So, you want to read some fantasy books, eh? Well, tarry not noble sir / comely wench, allow me to guide you through the dangerous mire of paperback crap with this helpful guide that I slapped together in half and hour because I thought it would be fun.
But never you mind that. Read on, if you dare!
There’s a special kind of magic which can only be found in novels of the fantastic. You open the doorway to another world and tumble heedlessly through. There’s a level of transportation found in fantasy novels that’s hard to come by in other genres. Historical fiction and Sci-Fi can scratch the itch but, for me, there’s no true replacement. In my misspent youth, I barreled through seemingly endless piles of fantasy books. Not just books, of course, but entire series. One fantasy book would never do, each must be part of a grand saga, an epic of titanic proportion. Trilogies? Ha! Eight books, twelve books, twenty books! There were no limits. The longer the series, the more I wanted it. The bigger the series, the deeper the pool, the more fully immersed you could become. Falling into other worlds.
The unfortunate truth, however, is that most fantasy novels are garbage. Just straight-up trash. In the sad light of grim adult reality, the fact becomes inescapable. You can’t go home again. Even if I had the time now to wade through nine or ten door-stopping tomes, I would likely find myself unable stomach the tedium. Probably more than any other genre, fantasy novels are beholden to a set of well-worn tropes and bland cut and paste world-building. Weak prose and dull characters are slightly more excusable in a science fiction story packed with innovative concepts and ideas, but suffering such failings for the sake of hearing yet another dialectic on elven architecture and dark magic is simply unacceptable.
So… is the genre a total write-off then?
Well, mostly yes. But not completely yes. Here are a couple bright spots, dull spots, and god-awful spots, as I remember them.
The Shining Jewels
Let’s start with the best why not? This is the good stuff.
The Lord of the Rings
Come on, you know it was gonna be here. Tolkien’s magnum opus is still a resounding triumph of form and style. Yes, it’s quite long-winded for such a relatively slim series, and yes it’s basically just an excuse for JRR to make up a bunch of fun languages, but there’s a core of truth here, a realness that transcends the failings of the text. All that walking gets to be a bit of a slog, and honestly I prefer the BBC audio-drama and the Peter Jackson films to the books themselves, but you can’t ignore this essential part of the cannon. It more than earns its exalted place.
The Paradise War
This one is going in here with a major caveat, that being that I’ve not read any of these books in far too long to make an accurate judgment of their quality. From what I remember, this is a truly great series that manages to pull off the whole drawn-into-another-world plot better than any other. If they’re as good as I remember, then they get my full-hearted recommendation. But they might not be.
The Witcher Series
Ah, the Witcher. My newest and greatest love. Yes, I was introduced to it by the video games. Yes, I’ve only read the translation. That said, I have quite fallen in love with this series, and it would be my first and greatest recommendation for anybody looking to explore the fantasy genre. It brilliantly rides the line between subversion and satisfaction, it’s packed with great characters, brilliant writing, and contains perhaps the best, most real romance I’ve encountered in genre fiction of any kind. I love it, and can’t say enough good things about it.
These are the series that start strong and run out of steam. They get a recommendation, but that recommendation comes with an expiration date. If you want to keep going past that, you’re more than welcome to do so, but beware.
The Wheel of Time
Ah, the big granddaddy of modern fantasy. First, let’s get some stuff out of the way: Robert Jordan is not a spectacular prose stylist. His plotting and characters are right out of the standard playbook, and he writes them with irritating tics. Cue braid tugging/skirt straightening joke. That said, there’s a lot to love here. A rich sense of place and an uncommon weight to the character’s struggles. He’s not exactly great at the whole man/woman thing, but he gets a lot of points from me for how head-on he is about tackling it and involving it in the narrative. For this one, you’re going to have to call your own stopping point, but if you get to book ten and still feel like going you have my pity. It’s been a long time since I read this one, but I’d estimate that you don’t want to go further than six or seven.
The Black Company
Hm. How to talk about The Black Company. As far as I’m concerned, this series right here is the one true standard-bearer of dark fantasy. A haunted, Gothic world of impossible misery and foulness peopled by the most mercenary bunch of cutthroat bastards you ever did see. The first book is a hallucinogenic nightmare, beaten onto the page. This is not a fantasy novel, it’s a phantasmagoria of Vietnam flashbacks carved into sheets of dirty steel. The second book is a gorgeously bleak small-scale story about small and scrabbling people crawling in the muck as the world falls down around them. The third book is a fantasy novel. So are the fourth and fifth. It is to weep. As fantasy novels, they’re not bad, but nothing here lives up to the glorious heights of the first book, which is a true masterpiece of outsider art. Everybody should read the first book. The sequels are increasingly optional.
A Song of Ice and Fire
You know, Game of Thrones. It does pain me to put this series in this category, but it cannot be helped. Martin clearly set out to upend all the convention and stultified dross of the Robert Jordan era, and he succeeded brilliantly. The first three books in this series are unimpeachably fantastic, and deserve every bit of praise which has ever been lobbed at them. They’re great books, and belong in every fine home library. Then he stumbled, he committed the gravest of Jordan sins: he fell in love. When you’re writing an epic like this, you have to be brutal with yourself. It doesn’t matter how much you love your world, the story is all. As it stands now, the series is lost in a brier of meandering plots and pointless digressions. It is expanding outward, bereft of momentum, and increasingly resembles a muddy puddle of tangled plot-lines. A true and enduring shame to see the brightest new star brought blistering to earth under the weight of its own success. Oh, and the TV show sucks.
Avoid At All
No. Just no. Do not read these.
The Sword of Truth
The worst. Do not read this. Do not think about reading this. It is bad.
The Dragon King Saga
I’m shocked that I recall the existence of this series well enough to form any opinion on it. It’s amateur garbage.
I would like to say that these books are good. Sadly, a return perusal informed me that they are very much not. I still hold out a faint hope of returning to these and finding them to be not so bad, but I doubt I’ll find the time. Consider this one a tentative dismissal.
The Chronicles of Naria
Weak. So weak. Basically it’s crap invented to brainwash children. I mean, it’s not as bad as a lot of this other stuff, but I don’t like it at all so here it goes.
All the Star Wars Books That Timothy Zahn Didn’t Write and Some That He Did
Yes, I’m counting these as fantasy. No, I’m not going to talk about them anymore. They’re bad.
Basically Everything Else
Fantasy is a crap genre which attracts terrible writers. You know, like Piers Anthony. Beware.