Thursday, 14 July 2011

101 Fantasy: What Would You Suggest?

So, someone asks you for a recommendation. They have tried something like, say, Harry Potter and they ask for a novel from the fantasy genre. You want something typical from the fantasy field. You want something that provides easy reading and showcases a lot of the familiar tropes in fantasy.

What do you suggest?

I asked this question on Twitter and received the following responses (amongst others):

  • The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien
  • Elric by Michael Moorcock
  • The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks
  • Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings
  • Magician by Raymond E Feist 
  • Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Leguin
For me, these are sterling choices. They all solidly represent the field of fantasy, are familiar and beloved.

But they're also so OLD. The most recent novel that is deemed to be able to keep company with the above is The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.Other than that, we're harking back to an age of fantasy where quest fiction was the norm, where our bad guys helpfully wore black cloaks to identify themselves and everyone eats stew.

Why is it that these are deemed to be the best ways to bring people into the fantasy genre? I can entirely understand not suggesting someone like Joe Abercrombie - or even George R R Martin. They are very dark, with adult themes and language. But how about J V Jones? Or Trudi Canavan? Or Guy Gavriel Kay? Spellwright by Blake Charlton was hailed as harking back to a gentler age and celebrated as such - how come this novel is not being suggested? Did it get a little lost on the shelves? Is it not as beloved because nostalgia has nothing to do with it? I just wonder at the idea that we are suggesting fantasy novels that are sometimes referred to as Tolkien knock offs to showcase the fantasy genre...

I wonder whether it is the explosion of the YA genre that means we no longer seem to be breeding fantasy on the shelves that can be handed to those just embarking on their fantastical reading career. With hard hitting fantasy and science fiction on the YA shelves - including the Chaos Walking trilogy - are younger readers finding access to the fantasy and science fiction shelves through those means?

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on:

  • why the 101 fantasy novels are often so old;
  • what the perfect 101 fantasy novel is;
  • and, is there still a place for the 101 fantasy novel - or has YA taken its place?
Looking forward to your comments!


  1. Interesting. I suggested Magician because for me it stands the test of time and is a book I've returned to many times. I've read and very much enjoyed Trudi Canavan, I adore Spindle's End and other much more recent books by Robin McKinley, but if you ask for just one suggestion, it's going to be Feist for pure honest 101 fantasy.

  2. I think people recommend older works because they feel you should start at the beginning. See where all the influences came from and from there find the children who read those books and decided to write their own.

  3. I think we often look back at what got us reading fantasy in the first place (which in my case was a VERY long time ago). I think I started with Narnia then went on to the Dragons of Pern book. But two authors I do recommend are Janny Wurtz and Katherine Kerr. It does seem as though the YA genre is taking over to some extent. But if it gets people reading, it's a good thing.

  4. I believe the reason why the fantasy 101 novels are so old is because one has to read the novels which "started" fantasy to really understand what is happening in fantasy today.

    Steven Erikson likes to break the "stereotypes" in his malazan series, but if you don't understand what the "stereotypes" are (I know he refers to it as something else but my mind can't find the word).

  5. Thanks for all the comments so far - really appreciate the discussion!

    Just want to highlight a point @butchie34 said - the fact the fantasy 101 novels are those that started fantasy and concern the familiar tropes etc. This is true, but there are still fantasy novels being written these days that tackle same but are never mentioned. As I say, there is Spellwright by Blake Charlton. There is the Baker Boy trilogy by J V Jones. Fiona McIntosh has written some truly 101 Fantasy.

    I'm just curious as to why these aren't being held up as examples of 101 Fantasy? Is it because people just haven't read them?

  6. I think it totally depends on the age of the person asking. If it's an adult who liked Harry Potter but wants something more gritty and grown-up, Lynch or Martin would be perfectly valid suggestions. For someone younger or looking for more light-hearted fare, Terry Pratchett's adult books are very accessible - maybe Unseen Academicals? They don't have to be read in order, after all.

    If the suggestions are old, it maybe that there's no strong feeling of "classic" about newer books. Also, most of those classics you listed would be marketed as YA if they came out nowadays. The fantasy genre has splintered in the last couple of decades into the "coming of age" type of tale with young protagonists (YA) and everything else (adult). The latter tends to be a bit more demanding of the reader in terms of genre familiarity, hence less good as an entry point.

  7. Oh! Spellwright! Definitely. Loved that one. I would definitely agree with Lies of Locke Lamora - it got me back into fantasy. I'd also say Kevin J Anderson's Terra Incognita series - fantasy, accessible but discusses themes that are familiar with the real world so it also has an element of familiarity. Thinking beyond that, maybe Brent Weeks' books? Rachel Aaron's are a more fun fantasy series, but maybe wouldn't be considered "serious"? What about Terry Pratchett? His were the only fantasy novels I read for a long time.

    Maybe the difficulty in recommending is a result of the increasing diversity in fantasy these days? That, I think, is something people are often surprised by if they're new to the genre (pleasantly surprised, mind, but also perhaps overwhelmed?)

  8. I can't believe no-one mentioned 'The Name of the Wind' by Patrick Rothfuss or the 'Chathrand Voyage' series by Robert VS Redick, the 'Twilight Reign' series by Tom Lloyd, the 'Shadows of the Apt' series by Adrian Tchaikovsky or even the 'Mistborn' series by Brandon Sanderson. There's a hell of a lot of choice out there in contemporary fantasy.

    I'd recommend Joe Abercrombie in a heartbeat. He gets labelled as 'dark' which he isn't, particularly, his books are violent, and there's a huge difference, but they are also incredibly funny with great wit which works as a fine counterpoint to all that. In the same vain we have Sam Sykes and his 'Tome of the Undergate' series which, given his age and writing style, should find a younger (but not YA) fantasy audience with ease and then there's the easy and fast books like 'Among Thieves' by Douglas Hulick, 'Farlander' by Col Buchanan, 'Shadow's Son' by Jon Sprunk - the list is actually pretty endless!

    The more I think about it, the more it strikes me that the biggest problem here is the total lack of imagination in the fantasy reading audience on Twitter, you know, the ones that probably don't read fantasy anymore.....

  9. There was no such thing as YA when I was growing up, and it's a total mystery to me now, so I'm going to stay out of that side of things.

    The reason I personally don't suggest any modern traditional Fantasy novels that showcase familiar tropes and so on is that they're most often just pale reflections of what's been done already in the classics - so why not just suggest Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance and so on instead?

    I don't think there's such a thing as a 101 Fantasy novel anyway, if I'm totally honest. The genre has come a long way over the past hundred years and is too rich and varied to sum up with one book or one set of tropes anyway. The best you can do is show someone the foundations, like the classics mentioned before, and show them how we got to where we are now so that they can choose where they go from here.

  10. To my shame, I haven't read widely enough amongst the current crop of fantasy authors to be able to suggest the likes of J V Jones and Blake Charlton, so I went for Le Guin's "Wizard of Earthsea" or Susan Cooper's "The Dark Is Rising", or Garner's "The Owl Service" because they were part of my own introduction to fantasy. I also haven't read many of the books that are widely considered to be classics of the genre, either because they don't appeal or tried and just didn't like them - Feist, frinstance.

    If I knew the person I was recommending a text to, and what they liked/disliked, I'd probably have come up with different suggestions.

  11. Firstly: YA is NOT a genre it IS an age classification. YA Fantasy is still Fantasy. And after the success of Harry Potter we have seen lots of books re-labeled/re-classified as YA (, among them Pawn of Prophecy by Eddings).

    I suggested The Hobbit, a book that was actually written and published as a children's book. Something people seem to be forgetting. (And anyone calling it a Lord of the Rings prequel should not be allowed to ever come near a book.)

    There's several reasons I think The Hobbit is the perfect Fantasy 101 book. As I said it's a children's book, so it's "friendly" as a starting read. That is there are no complex themes etc for people to have to deal with on top of the secondary world setting.

    Another reason is it is a relatively short standalone. I know people who I'm sure would enjoy Fantasy who will never read it because they are intimidated by the length of Fantasy series.

    I don't see a problem with the age of Fantasy books. Secondary world Fantasy is timeless. And as others have said, if you want to introduce someone to a genre it helps if you start them somewhere at or near the beginning. -That way you avoid things like the Twilight fans who complained that Universal's The Wolfman (remake of a 1941 movie) was a total Twilight rip-off...

  12. Tolkien is job one. The Hobbit and LOTR. No matter how old it is, it transcends time and is always good as a starter.

    I would throw Robin Hobb's Farseer series in there as it is classical fantasy with a riveting edge to it. Great stuff for beginners and one of my fave series ever.

    Feist is only good for Magician. But when Magician is good, it's great!

    That said, I'd give someone a few more varied choices so they start with fantasy classic style and branch out into other realms...

    Thereofre I'd put Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows Of The Apt series on there...

    ...and then Brent Weeks Night Angel trilogy as well.

    Both of those have classical sensibilities while giving the reader something new and different.

  13. The Name of the Wind would get my vote as a recent fantasy title, or perhaps The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or even better The Riddlers Gift by Greg Hamerton.

    In my opnion though there is nothing wrong with reading the older classics like Magician, Shannara, The Belgaraid or Earthsea as an introduction into the genre.

  14. I would NEVER give someone a Tolkien book to introduce them to fantasy. Tolkien was a wordy writer and even The Hobbit I think can be a chore to read. That is just me though and I know a bunch of other people will be horrified by that but considering Tolkien constantly put me to sleep when I was a teen trying to read him, I can't suggest him as a place to start.

    I have gotten people reading fantasy by suggesting Terry Pratchett. I think the humor in his books manages to engage all types of readers.

  15. Setting the bar pretty low here...

  16. I personally love 'The Walrus and the Warwolf' by Hugh Cook. I would happily continue to recommend the classics such as Feist and Tolkien- they are classics for a reason! Just a thought- there could be a purely stastistical reason behind these same classic or 'old' books being recommended time after time... that with more years behind them more people have had the chance to read them!

  17. I'd recommend Guards! Guards! too. I know it you kind of need to read the normal 101s to get some of the jokes but I still think Pratchett is a good starter for fantasy.

  18. ps. Not the same anonymous as the answer above! I dont mind Pratchett for some relaxation :)

  19. What Mad Hatter said. Genre books are usually in conversation with other genre books at some level (even with books that are also original and radical) and the earlier you start (I mean historically, not agewise!), the more you can see where particular ideas are coming from.

    Though having said that, I've been converting people recently through Gail Carriger.

  20. I meant " I know you kind of need". Yikes! That God for editors!!

  21. I'm a bit confused by the conflation of "those new to the genre" with children". I missed the original Twitter comments but is this about recommending adult fantasy novels for children or adult fantasy novels for adults who don't read fantasy? I can't quite tell from the post and they are very different types of Fantasy 101.

    But, to be honest, I wouldn't recommend Brooks, Eddings or Feist to either category; they are too old and redundant for children and they are too poor for adults. If a non-fantasy reader asked me for a recommendation for a fantasy novel I wouldn't worry about how representative or historically important it was, just how good it was. So something excellent like Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan or Finch by Jeff VanderMeer or In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield.

  22. GGK for the win!!! Had to get that out of the system.

    I agree that YA is not a genre but a age classification. The fact that fantasy does so well within the YA section is good. That means in a couple years they will drift into the fantasy section.

    I personally am not a huge fan of the classic quest story. I get frustrated with all the walking around. I will come across the occasional author whose quest I love. I think it just depends on taste. The Hobbit is a easy one to hand someone. I am not saying that's a bad thing, it is timeless. I personally like the newer stuff. That's just how I roll. ^_^

  23. The Gormenghast Trilogy.

    Unsure, as I haven't read Titus Awakes, if it should be a tetralogy as intended, but that was the next set of fantasy books I read after the Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings and it hooked me forever.

  24. Someone mentioned the age of the reader, thats the pertinent point I think. I couldn't recommend Eddings to anyone above 12!
    I'd just tell them to read some of my favourites, perhaps Lyonnesse by Jack Vance or some Gene Wolfe.
    If its easy reading you're after then you can't really go wrong with BL's warhammer fantasy output.

  25. The first work of fantasy I read was Brian Jacques's Redwall, and after working through them began to read the wheel of time series, but only got to book 8 before stopping and moving on to philosophy. The few times I encounter people who want to talk about fantasy for younger readers (8 to 12ish) those are the books I rec. As an aside, I always mention that I found Piers Anthony's Apprentice Adept as a flavorsome blend of fantasy and sci-fi with light adult themes.

    I recently returned to reading fantasy and jumped right into Joe Abercrombie, an author I find amusing after being exposed to the fires of pensuers like Leopardi, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and La Rochefoucauld. His sex scenes are really terrible though.

    For people with my similar reading background and age, I always suggest Abercrombie and Robert Jordan, if they want something a little less cynical, but with the precaution that I cant say how it goes after book 8. I tried to read Martin but remember coming across the phrase "I've bedded that wench" and laughed too hard to ever take it seriously as a dark fantasy.

    I think what a reader's background is determines what their "fantasy 101" novel is going to be. I have tried to read tolkien and harry potter and just cant do it mostly because I've read too much pessimism, which goes for most of my friends, who are also hypererudte doubters lol. I also tried to read Zelazny, but could only get through his first book.

    Anyways, interesting post and good discussion. Thanks for the thread!

  26. The funny thing about this whole discussion is usually people think bloggers focus too much on new releases so now we're arguing about classic dominating things.

  27. Robin Hobbs Farseer books got me in to fantasy and I would say they were an excellent introduction to the genre. I had previously read classics like Tolkien but found them difficult to get in to as they felt dated to me. I enjoyed them in the end but they did not make me want to read more fantasy. After reading the Farseer books however I finally saw the value of the Fantasy genre. I thought that those books felt both classical and modern.

  28. You could also happily throw Sara Douglas's Battleaxe in there for, while not "high" fantasy, a decent fantasy novel.

  29. I think 'A Wizard of Earthsea' is a fine place to start: short, accessible trio of books (quartet now) from an excellent writer. It never felt like a Tolkein clone and I don't think it's dated too badly?

    I would hesitate to say LotR just because the language has moved on a little & combined with the leisurely opening it might leave some people cold, when they should better try it once hooked.

    Hobb's Farseer and Martin's ASOIAF would serve well as start points too, but I think when you ask for recommendations for first books then people's minds go back to their own first experiences with the genre and they want the new reader to share that same discovery. Hence the older recommendations.

    I may have read many books better than LoTR and may have many more to come, but I won't be 7 when I'm reading them & they will never change the way I see ... everything.

  30. It looks like many commenters here unintentionally have fallen into the trap of viewing Fantasy as High or Epic Fantasy or close variants on those subgenres. I enjoy and admire a few of the books already mentioned, but I would like to see a Fantasy 101 list that also includes Tim Powers, Lisa Goldstein, Nalo Hopkinson, Liz Hand, Elizabeth Bear, Lucius Shepard, John Crowley, M John Harrison, Storm Constantine, James Blaylock, etc that showcase the rich diversity of fantasy rather than unwittingly conveying a sense of uniformity.
    -- Kev

  31. I think it depends a lot on the reader. Not just the child/adult divide, but what they like reading. We're choosing our books because they're the best examples of Fantasy, but if the reader is yet to be convinced about Fantasy, that might be throwing them in the deep end.

    For example... Pratchett or Stroud would be good if they like a laugh; Mieville's The City & The City was written "for" his mystery-loving mum (and worked on my mystery loving mom as well) (my mom is American, thus not a mum); Tim Powers pastiches a variety of styles (Declare for Le Carre fans!); Gaiman for comic book lovers...

    All that said... lots of great suggestions above.