Five Favorite Fantasy Novels
I wrote this back in 2002 for the Comicon.com website, and it got some very interesting responses. Charles Vess and other notables popped in. I was surprised to see this was still up after all these years! And reading it with fresh eyes tells me it needs heavy editing. Oh, dear.
Everyone is at San Diego, so I am trying to take advantage of the quiet by getting as much work done as possible, so enjoy and discuss this recycled article, if you please.
1) WAR FOR THE OAKS by Emma Bull: Written in the 1980’s, it was probably the first and best book to explore the realm of Fairie and its place in the modern world, though dozens of books have explored the subject since. Combines elements of the lively music scene in Minneapolis (in the days when the artist formerly known as Prince ruled the world) with a war for dominion of the worlds of magic. Motorcycle riding magical beings joust and play electric guitar and battle each other in clubs with the force of their music. A delightful, clever book.
2) SWORDSPOINT by Ellen Kushner: Elegantly written by a woman with a rare gift for the music of language and a sharp wit, this story is the tale of a swordsman for hire who is caught between bickering factions of the ruling class in a Renaissance-inspired principality. Few fantasy writers have the knowledge to handle court intrigue and manners with any conviction, but Ellen Kushner is a master of the subject. Another plus: you may not realize who is pulling the strings behind all of the naughty masterworks until the very end. One of my favorite novels, ever.
3) THE GORMENGHAST TRILOGY by Mervyn Peake: Dark and byzantine, but full of sparkling language, Gormenghast is completely unique. Devoid of the standard fantasy trappings, Gormenghast is the story of the family of Groan, masters of an immense castle realm that has existed for countless years and is rotting under the weight of its history and traditions. The young heir to the House of Groan dominates the second and third book of the trilogy and the tale primarily concerns his quest to shrug off the mantle of his heritage. The entire story is a metaphor for this trek in the life of everyman. However, the elegant and twisted Steerpike is the focus of the first volume and his rise to power from kitchen boy to man-behind-the-throne of Gormenghast is a fascinating and tragic read. Though this book is rather dark in spirit in many places, the language is so beautiful and so clever that every paragraph contains a turn of phrase that makes me stop and wonder at its brilliance. One of the best and most original fantasy novels ever written.
4) THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien: It’s almost redundant to write a capsule recommendation of this well-known work which almost everyone has already read. However, this book is unfairly maligned by many as it has been copied and cribbed from badly for so many years that some people have overdosed on the whole fantasy genre after being deluged with bad riffs of this work. Though the world therein is complex and realized to the last detail, the language is simple and reminiscent of old storybooks. Tolkien was heavily influenced by the oral traditions of old Europe and certain sections of the book are much more fun when being listened to on tape as the music of the language is better realized when read aloud. If you don’t already know, it’s the tale of a magic ring that contains an evil force and the quest of a small group of heroes to destroy it. The settings and landscapes are exhaustively detailed while some of the characters themselves are left to the imagination of the reader to realize in many ways. Some consider this to be light reading, but the story is bittersweet and the consequences of war are presented with clarity and honesty, possibly due to Tolkien’s own experiences in World War I.
5) THE NOBLE ACTS OF KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS by Howard Pyle: This four volume version of the tale by legendary illustrator Howard Pyle is the first version I read and my favorite. Pyle cleaned up the bawdier aspects of the story a bit for his younger readers and illustrated it himself with hundreds of gorgeously detailed drawings. It is his masterwork. In archaic language, it may be difficult going for some as many are not going to be keen on the liberal use of words like “yclept”, but this is a very entertaining series of books that not only tells the tales of Arthur and his exploits but many of the tales of Arthur’s lesser-known knights as well. Pyle had a deep knowledge of the 12th century world and its social mores and for those that may find reading Malory’s ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’ a bit thick with its dense language and internal contradictions, you will enjoy Pyle’s lighter, Victorian-influenced version of the tales.