gorgeous, frightening, funny.
    Great stuff for reading aloud, too. Please do check it out, when you've got the time.

    1. "Beagle's prose is excellent by any standard. I can't go more than a page without thinking, "How? How did he do that? ..."

      I watched the film many times when I was younger--looking at friends' reviews, there seems to be a general consensus that it is a lovely little book, certainly sounds worth checking out. The one caveat seems to be the sense that, about halfway through, it becomes a sort of allegorical, symbolic work about fantasy, losing the thread of the story in favor of meta-commentary. In any case, I'll add it to the list.

      "I'm perhaps even more enthusiastic about Jackson's adaptations"

      Oh, I'd definitely say that Jackson's films are an improvement on Tolkien's books--leaving out the author's stodginess, condescension, and long-windedness and replacing it with action, suspense, personality, and humor.

      "the TV Game of Thrones is a favorite show of mine"

      I wouldn't be surprised if show is better than the books--based on what I've heard, they've made a lot of changes to streamline it, balance portrayals, and give the characters inner lives--if the creative team have taken their cues from shows like Rome and Spartacus, then it ought to be an improvement on the books. If that is the case, then it's unfortunate that the incoherent babbling and death threats of his rabid fanboys have soured me on ever looking at anything else connected with Martin.

  49. I don't know if you are still active on the blog and maybe you'll never read this comment, but I'll take my chances. Also, not being a native English speaker, I'll apologize in advance if I fail at putting my ideas into words.

    The first few things I read from you were very negative GR critics on books that really enjoyed (Mistborn and Game of Thrones that I remember now, but there were others). "What a condescending smartass", I thought at first. It made me curious as to what kinds of books were good enough for you, so I took a look at some of your other critics. Then my idea of you changed entirely. Now I take you for a passionate reader that knows exactly what he wants and won't be impressed by just anything. When you write a negative review, it doesn't read like "I'm too smart to like this kind of trash" as much as it reads like "I really hoped this one would be special, but it failed to impress". That made me really respect any critics or recomendations by you.

    For this reason, like many of the commenters above, I feel very curious about your opinion on my favorite books. I know this is not the idea of this post, but I'll ask anyway.

    Have you ever read Les Miserables, The Long Ships or anything by Haruki Murakami? I know the first two are not fantasy, but anyway... If you read any of those, I'll be happy to know your thoughts on them.

    Just so you know, I've added many of the books on the list to my to-read-list. I've been looking for some quality fantasy to read, and this post helped me big time!

    1. "The first few things I read from you were very negative"

      Yeah, it's all too easy to judge someone based on one thing they wrote, or even a few things--it's a mistake I've made, myself. It happens a lot to me on Goodreads, because often, you only have a few books in common with other readers, which means they're only going to see a very narrow slice of your thoughts.

      After all, if someone only ever reads reviews of books I didn't like, of course they're going to think that I'm negative. Anyways, I'm glad to hear that you pushed past your initial assumptions and looked a bit deeper. Hopefully some of my suggestions will help you to find books that you'll get something out of.

      "it doesn't read like "I'm too smart to like this kind of trash" as much as it reads like "I really hoped this one would be special, but it failed to impress""

      Yeah, I've never started a book thinking 'well, this isn't going to be any good'--why would I read a book if I don't think I'm going to enjoy it?

      "Have you ever read Les Miserables, The Long Ships or anything by Haruki Murakami?"

      I haven't read those yet, no--I am familiar with them, and have them in my library, but I haven't gotten to them.

      Thanks for the comment.

  50. I truly appreciate this list and have proceeded to add many of the works you mentioned to my reading list.

    If you are looking for any more works to check out:
    Sanderson's Stormlight Archives are some of the best books I have read in the past few years and in my honest opinion trump Martin's ASOFI. I am sure you have heard about it although I am not sure if it could be considered as a game changer. Just a really fantastic story.

    The Dawn of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw I was truly captivated by this author's debut novel and I will admit I ended up reading it in one sitting. Check it out could bring something new to the table.

    The Darkness That Comes Before - by R. Scott Bakker is another one that doesn't fit the mold of cliche fantasy and I thoroughly enjoyed that one as well.

    Lastly Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns Trilogy deserves mention as it too like Bakker's novel above breaks the mold of the traditional protagonist that we see so often nowadays.

    Again these are just suggestions in case you were still looking. I don't really have the time to critique each book but I am sure you can check out the goodreads recviews on these books to find out about world building, characterization, use of prose etc.

    All in all thanks for the blog!

    1. You're welcome, I hope you're able to find some worthwhile reads out of it.

      As for Sanderson and Bakker, I do mention them at the end of this post as authors who I am avoiding, largely due to the opinions of intelligent friends who found the books lacking. I give a more full explanation of Sanderson here.

      In Bakker's case, I had actually heard quite a bit before about him, specifically that he had a solid defense against M. John Harrison's attack on obsessive worldbuilding in fantasy. Unfortunately, when I sought out and read this defense, it amounted to nothing more than an attack on Harrison's tone and character, which I explore in this post. Mr. Bakker himself showed up to argue the point with me in the comments section, but unfortunately never managed to put together any defense of worldbuilding. Based on this interaction, where it seemed to me that Bakker had not put much thought into the writing process at all, I decided his books are probably best avoided.

      I haven't heard of Lawrence or Renshaw before, I'll have to take a look at some reviews, as you suggest. Thanks for pointing me to a few new books, and for leaving a comment.

    2. Just skimmed through Bakker's argument in the link you posted. He seemed to sound a tad defensive which is a sign in itself of attempting to protect his views on the matter and not being open to the simple criticism you provided. Mistake for an author to do that.

      On Sanderson I thought that the Stormlight Archives were much much better than his Mistborn saga. I can see how you would find him wanting though and I do agree an extent after giving it some consideration but to each his own.

      I will definitely be keeping up with this page though as it is harder and harder to find fantasy gems as there is so much popcorn cliched fantasy flooding the market in this era. I would say good luck in your writing but I don't believe in it. I hope you succeed and if you need any beta readers on any work you are writing I will be available.

    3. "He seemed to sound a tad defensive ... attempting to protect his views ... not being open to the simple criticism"

      Yeah it's a shame how it turned out. I mean, this is the internet, there's a lot of rabid attacks going on out there, so I understand defensiveness, but I think the best way to oppose that is with a clear statement of your own views and the arguments behind them.

      "I thought that the Stormlight Archives were much much better than his Mistborn saga"

      Ah, alright--of course it's true that just because one book (or series) might fall flat, that doesn't mean the author couldn't succeed in a different one.

      "there is so much popcorn cliched fantasy flooding the market"

      Yeah, the newfound popularity of fantasy is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's mainstream now, from Frozen and Harry Potter to the LOTR movies, there've never been more fans, or more creators. On the other hand, that popularity has glutted the market with pale imitations and appeals to the lowest common denominator.

      "if you need any beta readers on any work you are writing I will be available"

      Thanks for the offer, I'll keep you in mind.

  51. Thank you so much for this, very helpful. Your opinions jive nicely with mine and I look forward to checking out your recommendations.

  52. Hello, Keely, are there any new fantasy books that you feel are worth adding to the suggestion list?

    (just curious)

    1. Not sure if you mean recently published books, or just more books? Usually I try to add new suggestions when they come up. One I haven't added yet is Jirel of Joiry by C.L. Moore. I'm currently reading a collection of Moore's work and it's quite good. The Jirel stories feature one of the first female heroes in fantasy, from back in the 1930s. I should also add Grass By Sheri Tepper.

    2. Sorry, I meant just more books.

      "...first female heroes in fantasy, from back in the 1930s"

      That's interesting. There isn't wild sex and stuff, in the Jirel stories, right? (Haha) Instead a strong female presence who isn't easily swayed?

      But anyway, thanks for bringing up C.L Moore and Sheri Tepper.

    3. "There isn't wild sex and stuff, in the Jirel stories, right?"

      Probably not, considering when it was written, and for what market--certainly, there's pulp-style titillation, but you aren't going to see the exploration of a more in-depth and complex sexual relationship, no.

      I was also impressed by the conceptual and symbolic way Moore approached the idea of beauty in the collection I'm currently reading--making it into something alienating and overwhelming, a sort of overpowering force that acts not only upon the men who see it, but the women who must live it.

      "Instead a strong female presence who isn't easily swayed?"

      Well, it's a rather Victorian assumption that a woman who refrains from sex is somehow 'strong'--an assumption based largely upon societal expectations placed upon that woman and her reproduction. A strong female character can enjoy and participate in sex--even casual sex--as long as it isn't part of some male fantasy, but actually an aspect of that character's personality, desires, and empowerment.

  53. I think I've found a kindred soul, here... I've bounced off so many fantasy suggestions in the past, like you.

    Out of curiosity, have you read any of Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever?

    1. "have you read any of Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever?"

      I did start the first one a number of years ago, but never really got into it. The writing was unpolished, the structure unfocused, and it seemed to be aping Tolkien more than deconstructing him. I was hoping for something like Fraser's Flashman series, or Nabokov, where you follow this awful prat of a character but the author manages to keep things interesting with sheer novelty, charm, and wit. Donaldson just didn't seem to have the skill to carry that off.

  54. I find it interesting that I agree with you most of the time... but you cannot put Conan the Barbarian above Calvino; that is simply ridiculous. Glad you think TH White is at least worth checking out though... :D. Re Mieville, I only liked The City & The City. The rest were merely interesting travelogues--ALL worldbuilding and then he forgets to do the rest (the socioeconomics falls into worldbuilding IMO). I find Mieville and Gaiman disappointing, myself. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, for instance, was just an amalgamation of tropes. And in general Gaiman is a bit comic book-y, with his villains tending toward cardboard. You don't feel like you're really there. Anyway, fine hairs, split, for the most part. At least we agree on Potter, Thrones, Wheel, Disc, New Sun, and LOTR. I'd second a LOT on your check-out list (and agree on those you're avoiding--and stay away from Rothfuss for sure!) but I'd say that I think Pullman had a bit more going on than maybe you gave credit for, though he did drop the ball a bit toward the end, sadly. The gnostic elements, and the notion that destroying an atom could have consequences across quantum dimensions were both worthwhile, especially in YA fiction. Also I'd add Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen & Moon of Gomrath... and Elidor, which is perfect but very upsetting so it's hard to recommend. I haven't got around to Red Shift, which many say is great.

    In general fantasy is tough anymore. It's so done... so male, so war-oriented. Pamela Freeman's Castings trilogy wasn't the best writing but it was a little different from the rest, I thought, in the way it a) spun out the idea of a conquered people rising up 500 (hmm) years later to retake their land, and b) whether there would be a way to do that given the conqueredness (reduced numbers via genocide) of such a people, and given their hate for their conquerors, without some kind of horrible, dark and bloody tactics...

    Anyhow. Really sick of war, battles, swords, all that. Also sick of medieval type settings. Kings and blah blah. Why does every kind of fantasy world or planet have horses? I LOVE horses. But. I give Mieville points in that regard. OTOH, I thought The Steel Remains, which was so in your face and so gay, was great, though the rest of the series was pretty bad.

    But now it's time to think up something entirely else. Thanks for playing!

    1. "you cannot put Conan the Barbarian above Calvino"

      I don't know what else I could do--Howard has verve, energy, and variety, while Calvino was repetitive and lacked underlying structure. Likewise, I found Howard's sexual politics to be more complex and insightful than Calvino's. Then again, I'm only comparing to Invisible Cities. I just felt he lacked any genuine profundity.

      Likewise, it really depends on the version you're reading, because so much of Conan was edited and changed afterward by far inferior writers. The original manuscripts of the early Howard stories have a genuine passion, verve, and flow that still holds up today. Compared to that, Calvino felt too self-conscious, and just not strange enough to carry the loose form he chose. Of course, they are books aiming at very different things, but I certainly think Howard achieved his aim, while Calvino fell short of his.

      "I find Mieville and Gaiman disappointing, myself"

      Eh, I was reading Mieville as pulp adventure--the socioeconomics were just a background for the action, characters, and imagery. Likewise, the fact that he is deliberately playing with so many pulp and horror tropes is fun for the reader who's familiar with them.

      As for Gaiman, overall I do find his work disappoints, but he has high points here and there--some of the better Sandman arcs, for example. A big part of why Anansi Boys worked so well for me was that firstly, Gaiman was tackling a different mood than his usual stuff, and secondly Lenny Henry's delivery in the audiobook was just spectacular. A great performance on his part.

      "I think Pullman had a bit more going on than maybe you gave credit for"

      I could definitely see that he was trying for more, but I don't think he actually got there.

      "I'd add Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen & Moon of Gomrath... and Elidor"

      Thanks for the suggestions, I'll check those out.

      "Really sick of war, battles, swords, all that. Also sick of medieval type settings. Kings and blah blah."

      Yeah, we're still suffering from the fact that the histories were all written by the upper class, and so it's all stories about hordes of wealth and battles and marriages. As you say, it's nice that Mieville has a different approach at least in that regard.

      Of course, the fairy tale side often deals much more with ideas, identity, fantasies, and poor, everyday folk--it's unfortunate that Tolkien's influence has trumped Dunsany's, and so we have all these fantasies that are trying to be military histories, and very few that actually delve into the strange and fantastical.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment. Hope the list helps you find a few interesting reads.

  55. Hey, Keely, I often come back to this list and I've been wondering: what you think about fantasy movies/series? I know you dislike GOT and LoTR books, but what you think about their adaptations? Not just them but movies like Stardust, and the upcoming American Gods. Just a personal curiosity, I've seen you talking about some of them but sometimes it looks like you don't like movies that much, haha.

    1. I'm fond of movies, sure. I mean, you can create a great story (or a crappy one) in any medium.

      I actually think the LOTR movies are a general improvement on the books, because they do away with all the asides and troop movements and focus more on character development--though the tone is sometimes too silly, and the cartoon fight scenes are a bit much. The Hobbit movies are kind of the opposite: instead of taking a bloated story and streamlining it, they take a fun little adventure and stretch it out way too much.

      After all the threats and vitriol I've gotten from fans of the GOT books, I don't have much interest in checking out the show--it just soured the whole thing for me. I wouldn't be surprised if the show is an improvement on the books, for the same reasons as the LOTR films. I mean, I like Rome and Spartacus, and GOT seems to be trying for something similar.

      I haven't seen Stardust, but here are some of my favorite fantasy movies:

      The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen
      The Seventh Seal
      Kurosawa's Dreams
      The Thief of Baghdad
      The City of Lost Children
      Time Bandits
      Big Trouble in Little China
      The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
      Valhalla Rising
      The Dark Crystal
      The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
      Conan the Barbarian
      The Princess Bride
      The Illusionist
      Solomon Kane

    2. Now that several years have passed, what other movies might you add to this list?
      My favorites:
      Outlaw King
      Kingdom of Heaven DIRECTORS CUT
      Robin Hood (Crowe)
      Dracula Untold
      Count of Monte Cristo

  56. Where are Mahābhārata and Ramayana?

    1. I haven't read them in their entirety yet. If you mean 'why aren't they in my fantasy to-read list', I haven't really put any epics or myth there, even ones I am planning to read, like The Epic of King Gesar or The Mabinogion.

    2. Ramayana at least should be on the list. Maybe under section "rewrites of LoR" (p.s. thank you for the list. It helped me finally to gather up the courage to pick up a few books from the fantasy-shelf of our local library. The sheer bulk of the volumes has previously intimidated me - a bad choice could be fatal).

  57. Thank god i found your blog!!!!
    Now i can read fantasy that have some depth. I agree that fantasy genre has become less diverse. I wanted to know if you consider magical realism as fantasy and if so ,what is your opinion of Haruki Murakami.

    1. Glad you like the blog, I hope it helps you to discover some books that you find interesting. I wouldn't say that the fantasy genre has become less diverse, overall--there's still a lot of unusual stuff being published out there, in genres like New Weird, Historical Fantasy, and Magical Realism--even if the majority of popular fantasy is made up of cookie-cutter epics. So yeah, I would consider Magical Realism to be a subgenre of fantasy. I haven't read any Murakami yet, but I do have books of his on my shelf.

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  59. Do you nourish any interest on the Monogatari series? Vertical just released an official translation of Kizumonogatari, and the fan translation of Bakemono isn't all bad (just the two first parts, the third is horrible), and I think the fantasy in it looks just like what you might enjoy. For me at least was a fast and enjoyable read, the idea behind it reminds me a little of American Gods.

    And just my two cents about the GOT talks I see you had above: for me it was a gargatuan waste of time, but the 8° episode of the 5° season is pretty good, and one of the only redeeming points of the series. I think it is worth a watch, just for the thrill.

    1. "Do you nourish any interest on the Monogatari series?"

      I'm not familiar with it, I'll have to go take a look.

      "I think it is worth a watch, just for the thrill."

      Yeah, could be--I mean, I hear they streamline the series and gloss over the worse parts of the book, generally, but I still can't muster up any interest in it.

    2. Oh, sorry. It is a series of light novels, it focus heavily on quirky and funny dialogues in a first person narrative, basically about a guy who happened to become a vampire (but got rid of this curse with some help) and now helps girls with aberration (as they call it) problems. There's an anime of it, but I liked the novels a bit more, even with the anime being pretty much the whole novels in cartoon format.

      And yeah, if the series really glossed over the worst parts of the books, it is definitely not something I plan on reading the books.

  60. Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen is an absolute masterpiece. Its not for everyone, but what is? Difficult read, but an absolute joy to get lost in. Absolutely loved it.

  61. I stumbled upon this blog after reading your very accurate, if slightly too generous, assessment of Tolkien's trilogy. You've gathered some interesting reviews here that I can wholeheartedly agree with and I thought about recommending your blog to my friends, sadly your opinion on Wolfe shows how clueless you are. This is truly shocking that you get Peake and Mieville and value Howard, yet so completely and utterly missed the bus with Wolfe. How can one who can absorb and understand the greatness of Peake yet fail to comprehend why Wolfe is among the true masters of the genre. Your misjudged review of Erikson's Malazan cycle (which is not nearly as you paint it having read only one book) just proves your incompetence and underlines your faults and lack of arguments as a wannabe-critic. I wish you were one-tenth of a 'poor' writer Wolfe is... :D Obviously, I doubt it will ever be the case.

    1. I know it's an old comment but holy crap, this takes condescending assholery to an artform.

    2. Yeah it started out with bait and once the hooks set in he switched it right around and let the venom out! But as I've learned FROM THIS BLOG, I'll argue the above:

      He says JGKeely's review of Wolfe and Malazan are misjudged and clueless. One cannot simply state that another person's views are straight up and outright false without presenting reasons to back up his or her argument as to why. You say someone is clueless to review a book that they didn't get farther than 0-1 book in, well present logical reasoning as to why he is wrong, instead of just stating it. If the best thing about the story is the complexity of it's worldbuilding, then what about the story, characterization, dialogue, themes, prose, etc.? State reasons as to why any of these things are truly remarkable... Or does it end at worldbuilding? Does Wolfe have these qualities in his stories as well, or just a unique setting to drop useless characters and blandness into? I haven't read the books so I can't say, but I'd love to know the reasons explaining why it's good instead of just "it's epic, mysterious, complex and has amazing worldbuilding!" Well so does Demon's Souls and World of Warcraft. It's called programming a video game. Not writing a book. No offense to Wolfe or Erikson, I am sure I would enjoy pieces of their work! But to say it's amazing or one of the best fantasy series of all time, as many have stated, is taking things too far and unjustly relieving the absolutely deserving stories from superior authors of the spotlight.

  62. @J.G. Keely --- I read Moorcock's books at your suggestion. I found the first book of his Elric series to be compelling, but they got too bizarre and confusing as the series went on, so I stopped reading. I also found Perdido Street Station too gross, and so had to stop only a few chapters in. For what it is worth, I do agree with you about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell being excellent. I still have not been able to get far into Titus Groan. I find his writing to be extremely dense, almost impenetrable. Since I work in academia, perhaps after I have served on one hundred committees, I will have the spirit ready to resume on Titus Groan.

    Some readers here recommended Guy Gavriel Kay. I have read most of Guy Gavriel Kay's books, so I wanted to chime in on that, based on what I know about your preferences. My favorite book of his is Children of Earth and Sky. Why? Kay in his recent books has reduced his ostentatious flair, and been far less influenced by Tolkien, and by magic as a plot device. In his early career, Kay assisted on the Silmarillion, and Kay's Fionavar Tapestry was a clear Tolkien derivative. But recently, his writing has shifted to the point of having magic and fantastical creatures be more rare, and with less flowery prose. In Children of Earth and Sky, Kay wrote a book clearly centered on the alternative historical period and the interactions of the characters. I felt this writing style was somehow Kay being most true to his talents. As an academic researcher, I enjoyed his incorporation in that book of carefully researched historical sources, e.g.:

    - 16th century emperor's court of alchemists in Prague
    - The conflicts between the Ottoman empire and Christianity, and its effects on individuals, such as the former Empress
    - The Uskoks, Croatian bandits
    - Several compelling female characters, who react in quite different ways to the constraints of their male-dominated world

    1. "I found the first book of his Elric series to be compelling, but they got too bizarre and confusing"

      Heh, I suppose that's what I like about them.

      "I also found Perdido Street Station too gross"

      Yeah, you do get that kind of visceral writing in post-cyberpunk fantasy. I don't specifically like these elements, but they don't bother me, either.

      "I still have not been able to get far into Titus Groan. I find his writing to be extremely dense, almost impenetrable"

      Yeah, I say as much in my suggestion. It's one of my favorite series, but I understand that most people will find it difficult to get into. It was slow-going for me, too, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

      If you're looking for more straightforward fantasy adventures, with less of the experimental weird stuff, I'd suggest the early Lankhmar books, the Wizard of Earthsea series, King of Elfland's Daughter, and The Broken Sword.

      "My favorite book of his is Children of Earth and Sky. Why? Kay in his recent books has reduced his ostentatious flair, and been far less influenced by Tolkien, and by magic as a plot device."

      Thanks for the suggestion. I do like to see authors who stray from the standard, Tolkienian model that dominates so much pop fantasy these days--as well as the promise of queer historical touches, which I also enjoy. I'll add it to the list.

  63. Thanks for your recommendation, and apologies for the delayed response (I was busy with end of year grading and insane paper deadlines).

    I actually already read the first two books of the Wizard of Earthsea series, and enjoyed them a lot. In particular, I liked the Tombs of Atuan, which I read during my Ph.D. It reminded me of graduate school --- I had gone through a divorce at that time, and felt some resonance with the isolation and also I had some social phobias then. I thought the execution was too perfect so I just wanted to stop there. But now I should really reread them.

    It is a bit odd this trope of women living in caves and not leaving due to "rules." I noticed the same concept was used in some of the Chinese wuxia shows, such as the Legend of the Condor Heroes show, which I enjoyed (it is mostly action and pulp, but I found it fun, because I like the concept of magical martial arts).

    I will check out the other books you recommended. I got a good laugh out of some of your reviews on Goodreads (such as your review of Suzanna Clarke's novel). I am looking forward to check out the rest of this blog and getting some more novels to read for when I am in China with my spouse. I do not speak Chinese so I end up in a corner either doing work or with a book.

  64. Excellent list. Even though I differ in opinion on some stories on the list (though it is perhaps my childhood nostalgia that forces me to remember Narnia fondly), I have it firmly bookmarked and come back to it whenever I run out of fantasy suggestions.

    1. Well, nostalgia can be a powerful thing. I certainly value a book that can be read by a child or an adult, that any reader can get something out of--but all too often, those books we loved when we were young don't hold up. I know many of my youthful favorites are books I now dislike, which makes me wish I'd had the opportunity to read better things, back then.

      "Excellent list"

      I hope it helps you to find some worthwhile books.

  65. Thank you for writing this. A few years ago, I read both Perdido Street Station and the Gormenghast series because of your recommendation. I found the former enjoyable, the latter incredible; at the time I was transitioning from contemporary YA to more advanced literature, and I think that Peake more than any other author taught me the pleasures of a difficult read.

    I've been revisiting Titus Groan as of late to use it as the basis for an IB Extended Essay (if you've never heard of this, you chose a wiser path than I have). It feels stranger, sadder, and more grounded in real life than I remember. The first time I read it, I was so accustomed to "edgy" YA fiction that I failed to fully grasp the darkness of the story and focused on the fanciful aspects instead. Now I am struck by the portrayal of authority which permits wanton cruelty while obsessively safeguarding of tradition. It's a testament to Peake's ability that he can depict horror and tragedy while still maintaining a sense of playfulness, with neither element detracting from the other. Perhaps five or ten years from now I'll reread it and find it transformed again.

    Have you by any chance read the letter Graham Greene sent to Peake upon receiving the (presumably much longer) original manuscript for Titus Groan? It can be found pretty easily on Google Books and I think it serves as a nice reminder of the usefulness of honest criticism.

    1. "Titus Groan ... feels stranger, sadder, and more grounded in real life ... The first time I read it, I was so accustomed to "edgy" YA fiction that I ... focused on the fanciful aspects instead. Now I am struck by the portrayal of authority"

      Yes, like in Chekhov, Gogol, or Joseph Conrad, its really the strangeness that (ironically) makes it feel real. These wild characters have a vitality in them that a less fanciful character would lack. There are times, reading Peake's dialogue, that I hear the character's voice in my head--his cadence and word choice is so evocative.

      I like to think of fantasy as how we see the world, that we do create these symbols and connections in our mind in order to make sense of things. When Gogol says that the elderly man's face resembled an old pumpkin, I can immediately picture that, much more vividly than I can two paragraphs of 'realist' description. In that sense, I do feel that we see the world in these kinds of strange, impossible, magical symbols.

      "It's a testament to Peake's ability that he can depict horror and tragedy while still maintaining a sense of playfulness, with neither element detracting from the other."

      Yes, and I think that's another hallmark of a great author, that their depiction is not one-dimensional, but contains a plurality of human feelings and thought. Even in the most horrible, degrading situation, human beings find humor and hope (indeed, that's when we need them most)--and even in the most joyous, silly situations, there are still elements of fear, and darkness. It's never just one or the other.

      "Have you by any chance read the letter Graham Greene sent to Peake upon receiving the (presumably much longer) original manuscript for Titus Groan? ... a nice reminder of the usefulness of honest criticism."

      I haven't, no. I'll have to check it out, thank you for the suggestion.

  66. I floated over here from your review of Jordan's Wheel of Time on Goodreads. I've read his entire series including the Sanderson finale. I always hated reading since I felt the books assigned to me were utterly drab and predictable and while I felt The Wheel of Time was also very drab it was at least written better than the "Curse of Slagfid" which was the very last book I read after blowing my allowance at a brand new bookstore and being utterly turned off of books for the next 13 years till a friend bought me "Gerald's Game" by Stephen King for my birthday. That book completely ruined any love of books and my enjoyment of Al Greene songs for another 12 years until my husband pressured me into reading the Wheel of Time. The (WOT) series does get better but the characters do remain flat. As I read your review I realized I wasn't so much reading and re-reading the series because of the high fantasy and fun I derived from it but because he had written several factoids throughout his books that you could piece together to "solve" the mysteries hidden within and I was too scared to venture through the crap at the bookstore to find a better book. By the fifth book I had the whole series figured out and read on only to make sure Jordan was true to his facts unlike some miserable Sherlock Holmes book I had perused years ago. So I am taking your suggested reading list to heart since I have to show to my growing child that I love reading fiction (I am currently on a diet of non-fiction) or else he'll never want to learn to read (according to "The Read-Aloud Handbook, by Jim Trelease) and as eventually he'll catch on that I'm only reading the same series over and over I need to expand my repertoire.

    As an aside, while I understand you like to laugh at death and all things serious - there is a difference between un-attachment and apathy. I can appreciate humor most of the time but some humor is less about joviality and more about neuroticism and it's hard to see merit in the latter.

    Thank you for assembling this list. I hope to find some very enjoyable reading that I can later suggest to my child. In the years before internet (largely during the Wheel of Time's publications) you consulted your friends and family for book reviews or to a lesser degree by teachers directed by the state with a lust for worksheets. With such a limited book pool to choose from it was understandable that Jordan's and like author's books became quickly popular as there was a lot of bad books that one could not easily un-see once started. So while I understand your point of view on the first book in the series I also wanted to perhaps clarify why those types of books became popular. They were accessible, safe and widely distributed "off-line" by B.Dalton bookstores.

    1. "I also wanted to perhaps clarify why those types of books became popular"

      Oh, sure. I don't find it surprising that such books are popular, I can see why people read them. As you say, it can be comforting to read something that is familiar and predictable. People also like reading books that confirm their own worldview, presenting the same old conformist cliches about heroism, romance, race, gender, and identity.

      "I can appreciate humor most of the time but some humor is less about joviality and more about neuroticism and it's hard to see merit in the latter."

      I've heard this criticism before, but I find it ironic that readers are perfectly willing to accept the 'normalizing neuroticism' of books like these, often without a second thought, but react so unfavorably to my humorous, hyperbolic treatment. Ironic, but not unsurprising.

      After all, pop culture tends to operate by normalizing and excusing the neuroses of society. In some ways, that is what pop culture is for. So, we see death and violence treated as mere plot elements, as bits of action to 'spice things up'. Indeed, we even see violence glorified as the preferred solution to life's problems. The young hero with his sword or gun mows down all who oppose him, and all this death is treated as a 'happy ending'.

      In the same way, sex and romance are not explored psychologically, but are used merely for titillation and as idealized fantasies for the readers to enjoy vicariously. We can see similar structures for race, class, gender, and all the other things our society is conflicted about.

      And yet, when I turn things around and force the reader to look at this flippant treatment of death and compare it to the real world around them, suddenly I've 'gone too far'. Certainly, I understand why people recoil from my absurdist, sarcastic treatment of death--it is deliberately challenging and unsettling, it is meant to provoke thought, and feeling.

      But I find it much more disturbing to read a book like Jordan's, where war and death are treated as an opportunity for fun and adventure, a view which fans accept easily, and without question.

      "I am taking your suggested reading list to heart since I have to show to my growing child that I love reading fiction"

      I hope that some of my suggestions prove useful to you. Trying to find good books to read certainly isn't an easy thing. Good luck with your search.

    2. I totally agree with your opinion of the neurosis found in fiction and the general blase attitude towards it. I think that is why I've always favored non-fiction. I find my worldview is so narrow sometimes that there is simply no work of fiction that will live up to my strict personal standards and have a happy ending and if there were, it would most likely be in the children's picture book section. I especially enjoy manuals, scientific journals and philosophy to give you an idea of my free time when not practicing spontaneous inertia. I really enjoy reading your point of view.

      On the subject of my feelings over death and Jordan, I really didn't mean to point out that I was troubled by the comment - I only wanted to point out why some people might feel upset by it. Through your explanation on humor I'm starting to see the merit of sarcasm and satire in comedy. I am also understanding that you know far more about the human mind than I feebly grasp. Sometimes I just erroneously assume everyone is as awkward in grasping what appears to me at first to be illogical contradicting behavior.

      As expected my library had none of the first list of books you recommend, however, I did find "The Warlord of the Air" by Moorcock . So I hope everything he writes is half as good as the book you liked from him.

      Thank you again, for replying and writing this list. If you ever write a modern philosophy book I would be very interested in reading it.

    3. "I totally agree with your opinion of the neurosis found in fiction ... that is why I've always favored non-fiction."

      And yet, it isn't as if non-fiction is free from the same social neuroses. Works of history, philosophy, and science are also written with biases as to gender, race, and all the rest. It's most obvious when we look at non-fiction texts from generations ago, because our modern vantage point allows us to see the errors older writers made. It's much more difficult to find the bias in modern writers because their bias tends to align neatly with modern assumptions about the world.

      For example, the Conan stories of Howard (which I suggest above) are full of complex ideas about racial identity and genetics, and these draw on the scientific texts of his time, which explored things like eugenics and 'racial types'. So, the fiction of the period and the non-fiction were really very neatly aligned in presenting the same erroneous conclusions about human nature.

      After all, historians, philosophers, and critics have their own way of looking at the world, and interpret the data to fit that worldview. It's like how many modern 'neuroscience' books are little more than self-help books dressed up, taking scientific findings and interpreting them in the most convenient, one-sided ways.

      "there is simply no work of fiction that will live up to my strict personal standards and have a happy ending"

      Well, I generally prefer a book that challenges my worldview and gives me a different perspective, rather than one which agrees with what I already think. I may never find a writer who thinks just how I do, but I've found many who presented ideas to me that I never would have come up with on my own.

      "I only wanted to point out why some people might feel upset by it"

      Thanks for clarifying. I'm certainly not surprised that it upsets people, but I am a bit disappointed that more people don't look closer and see it for what it is.

      "you know far more about the human mind than I feebly grasp"

      You're very kind. I do my best, and I'm glad it made sense to you.

      "my library had none of the first list of books you recommend"

      I'm sorry to hear that--and a bit surprised. Many of them are well-known, and were widely published.

      "I did find "The Warlord of the Air" by Moorcock . So I hope everything he writes is half as good"

      Some of his work is much rougher, but Warlord of the Air is fairly solid--I enjoyed it.

      "Thank you again, for replying and writing this list."

      You're welcome, of course--and thank you for the comments.

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  67. I find your lists almost paradoxically comical and can only chalk it up to personal taste and bias. They are not consistent. Particularly because you bash Tolkien and yet, you highlight and exalt people who write almost exactly like him. I suppose you can be forgiven, it is very popular to make fun of Tolkien. It always has been. I think sometimes people feel like they cannot be taken seriously as a *literati* if they like Tolkien. So they hop on the bus like everyone else. It can be forgiven.

    Your "To Avoid" lists are spot on, by the way. Your general consensus has been pretty accurate on others.

    There is sadly a gaping hole in your readership. You've neglected to mention Tad Williams anywhere. I can only think this is out of some kind of fear for his large books? You mistakenly believed he was "like everyone else" and didn't bother? I hate to say it but this list is kind of a joke without him on it.

    1. "you bash Tolkien and yet, you highlight and exalt people who write almost exactly like him"

      I'm quite curious to know which authors I praise you think are stylistically similar to Tolkien.

      "I think sometimes people feel like they cannot be taken seriously as a *literati* if they like Tolkien."

      If I was worried about being 'taken seriously as a literati', I wouldn't be praising pulp adventure authors like Moorcock, Leiber, Vance, and Howard. Instead, I would be pushing authors like Borges, Calvino, Lightman, VanderMeer, and Wolfe up the list, for their overt literary style.

      "You've neglected to mention Tad Williams anywhere. I can only think this is out of some kind of fear for his large books?"

      Honestly, he hasn't really come up much in discussions of good fantasy authors. All I've really heard about him is that he was influential for awful writers like Paolini and Martin. Of course, I'm willing to check him out, if he truly is different and worthwhile. Perhaps you could explain what sets him apart?

    2. It just seems like a blind spot to me - everyone you mentioned is stylistically like Tolkien. Except Tolkien is smarter and so, his prose is even more densely parsed. His economic skill isn't for everyone. I guess it can be confusing for people wanting the purple overdone prose from Howard or Moorcock and then seeing the laser-like attention to detail with words from Tolkien. He uses the language so skillfully it's just miles above.

      But I digress.

      Tad Williams -- see, what you say about him "doesn't come up in discussions" and "influential for awful writers like Martin" really proves my point of your complete and *vast* ignorance here. You're talking to all the wrong people if that's all you hear.

      He wrote a classic epic Fantasy with Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. It is exactly the kind of world-building Hero's Journey that everyone expects, except it's good. The World is deep and believable.

      Then he took a wild left turn and did an incredible Sci-Fi Fantasy with Otherland, which is completely peerless. No one writes Epic Fantasy Sci-Fi and Tad Williams mastered it. You want to know where those Wachowkski siblings got their ideas from, it was here (and the Ghost in the Shell Manga/original animated film).

      Then he dials back and returns to Fantasy in a completely different world with Shadowmarch, darker and mealier. But still Epic Fantasy.

      He is a versatile and capable writer and a *Master* storyteller whose characters remain with you for years and years -- without even a re-read to bouy memory.

      And he singly and perfectly writes Faerie better than anyone alive except possibly Susanna Clarke. I'd say they were equal on grasping the right feel of the danger and otherworldliness.

      I stand by what I said before - this list cannot be taken seriously without him on it.

    3. "everyone you mentioned is stylistically like Tolkien. Except Tolkien is smarter"

      Well, I'm sure Tolkien wouldn't agree--indeed, he didn't. While he respected Eddison, for example, he specifically denied that the book had influenced him, stating that

      "I thought that, corrupted by an evil and indeed silly ‘philosophy’, he was coming to admire, more and more, arrogance and cruelty ... he was certainly not an ‘influence’"

      Likewise, authors like Moorcock and Mieville specifically criticized Tolkien's approach to the genre, and obviously considered their own style to be quite different.

      From the frank sexuality of Gloriana to the dry, satirical wit of Leiber and Vance to the Dyonisian fatalism of Eddison and Howard (not to mention the short form), Tolkien's approach seems to me vastly different than these other fantasy writers. The fact that you gloss over these fundamental distinctions so freely does not lend me confidence in your judgment.

      To say that he's 'just like them, but smarter' strikes me as a very simplistic analysis, to the point of banality. I mean, it's the sort of non-argument that anyone could make about any author--the sort of thing I'd expect to hear from the average teen talking about their favorite YA series. It says nothing about the author's idiomatic approach or their particular strengths.

      "it can be confusing for people wanting the purple overdone prose from Howard or Moorcock and then seeing the laser-like attention to detail with words from Tolkien."

      Ah, so first you fault me for being too much of a 'literati' to appreciate him, and now it's the opposite: I'm a pulp reader who loves purple prose and can't appreciate a true artist. Just flailing attacks to see if anything might land, are we?

      Well, perhaps I like works on their own merits, not because they can be easily classified into 'literary' or 'pulp'. Moorcock's prose is not his strong suit (as I point out), but his ideas and approach are novel enough to make his work worth reading. Likewise, I do not praise Howard's prose, but his verve and power.

      Lastly, I agree with Moorcock and Mieville that Tolkien's prose is dull, stolid, and overwrought--that in its condescension, moralizing, and endless asides, he squeezes most of the life out of his fantasy, along with much of the wonder.

      "He is a versatile and capable writer and a *Master* storyteller whose characters remain with you for years and years"

      Again, this is an excessively generic blurb. It could be said of any writer, and does nothing to demonstrate what sets Williams apart, or makes him worth reading. Placing asterisks around 'master' does not make the statement any more true or interesting. You might as well just switch to capslock, at that point.

      "he singly and perfectly writes Faerie better than anyone alive"

      Hyperbolic, but once again empty of any actual observations or analysis. In my experience, when a person has a valid opinion (one worth listening to) they will be able to express all sorts of intriguing proofs of an author's unique approach, delving into what makes them truly worthwhile.

      You may think that I have been 'talking to all the wrong people' about fantasy, but the people whose opinions I value are not those who spout generic, overblown praise, but those who can concisely capture a particular author's approach to writing. Short of that, I'm not going to find your effusions very convincing.

      "this list cannot be taken seriously without him on it"

      Then by all means, don't take it seriously.

      Of course, Williams may be everything you say, and well worth a read, but so far you've done little to demonstrate that.

    4. Wow Hapaxius, you've given this person a lot more of your time than they may have deserved.
      You thoughtful blog and thorough responses to comments are much appreciated. Keep up the good work!

    5. Just saw this, sorry, months later. I don't wring my hands hoping for a response.

      You know, you did all you could to sit there and make fun of me because I didn't sit here and slow down for you and take time to draw you pictures of why an author is good. I figured you were smarter than that and that I didn't need to condescend.

      Did it ever occur to you that I simply don't really care what you think that much? I am perfectly capable of making an afternoon of arguments, but my time is precious to me and trying to convince you of what I think just isn't that important. I don't perilously waver on the edge of worrying about what you think.

      It was pretty much just a drive-by opinion, probably why you were so piqued to respond as you did. Also; let me help you understand such comments in the future so you can try not to get your back up with the ad hominem attacks. People who just swing in and make comments are pretty confident in their own opinions. They aren't looking for you to convince them otherwise, indeed, they are quite sure you're missing something, are confident that they themselves are not and since it's simply about books, for heaven's sake, it doesn't even matter.

      So what, someone thinks you're wrong. You've put your opinions out here for the entire world to see. You just might have to get used to that happening from time to time.

    6. Even though critical of him, Mieville didn't dismiss Tolkien completely. Despite the difference of worldview, he gave him credit where it's due.

    7. "Lastly, I agree with Moorcock and Mieville that Tolkien's prose is dull, stolid, and overwrought--that in its condescension, moralizing, and endless asides, he squeezes most of the life out of his fantasy, along with much of the wonder."

      I might be wrong here, but to my understanding Tolkien never intended to write a modern fantasy novel full of wonders. He wanted to create a saga for England, like the Edda of the Norse, because he felt, England was lacking one. He was not interested in describing magic marvels or very fantastic things. He was going for an underlying root of cultural identification and heritage. He would never have considered himself a fantasy writer like Moorcock. He was a composer, not an entertainer.

  68. Still working My way through your recommended list, I haven't been disappointed yet!
    Continued thanks!
    A quiet place, where love rules the day.

    1. Glad to hear that the list has been useful for you.

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  70. this is terrific! thanks for keeping it up. I wonder if you would add any others since 2012.

  71. I think there's something to be said for Sanderson and his ilk. I agree with your criticisms, yet differ in the final verdict. What can I say, I like variety. Making magic feel less magical isn't necessarily a bad thing if you use it to create a fun, fast-paced thriller-esque plot, and focusing on plot over character and theme I have not the balls to definitively label "the wrong way to do it," as you have done, even though I lean the same direction myself most of the time. But sometimes, oh sometimes, I want nothing more in all the world than to watch a vapid heist with the novelty of magic go down in front of me, and cheer at the right moments, and feel fat and happy at the end. The intimate encounter and the quick masturbatory session in the shower because you just need it are equally valid and important aspects of our lives, and should not be judged one against the other.

  72. This is a very nice list, much of which I agree with and disagree. I'm surprised you didn't account for Robin Hobb on any of the lists, whether good or bad. I absolutely inhaled the first two trilogies that contain the character Fitz (skipping over other trilogies in the same world to get back to his character). Very realistic growth of the main character (coming of age in the first trilogy and a 35-year-old-ish single parent in the second trilogy; haven't read the third trilogy yet) to go along with very realistic relationships between characters.

    However, my favorite fantasy authors (and it's been a real slog through a lot of embarrassingly bad crap (Sanderson, Goodkind, Jordan, Rothfuss's second book, etc) to find these) are Tolkien, Martin, Abercrombie, and Hobb, so you may be not be interested in this recommendation. However, Hobb tackles fantasy differently from the other three and creates a very engrossing world. Two caveats: the magic is a little hokey as is the naming system of the noble class where their name is a noun that expresses a trait of theirs - like King Shrewd and Lady Patience.

    Btw, I viewed Gormenghast as a gothic novel, separate from fantasy, which I view as sword-and-sorcery stuff a la Tolkien, etc.

  73. As a more literary reader, I would be interested in seeing your review of Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold. She is one of the few authors I preorder in Hardback as I reread her work. Her characters, even minor ones, seem like real people and her prose is elegant in the way scientists use the word. A straightforward, simple experimental design that directly addresses the research question and will give results of meaningful clarity.
    I follow you on Goodreads and hope you will consider moving this book to the front of your reading list.

  74. You should give Martin another try. He has lost some focus in the later books ASoIaF, but he has a goal (it isn't just an unending soap-opera) and he's developing his characters quite nicely. He isn't idolizing the medieval times, but he doesn't go full dark and grim either. His heroes have tragic weaknesses and most of his villains have redeeming qualities. His prose is workmanlike and he isn't trying to reinvent the fantasy genre, but his books have some merit.

  75. Any excuse to take a shot at Tolkien or Lewis, gees, you're as bad as Moorcock sometimes, but I digress.

    Thank you for making this list, while I disagree with some aspects of the review and even surprised with others (I didn't expect you to like Conan or Leiber, for that matter), I don't think I would've gotten as far into fantasy if I did without your list here. I wouldn't have read Gormenghast, Vicronium, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or Bas Lag without your list, so for that, you have my utmost respect.

    I still think you're wrong on Martin though.

  76. I strongly second The Last Unicorn, The Princess Bride, and The Once & Future King, all for different reasons.

    Beware of Phantastes; it's recommended only because CS Lewis wrote so often about how much it influenced him. And it did! It's all Platonist allegory, and by conveying to Lewis the Platonic vision of a perfect heavenly realm, of which ours is only a poor, shadowy copy, it helped corrupt generations of fantasy readers.

    This brings up a key dichotomy in fantasy, and other fiction. In Phantastes, Lewis, and Tolkien, the world ought to be perfect, and can be perfected, if you just get rid of all the nasty people. Stasis is good; change, other than reversion to the old ways, is always bad, since it can only be the gradual decay of our poor copies of the Forms. Compare Tolkien, Beowulf, and any medieval allegory.

    In Gormenghast, the real world is real, stasis is bad, and change is necessary. That's probably why people don't read it anymore. Fantasy is dominated by people who want the restoration of a perfect happy rosy world, and people who want to deconstruct those perfect happy worlds. You can google my blog post "Fantasy as Deontology" for related ranting.

    I recommend A Face Like Glass, which is a bit like an Alice in Wonderland written by Dickens, where instead of the Red Queen you have Louis XIV as a vampire, the magic system is based on the esoteric knowledge of craft guilds, and people have such constrained social roles that they've lost the ability to display any emotions on their faces other than those approved for and taught to people of their social class.

    Viking poems and saga are entirely missing. I like the Orkneyinga "Saga" because it isn't a saga; it's a chronicle. (I have limited patience for book-length poems.) It's like a fantasy novel in which all the good/evil characters and the tropes have been replaced with real people and real life, and the narrator thinks like someone in that society would think. So it gives a powerful contrast between fiction and real life. If it were written today, it would be called deconstructionist, provided you called it fiction. YMMV.

    (BTW, there's an (unimportant) reference to Njal's Saga in the opening of Ouroboros.)

    Are you still here?

    1. How does a story end, if there’s no percieved ideal other than continuous change?

  77. What a magnificent list of classics and the treasures that are worth reading. Thank you very much for the list 8 years ago.

  78. Piers Anthony has some gems: Chronologically: Chthon, Macroscope, On a Pale Horse.

  79. Gentleman JG Keely, greetings and hope you are well. I have been following different areas of this blog for ... maybe a couple years now and I have to say I am very grateful to you for creating it. I'm just shy of thirty and got into reading a few years ago to help pass the time at work, and I realized the one thing I hated so much as a child has become my favorite and most fulfilling pastime as an adult. I only came to this realization after finally finding some fantasy books that truly spoke to me. The reason this is relevant to you is because I think I was reading various reviews on Goodreads and your wit, honesty and overall tastes really caught my attention, as I assume others have also discovered for themselves. Even though I may not agree with all of your criticisms, I do find your logic and reasoning to be sensible and at the very least entertaining to read through. Your cutting critique of modern fantasy's insistence on complex world-building as opposed to attending story, characters, dialogue etc. firsthand rather than second (if at all) still reverberates strongly in my mind as I seek out the next book to satisfy my literary lust.
    Anyway, part of the reason my thank you is so genuine is because I sought out some of your suggestions and have only found success so far. I accidentally read some of your to-be-avoided prior to finding this blog and there is only shame and regret in that regard. So first things first, I went and read (listened to) the entire Robert E. Howard collection of CONAN, the Cimmerian, the Conqueror, and the Bloody Crown of. All of them, in my opinion, were absolutely phenomenal. As I am still so fresh to reading in general I can't say my standards are the highest since I am currently only reading to find my personal interests and limits. Fantasy is a must for me. Historical fiction is also great. Historical-based fantasy is even better. The more realistic the more I can immerse myself. However, well-written, well-plotted stories with great characters, fun and dialogue are enough to make up for a story with ideas that may be a little too far-fetched for some.
    Back to Conan. I love the character so much it's changed my life, and me as a person. That's how good the writing was to me. I loved the prose, the sense of how grand the world and its characters were, the adventure and the sense of larger-than-life magic, sorcery, and so on.
    I actually had a conversation with you a while back about what magic means in a story and what it /can/ mean, and it opened my mind quite a bit.

  80. As an aside, I was not the target audience for an author like Brandon Sanderson. I read The Way of Kings, and only that, and it wasn't for me. It was worth the ride since I listened to the graphic audio edition and the gimmickry of that style kept me engaged enough to continue to the end of the first book. I didn't feel like I actually enjoyed it until the book's climax, which wasn't good enough to me to continue anyway. The reason I bring this up is because I recognize now from study outside the book that I fundamentally disagree with the way it was written. I don't like the way Sanderson condescendingly presents these rules, or "laws" of magic in such a way that anyone who does anything different from him is doing it wrong. I think as you say it makes little sense to lay complex arbitrary rules over a story, sometimes in place of a story, as a way to explain why the convenience of magic resolves an obstacle, instead of conveniently resolving an obstacle without the explanation, when the obstacle itself shouldn't be a meaningless way to "give the characters something to do" in the first place. The obstacle, or the use of magic should exist within the theme of the story and only be there as a way to give the character(s) cause to grow or change in connection with that theme. Otherwise it is glorified padding or filler. This can still entertain, and this can still convince many readers that they are reading something that is high-quality. But in the end does it teach us anything, or help us grow as people, to be distracted by this ... frivolity? I can't speak for anyone other than myself, but as myself I can also say I have observed and read many positive reviews and 5-stars that have paid money for and enjoyed this kind of book to no end.
    But for me, I am not so easily convinced... most of the time.
    Conan is not just something that helped me pass the time. It helped me enjoy my time in this world. As an obvious power fantasy it is fun for me, a male, to put myself in his shoes. I think the writing shouldn't be ignored by anyone who enjoys fantasy, including women, especially when such great female characters such as Belit and Valeria are introduced.

  81. I DIGRESS. I do and I don't mean to get into different topics--but I'll stay focused. I'm looking forward to reading Dunsany, Gormenghast and many others on here, even though they may take some time to get to, but to start off with Conan was a real treat for me, so again I appreciate your insight as I never would have purposely delved into a book that was nearly one hundred years old since my previous understanding was that everything fantasy was spawned by Lord of the Rings. Well I've been fooled because most fantasy (not necessarily good) was also spawned from Conan, and these two properties have crucially important works that inspired them as well, and on and on it goes. I'll try not to be so closed-minded in the future.

    Speaking of closed-mindedness, I have closed the chapter on the following authors who I read before I was properly warned (and in my defense, they are immensely popular and highly rated, which I now know may spell success, but not exactly translate to quality):
    Brandon Sanderson -- Arbitrary rules for magic be fine if the plot, tone, theme, writing style, characterization, dialogue, is intriguing, fun and well-conceived. In my first foray into this work, all I got from the writing is a nerd who likes putting two words together to make one cool-sounding thing and the rest will sort itself out! Right? [Example: Stormlight, Warbreaker, Steelheart, Oathbringer, Skyward, Starsight, Mistborn, Shardblade, Shardplate, and ON AND ON IT GOES] Now that I think of it, this must be written for the twitch-tween crowd because I feel like I'm booting up my playstation just by reading those names, like accidentally summoning a demon from hell by uttering a few random latin words... only less cool.

    1. *Arbitrary rules for magic **WOULD** be fine if the plot,*

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  83. Joe Abercrombie -- People like dark, gritty and realistic stories these days. But what writers don't always realize is that when the world is so bland and morally gray, the politics don't amount to anything and the story ends up just being a set up for future stories, then we the readers feel a bit robbed of what could have been special. When there is no sense of right and wrong, but just a world of garbled amoral dross, I tend to lose interest quickly as to what the excitement of the action really is. I start to forget the point at all. Even Conan, who seemed morally unrestrained, still had strict personal codes and disciplines that made him unique and enjoyable to follow along on his adventures. Even when he was at his most horrifyingly barbaric, I still felt chained to him like a slave forced to watch his every move. And I loved it. The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie, left me unenthusiastic about reading ever again. Thankfully I didn't give up there.
    Steven Erikson: People swear by his work, and I haven't yet gotten through the entire first book. It's extremely dry, painfully difficult to read and understand, and mind-numbingly complex. If the writing were more pleasant and enjoyable to the senses then I might be willing to soldier through, but it is like drinking dirt coffee black. I haven't read Game of Thrones, and judging by my experience with the show I probably never will, but this book takes the grittiness, death and destruction of that property and ratchets it to eleven. However, it isn't fun, the characters are obnoxious and whatever intriguing ideas it has are just too buried in complication randomness that it makes me want to run in the opposite direction. However, and I will say this, there is a masochistic side of me that truly seeks to understand why this series is the way that it is. I hear it gets better after the first book and makes more sense. I hope it clicks for me then. I won't read it. I'll just give it a listen and see if it turns good. It's a really sad day when a person reads or listens to a book and waits for it to "get good". I feel like this is the reading equivalent to playing a Dark Souls game, which I loved as a video game... not sure it works as a novel.

    That's what I will share for now. Here's the ones I have truly enjoyed--they might not be JG Keely quality but I enjoyed them!

    The Red Knight (entire series) by Miles Cameron
    The Warlord Chronicles 1,2,3 (of King Arthur) by Bernard Cornwell [also read by the outstanding Jonathan Keeble]
    The Lies of Locke Lamora (the first one) by Scott Lynch

  84. I don't have too much to add, just wanted to say that reading your scathing review of Robert Jordan's "Eye of the World" on Goodreads was very cathartic for me so I came here to check out your list. I promised my brother I'd give the series a fair shot, so I'm slogging my way through book 1 because I love my brother. I'm not super well read so it's hard to articulate why I'm finding this book so tiresome, but your review helped me out a lot there.

    Like other commenters here, I'm also a huge Wolfe fanboy and surprised you don't like him. Curious if you've explored his work outside of Book of the New Sun? "Peace" was my intro to him and still my favorite novel of his - I think a lot of his short stories are fantastic, and the trio of novellas "The Fifth Head Of Cerberus" is probably a more interesting dive into Wolfe than jumping straight into Book of the New Sun. Either way, I try not to be TOO much of a Wolfe evangelist, I understand tastes differ.

    That being said - you praise a lot of other works I hold in high regard, like Jonathan Strange or Lud-in-the-Mist so I'm happy to bookmark this and reference it next time I'm looking to hop into something new. Thanks a bunch for your hard work!

  85. Wow, you put Brandon Sanderson as an avoid author? I can see how some people get tired of his pace and would not be a popular top recommendation. To list him as an avoid, I'm genuinely surprised by that.

    He is currently my number one favorite author and I fangirl over everything he writes lately. I've yet to find anyone that draws me in like he does. I'm going to for sure try one of your suggestions. Maybe I have never read good fantasy before, but my bar is sky high now if you can go so far to say avoid Sanderson and not be a troll.

  86. Huh, no mention of Ray Bradbury.

  87. Fantastic list. Thank you so much for introducing me to Peake (first read done, Folio Society editions on the way for a re-read) and Durnsay, whom I doubt I ever would have discovered independently. I look forward to working through most of the rest of the list.

    I was wondering if you have ventured much into the Sci-Fi realm, and if so, have you read Cixin Liu's Three Body Problem trilogy? I suppose it falls into that nebulous genre 'speculative fiction', but to me it reads as hard sci-fi with fantasy-esque qualities. Specifically, I wanted to ask about your take on technology as magic, and world building in sci-fi.

    I suppose the fantasy feeling comes from roughly the same place as it does in Gene Wolfe's BotNS (another self-proclaimed 'speculative fiction' work): Clarke's First Law, stating that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Where the works differ is Wolfe's technology is long forgotten and next to nothing is known or understood about how or why it works . Liu's work, by contrast, contains a perhaps overlarge amount of technobabble. Despite that, I find the tech concepts he uses to be near magical, and that they stem from a (theoretically) scientifically accurate foundation doesn't detract from my enjoyment of their impact on the story. It feels almost as if technology is a kind of specifically developed species/society magic, unique to the abilities, understanding and creativity of each group.

    I also find the world building to be as fascinating and imaginative, despite that Liu begins in a known setting (the world as it exists today). He takes our world and extrapolates through time and space to create a setting that is as creative and fantastical as anything else I've experienced.

    I also enjoy that the translation to English retains the anachronisms of Mandarin thought and expression, but I digress.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful list; I'll be spending the next decade slowly working through it.

  88. Thank you for this overview. I am currently a bit stuck in a rut when looking for books. Hard SF is mostly my first choice, but I like good fantasy too. Unfortunately, most modern fantasy doesn't impress me. But this list will help me a bit on the way.

  89. I would be very grateful if you could also make a list of non-fantasy books. Thank You.

  90. A highly intriguing and helpful list! Though it seems like you and I have very different preferences genre-wise, I can respect your views and the stories you like to read. I do agree with many of your thoughts, such as on Pullman and Tolkien, who I've read both of and I actually prefer Pullman. I wonder if you've read his sequel series: The Book of Dust. It expands quite nicely on "His Dark Materials" in my opinion.

    One thing—and this almost turned me off from your list since I saw the bottom first. What you said about Brandon Sanderson seems... well, condescending, though I usually hate to use the word.

    "His writing and talks on fantasy make it seem like he's missed the point on how stories work."... Wow. Let's break this down. Sanderson certainly isn't for everyone, perhaps not even for most fantasy fans. However, you seem to have taken on the mindset that there's only one way to interpret and enjoy fantasy—your way. I could write a book about the problems with that mindset. Please let me know if I misunderstood you, and you were just stating your opinion.

    In that case, I might change it to something along the lines of "His writing and talks on fantasy make it clear that he interprets fantasy in a very different way than I do."

    1. No, I'm afraid I used my words quite deliberately in this case: his stated approach to writing Fantasy stands in complete opposition to how basic elements like character, plot, and theme work in a story. I've written a fuller exploration of the matter in this old review.

      As for The Book of Dust, I haven't read it, but will have to keep an eye out for it, as I certainly enjoy Pullman's work, even if I don't place him among the honored heights of the genre.

      In any case, I'm glad to hear you've found some aspect of my list interesting, even if it wasn't all to your liking. Ta for the comment.