Six impossible things

Must read?

Every so often, someone puts out a “top ten must-read” list of books for people unfamiliar with fantasy. There’s nothing much wrong with a list of this nature, if you’re looking for good reading and your taste happens to march with that of the list-maker. Some time back (fifteen years ago?), I was asked to come up with such a list myself – my “top ten must-read” fantasy books for writers.

I couldn’t do it, not even when they let me cheat blatantly by listing authors instead of single titles. And here is why:

It seems to me that a “must read” list for would-be fantasy writers should have as much breadth and depth as possible, both in terms of the length of time covered and in terms of the type of writing that’s covered. Because the point is, in my opinion, to give an overview of the field, both at present and historically. And ten slots just isn’t enough to do that in, as you will see in a moment.

J.R.R. Tolkien belongs on any must-read list for fantasy writers, whether you like his kind of thing or not; the success of “The Lord of the Rings” led directly to the founding of the modern fantasy genre as a separate category, and anything that seminal belongs on this sort of list. He also allows me to check off “epic fantasy” and “high fantasy” in the same slot. One down.

J.K. Rowling comes next, but not because of the wild popularity of the Harry Potter books – no, I put her on the list because her work is a synthesis of a whole lot of fantasy and YA fantasy tropes, from the coming-of-age story, to the boarding-school stories, to the orphaned protagonist and wise wizard mentor, to castles, secret passages, saving-the-world, magic swords, prophecy…. (I have remarked on more than one occasion that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had everything a kid could want in a story, except pirates.) It was a tough decision, because I’d really like to have Jane Yolen, Diana Wynne Jones, Nnedi Okorafor, Garth Nix, Tamora Pierce, L. Frank Baum, Patricia Wrightson, Edward Eager, Diane Duane, C. S. Lewis, Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, or Phillip Pullman in the childrens-and-young-adult fantasy slot. There is a LOT of really excellent children’s fantasy out there.

I’d want one slot for humorous fantasy, and that belongs hands down to Terry Pratchett and his Discworld books. I’d like at least one slot for modern urban fantasy, but the choice is a lot less obvious when you have Charlaine Harris, Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, and Jim Butcher all in competition for the slot. I think I’ll pick Neil for this one, on the grounds that his work covers a lot more territory than any of the others (though de Lint is a close runner-up in that regard). Two more slots full.

I’d like to have at least one slot for somebody who’s doing literary fantasy and/or magical realism, like Angela Carter or Robertson Davies or Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges. I’ll throw a dart at the bookshelf and pick Marquez, though again, it’s a tough choice.

That fills five slots with more-or-less modern writers; time to start looking a bit farther back. Dark fantasy should really have more than one slot, because I want one for H. P Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, and one for Bram Stoker, Sheridan Le Fanu, Mary Shelley, or John William Polidori. That only leaves me with three slots left, though, so I might have to drop to one choice for dark fantasy.  I’ll put Lovecraft in one and Stoker in the other, for now.

Three slots left. One pretty much has to go to something Arthurian – The Matter of Britain has over a thousand years of roots in English fantasy fiction, and its traces show up in all sorts of unexpected places once you start looking (Star Wars?), and there are a zillion retellings and spin-offs, starting all the way back at Geoffrey of Monmouth. (The Arthurian legends are, I maintain, the fan fiction of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries.) I’ll pick Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, though T.H. White would also do very nicely; John Steinbeck’s version would be perfect if he’d only ever gotten it finished; Mary Stewart’s retellings are excellent and so are Rosemary Sutcliff’s two versions.

So now I have two slots left. I’m torn. There are all the Victorian fantasists (Oscar Wilde, Lord Dunsany, William Morris, George MacDonald); there are the classic literary fairy-tale writers like Charles Perrault and Madam d’Aulnoy; there are sword-and-sorcery greats like Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard (whose Conan the Barbarian arguably founded the whole sword-and-sorcery subgenre); there are the heroic fantasists like Howard Lamb and C. L. Moore; there are writers like Evangeline Walton, who’ve done magnificent retellings of older works like the Mabinogian. There’s historical fantasy, which includes much of Tim Powers and several of Poul Anderson’s as well as folks like Susanna Clarke, and the Orientalists, like Earnest Bramah, Barry Hughart, E. Hoffman Price, Lucy Chin, and William Wu. There are writers who don’t fit into any subclass, like Mervin Peake and E.R. Eddison and James Branch Cabal, and writers who fit in multiple possible subcategories, like John M. Ford and Ursula le Guin and Gene Wolfe and Roger Zelazny. And that doesn’t even get to things like Homer or Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or the explosion of fantasy in comics and manga…

I will throw out Shakespeare on the grounds that everyone has probably already seen or read “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” already, and I will throw out Sir Richard Francis Burton on the grounds that he merely translated The Arabian Nights Entertainment rather than actually writing it.

And then I will cheat mercilessly. Twice. First by putting the Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies on the list, all sixteen of them, even though Ellen and Terri are editors and not writers. Those volumes are as close to a comprehensive overview of the best of the best fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror available in English for the sixteen years they cover, in-genre and out-of-genre, and they include recommendations for novels (which of course couldn’t be included in an anthology of short fiction).

And last I’m going to cheat by filling my last slot with that prolific writer, Anonymous, because it lets in an enormous number of folk tales, fairy tales, myths, and legends all at once, from the Poetic Edda and the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Ramayana, to Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and the Arabian Nights.

And that’s where I give up. Ten slots, multiple candidates for all of them, and I still had to leave out dozens of possibilities and cheat twice. Fantasy is just too broad a field. Maybe if I did a “top 100” list…

  1. Your list made me feel very well-read. But I hadn’t heard of Nnedi Okorafor and when I went to look her most recent book (Who Fears Death?) was set in post-apocalyptic Africa and the PW reviews used the words “chillingly realistic” — it sounded as if it belonged more in your category of literary/magical realism.

  2. Well, when you love a genre, and are desperate for more, the longer the list of recommendations, the better!

    (I still need to read Charles de Lint. I keep on intending to, but he’s written such a lot, and I don’t know what’s the best to start with.)

  3. Just out of curiosity, how many of those authors are on your bookshelf?

    Off topic.

    I really miss the Home and Blog Home links in the right sidebar. I think they disappeared during the server migration. I also found the old font more readable (but it’s obviously your choice 🙂 ).

  4. I agree with Wyndes — your list made me feel very well read! I actually just finished reading a Nnedi Okorafor book last night called “Akata Witch.” It was really excellent.

    Now I am going to have to look up the authors on your list that I haven’t tried yet…

    • Wyndes – Nnendi is one of those authors who does more than one thing, but my introuction to her was with a YA novel, so that’s where I think of her.

      Nct2 – Um, I have at least one title by every author mentioned on my bookshelves, though I don’t claim to have a complete collection for all of them by any means. Particularly that hard-to-collect prolific author Anonymous, though she/he has several shelves’ worth of titles. And do, please, let us know what’s changed – a lot of things were kind of inadvertently altered when the server migration and upgrade happened, and it’s going to take a while to get everything back the way it was. And if anybody has any suggestions (yes, I have the one about the dratted orange dots behind the text making it hard to read, but anything else), we’re listening. It may take a while to get things implemented; there’s a WordPress upgrade we still want to install (if we can), and then we’ll start tidying things up (I should say “she’ll” not “we’ll” – I am not tech-savvy enough to do this kind of maintenance myself.)

      Matthew – Have fun! Some of them I don’t personally like a lot – I am not a big fan of Horror or dark fantasy, for instance – but I wasn’t doing a Personal Favorites list, I was doing a Recommended for Writers list, which means I try not to let too much of my personal taste enter into it.

  5. Clara:
    for de Lint, start almost anywhere. You can probably tell from the jacket copy if the book is inside a series.
    If you like Celtic music –The Little Country. Jack of Kinrowan starts with someone running through backyards that must include that of some friends of ours. (done without checking the books).

    And I, too, now have some new authors to read.

  6. Sometimes I recommend some sample classics when someone is looking for fantasy. But it’s longer than ten even when limiting it to old books.

  7. Woot! I’m glad I read most of these. Also? “The Arthurian legends are, I maintain, the fan fiction of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries.” <– I lolled for minutes. I also would like more navigation capabilities (home, blog home, maybe even some of the links you have on your home page, like books or about). I think the font is okay, though it could be a little larger and it'd be easier to read (because for some reason, it comes through in the exact font you have even in my RSS Reader, which, usually it doesn't do that unless the blog author manually selects that font or something. Though, I'm sure this comment doesn't really make sense …)

  8. The next time someone gets snarky about fanfiction, I’m going to mention Arthur and Geoffrey of Monmouth. I think my absolute favorite Arthurian re-telling (that I’ve read – I know there are loads more out there) has to be Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. That’s the one that sent me to the library seeking original sources (do you know how hard it was to find Nennius in the college library?), and so aside from the masterful story-telling, it’s dear to me in that it sent me digging deeper, which is always the sign of a brilliant story.

    I can see I need to add a few more authors to my library list, too – I’ve read the majority of your list, but there’s still quite a few who are new to me.

  9. This is a terrific list, and makes me want to go read a lot of books right now. You didn’t add yourself to the children’s/YA slots, either, and your Enchanted Forest Chronicles were some of my favorite books when I was in middle school!

  10. Cara, start de Lint with _Yarrow_. It was my gateway and worked a treat! A fantasy author finds out the characters she’s writing are uncomfortably [& literally] real. It’s been several years, but when I found yarrow in the community herb garden, I got all excited, because of this book. Obviously, it’s time for a reread.

  11. The short and slightly antagonistic version of “Must Read?”:

    “You want a list of only ten fantasy books? You must not do much reading. Besides, with only ten books read, how are you going to handle the perennial arguments about what fantasy really is and how to subcategorise it? And what about a sense of taste? You probably will not agree with mine. Make your own. There is the bookstore. Go to it.”

    I agree with the point about a top 100, and I came up with it before I got to the part where Ms. Wrede stated it. I expect that many of us fantasy fans would have the same problem choosing a top 10.

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